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NEW YORK – For more than 20 years, state park officials in Massachusetts have encouraged locals to get off the couch Jan. 1 and take a hike — nothing too strenuous, but a healthy way to start the new year.
Last year, a group called America's State Parks expanded the effort, called First Day Hikes, to all 50 states. The group hoped for 50 events but had no idea how many Americans would willingly skip New Year's Eve revelry in order to get up early Jan. 1 and hit the woods.
They ended up with 400 outings that drew 14,000 people, hiking a total of more than 30,000 miles. This year will be even bigger, with more than 600 events from a cross-country ski outing in Alaska to a sunrise hike in Hawaii.
"It's a way to promote a naturally healthy way of life but also to promote state parks as a year-round recreation option," said Priscilla Geigis, state parks director in Massachusetts and organizer of the national effort. "The park managers got people on hikes who live right there but who had never been to the parks during the winter."
Most First Day Hikes are moderate in difficulty, ranging from one to three miles. Some are on paved roads accessible to strollers and wheelchairs. All are free, though some parks have parking fees. Some hikes combine outdoor interests with history, such as a hike in Castlewood Canyon State Park in Colorado where hikers were greeted by volunteers dressed as 19th century homesteaders. In Massachusetts, hikers included Gov. Patrick Deval and his dog Tobey at Mount Greylock.
All First Day Hikes are guided by rangers who talk about wildlife, trees, nests and other natural phenomena in winter landscapes.
"People were blown away by the quality of the park rangers and the details they gave us," said Chris Saunders of Chesterfield, Va. With his wife, father-in-law and dog, he joined a group of more than 50 hikers in Pocahontas State Park in Virginia last January. "Every little thing — a rock, a tree — the rangers can tell a story about it."
More than 3,700 people took part in Virginia's First Day Hikes, which were offered in all 35 state parks. Officials promoted the outings on Facebook and Twitter, and offered prizes for photos. Saunders sent in a photo and won a free parking pass to Pocahontas.
"We go back there all the time," said Saunders, who plans to go this Jan. 1, too. "It was so much fun, we'd go back even if we hadn't won the pass."
In Alaska, more than 30 hardy souls turned out last Jan. 1 for a hike at the Eagle River Nature Center in Chugach State Park that lasted an hour and a half despite temperatures well below zero. This coming Jan. 1, a cross-country ski outing is planned out of Independence Mine State Historical Park, a former gold mining site, according to Bill Kiger, interpretation and education manager for Alaska State Parks.
"We want to start the year off right to help people with their New Year's resolutions," Kiger said. "This is the first step to doing that physical activity we all pledge to do."
In Maine last Jan. 1, hikes took place in four different types of terrain — at Popham Beach, Sebago Lake, Aroostook State Park in the northern interior and at Wolfe's Neck Woods State Park in Freeport, a coastal woodland. "We were so happy when the First Day Hikes came along because we have been developing programs to get people into the state parks in winter," said Will Harris, director of Maine's Division of Parks and Public Lands. "This way, on Jan. 1, you can have people thinking about being outside from the first of the year."
State park officials are not the only ones organizing outdoor activities to start the new year off right. Many communities and athletic clubs organize races in local parks. Life Time Fitness, which operates fitness centers and programs, expects 100,000 people at 5-kilometer walks and runs in 28 cities Jan. 1. There are also polar bear plunges, where participants immerse themselves in chilly lakes and oceans on New Year's Day, held around the country from Seattle to Coney Island in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Organizations like the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Sierra Club and local groups like Nevada's Friends of Gold Butte also organize Jan. 1 hikes and events in many places. Even in New York City, outdoor clubs are offering New Year's Day outings to explore the north end of Manhattan and the shores of Staten Island.
Many individuals simply create their own outings to kick off the new year. Lincoln Fuller of Yarmouth, Maine, has been hiking up Mount Washington in New Hampshire each Jan. 1 with two friends for more than 10 years. He says they usually encounter dozens of others on the cold, windy mountain.
"It's always surprising to me how many people go up on New Year's Day to say, 'This would be a good way to start the year,'" he said.
Fuller says he's often asked by people why he would do such a thing in the middle of winter. His standard reply: "Well, there's no bugs."
America's State Parks: http://www.americasstateparks.org/first-day-hikes