The United States of America is a vast, beautiful place. The land where our country sits varies in just about every conceivable way, from topography to climate. All these rolling hills and highways and coasts, plains, and more bears witness to generations of history. The best way to really discover them all is to take a road trip.
You may be thinking, it’s wintertime—shouldn’t we wait until the summer to go driving? Hotter temperatures are not always your friend, especially when considering traveling with the family. And while there are unique difficulties on the road in the cold, it may be the only season where you can truly feel one with nature.
In the north, leaves are turning and snow lies still atop some of the most breathtaking mountain views. The desert, plains, and southern coastal regions all have their own unique draws. Not to mention the added chance that locals have dressed up their respective scenery for the holiday season, adding to the tender spirit of your journey.
Many prefer a summer vacation, but road tripping in winter will eliminate or at least improve some of the more mundane parts of the drive, namely traffic. Check out our 10 favorite winter road trips and start planning your odyssey.
Just south of Miami is the entrance to the internationally renowned network of keys, starting at Key Largo. The Overseas Highway (also known as US1, which extends from I-95) conveniently connects all the shallow islands, making it a whopping 113-mile one-way drive. You won’t be able to stop at every single key along the way (there are over 1700!), but there are plenty of roadside attractions to visit even if you’re just looking for some seafood and key lime pie.
If you are a completionist, taking the PCH may be an intimidating task. The scenic route stretches for just under 700 miles, so to experience it all at once would take several days. But even shorter stints along the highway can create lasting memories. Possible stops, depending on your starting and ending points, could include Big Sur, where you’ll cross the photogenic Bixby Bridge; the sleepy, art community of Carmel-by-the-Sea; and the opulent missionary town, San Simeon.
There are many ways to travel through Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and at the peak of tourist season, you may need to map alternatives to avoid bottlenecked traffic. In the winter, this should not be a problem. The Cades Cove entrance is bountiful, featuring nature preserves and historic buildings to explore as well. If you find yourself close to the Foothills Parkway, take that detour for some of the best panoramic views in the entire park.
The round-trip loop from Lincoln to Franconia to Bartlett to Conway in New Hampshire is doable in one day, with places to stop and stay overnight at your discretion. The mountain views, especially with white sheets of snow everywhere, are unforgettable. The towns along the way have historic and picturesque attractions of their own.
The Dakotas are frequently overlooked as vacation destinations, but driving through the Badlands National Park in the south is worth your while. You can incorporate Mount Rushmore into your trip, or take an entirely different approach, which will lead you deep into the heart of the Great Plains region. Mountains and plateaus intermingle with hot springs and even archaeologically significant sites as well.
Not only considered by many early environmentalists such as John Muir as one of the most beautiful places on earth, Glacier National Park in Montana also becomes a haven for sports in the winter. The Grinnell Trail, named for 19th-century naturalist George Bird Grinnell, is a popular route that winds through mountains and brush, touching on ever-shrinking glacial formations. This park sits on the country’s northern border, and in fact, overlaps with Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park to form what is known as an International Peace Park.
More than just skiing awaits you along your drive to Steamboat Springs. You can take route 40 through the town, which will surround you on all sides with mountains, hot springs, and waterfalls. Look at the trails ahead of time to map out the sights you would like to see to streamline your drive and spend all your time with the landscape.
Many places claim to be the Christmas tree capital of the world, but Oregon has the best stake over the claim. You can find the winter wonderland of your dreams when you travel along highway 99 to the Christmas Fantasy Trail just outside Portland. Exploring outward from Portland will lead you to Mount Hood, which, aside from the majestic views, includes a potentially still active volcano (though the last time it erupted was 1907).
Choose your path wisely and you can visit Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, and Big Sur all in one go. We admit that would be ambitious, but if you are traveling light and plan ahead, it could be a life-changing road trip through California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range out to the coast. Each stop is a tourist haven, with even more chances to enjoy the scenery in winter.
For newcomers to Arizona, we have the road trip to end all road trips. Starting at Saguaro National Park, which is resplendent in the namesake cactus species, it is a quick drive up to Phoenix, which can be a good place to rest or explore, depending on your priorities. From there, it is a direct shot to Seligman, a classic Route 66 town whose monuments remain from its heyday. Then it is a quick drive to arguably the most magnificent of all of America’s sights: the Grand Canyon.