The not-so off season

Betsy Iler rounds up winter activities to do at the lake. Photo courtesy of Kenneth Boone.

Don’t forsake the lake this winter; instead, gather friends and family for what just might be the best times at Lake Martin.

Don’t let cool temperatures, the winter drawdown and less daylight rob you of the best memories Lake Martin has to offer. There’s just as much to do off the water in winter as on the water in summer, and with less traffic, it often seems you have the lake to yourself.

There’s plenty of unplugged activity at Lake Martin during the lake’s cooler, shorter days of winter. Hiking, horseback riding, games, movies and cozy lakeside fires replace water sports and people watching at Chimney Rock as the bonding time for family and friends becomes the focus.

Winter is the perfect time to hike the area’s more than 125 miles of trails without summer’s bugs and heat. And this winter may be the last opportunity for several years to walk the entire Island Hop Trail at the base of Smith Mountain. If/when the 7-foot drawdown provision in Alabama Power Company’s renewed license takes effect, some sections of the trail will be inaccessible except in the occasional years when the level will be dropped 10 feet for lake-bottom and dock maintenance.

Cherokee Ridge Alpine Trail Association (CRATA) maintains 17 miles of footpath only trails on the eastern and southern banks of Lake Martin and expects this winter to develop more trails in the Yates Wildlife Management Area near Martin Dam in conjunction with Forever Wild and Alabama Power Company. These trails can be accessed free of charge. For trail maps and hiking information, visit

Wind Creek State Park and Russell Forest trails are open for hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking for a minimal fee. These areas also offer other amenities, such as camping (state park), restaurants and naturalist programs (Russell Forest).

Boat rentals are available at the state park as well, and boating in winter means a better view of the lake’s beautiful homes and shoreline without the congestion and water turbulence of the summer traffic.

Naturalist Marianne Hudson schedules entertaining education programs at the Russell Crossroads cabin throughout the winter. These programs usually are free of charge and open to the public. Scheduled educational treks through Russell Forest may require a small fee.

Many local restaurants and golf courses also remain open throughout the winter.

But it’s the quiet times with family and friends indoors that are best spent at the lake in winter.

It may be just cool enough to light a fire and pull a board game off of that back shelf in the closet. For side-splitting laughter with the whole family, try Apples to Apples, an easy-to-play Mattel party game that will even engage the teenagers. Younger children might enjoy Sorry, Clue or Yahtzee, and if you’re looking for a bit of solitude, you can play Shut the Box, a counting game said to have originated with sailors in the 12th century.

Or use that getaway time at the lake to learn a new game, like cribbage, the unofficial pastime of American submariners. This English card game originated with 17th century poet Sir John Suckling, and its play has remained unchanged as players accumulate points from combination of fifteen, pairs, runs, flushes and the meld. Find rules and variations of play online. All you really need for cribbage is that deck of playing cards in the back of the kitchen junk drawer; you can make your own board out of cardboard and use toothpicks for pegs or tally points with paper and pencil.

The lake is a great venue for jigsaw puzzles and movie marathons, too. Go with a theme and watch all the movies you can find starring your favorite actor or view only movies with the word “lake” in the title or on the set. See the sidebar to get started.

Of course, when darkness falls, it’s time to move outside to the fire pit. Gather everyone for an evening of storytelling and s’mores around the fire with the background music of lake water lapping on the nearby shoreline.

If fireside s’mores are too complicated, spread mini-marshmallows on a bed of graham crackers under the broiler or toaster oven for a few minutes and top with chocolate and another graham cracker.

Serve them outside where you can lean back and gaze into the star-studded night sky, marveling at the beauty that you cannot find under the city’s lights.

And when the kids have gone to bed, open a bottle of fine wine and toast winter weekends at Lake Martin, the best times of all.