When the winter winds start whistlin’ and the temperatures take a tumble, how do you stay active? Are you the “burrow away in an indoor gym” type? Or more of a “hibernate ‘till spring” kind of person?

Whatever your persuasion, this much is true—when temperatures drop and the days get shorter, it can be harder to find ways to spend time outdoors. But it’s far from impossible!

Here are a few engaging ways to get outside and stay active this winter.


Birdwatching

Did you know North Carolina is a year-round hotspot for birders? That’s right, more than 450 different bird species can be spotted in the state, drawn by North Carolina’s diversity of landscapes—from the forested peaks of the Blue Ridge to the coastal wetlands edging the Atlantic Coast.

Not to mention, the state’s strategic positioning along the Atlantic Flyway makes North Carolina a vital stop for seasonal migrants during the spring and fall.

Best of all, the North Carolina Birding Trail provides an extensive catalogue of birdwatching hotspots across the state, from urban parks to biodiversity-rich wildlife refuges.

For winter birdwatchers, the Outer Banks are especially spectacular, as flocks of wintering waterfowl congregate in the coastal wildlife refuges spread over the chain of barrier islands.

Just outside the town of Nags Head, the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge harbors a staggering array of waterfowl, including black ducks, mallards, and pintails, and viewing blinds scattered throughout the protected area make it easy to spot and photograph visiting avifauna.

A bit further south, the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge is anchored by North Carolina’s largest natural lake, and during the winter, tundra swans descend on the protected area in droves.

Of course, backyard birders can also take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count , an annual bird-tallying event organized by the National Audubon Society open to birdwatchers around the world.


Stargazing

Taking in the starry, starry night from North Carolina’s Black Balsam Knob. Photo by Matthew Larkin

Winter is an ideal time to get out and admire the cosmos. Not only are the nights longer, the earth’s atmosphere is also less moisture-laden during winter. This means skies are clearer and prime for stargazing.

Also, with the abundance of sky-mapping apps available for tablets and smartphones, it’s easy to take a pair of binoculars to a local park, or even in the backyard, and scan the skies for planets, soaring satellites, and visible constellations.

For beginners, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) also offers a range of stargazing apps and a handy Night Sky Planner ideal for burgeoning astronomers.

North Carolina has a number of superb options for amateur astronomers, including the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute and the Maryland Earth to Sky Park, both recognized as International Dark Sky Parks by the International Dark Association.

During the winter, the state’s parks and wilderness areas are also ideal for seeking out starry skies, including the Blue Ridge Parkway. Weaving through four different national forests between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, the 469 mile scenic motorway is peppered with overlooks ideal for gazing at the galaxy.

In western North Carolina, head for overlooks expansive views like the Mills River Overlook (milepost 404.5) or the Richland Balsam Overlook (milepost 431.4), the highest spot on the entire parkway.


Practicing Backyard Yoga

During the winter, developing an outdoor yoga routine is an easily accessible way to connect with the natural world—and to get some fresh air and sunshine! Even better, backyard yoga sessions are always free, on your own terms, and on your own time.

Try warming up with a brief walking meditation to get into the right headspace, and then try to pick a spot with an aesthetically pleasing natural view to foster a sense of tranquility.

If necessary, craft a playlist to help drown out potential audible disturbances like the traffic or barking dogs. Take your first downward dog, and enjoy!


Snowshoeing

Much more accessible for beginners than skiing or snowboarding, snowshoeing is an engaging way to spend time outside during the winter. With a sturdy pair of snowshoes, snow-glazed landscapes become enticingly accessible.

Plus, the low-impact sport also provides a calorie-incinerating cardio workout and an affordable way to explore winter wonderlands. Many local outfitters offer combination packages that include both snowshoes and poles. And, in North Carolina, there are plenty of spectacular places to get out and make tracks.

A hub for winter sports enthusiasts perched at 5,506 feet, Beech Mountain is the highest elevation town in the East—meaning winters are reliably snowy. And, with an extensive trail system, Beech Mountain has plenty to offer both beginners and seasoned pros.

The town’s Buckeye Recreation Center rents snowshoes and offers easy access to beginner friendly trails, like 1.5 mile lake loop.

For the experts, the panoramic Emerald Outback offers 8 miles of trails spread over the flanks of Beech Mountain.

Farther afield in the highlands of Southwest Virginia, the 200,000-acre Mount Rogers National Recreation Area features an alpine crest zone with elevations above 4,000 feet, and reliable snowfall. Part of the Jefferson National Forest, the recreation area has more than 500 miles of trails to explore, and the treeless high country meadows are ideal for snowshoeing.

For winter visitors, Grayson Highlands State Park offers easy access to the high country’s extensive trail network—and the glorious opportunity to encounter wild ponies plodding through the snow.


Mastering Outdoor Photography

Learn outdoor photography, and take photos like this one of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Photo by Matthew Larkin

For outdoor photographers, winter is a spectacular season. Snow and ice can add an aesthetically dazzling aspect to any landscape shot.

Seasonal conditions also give photographers an advantage. With the sun rising later in the morning and setting earlier in the evening, it’s easy to take advantage of the spectacular natural light associated with dusk and dawn. In particular, the ‘golden hour’ just after sunrise and just before sunset provides an enchanting natural filter for landscape photography.

Similarly, the ‘blue hour’ that falls shortly before sunrise and immediately following can also be phenomenal for outdoor photography, especially for capturing shots of the night sky. 

Just remember: batteries tend to drain quickly in chilly conditions, so if you’re heading out for an extended winter photography session, be sure to bring a back-up


No matter how you spend time outside this winter, rest (and recreate) easy knowing you’re in for a grand, safe time.

Written by Malee Baker Oot for Matcha in partnership with OrthoCarolina.

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