When former (1960) U.S. Olympic cross-country skier Olavi Hirvonen came to Lapland Lake in the southern Adirondacks, the thick pine and birch forests immediately reminded him of Finland, where he spent most of his first 18 years. It was the perfect setting to develop a Nordic skiing center to make a north-of-the-Arctic-Circle Laplander green with envy, replete with sauna, Finnish-style cabins called tupas (doubles from $195; laplandlake.com), and a friendly country restaurant that serves up favorites like lohilaatikko (salmon casserole) and Finnish meatballs. But above all else, Lapland Lake is about Nordic skiing, primo in the warmer days of March—50 kilometers of trails personally groomed by Hirvonen ("He grooms them the way he likes to ski them," says his wife, Ann), including four kilometers of lighted trails, lighted ice-skating, and, to every kid’s delight, a lighted tubing hill—plus (we’re not kidding) two pet reindeer.
"Big Shoals country offers a bit of southern Appalachia in Florida," says Wes Paulos, a ranger at Big Shoals State Park. "You go from slope forests—hickories and large oaks—to pine flats to riverside trails to lower wetlands with bridge crossings. Singletrack, doubletrack, a little bit of everything." Including a Florida rarity: elevation gain and loss, 20 and 30 feet at a time. Paulos recommends cycling a ten-mile loop along the Suwannee River that starts from the Little Shoals entrance to Big Shoals State Park and proceeds on the Woodpecker, Mossy Ravine, and Palmetto Trails. The latter leads to the Big Shoals—limestone formations overhung with gnarled tupelo trees. Fully stocked cabins with big porches suitable for banjo strumming are $99 (floridastateparks.org/bigshoals).
Lush, green Lookout Mountain is a gorgeous place to learn to hang glide, especially when you’re pulled up to 2,600 feet, well above the top of the 2,054-foot peak. The extra lift is provided by an ultralight craft that Lookout Mountain Flight Park uses to tow students high in the sky for the tandem flight that culminates each day of their weekend hang-gliding school ($399, with on-site cabins for $99; hangglide.com). Yet, says instructor Dan Zink, "What really jazzes people is their very first flight off our training hill. You may be only a few feet off the ground, but I’ve seen that make grown men cry." The weekend course entails a ground school and training-hill-launched flights, plus the two tow-up tandem flights from the ultralight. By the end of the weekend, you’re halfway toward certification under the watch of some of the country’s best instructors. "We come here," says Zink, "for the prevailing wind that flows up and over our long ridge, meaning we can surf the sky for hours."
In the extremely rugged piedmont country of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, the Jones Gap Trail, which begins at the ranger station in Jones Gap State Park, is a yellow brick road to the remote Mountain Bridge Wilderness. The trail, which climbs a relatively modest 1,600 feet in its 5.3 miles, pierces the heart of the wilderness by following the tumbling Middle Saluda River through moist forests of beech, laurel, rhododendron, and hemlock. Along the way are 18 backcountry campsites, plus two group sites, each a launching pad for leave-the-big-pack-behind forays on steeper trails ($10; southcarolinaparks.com). The best hikes lead to the area’s abundant waterfalls, all in peak flow in March. The new Rainbow Falls Trail branches off Jones Gap near the trailhead and climbs 900 feet in just 1.6 miles. The signature side hike, at least eight miles depending on where you camp, is to 400-foot Raven Cliff Falls, where you get a raven’s-eye view of the tallest waterfall in South Carolina.