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Alternative winter sports in North America

Talk to anyone who’s skied in North America and three things come up: spectacular scenery, empty slopes, and barely a lift line in sight. From bobsled to the Breathtaker, this continent excels at alternative winter sports

Alternative winter sports in North America
Image: Getty

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Ice climbing // Banff National Park, Alberta
To most people, Banff means skiing. But the Canadian Rockies are also home to some of North America’s best ice climbing, with routes for all levels. First-timers and novices often head out to the Grassi Lakes (the ‘junkyards’), near Canmore, where a 20-minute, scenic trail leads to Lower Grassi, a short, simple pitch that you can walk back from rather than having to abseil. For a proper adventure, head to Ghost River on an off-road drive that takes in frozen rivers, where you can tackle routes such as Malignant.

The Breathtaker // Aspen, Colorado
How late can I brake? This is the question to ask as you strap yourself in for a ride on the Breathtaker, the ominously named attraction in Aspen that’s half sledge, half roller coaster. Sounds scary — especially considering it whizzes between trees at around 30mph — but you can always jam on the brakes for a leisurely cruise to the bottom. Single rides, $19 (£14); two-hour ‘activities pass’, $35 (£26), with access to snowtubing. 

The Breathtaker, Aspen

The Olympic Bobsled // Park City, Utah
“Don’t, whatever you do, lift your head up.” These words from your instructor will be ringing in your ears as you speed down the 1,300-metre course of sheet ice at around 80mph. You may not be quite as quick as the athletes who raced here at the 2002 Winter Olympics, but it will certainly feel like it. For those who’ve not done this before, it’s like being on a roller coaster with ‘safety mode’ switched off. While the ride itself lasts less than four minutes, it’ll take days for your eyes to stop bouncing round in their sockets. Warning: it’s seriously addictive. Bobsled rides cost $175 (£133). 

Snow biking // Lake Tahoe, California
‘Fat tyres’ mean Tahoe’s killer terrain is no longer off-limits to mountain bikers in winter. There are dozens of trails here, many cut from old logging roads. A highlight is the Fiberboard Freeway, which weaves through cedar and fir trees, offering glimpses of Lake Tahoe. Look out for bobcats; the Surrey Hills, this is not. Tahoe Mountain Guides has 90-minute guided snow bike tours for $90 (£68). 

Wildlife safari // Jasper, Alberta
The wildlife is a match for the skiing in Jasper. The Canadian town is in the heart of the eponymous national park so you could find yourself being eyeballed by an elk while strolling the streets. On a guided Winter Wildlife Discovery Tour with SunDog Tours, expect to see caribou, bighorn sheep and even wolves. Costs CAN $65 (£38) for adults; CAN $35 (£20) for children. 

getty-alternative winter sports-snowmobiling

Image: Getty

Snowmobiling // Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming/Montana/Idaho
Wolves, buffalo and eagles are just some of the exotic creatures you’re likely to see in Yellowstone Park. Book a day trip with Backcountry Adventures to cruise past gurgling creeks and watch Old Faithful put on one of its spectacular geothermal shows. Guided snowmobile trips cost $209 (£117) per person.

Glider flight // Lake Tahoe, California/Nevada
After strapping yourself into the cockpit of a vintage glider, you’ll be towed down the runway with your backside just inches from the ground, before taking to the skies over the inky blue Californian lake. As the cable drops away you’ll be riding the thermals up over the pistes of nearby Heavenly, where skiers appear like ants against a sheet of paper. Ask nicely and the pilot will even give you a go at the controls, although it’s worth noting that things can get a little bumpy up there. A 45-minute ‘Tahoe Sky Ride’ costs $219 (£165). 

Snowshoeing // Breckenridge, Colorado
Take a break from Breck’s pistes, and strap on some snowshoes. At Nordic Skiing & Snowshoe Adventure Center, just below the ski resort, are over 12 miles of dedicated trails. On the Upper Trails is Hallelujah Hut, a Gold Rush-era log cabin. Guided snowshoe walks are available for $60 (£42), no tuition required. 

Published in the Winter Sports guide, distributed with the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)