skiing in the mountains

Embrace the Elements

Earth, air, water, fire—this winter travel guide explores the four elements and how they can define your experiences as you discover new destinations.

When the mercury takes a dive, our instinct is to head indoors, bundle up, and hibernate until spring. But as any outdoor enthusiast will tell you, the colder months are made for adventure.

Inspired by fire, air, earth, and water, we built this year’s winter travel guide around activities that make us not only want to brave the elements, but also welcome winter with open arms. Whether it’s conquering the downhill on a ski bike, reveling in a colossal ice castle, or sipping a hot toddy on a rooftop, there’s something here for everyone. The reason to get outside? It’s hard for us to think of a reason not to. Go on, winter is waiting. 


Sleep at the Base of an Active Volcano

// Arenal Volcano National Park, Costa Rica

Nayara Springs has amenities you’d expect from a luxury stay—an infinity pool, a world-renowned spa—but what sets the boutique property apart is its location inside Arenal Volcano National Park. Hike across dried lava fields left over from a 1968 eruption, conquer roaring Class IV rapids on the Sarapiqui River, or get to know the local fauna. Last year, the resort partnered with a wildlife rescue center to build an on-site habitat for sloths, and guests can get up close by volunteering to help feed the three-toed residents. Other highlights include birding expeditions and a nocturnal, wild frog–watching tour.

Cross-Country Ski by Candlelight

// Minneapolis

The cure for cabin fever is the City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival, held Jan. 31–Feb. 3. The urban cross-country ski event hosts races as well as a nighttime jaunt across the frozen Lake of the Isles. Open to skiers and walkers alike, the path is lined with ice-encased candles, and side spectacles include fire dancers and ice sculptures of world landmarks. 

Craft a Molten Masterpiece

// Seattle

Using a 2,000-degree furnace and some instruction, students at the Seattle Glassblowing Studio shape glass, infuse it with color, and leave with a keepsake (think everything from a pumpkin to a paperweight). 

Snag a Table at a Hot Dining Experience

// Washington, D.C.

Since opening last year, Maydan has captivated the capital’s foodies (and received a James Beard nomination, to boot). Step through the unmarked blue door to take in Middle Eastern flavors and the restaurant’s pièce de résistance: a copper-domed fire pit complete with tandoori ovens and grills for specialties like slow-roasted goat shoulders and saffron-dusted kebabs.

+ we also love The shabu-shabu dining at Osawa in Pasadena, California


Hit the Slopes With a Snowkite

// Lake Tahoe Area

Former North American snowkite champion Tyler Brown founded the Sierra Snowkite Center in California so others could experience the thrill of “catching air.” Snowkiting, which is similar to water-based kiteboarding, takes skiing and snowboarding to the next level with the addition of a wind-powered kite. No prior kiting experience is required (although you should be proficient enough on skis to tackle a green run). Lessons include the kite and plenty of practice time in a snowy meadow before you climb in elevation.

Jam Out at Winter Jawn

// Philadelphia

This free outdoor music festival has been making (sound) waves since 2011. Past lineups have included acts like Tegan and Sara, Cold War Kids, and Twenty One Pilots. Join in Jan. 26.

Boogie on Down the Mountain

// Government Camp, Oregon

There’s snow tubing, and then there’s cosmic snow tubing. Mount Hood Skibowl transforms its track every weekend with more than 600,000 LED lights, glow sticks, a laser light show, and a live DJ. 

Curl Up on an Open-Air Patio

// Chicago

Come winter, Upstairs at The Gwen serves a winning combo of curling and cocktails. Reserve a table to give the Scottish sport a go. 

+ we also love The fire pits and wood-fired pizzas at Gallow Green’s rooftop ski lodge in New York City


Trek Into the Backcountry

// Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Step foot in Nevada’s largest state park, and it’s easy to see how it got its name. The sandstone cliffs and red rock formations evoke leaping flames, glowing embers, and the ash of spent fires. Problem is, in the summer, sweltering 100-degree weather makes it difficult to explore for long. When the temperatures do drop, the park becomes a playground. Its proximity to Las Vegas makes it ideal for day-trippers, while nearly 150 campsites allow adventurers to hit all the highlights, including petrified forests, ancient petroglyphs, and slot canyons galore.

+ we also love The breathtaking views of Niagara Falls seen from the Goat Island Scenic Walk 

Put the Pedal to the Powder

// Middlefield, Connecticut 

It’s like riding a bike, except instead of wheels, the frame is supported by two mini-skis. Ski bikes have command of 80-plus acres of terrain at Powder Ridge Mountain Park & Resort, 30 minutes outside Hartford, Connecticut. Take a lesson first and then explore on your own.

See Penguins on Parade

// Pittsburgh

No need to visit Antarctica to see a march of the penguins. The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium lets the tuxedoed birds roam free for a meet and greet with visitors on weekends from December through February, weather permitting. The colony, including 33-year-old veterans Mr. T and Mickey, strut their stuff, play in the snow, and pose for pictures. 

Step Into Another World

// Saratoga, California

Artist Bruce Munro has created his version of Narnia at the Montalvo Arts Center, a 30-minute drive from San Jose, California. Inspired by C.S. Lewis’ classic fantasy series, Munro’s exhibition (on view until March) transforms the grounds with 10 light-based works, ranging from a modern take on a lamppost to an illuminated wave of upcycled plastics. 


Wander in an Icy Wonderland 

// Midway, Utah

Brent Christensen’s first “ice castle” was a frozen playground he built for his daughter in the front yard of their home just outside Salt Lake City. Nearly a decade later, he’s the mastermind behind an acre-size, 30-foot-tall icicle fortress featuring tunnels, slides, and color-changing lights that enhance the experience at night. Nowhere near Utah? The company, Ice Castles, also oversees creations in Colorado, Minnesota, and New Hampshire. Tickets go quick, as do the castles themselves—they typically open in late December and last, on average, six to eight weeks. 

Fa-La-La Float

// Newport Beach, California

Dating back to 1908, the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade is a five-night celebration (Dec. 19–23) that involves 200-plus boats decked out in lights, Christmas trees, and over-the-top decor. To be part of the action, book a spot aboard one of Newport Landing’s parade vessels. 

Take a Shivering Run Down the River

// Lava Hot Springs, Idaho

Don your swimsuit (crazy costume optional) and join the Fire & Ice Winterfest’s popular polar float on Feb. 2. After braving the frigid quarter-mile route along the Portneuf River, participants warm up at the town’s namesake springs.

Harvest Ice (the Old-Fashioned Way)

// South Bristol, Maine

Before refrigerators were the norm, blocks of ice were sawed from frozen waterways, loaded onto ships, and carried to distant ports. The Thompson Ice House Harvesting Museum preserves this tradition by inviting visitors to employ century-old techniques at their annual ice harvest, held Feb. 17. Return in July to sample the bounty at the community’s ice cream social.

Skate Beneath the Skies

// Coronado, California

Located just outside San Diego, Hotel del Coronado transforms its palm tree–lined lawn into an ice skating oasis overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Reserve a table at the rink-side lounge for unlimited hot cocoa and easy access to a fire pit. In town on Dec. 15? Don’t miss a special appearance by Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski.

+ we also love Rosa Parks Circle, designed by architect Maya Lin, in Grand Rapids, Michigan

Tommie Ethington is a former editor of this magazine. Email her at

Photography by Blake Gordon (header), Kailley Lindman (Upstairs at The Gwen), Austin Cronnelly/Tandem Stock (Valley of Fire State Park), and AJ Mellor (Ice Castles); photography courtesy of Nayara Springs

Originally Published November 2018