First snow: Eight winter activities for budget friendly fun

With the first snow comes thoughts of winter’s smorgasbord of budget friendly travel options. Fall festivals and foliage tours are long gone. What was missed has been moved to next year’s got to go agenda.

The first snow is a reminder that winter, like other seasons, has a timetable that waits for no one. To make the most of winter, create a checklist of what you’d like to do. Plan for those winter outings before it’s too late. Don’t be left behind wondering where the winter went.

Here are 8 winter activities to put on your list of things to do before the spring thaw comes and crocus appear.

1. Go tubing: For anyone who wants the thrill of speeding down a snow packed hill, but is not fond of the idea of falling (count me in on this one) tubing is an excellent option. If you have the physical skills to sit on the ground and get back up again with or without help, you can tube. The beauty of tubing is that people of various athletic abilities and ages can enjoy the same experience at the same time.

Many ski resorts have added tubing hills to their repertoire. From the Poconos in Pennsylvania to Copper Mountain Ski Resort in Colorado, the cost for tubing is quite a bit less than the cost of a ski lift pass. Plus, there’s no equipment to rent and you can enjoy the warmth of the ski resort’s lodge like any skier who forked out more money than you did.

2. Take a winter hike: Although hiking might seem more suited for warmer weather, winter hiking offers another look at outdoor beauty. Plus, there’s a level of solitude for reflection, part of what winter months invite. Sections of the Appalachian Trail are one possibility. For options that offer the opportunity to find out more about nature and natural history of an area, check your state’s park system. Many have an organized winter hike like Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio does. This park’s winter hike is January 16.

3. Go cross-country skiing or snow shoeing: Where there is snow, you can cross-country ski or snowshoe. City and town parks, logging roads or trails that have been specifically for either sport are waiting for you. The Enchanted Forest in northern New Mexico is one such place. To see if either sport is a good fit, head to a trail on Winter Trails Day. This winter, January 9th is the day to bundle up and strap on skis or snowshoes. Rentals are available.

4. Build a snowman in an unusual place: Where there’s snow perfect for packing, you can build a snowman. By building a snowman in a place that’s more public than your yard, you add to other people’s winter fun. A favorite memory of mine is watching people build a snowman on the Great Wall of China.

For people who live where it never snows, don’t pass up a chance to indulge in a snippet of childhood if you happen to have traveled to a place where it does–London, England, for example.

5. Sip hot chocolate, mulled wine or another hot beverage made extra warm by alcohol by a fire crackling in a stone fireplace. This is where you enjoy a winter wonderland by looking out a window. Where does one find such an experience? Ski lodges and hotel lounges and lobbies are perfect places for indulging in an afternoon or evening of relaxation in a comfy chair. Going solo? Bring a book. You don’t have to be an overnight guest to enjoy such pleasure.

6. Visit an historic village to learn about winter life in the olden days. At an historic village, costumed interpreters demonstrate how life was lived in yesteryear. Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts is one of the more extensive historic villages. The sticker price is not exactly budget friendly. For the cheapest option, head to the Slate Run Living Historical Farm in Ohio. It’s free. I repeat. Free.

7. Bird watch at a local park, a nature center, a refuge or another area known for bird watching. Check out Critter Watch, for best winter birding spots in Colorado. In Ohio, the newest bird watching place is the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, one mile from the heart of downtown Columbus. It’s located on an important migration stop next to the Scioto River.

8. Ice-skate at a city’s outdoor rink or a frozen pond. Many cities open skating rinks in their downtown’s to attract people. One of the most famous is the skating rink at Rockefeller Center. There are other less touristy skating options in New York City, however.

If you’re planning to head to any other city, see if there is an outdoor skating rink there. Skating on a city’s downtown rink is an active way to enjoy the city’s architecture while becoming part of the city’s scene. Skate rentals are available.

Some city parks and zoos like Buhr Park in Ann Arbor, Michigan and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Columbus Ohio, also offer ice-skating with skate rentals available.

Vintage trains across the U.S. pair autumn days with history

A few hours trip on a vintage train in the fall is a chance to experience American history surrounded by color brilliance. As trains pass along the edges of small towns and waterways, under canopies of leafy branches and across mountainsides, passengers are treated to stories of commerce, adventure and natural history.

