Top Winter Outdoor Activities
Photo by Robert Boyd
Take a hike, cabin fever! It’s a winter wonderland here on the North Shore. Whether you’re a thrill-seeker or a nature-lover, young or simply young at heart, you’ll find plenty of activities out there for the taking. Here’s just a small sampling of the fun to be had this season. Grab your jacket and gloves, pull on your snow boots, and head outdoors for what promises to be one of the best times of the year on this jewel that we call home.
A day of tubing at the Amesbury Sports Park is sure to bring some big thrills on big hills. "It’s a blast," says Meredith Robinson, director of sales. "Tubing is a good lazy-man’s sport—you don’t have to be athletic to do it, and it’s fun whether you’re with a family, with a group of 20-somethings, or on a girls’ night out. Even people with disabilities or in wheelchairs can do it—it’s a very accessible facility." Robinson says that this year, the park is doubling its number of tubing lanes, which means more runs and more fun, with 900 tubes running at a time.
"The most frequently asked question I get is whether you have to hike to the top of the hill," says Robinson. Answer: phew—you don’t! Just stand on the conveyer belt and you’ll be pulled to the top of the hill, much like a "people mover" at the airport. During peak hours, there’s also a tow lift—an old-fashioned lift system that pulls you all the way to the top of the hill in your tube. "People are really nostalgic about the tow lift," says Robinson. Hold onto your wool hats, because this year, the Amesbury Sports Park is introducing a brand-new feature in partnership with Northern Outdoors, a whitewater rafting company based in The Fork, Maine, where you can ride a frozen river rapid. You’ll feel just like you’re charging down a river rapid while you ride with six to eight people on a specially designed lane.
When your cheeks are rosy and your toes are cold, head into the lodge—the downstairs is open to the public during the day, with private functions happening in the evenings. The upstairs has a full-service pub with huge windows overlooking all the action on the hills. The pub also serves pizza, burgers, salads, and other pub fare, with more high-end food available for private functions. And if you’re just not into tubing, you can still sit back and enjoy some hot cocoa or a microbrew while you take in the views. "It’s a ton of fun," says Robinson. "You hear a lot of hootin’ and hollerin’, and I still scream like a little girl when I go down the hill." Amesbury Sports Park, 12 South Hunt Road, Amesbury, 978-388-5788, www.amesburysportspark.net.
What to Know Before You Go
Admission is $22 for a three-hour pass, or $30 for a five-hour pass (same price for adults and children). Reservations are not required, but the park sometimes sells out, so be sure to get there early. Kids must be at least four years old to ride; four- to six-year-olds must be accompanied by an adult at all times. Kids must wear helmets, which are provided with the cost of admission. Dress warmly, with boots, hats, and gloves. Outside sleds and tubes are not permitted; the park provides high-quality tubes with the cost of admission. As long as it’s cold enough, Amesbury Sports Park is open for tubing Thursday through Friday 3:30p.m.–9p.m.; Saturdays 10a.m.–9p.m.; and Sundays 10a.m.–7p.m. See the website for holiday hours and special extended school vacation week hours. The Amesbury Sports Park is also available for private functions and corporate outings.
Head on over to Ski Bradford, which offers downhill skiing and snowboarding options at varying levels of skill and experience. There’s a great beginners’ area, as well as more challenging hills for advanced skiers and snowboarders. If you’re not skiing, you can cozy up in the lodge with a cup of hot chocolate or a bite to eat while you watch the action on the slopes. Ski Bradford, 60 South Cross Road, Bradford, 978-373-0071, skibradford.com.
What To Know Before You Go
Ski Bradford is open Monday–Friday 8:30a.m.– 6p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 8:30a.m.–4:30 p.m.; night skiing Monday through Saturday 6p.m.–10p.m.; School vacations and holidays 8:30a.m.– 4:30p.m.; Closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Eve. Lift tickets range from $12 to $43, depending on the day and whether you’ll be skiing in the learning area or on all of the lifts. Season passes, night passes, twilight passes, and six-pack passes are available—see the website for full details. Clinics and lessons are available for kids, individuals, and groups. Snowboards, skis, boots, poles, and helmets are available for rent, ranging from $6 to $30—see the website for full details.
"Ice fishing is a great way for families to get out fishing together in the winter, or for fathers to take the kids out for the day," says Derek Spingler, owner of First Light Anglers in Rowley. "Kids can run around and play and have a lot of fun, as long as they’re tolerant of the cold weather." There are countless ponds around the North Shore where you can ice fish, a large majority of which are stocked by the state with trout. (You can also expect to catch large mounted bass, pickerel, and crappie.)
To get started, Spingler says that all you need are some fairly inexpensive ice traps (typically sold for about $20 each; you’ll probably want about five) and an ice auger to drill a hole in the ice; then you can fish with bait, lures, or jigs. Don’t worry if you’ve never gone ice fishing before. "It’s amazing how friendly people are when you’re out ice fishing," Spingler assures. "You can wander around and chat with people and learn a fair amount from everyone out there." How do you know if the ice is safe? First Light Anglers’ website features a great discussion board with information about where it’s safe and not safe to fish, general conditions, ice fishing tournaments and derbies in the area, and more.
