The outdoors can focus our minds at any time of year, and it seems especially effective on a day when our thoughts turn to goals and challenges.

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New Year’s Eve is often the last hurrah in a six-week stretch of indulgent holiday festivity. But to ring in 2017, my husband and I, along with a couple of friends, decided to depart from the party-hard tradition in favor of a quiet weekend in a cabin on Orcas Island. We played board games on New Year’s Eve, barely staying awake until midnight, and awoke the next morning for one of the centerpieces of our trip: a hike on Turtleback Mountain.

The air was cold and bracing, and the trail was often slick with snow. But we felt invigorated — a welcome difference from previous New Year’s days.

We’re not the only ones embracing a new kind of tradition to ring in the new year.

For years now, handfuls of polar-plunge aficionados have used the date as an excuse to jump into freezing-cold water. A few such events are planned around Seattle if that kind of challenge is your thing (see sidebar).

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But when I recently polled fellow outdoor enthusiasts, I discovered a range of traditions for celebrating the new year in the great outdoors.

Volleyball, snowshoeing and more

Aaron Young, of Burlington, Skagit County, has his own personalized take on the polar plunge: “My buddies and I usually try to play beach volleyball up at Lake Whatcom in Bellingham. Then I go start the car, let it warm up for a few minutes, jump in the lake, and make a mad dash toward the warm car and a change of clothes.”

Angela Ward, of Tacoma, consciously rejects the stereotypical drunken New Year’s Eve, since feeling terrible the first day of the new year “seems so contradictory to starting fresh, especially if you’re an outdoor type.” Instead, she plans an outdoor outing to begin every new year. Whether it’s a hike or a snowshoe adventure, it’s “always something to reconnect with nature and start the new year with intention,” she said.

Given the time of year, snowshoeing expeditions are a favorite option for many. “I always do a snowshoe with a group of friends and family and we talk about our goals for the year at the top,” said Amanda Phillips, of Seattle, who blogs about her outdoor adventures at everytwopines.com.

For the past few years, Ken Poore has organized a snowshoeing expedition to Artist’s Point at Mount Baker, adding new friends to the group each time. This year, he anticipates that a few dozen folks will meet on a ridge and share warm beverages. The more adventurous souls in the group make the trip up on New Year’s Eve and build snow caves to sleep in overnight, which in my estimation is close to the opposite of what most people are doing right then.

Spending time outside doesn’t have to be that extreme. Melinda Dean Potensky and a friend hike up Cougar Mountain where, if the weather is nice, they can look out over the cities below. “She and I discuss life and celebrate our year of wonderful weekly hikes almost in seclusion,” she said, while most people are still asleep. Although she and her friend are very different, their time outside strengthens their bond, she said. “Hiking brings us so close. Anyone with a regular hiking partner knows them at a raw level.”

First-day focus

The outdoors can focus our minds at any time of year, and it seems especially effective on a day when our thoughts turn to goals and challenges.

Erik Roeser, of Seattle, said, “A really close friend and I snow hike somewhere, finish up the last of our Rainier Jubilee cans and muse about our hiking goals for the year.” Last year, they went more plush with hot chocolate warmed on a camping stove.

Michelle Goodman, of Shoreline, takes a few moments for a more symbolic plunge — and one that doesn’t require her to be the one in the water. “I go to the beach, gather a pile of rocks, and throw one in the water for each thing I’d like to leave behind in the new year. One by one, I cast out jealously, perfectionism, procrastination, stuff like that,” she said.

One bonus of going outside on New Year’s Day: Like states across the country, Washington State Parks will be waiving parking and entrance fees on January 1. Many state parks will also offer free guided hikes that day, a great option if you’re not much of a planner or want to explore a new park. And since it’s a nationwide effort, you can take advantage of it if you’re traveling over the holidays. You might even persuade a reluctant relative to join you.

If you go

Be careful out there

Winter recreation comes with its own challenges. Dress in layers, bring extra food, and wear waterproof footwear. Carrying the 10 essentials is as important as ever. See the list: wta.org/go-outside/trail-smarts/ten-essentials.

State park hikes

Visit a Washington State Park for free (no Discover Pass required) on Jan. 1 and again on Jan. 15. On Jan. 1, more than three dozen parks across the state are hosting ranger-guided First Day Hikes. In the Puget Sound region, those include Saltwater State Park, Nolte State Park and Wallace Falls State Park. Find a full list at st.news/Jan1parks. It’s part of a nationwide effort; learn more at st.news/firstdayhikes.

More ideas

Washington Trails Association has a searchable database of hikes and snowshoe routes: wta.org.

Polar-bear plunges around Puget Sound

A number of entities host organized polar-bear plunges on New Year’s Day. Some require advance registration; check websites for sign-up details. That water is cold; if you have a history of heart problems consult your doctor first.

• Seattle Parks and Recreation and the Meadowbrook Community Center Advisory Council are holding the 16th annual Polar Bear Plunge on Jan. 1 at Matthews Beach Park. A 2018 Commemorative Badge of Courage will be given to all who immerse themselves neck-deep. Costumes are encouraged. Registration at 10 a.m., plunge at noon Jan. 1; parkways.seattle.gov/tag/polar-bear-plunge.

Participants laugh and grimace during the Polar Bear Dive at the end of last year’s Resolution Run at Seattle’s Magnuson Park. The event repeats Jan. 1. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)
Participants laugh and grimace during the Polar Bear Dive at the end of last year’s Resolution Run at Seattle’s Magnuson Park. The event repeats Jan. 1. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times)

• Take the annual Polar Bear Plunge at Renton’s Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park at 11 a.m. Jan. 1; st.news/renton.

• The Club Northwest Resolution Run 5K race at Magnuson Park includes an optional polar-bear dive into Lake Washington near the end of the race: promotionevents.com/resorun/home.html.

• On the Kitsap Peninsula, head for the annual Olalla Polar Bear Plunge into the waters of Olalla Bay, at the Olalla Bridge next to Al’s Market. Noon, Jan. 1; st.news/olallaplunge.

• Tacoma hosts the Point Defiance Polar Bear Plunge at the Point Defiance boat launch starting at 11:30 a.m. Jan. 1. Changing tents and free hot drinks; st.news/tacomaplunge.

• Want to wait till we’re closer to spring? Plunge into Puget Sound at Seattle’s Golden Gardens beach on February 3 to raise money for Special Olympics: bit.ly/2ziaXCA.