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story.lead_photo.caption Beach fishing at Sanibel Island in Florida is a great way to spend time in the outdoors during winter. Photo by The Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau

If 2020 gave us anything, it was extra time.

Many used this time to reconnect with the outdoors. As we round out the year, and many people are burning through vacation days, consider taking a trip to explore an unknown outdoor destination.

Here are five of my favorite places to visit.

Brown County State Park: Nashville, Ind.

Nicknamed the "Little Smokies" because of the region's resemblance to the Smoky Mountain National Park, Brown County offers visitors a chance to spread out amongst the hills, hollers and ridgetops many wouldn't expect to find in southern Indiana.

Encompassing nearly 16,000 acres, you can find true solitude in the park's wilderness. Taking a winter hike along one of the many trails is a great way to experience wildlife and natural scenes without the crowds of summer.

The park offers numerous cabin options and is home to the beautiful Abe Martin Lodge. There is great dining onsite. Trust me when I tell you to order the fried chicken.

You'll want to climb the 90-foot tall fire tower for a breathtaking view of the surrounding area. And you'll want to spend time exploring Nashville, Ind. This quaint little hamlet is Indiana's art colony. Have a biscuit at the Hobnob.

Stockton Lake: Tandem Fly Outfitters

Winter may not seem like the time to take off on a fishing trip, but if you want to stock your freezer with crappie filets, then now is the time to visit Stockton Lake to fish with Kris Nelson of Tandem Fly Outfitters.

You don't need to worry about anything. Kris has great lodging onsite, and supplies all the gear you need in his outfitted guide boat. You'll leave with your crappie fileted and ready for the freezer.

This trip will put you just an hour north of Springfield where Bass Pro Shops is located. If there is an angler in your life who has never visited the original Bass Pro location, you should take them there to watch them turn into a kid again.

Be sure to tour the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium for an experience you'll never forget.

Sanibel Island: Florida

In the future, I'll spend every winter somewhere warm. Sanibel Island is near the top of my potential snowbird locations.

The island is surrounded by fish filled beautiful aqua colored water. The white sand beaches are some of the best in the country. The food and nightlife is perfect for my tastes of casual sandwiches and world-class seafood. I've had key lime pie there that's never been beat.

Island life appeals to me, and Sanibel is one of the best islands I've visited.

Another big draw to Sanibel Island in the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. This is one of the best bird watching destinations I know of.

Named after the father of the Duck Stamp, this refuge is a great place to explore nature in the warmth of Florida during the winter.

Chico Hot Springs: Pray, Mont.

If I had to choose my favorite place in the world, Chico would be in contention.

Nestled in the heart of the Paradise Valley, about halfway between Livingston and the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park, this hot springs resort has been catering to travelers since 1900. The outdoor pool filled with natural hot spring water is the draw, but the onsite restaurant may be the best in the state.

Being just 40 miles north of Yellowstone, you should plan to take advantage of the special winter opportunities of snowmobiling, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing during a time when the only crowds you'll deal with are herds of animals.

Hike out to the Boiling River and sit in a hot spring in a setting so beautiful you'll hardly believe it's real.

Treetops Resort: Gaylord, Mich.

Downhill skiing and cross-country skiing are both main draws at Treetops Resort during the winter. But for me, this beautiful destination offers close proximity to excellent trout fishing on the Pigeon River and Sturgeon River.

Standing among snow covered pines, casting dry flies to trout in silence is life perfected. The accommodations at Treetop are top notch and put you close to everything.

Gaylord is an Alpine village. No, really. The whole town is designed to look like you're in a village in the Swiss Alps. It's incredibly charming. It's also home to many great restaurants.

The Big Buck Brewery is the place to grab a local pint and burger. No trip up north is complete for me without a plate of Lake Perch. The Alpine Tavern will satisfy that craving.

Be sure to visit Jay's Sporting Goods. This gigantic, independent outdoor retailer has everything you could ever need for hunting and fishing in the area.

See you down the trail. ...

III

Brandon Butler is an outdoors columnist for the News Tribune. Contact him at [email protected]

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