"People generally do bring safety gear with them," says Spingler. "Some people will bring ropes or ladders, or hand-held plastic dowels that you can tie to yourself and then put on your hands to help pull yourself up out of the ice should you fall through." The best part about fishing on the North Shore? "The beauty [of fishing] around here," says Spingler, "is that you generally do have pretty good ice to start fishing in December, and you can definitely fish in January and February."
Cool spots for ice fishing on the North Shore: Baldpate Pond, Georgetown; Beck Pond, Hamilton; Chebacco Lake, Hamilton; Round Pond, Hamilton; Stiles Pond, Boxford
What To Know Before You Go
Ice fishing in Massachusetts requires a fishing license. Go to masswildlife.gov to purchase a fishing license, find maps of reservoirs, and more. State regulations for ice fishing allow for five hooks per person. You can use one hook per hole, or multiple hooks per hole, as long as you have a total of five hooks. Firstlightanglers.com features a very friendly and easy-to-use ice fishing discussion board, where you can find answers to questions about ice conditions, equipment, safety precautions, and more. You may want to wear "corkers," or metal spikes that slip on over your boots to add traction on the ice, and you may want to bring a sled to haul your gear over the ice.
Stay away from cotton clothing. It’s not a thermally efficient layer because it holds four times its weight in water (whether that’s sweat or snow), so you’ll get cold really quickly. Layer with fleece, polyester, nylon, and even wool—these materials will keep you drier and warmer.
You don’t have to invest in expensive equipment. You can rent skis and snowshoes at most sporting goods stores. (EMS allows you to rent equipment for the day or weekend.) Snowshoes generally range from $10-$15 per day or $20 for the weekend; you can typically buy a set starting at $80. If you want to invest in equipment, you can typically purchase skis in many price ranges, from yard sale prices to more than $800. (For a pair of cross-country skis with boots, poles and bindings, expect to pay anywhere from $200 to $1,000 or more.)
What to look for in a good snowshoe. First of all, know where you want to go. If you’re snowshoeing on golf courses and rolling hills, you can get away with a less expensive brand, but if you’re planning to climb Mount Washington, you may want to opt for something higher-end. Be aware of weight limits, and factor in whether you’ll be wearing a heavy pack, heavy boots, or a lot of gear, which can add up to 20 pounds. (Some general guidelines: If you’re a lighter woman, a 36-inch snowshoe would be too big; a 25-inch snowshoe would be too small for a heavy man. Stores and brands will have a chart to help you figure out your ideal size.) The ultimate goal is to have the smallest snowshoe you can afford, because they’ll be more maneuverable, which makes it easier to run around. For small kids who may need to wriggle out of snowshoes to use the bathroom quickly, opt for easy-on, easy-off snowshoes that you can put on over snow boots.
For snowshoeing, poles are optional. Some people like them, some don’t. For cross-country skiing, you’ll most likely want them. Skis require more maintenance than snowshoes. Snowshoes will last longer if you’re going over trails with dirt and rocks. Skis are less forgiving and need to be waxed.
Cool area shops for gearing up: Eastern Mountain Sports, Northshore Mall, Peabody; The North Face, Northshore Mall, Peabody; REI, Reading; Dick’s Sporting Goods, Danvers and Saugus; Sports Stop, Wenham; Skol Sport Shop, Ipswich; Moor & Mountain, Andover; East Coast Alpine, Danvers; Thunder Sports, North Andover; Rapids, Newburyport; Ski Haus, Salem, NH; Buchika’s Ski & Bike, Salem, NH; NOTB Snowboard and Skate, Salem, NH.
Take the family to experience a true New England tradition. Learn how to identify a sugar maple and how to tap a tree to collect sap, and see how sap is boiled down in a sugarhouse. Don’t forget to sample the sweet syrup before you head home!
Where To Go: Maple Sugaring at the Breakheart Reservation. Call ahead for details and to register the family for a tour. 177 Forest Street, Saugus, 781-233-0834, saugus.org/FOBR. Maple Sugaring at Turtle Lane Maple Farm. Tours are by appointment. Call or see the website for the schedule. 25 Turtle Lane, North Andover, 978-258-2889, turtlelanemaplefarm.com. Maple Sugaring at the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary Tours: Saturdays and Sundays in March. Cost: Members are $7.50/adult, $6.50/child; nonmembers are $8.50/adult, $7.50 child; children under the age of three are free. Preregistration is required. 87 Perkins Row, Topsfield, 978-887-9264, massaudubon.org/ipswichriver.
When the weather outside is a little too frightful, try one of the many indoor rinks on the North Shore that offer public skating sessions. No need to have your own skates—most rinks rent skates and helmets. Beginners can often use crates to get started, or they can try one of the many "Learn to Skate" programs. Small children may also need to bring elbow and knee pads for a little extra cushion. Don’t forget gloves or mittens, which are often required. Most rinks are open seasonally from October through April, though some remain open year-round.