With the push west, railroads connected one part of the U.S. with another as people chased after a better life. As the railroad network spread, bustling cities and towns developed in their wake.

Then Americans fell in love with car travel. Once the Interstate highway system developed and the trucking industry expanded, train use dwindled and many tracks were abandoned.

Fortunately, historic passenger trains have remained a passion and portions of historic routes have become hot spots for tourists.

Here are 10 vintage train trips in 10 different states to put on your list of things to do at least once in your life. Each train promises fall foliage and a chance to experience a unique aspect of history. Climb on, sit back and enjoy trees ablaze in their finest. The variety of the train offerings are as varied as the foliage they pass.

Starting from east to west, these vintage trains pass through portions of the varied lanscape of the United States offering glimpses of American history, each with a unique story to tell. Frankly, in this category, how does one pick 10 out of the bounty? Most are in scenic places that I’ve driven through and remember quite fondly. Others I have added to my own ever growing list of a must have experience.

1. Berkshire Scenic Railway–Lenox to Lee or Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Like many vintage train operations, this railway is run by volunteers who are passionate about trains and their history. The Berkshire mountains offers activities that range from the arts to the outdoors. The Norman Rockwell Museum is in Stockbridge, so pair your vintage train trip with the artwork of an American painter whose life embodied a love of the landscape of the human heart. Here’s the link to the train schedule.

2. Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad–Meredith and Weirs Beach, New Hampshire. A ride on this train takes travelers along the shorelines of Winnipesaukee Lake to Lakeport with views of Belknap Mountain and islands in Paugus Bay. Add to the experience by having dinner on a weekend evening supper train.

3.Catskill Scenic Railroad–Mt. Pleasant and Phoenicia, New York. This train ride along Esopus Creek is a chance for birdwatching and deer spotting. Look for bald eagles, great blue herons and hawks. Ask the conductor to stop at Sleepy Hollow made famous by Washington Irving’s tale of Ichabod Crane’s dash to a bridge with the headless horseman in heart-pounding pursuit.

4. Stourbridge Line Rail Excursions–Honesdale, Pennsylvania. What better place to experience a vintage train ride then where rail travel began? Honesdale is the birthplace of the American railroad. Back in 1829, the first commercial locomotive started down the tracks towards Seelyville three miles away and came back. The Fall Foliage round trip excursion travels through the Poconos to Lackawaxen. Here is another post on Poconos fall foliage viewing.

5. Western Maryland Scenic Railroad–Cumberland, Maryland. On this 32-mile round trip excursion between Cumberland and Frostburg you’ll pass through the stunning vistas of the Alleghenies. It’s possible to connect a train trip with a bike trip on the Great Allegheny Passage trail that connects to the C&O Canal Towpath Trail.

6. Tennessee Valley RailroadChattanooga, Tennessee. How can you not want to get on a train in Chattanooga that heads to a town in Georgia called Chickamauga? This train has a layover at the Chickamauga Military Park, the Civil War battlefield. This railroad has run autumn leaf specials for 42 years.

7. Arkansas and Missouri Railroad–Springdale, Arkansas. Travel through the foothills of the Boston Mountains on a train that refuses to accept “pack mules” and “pet chickens.” The Boston Mountains are an extension of the Ozarks. This company’s trains pass over 100 ft. high tressels and through a 1,702 ft. tunnel.

8.Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railway–Antonito, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico. Constructed in 1880, this railroad, touted as “America’s Longest and Highest Narrow Gauge Railroad” is an historic gem. Fall events also happen through the third weekend of October. The railway’s Web site’s history page has maps that show landmarks you’ll pass by.

9. Mt. Hood Railroad–Hood River, Oregon. Ever since 1906, trains have passed through the Columbia Gorge in the Hood River Valley. This railway also offers special events and reservations are recommended. In October, the Pumpkin Patch Express is the fall related event, although there are several other options as well. Here’s the October schedule.

10. Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad–Mineral, Washington. The longest continuously operating steam train in the Pacific Northwest, this train passes through Mt. Rainier’s foothills on a two-hour round trip journey. Pair fall foliage with time at Mount Rainier National Park. Like other scenic railroads, this one offers special events through the month.

