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When it comes to winter, there are two types of runners: those who head to the treadmill or favorite warmer clime and those who don the extra layer and seek the snowiest of scapes. Winters runners cheer the forecast that says it’s going to be 22°and crisp, rather than 42° and drizzly, or, worse, 80° and muggy. And, just like there are winter runners, there are also winter running cities.
What makes a great winter running city? These are the cities that have a winter culture. Cities where you’ll find as many people out when it’s crisp, cold and snow covered as you would when it’s warm, sunny and bursting with blossoms in a summer city.
Winter cities celebrate and embrace winter, turning tennis courts into ice rinks, laying ski tracks in their parks and preserves, and invariably hosting some form of winter carnival. And for runners, some of the iconic roads and trails are maintained and cleared from snow so they can be enjoyed in winter.
Another key ingredient, of course, is reliable winter weather! That means temperatures remaining consistently below freezing during the winter months, with reliable snow cover from December through at least February.
Here are some of our favorite winter running cities and routes. You can find more details about each at Great Runs.
The North East
Our favorite winter running cities are clustered in certain predictable regions. In Canada, Quebec City is a true winter destination, famous for its February winter carnival. Montreal is among the coldest and snowiest major cities in the world. The city’s Olmsted-designed Mount Royal is winter running heaven, just steps from downtown. Ottawa’s Rideau Canal is the longest maintained ice rink in the world, with cleared paths along its banks for runners and walkers.
New England boasts Currier and Ives spots for running. Burlington, Vermont is festive in winter with no lack of snow off Lake Champlain. The Berkshires are a popular destination in summer, but can also be lovely in winter. What could be a more appropriate place to run after a fresh snowfall than the grounds of the Normal Rockwell Museum?
In western Massachusetts, which gets more snow than most of coastal New England, there is festive winter running along the main streets of Amherst and Northampton, and around the bucolic campuses of Amherst College, Smith College, and Hampshire College. And if we had to pick one National Park run on the east coast for a winter run, it would be touring the carriage trails of Acadia National Park, whose traffic-free, soft surface provides traction through unparalleled Maine coast landscapes.
For east coast cities, Boston gets the most snow. The go-to run after a fresh snowfall is through the Common and around Back Bay, or along the paths of the Emerald Necklace. Portland, Maine is another solid winter destination—run the streets of the pretty, and hilly downtown, the Eastern Promenade (maintained in winter), or the spectacular homes and views around Cape Elizabeth.
MidWest to Rockies
In the Midwest, Minneapolis-St. Paul, the coldest major city in the United States, is great for winter running—the iconic Chain of Lakes Trail is plowed when needed. In Chicago, the famous Lakefront Path can be icy and windy in winter, so we recommend the some of the city’s gorgeous residential neighborhoods, such as Highland Park, Oak Park, and Fort Sheridian.
For favorite small town in the Midwest, Madison is a gem. The go-to run in winter is around the well-maintained paths around the University of Wisconsin, whose Arboretum is special after a fresh snowfall.
Among North America’s major ski towns, our two favorites for running are Aspen and Banff. In Aspen, the Village Run features pretty residential side streets lined with Victorian era homes and the tony shops along Main St. In Banff, the historic downtown is festive and well-lit.
The running mecca of Boulder, Colorado plows its extensive network of pedestrian trails before they do streets, making for safe, memorable chilly runs with a backdrop of mountains.
In Europe, the Scandinavian cities of Stockholm, Copenhagen, Oslo, and Helsinki, are located at similar latitudes and can be very festive and snowy in the winter months. The short daylight hours and the strong biking culture mean that key paths are well-lit and maintained – a boon for runners! Due to the ocean influence, none of the major Scandinavian cities experience extreme cold. Oslo and Helsinki probably have the most ‘reliable’ winter in terms of snow cover.
The “most charming winter city in Europe” award goes to Salzburg, which receives an average of 110 cm of snow. The Hellbrunner Allée path that leads to the grounds of the Hellbrun Palace is magical after a snowfall. For reliability, Moscow lives up to its reputation for being snowy and cold, and has some wonderful parks for running, including the iconic Gorky Park.
For one last hidden winter gem, we recommend the Japanese city of Sapporo. Home of the 1972 winter Olympics, Sapporo’s average of 235 cm of annual snowfall is the highest of any major city in the world.
Tips for Finding the Best Winter Running Routes
If you’re lucky enough to be living in or traveling to one of these wintry spots, here are a few tips to maximize your winter running enjoyment. One key objective is to find the prettiest and safest spot for running. In winter, we tend to avoid paths along the water, as they are first to ice up and can be exposed. It’s also generally prettier to run in a park, in order to enjoy the snowy canopy.
If it’s snowing or slippery, the best bet is to find a pretty residential area, since the roads are most likely to be sanded and plowed. Tip: Look for the “Gorgeous Residential” Keyword or “Fantastic Neighborhood” Category on the on the Great Runs site.
In terms of running safety, it’s helpful to know which roads, sidewalks, and paths are maintained. In fresh snow or if it’s icy, the wider, main streets and sidewalks of downtown areas and school districts are usually plowed first. Some runners tend to do shorter laps or loops around areas they know are best maintained, especially when conditions are slippery or snowy.
One inevitability of winter running is that early morning or evening run in the dark. Know which streets are properly lit. Watch out for black ice, especially in the morning, if there was snow melt the previous day and the temperature dipped below freezing overnight. And give cars a wide berth when running on a slippery road… they might slide too, and they’re bigger.
Know when it’s a stay-indoors day; don’t risk the glories of spring running by getting injured. If it’s sleet or freezing rain, fuhgeddaboudit. Avoid running when you think there might be black ice, especially if it’s dark. And be care of low visibility if it’s snowing hard outside; my experience has been that it’s hard to run without goggles, and hard to run with them, as they seem to fog up quickly when running.
If you embrace winter and are lucky enough to experience the runner’s equivalent of a ‘powder day’, it might be among your most memorable runs of the year.
Mark Lowenstein is Chief Running Officer at Great Runs, the ultimate guide to the best places to run in cities and destinations worldwide.