Public Skating on the North Shore
The Dorothy Talbot Rink Public skating from November through mid-April. Learn to Skate program is $195 for 20 weeks; sessions are held on Saturdays at 9 a.m. O’Maley Middle School, 32 Cherry Street, Gloucester, 978-281-9856, gloucesterschools.com.
Graf Rink $5 adults; $3 kids and seniors; $5 skate rentals. 28 Low Street, Newburyport, 978-462-8112, grafrink.com.
Methuen High School Public skating sessions on Saturday and Sunday afternoons from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. starting in mid-November. Skating is $3 for students; $5 for adults. 1 Ranger Road, Methuen, 978-681-1345, methuen.k12.ma.us/MPS/MHS/Ice_Skating.htm.
Pingree School Johnson Rink Open from October through April, with public skate sessions on weekend mornings. Call for the most up-to-date schedules and fees. 537 Highland Street, South Hamilton, 978-468-6232, pingree.org.
Valley Forum Ice Arena Two-hour public skate, adults $12; 12 and under $9. One-hour public skate, adults $9; 12 and under $7. Public skating sessions every weekday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., excluding school vacations and holidays. Skate rentals are not available.
654 South Union Street, Lawrence, 7 Parkridge Road, Haverhill, 978-557-5521, valleyrinks.com. Veterans Memorial Ice Rink Public skating, $3 adults; $1 children under 12. Skate rentals, Brook Street, Haverhill, 978-373-9351, ci.haverhill.ma.us/departments/human/skating/index.htm
There are literally hundreds of beautiful destinations around the North Shore for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing—from smaller properties such as Lynch Park in Beverly, Endicott Park in Danvers, and Stage Fort Park in Gloucester, to the larger state parks and Trustees of Reservations properties that have miles of trails. To help narrow down some of the best places to go, we spoke with Michael Tougias, author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes Near Boston: Four-Season Guide to 50 of the Best Trails in Eastern Massachusetts. Here are his tips on the top spots and what you should know before you go.
Bald Hill Reservation, Boxford: "Bald Hill gets few visitors, so it’s very peaceful," says Tougias. "There’s a good 3.5-mile walk that’s of moderate difficulty. It’s mostly wooded and abuts some marsh lands as well."
Coolidge Reservation, Manchester-by-the-Sea: "The Coolidge Reservation is great because it’s easy enough to snowshoe across and you can see the ocean. Park in the lot, then follow the side trail along Clark Pond, over to Gray Beach. Afterwards, head out to the Great Lawn for some ocean views." thetrustees.org
Halibut Point State Park, Rockport: "Halibut Point can be tricky because it’s exposed to the wind, which can cause big snow drifts," says Tougias. But on a non-windy day, the trails will take you through some spectacular scenery featuring ocean views. mass.gov/dcr/parks
Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, Topsfield "I like the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary because you get a view of the marshes," says Tougias. "There’s a section of the trail called the Rockery that goes through rocks that have been strategically placed by a prior owner of the trail. It goes through a narrow passageway that you can fit through on skis or snowshoes—kids love it. Other trails give you beautiful views of marshes. This is an easy trail with no major hills." massaudubon.org
Ravenswood Park, Gloucester: "One of my favorite trails is Ravenswood Park. It’s a beautiful property," says Tougias. "I like it because it’s large and has beautiful hemlock trees—the snow clings to their branches in the winter." Park by the main entrance, and you’ll find a 2.5-mile loop that’s of easy-to-moderate difficulty with no steep hills—perfect for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. thetrustees.org
Weir Hill Reservation, North Andover: "Weir Hill has a mix of woods and fields," says Tougias. "You do have more hilly terrain there, which is moderately difficult." However, the steep inclines are worth the extra effort—you’ll see some spectacular views of Lake Cochichewick to the east and the Merrimack Valley to the west. thetrustees.org
What To Know Before You Go
Tips from Michael Tougis, author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes Near Boston.
Snowshoeing is surprisingly easy—if you can walk, you can do it. You don’t need expensive gear, and the equipment available today is much better than the old wooden snowshoes—newer snowshoes have small crampons (metal parts for traction) on the bottom that will grip any icy surface. Wait for a good, heavy snowfall and try to be one of the first people out on a trail. It’s so beautiful, and you’ll get to places that people on foot can’t get to or would struggle to reach.
Don’t forget to pack food and water in a backpack, because you’ll definitely be burning calories, and you don’t want to shortchange yourself by having to turn back sooner because you’re hungry or thirsty. Always dress in layers so you can shed some as you heat up. (Materials like wool, polyester, and nylon will keep you drier and warmer than cotton can.) Kids and adults alike appreciate a destination at the end of a trail, like a hilltop or an ocean view.
Brooksby Farm, Peabody: Brooksby Farm is open to the public from December to March for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, Mondays and Wednesdays 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Fridays noon to 4 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Rental rates are $6/day (skis and snowshoes) and lessons are $5/person by appointment. Call or e-mail ahead to confirm availability and a week-by-week schedule: 978-536-7132.