To find more fall foliage train options, check out Fall Foliage Train Rides at

The Poconos pair autumn foliage with a wide-range of lodging options

Located in northeastern Pennsylvania, the Poconos Mountains have been a haven for people looking to escape the bustle of city life ever since Buck Hill Falls Inn and The Inn at Pocono Manor resorts opened in 1901 and 1902. With its reputation as a perfect getaway location, the Poconos has continued to be developed with things-to-do offerings and options for places to stay. In the fall, the more than 100 types of trees become a palate of color brilliance.

With a bit of planning, you can time your visit to hit the foliage at its peak and settle in for a night at one of the Pocono’s lodgings whether you prefer a vacation rental tucked in the woods, or a Poconos resort like the Inn at Pocono Manor that includes a golf course, horseback riding and a spa. Because eighty percent of Pennsylvania’s resorts are located here, there are plenty of choices. The Buck Hill Falls Inn, however, is no longer open. It is for sale, though. Annie also suggests for seeking out lodging deals. She found a Poconos hotel for $75 per night. There are even less expensive digs listed here. If you’re interested in a couple’s only retreat, the Caesar’s Paradise Stream may be the answer.

To help you decide where and when to go and the best route to take for the best fall foliage here are 8 suggestions:

  • Ricketts Glen State Park–Considered the most scenic part of Pennsylvania, this park has more than 20 waterfalls, a gorge and old growth timber. Some trees are 500 years old. The area not to miss here is Glens Natural Area, a National Natural Landmark.
  • Lehigh Gorge State Park–Great place to see wildlife because the gorge’s river serves as a transportation corridor. A unique way to visit the area is by taking an Audubon Auto Tour.
  • Hickory Run State Park –Has scenic overlooks, hiking trails and trout streams. The park’s Boulder Field, is also a National Natural Landmark. An Audubon Auto Tour is also available for this park.
  • Big Pocono State Park–From the summit of Camelback Mountain the view includes part of New Jersey and New York. There’s a paved scenic drive, so you can get the view without hoofing it.
  • Lacawac Sanctuary–This historic nature preserve is a place to pair foliage with wildlife viewing thanks to folks who treasure the environment and share. In October there are fall foliage walking tours.
  • World’s End State Park–If you go here, head to Canyon Vista.
  • Beltzville State Park–The park’s 949-acre lake is a stopping place for migrating birds and if you walk along Saw Mill Trail you’ll pass through remnants of area history going back to the 1700s.
  • Delaware River Gap National Recreation Area–Why not see fall foliage from the water? Adventure Sports offers canoe, kayaking and rafting trips through the end of October.

    To help plan a scenic drive, here’s an excellent resource I found. This page on TripCart outlines specific driving routes and highlights places to look for and things to do along the way.

    Call the Pocono Mountain Fall Foliage hot line at (570)421-5565 for an up to date report on what colors can be seen where and when. Included in the recording are the types of trees that show such glory. I just called and can vouch for this resource. It’s terrific. Here is an on-line version.

  • Photo of the Day (5.20.2008)

    Someone once told me that the sign of a good writer was the ability to make something mundane sound interesting. I think the same goes for photography — it’s the ability to see ordinary things in an extraordinary way, coupled with the ability to capture that view in your lens.

    That’s what I like about this photo of a birch tree by Roberta Attalla. When was the last time you looked at a birch tree up close? My favourite aspect of this photo is the spectacular depth of field.

    Have a photo to share? Submit it to our Gadling Flickr Pool.

    Is It Skiing Time Yet?

    Perhaps the only good thing about the summer ending is that one can start planning a ski vacation. My favorite place to ski is still the Alps. Granted, I have only skied in a handful of places in the US and Canada, but I still prefer Europe.

    It’s not that the quality of snow is an order of magnitude better, but it has got two “C’s” going for it: cost and character. Especially in Austria, you can find pleasant chalet accommodations for as little as $30/person, including breakfast. I took this picture in Dachstein, a ski resort in Austria, just a hour away from Salzburg, last December. Sun and powder heaven. The beautiful thing is they still charge only 32euros (about $40) for a day pass. In the US, you can’t even ski the Poconos for that kind of money, sadly enough. If you have ever tried skiing the Poconos, you will understand exactly how sad that is.

    Which brings me to my next point: character. Villages in the Alps are just so damn cute. I don’t care how accurately they try to replicate this quaintness in Whistler, it just doesn’t work.