The Frozen State: Outdoor Winter Fun in New Jersey and Beyond

Growing up in New York’s Hudson Valley, I felt the same way as many New Jerseyans probably feel about winter: it was a long cold slog between fall and spring.  Especially after the holidays, it sometimes seemed the only fun thing about winter was the occasional snow day, announced in our town with a designated code blared by the massive horn above the firehouse on Main Street.  (It was 6-6.  I’ll never forget it!  The other codes referenced neighborhoods where a fire was burning, so you had to listen closely.)  When I went to college in Maine and then married a Mainer -- a northern Mainer at that -- I learned how much winter has to offer in the way of outdoor activities that can’t be enjoyed any other time.  When winter lasts half the year, people find ways to make it fun!  While I have never lived full-time in New England and I haven’t tried all of the activities listed below, I have learned to welcome cold weather with anticipation here in New Jersey, and to actually wish it could last just a little bit longer in our region.  We have found lots of ways to get our family active outdoors and to appreciate the special, quiet quality of nature in winter.

When it comes to seasonal outdoor recreation, there is no question that New Jersey is best known for summer -- its beaches, boardwalks and unique attractions offer something for everyone “down the shore.”  Fall, too, is renowned in the Garden State as harvest festivals abound and local markets brim with produce from local farms.  But as winter approaches, there is no need to hide indoors.  Particularly in Mercer County and surrounding areas, there is a wealth of resources within a day-trip drive.  Here is a list of ideas for outdoor fun, and tips for making the most out of winter!

Ice skating:

Ice skating can be enjoyed throughout our region, and one of the best places to start is at the Mercer County Ice Skating Center, where open skating and lessons are available seasonally, and many local high school hockey teams square off.  That is just one of the options in central New Jersey for indoor or covered-roof skating.  Outdoor ice skating, however, can be a beautiful way to enjoy nature and the open air.  In Middlesex County, an outdoor rink in Roosevelt Park (Edison) offers this experience throughout the winter.  And for an even more Currier-and-Ives-like scene, if our area sees an exceptional cold snap, look for Carnegie Lake to open for ice skating in Princeton.  Safe conditions will be indicated by a white flag atop the Princeton University boathouse near Faculty and Washington Roads; check the Town of Princeton Recreation website before you head out.  This does not happen every year so it’s a treat when it does -- again, a reason to hope for colder days!

Downhill skiing:

Downhill skiing can be a fun outing for all ages, making it a great family activity.  The question of where to start is one I have often fielded from friends, and I am always eager to pass along the tips I have picked up to make skiing accessible and affordable for adults and families.  Alas, some twenty years ago Mercer County lost its only ski mountain, Belle Mountain, in Titusville; many locals learned to ski there from the 1960s up to 1997.  Until the mega-mall “American Dream” opens in the Meadowlands featuring what is billed as America’s first indoor ski resort, within New Jersey there are only a handful of small ski mountains in the north.  Venture just two hours away, however, and the Lehigh Valley and the Poconos offer many options; another hour will bring you to New York’s Catskill Region.  Many mountains also have tubing -- riding down dedicated slopes in inflatable tubes -- no skiing or boarding skills required!  Virtually all resorts advertise free or deeply discounted lift tickets for children under age 5 or 6, or under a certain height.  Here are some other ways to keep the costs down:

  • PSAA (Pennsylvania Ski Areas Association) Snowpass for 4th and 5th Graders -- this is one of the best programs to help families get started skiing.  Kids in 4th and 5th grade (from any state) can ski for free all season, up to three times at each resort.  A nominal processing fee applies.  The pass also includes a learn-to-ski session at each location.
  • I SKI NY Passport for 3rd and 4th Graders -- New York offers a similar program to Pennsylvania’s, but for 3rd and 4th grade students.
  • Seasonal ski rentals – There is no need to purchase an expensive package of skis and boots for adults or children.  Rent your skis from a local shop and keep them for the whole season, while avoiding the hassle of on-site resort rentals.  There are several businesses here in Mercer County offering this service for skis and snowboards.  Often, rentals also include a coupon book offering free youth lift tickets with purchase of adult tickets at local mountains.  With two children three years apart, we have often been able to have one child use a state ski pass and the other one a coupon from the rental shop.
  • Many municipalities offer discounted lift tickets through their recreation departments -- check your town’s website for information.

Remember that when skiing, helmets are always recommended and almost universally worn, but within New Jersey they are also required by state law for those age 17 and under.

Cross-country skiing:

If speeding headlong down a steep slope is not your cup of tea, try cross-country skiing in our area.  Many state and county parks maintain trails as conditions allow.  Some notable places include Allaire State Park in Farmingdale, and Jockey Hollow in Morristown.  For more trail sites see this list compiled by

Other sports and activities:

What about some winter sports off the beaten path?  The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference offers this list of the top ten locations for snowshoeing in the area.  If you are a hiker and miss hitting the trails when they are snow-covered, you may want to try some modern lightweight snowshoes and get back out there.

Ice fishing, like outdoor ice skating, is highly weather-dependent and not every winter in New Jersey allows for it.  But when it is available, many people enjoy fishing our inland waters and making a day of it with family and friends.  New Jersey’s Division of Fish and Wildlife maintains a website to help you get started.  Ice fishing is predominantly accessible in the northernmost part of the state.

Snowmobiling is also an activity that I have not yet tried but is a mainstay for not only recreation but transportation in some northern states.  Locally, the best opportunities for snowmobiling are in Pennsylvania, which offers hundreds of miles of trails.  Find out more from the Pennsylvania State Snowmobile Association.

So don’t be afraid to bundle up and get outside this winter!  Be sure to visit your local library branch for guidebooks or maps, computer access to plan your outings, and any other information you may need to make the most of the season.  And when the odd snow day does roll around, there’s always good-old-fashioned neighborhood sledding, to be followed (of course) by settling in with a good book.

- Sarah Legins, Ewing Branch

Bear Creek Mountain Resort, Macungie, Pa. -- photo taken by Sarah Legins, February 2013