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Enjoy Outdoor Winter Sports in Southern RI

Get out this season and go snowshoeing, skiing, ice skating and so much more

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It’s easy to stay fit and healthy when the weather is pleasantly warm and sunny, but let’s face it: if we wanted easy, we’d all be living in Florida or California, not New England. So if you find the idea of hibernating for the winter and giving back all those gains you made at the gym last summer, well, unbearable, these South County cold-weather sports can help keep your body toned and warm until the inevitable return of bathing-suit season (and we don’t mean the Polar Plunge).

Snowboarding and Alpine Skiing
Exeter’s Yawgoo Valley Ski Area’s (160 Yawgoo Valley Road, Exeter. 294-3802) 300-foot vertical drop and 14 trails would barely register as a mogul bump up north or out west, but here in Little Rhody it’s the king of the mountain when it comes to alpine (downhill) skiing and snowboarding. Generations of Rhode Islanders have learned to ski on Max de Wardener’s charmingly low-key hill, and while keeping the snow on the slopes can be a challenge in our unpredictable coastal climate, Yawgoo Valley’s snowmaking operation ensures that local skiers and boarders squeeze every possible run out of each winter, day and night (every trail is lit for after-dark skiing).

Ready for a bigger challenge? Local ski shops like Anderson’s Ski and Dive (5865 Post Road, East Greenwich. 884-1310) in East Greenwich, Warwick’s Alpine Ski and Sport (105 Chestnut Street, Warwick. 781-4444), Avie’s Ski/Sport (100 Main Street, Westerly. 596-0375) and New England Action Sports (200 Bald Hill Road, Warwick. 738-0411) run weekly bus trips to a variety of mountains in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, and beer lovers look forward to the Mews Tavern’s (456 Main Street, Wakefield. 783-9370) annual ski trip, a 25-year tradition.

For cameraderie and cost savings, look to local ski clubs: the Newport Ski Club has been around for 50 years and has a lodge at Okemo Mountain in Vermont that can sleep up to 46 people in bunk-style rooms: members get meals and discounted lift tickets. Rhode Island Ski Runners has a lodge in North Conway, New Hampshire.

Cross-Country Skiing and Snowshoeing
Rhode Island’s lack of commercial Nordic skiing facilities doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy a cross-country glide in the Ocean State. The horse trails and golf course at Goddard Park (1095 Ives Road, Warwick. 884-2010) are popular with Nordic skiers after a heavy snowfall, although you’ll have to carve your own path (Casimir Pulaski Memorial State Park in Chepachet is the only place in Rhode Island regularly groomed for cross-country skiing).

Arcadia Management Area (Exeter, Richmond, Hopkinton, West Greenwich. 539-2356) has seemingly endless hiking and mountain-biking trails suitable for backcountry cross-country skiing as well. Another popular option is the South County Bike Path, which has the advantage of being wide and generally flat (the paved surface, however, means the snow generally melts faster than on natural trails). Rhode Island Cross Country Skiing is a good source of information, too.

Ice Skating
The Brandon Boss Ice Arena (One Keaney Road, Kingston. 874-4988) on the campus of the University of Rhode Island in Kingston is not only the finest facility of its kind in the state, it also offers skating lessons and a wide variety of public skating options year-round.

Open skating is available Monday-Friday from 11am to 1pm, and you can kick up your blades to a lively Rock N’ Skate program on Saturday nights from 8-10pm. A slower-paced adult skate session takes place Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8-10am. Time is also set aside for figure skaters on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 8am-10pm. At just $6 for the public and $3 for URI students (skate rentals are an additional $5), these programs are the entertainment bargain of the season.

Fancy carving a few turns outdoors? The Newport Skating Center (4 Commercial Wharf, Newport. 846-3018) has public skating ($7 adults, $5 seniors and kids ages 3-12) from 5-9pm Monday to Friday, with free admission on Mondays, and 10am-11pm on Saturdays and 12-6pm on Sundays, plus an adults-only skate ($5) from 9-11pm on Friday nights.

The Washington Trust Ice Rink (61 Main Street, Westerly. 637-7902) in Westerly has learn-to-skate programs for various skill levels as well as public-skating sessions. The rink is outdoors, so schedules are heavily dependent upon the weather.

Ice Hockey
Channel your inner Bobby Orr or Patrice Bergeron by joining a hockey league or one of the many pickup games played at the ice rinks located in Kingston, Westerly, Warwick and Cranston. The Exeter-West-Greenwich Hockey Club offers family co-ed, adult co-ed and women’s league play in Kingston. The Cranston Senior Hockey League (900 Phenix Avenue, Cranston. 944-8690), with games played at the rinks in both Cranston and West Warwick, has leagues catering to experienced players of varied skill levels – teams in the lower divisions tend to attract all ages from late teens to 50-somethings, while higher level leagues skew younger and faster.

Not ready to commit to a league, or just looking to sharpen your hockey skills? Hook up with a pickup game that suits your schedule, whether you want to get in an early morning skate before work, an afternoon workout or some late-night competition. The Boss Arena is home to Hockey Night in Kingston, a highly organized group of skaters that occasionally needs extra skaters to play on a per-game basis (you can also inquire about signing up as a weekly regular). The weekday afternoon pickup game at Boss (1pm-2:50pm) is the best hockey value in the state ($6) and is typically well attended – including by goalies.

Westerly’s Washington Trust Ice Rink is ideal for beginners who want to quickly jump into league play: programs include hockey group lessons, and the smaller rink makes the game more accessible for less-experienced skaters. Youth, teen, adult and women’s leagues compete throughout the winter, and there also are scheduled pickup and “pond hockey” style games at the rink.

Snow Tubing and Sledding
Yawgoo Valley has Rhode Island’s only snow-tubing park, with seven lanes served by rope tows. Tickets are $15 and sold for 50-minute sessions: you can expect big crowds of kids and families on weekends, so buying tickets in advance is highly recommended.

After any decent snowfall you’ll find families bundling up and heading down Division Street in West Greenwich to the sand dunes known as the “Big River Desert.” The dunes are part of the Big River Management Area and have multiple slopes to choose from, so they never seem too crowded even when scores of people are attacking the hills on sleds, saucers, toboggans – even big sheets of cardboard. Generations of kids have also tested their courage on the snowy hills of the former Wickford Elementary School (99 Phillips Street, Wickford).

Winter Hiking and Snowshoeing
Winter hiking in South County can be as simple as putting on some warm boots and heading to your local park or joining up with an organized group. Meetup is a great resource: you can find group hikes nearly any day of the week led by the Narragansett chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club, Outdoor Adventurers of New England, and the Rhode Island Hiking Club. Both the AMC and the Rhode Island Hiking Club offer winter-hiking instruction. The REI Outdoor School, available through the company’s Cranston store, has classes on winter wilderness survival skills and cold-weather gear and photography.

Trudging through heavy snow isn’t particularly fun, but the aftermath of a big winter storm is the ideal time to strap on some snowshoes and trek into the woods. REI has a good selection of premium snowshoes, while Ocean State Job Lot typically carries low-cost, entry-level snowshoes that are fine for beginners.