The Pack Report

The Cold Weather Plants You’ll Encounter on a Winter Hike

There’s so much more to a hike than a walk in the forest. It’s a chance to exercise your body, offering opportunities to engage your mind. Taking along a field guide or downloading your favorite identification app can tell you a lot about the plants you’ll encounter at various times of the year, including winter. 

This activity is a fun learning experience for adults and kids alike. If you’re a homeschool parent, seize this opportunity to bundle up and take your science lesson outdoors for the day. The fresh air will do you and your little one good while you have a blast exploring what grows near you. 

Knowing the plants in your immediate vicinity has multiple advantages, from landscaping to survival. However, many folks could only name up to two or three of the species they see. Here’s a mini-course on identifying many cold-weather plants you’ll encounter on a hike.


Trees are the most giant cold-weather plants you’ll see on a winter hike, and they’re also relatively easy to identify. That makes them the perfect choice for your favorite little botanist to hone their skills. Dig that field guide out of your backpackto synthesize reading comprehension with science — who said you had to be a professional teacher to design a cross-curricular lesson?  

What differentiates a tree from other plant life? It’s the tall, singular, woody stem. It may vary in width — some are small enough to tie Fido’s leash around, while others are big enough to drive through. Here’s how to identify some of the most common varieties you’ll see.

1. Western Hemlock 

Western hemlocks are a mighty tall species, towering between 100 and 150 feet tall. They look like droopy pine trees with downward-sweeping branches and feathery needles. The bark is dark brown to reddish brown and gets rougher with age. Needles are dark green and the tree produces numerous small pinecones. 

2. Western Red Cedar 

Cedar holds special spiritual significance for indigenous people. Western minds tend to value it as a softwood with a proven ability to deter moths. 

This towering species can grow up to 200 feet high and live as long as 1,5000 years. It has gray, stringy bark that pulls off in strips on mature trees. The scale-like leaves are arranged in fan-like sprays and exude a distinctive odor. 

3. Big Leaf Maple 

These trees can’t quite compete with the big boys, although some specimens can reach 150 feet. Their most distinguishing characteristic is their large, dark green, deeply lobed leaves. You’ll probably find a few brown ones clinging to branches even in January. Your little one might enjoy turning the seed pods into helicopters come spring. 

4. Ponderosa Pine

The Pacific Northwest is home to several pine species. You can tell this one by its smell — its bark has a distinctive vanilla or butterscotch aroma. The dark green needles are four to eight inches long and grow three to a bundle in droopy clusters. 

5. Shore Pine 

This short, stubby tree reaches a top height of approximately 40 feet, making it a better landscaping choice for many. The shore pine has thick, dark reddish-brown and deeply grooved bark. This tree has a rapid growth rate, which makes it an ideal filler or replacement crop for lumber purposes. 


Plants and microbes comprise 99% of the living matter on earth today — animals and people are only a tiny 1%. Many of those plants fall into the shrub category, meaning they have multiple woody stems as opposed to a singular one, like trees. Some can grow quite tall, although nowhere near as tall as the Pacific Northwest’s towering pine species. 

1. Holly 

Here’s a good cold-weather plant you’ll encounter on a winter’s hike that comes in handy for your holiday decorating. Holly’s dark green, shiny, and spiky leaves adorn many a wreath and centerpiece. You’ll most likely recognize this shrub from its dark red berries, which remain on the branches all season. 

2. Sumac 

This shrub sounds scary, but the poison variety is another species occurring primarily in the northeast. Sumacs often form colonies from their branched roots, so you’ll likely find several growing together. They have feather compound leaves similar to the invasive tree of heaven, with up to 25 leaflets per branch. They turn dark red, orange, or purplish red in the fall, which is likely how you’ll find them on a winter hike. 

3. Lilac 

Identifying lilacs in the spring by their characteristic purple blooms is a snap. However, you can still distinguish them on a winter hike by their dark gray bark and clusters of tiny suckers. These begin to fatten as they near spring and the plant prepares for new growth. Leaves are simple and opposite, resembling spears.

4. Hazelnut 

If you’re a Nutella aficionado, you should know how to identify hazelnut, the shrub that gives birth to this creamy delight’s signature ingredient. The plant has heart-shaped leaves that are paler on the back than the front. It reaches heights of up to 15 feet and grows catkins, which eventually develop into hazelnuts. 

5. Burning Bush 

Burning Bush is considered invasive because it spreads quickly in dark, shaded forested areas. However, many gardeners use it as an ornamental. It has dark green leaves on its stems, which reach heights of 20 feet. However, you’ll recognize them from their fiery fall foliage, which often remains into winter. 

Flowering Plants

Believe it or not, some plants continue flowering in the winter. Stumbling upon one in the wild while cold winds howl and snows coat the earth can restore a sense of hope that spring will someday return. As such, many people plant them in their yards to brighten their spirits during the days of long nights. 

1. Winter Camellia

Winter camellias are among the most popular ornamental cold-weather plants you’ll encounter on a winter hike. They make fabulous editions to your moon garden — check them out in the wild after dark with the help of the right headlamp to witness their star-like glow. Their dark green, fine-toothed leaves make the perfect backdrop to pale white, yellow, and pink-tinted blooms. 

2. Heather 

You’ll recognize this cold-weather plant by its coarse, woody stem that grows in clusters. You’ll find delicate white to purple flowers lining them from August to October and may find a few blooms after temperatures drop. It grows up to three feet tall and can live for 40 years. 

3. Hellebore 

Hellebores are also called Lenten or Christmas roses because they bloom in winter. As such, many homeowners use them in their gardens and window boxes. You might not need a hike — you may find them in your front yard. 

The flowers feature five showy sepals that are off-white to lavender. It has many prominent stamens as a centerpiece. Please use caution and teach your children not to handle this plant, as all parts of it are highly toxic. However, it makes a perfect border for your camellia moon garden.

Identify These Plants on a Winter Hike 

You might be surprised to discover you’ll find a wide variety of cold-weather plants on a winter hike. Although many species go dormant, others continue to thrive in low temperatures. 

Learning how to identify these cold-weather plants on a winter hike is a fun learning activity for adults and kids alike. Break the Netflix boredom by bundling up, heading outdoors, and exploring the world around you. 

Guest Post By: Jack Shaw

Happy Adventures - Duluth Pack