The vast, beautiful land where our country sits varies in just about every conceivable way, from topography to climate. All these rolling hills, highways, coasts, plains, and more bear witness to generations of history. The best way to really discover them all? By hopping in the car for a winter road trip. While there are unique difficulties on the road in the cold, it's a season where you can truly feel like one with nature.
In the North, leaves have fallen from the trees, while snow adds quiet stillness to 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 spirit of your journey.
Check out our 10 favorite winter road trip ideas, 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.
Pacific Coast Highway
The scenic PCH route in California 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.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park
There are many ways to travel through Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. At the peak of tourist season, you may need to map alternatives to avoid bottlenecked traffic; however, in the winter, this shouldn't 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, while the region's attractions are equally memorable. Expect everything from the subdued and picturesque (exploring the natural beauty of Wildcat and Cannon mountains) to the thrilling and exciting (enjoying the rides and ziplines at Whale's Tale Water Park and Alpine Adventures).
Badlands National Park
The Dakotas are frequently overlooked as vacation destinations, but driving through the Badlands National Park in South Dakota 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 archaeologically significant sites.
Glacier National Park
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 snowshoeing and cross-country skiing 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 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 in Northwest Colorado. You can take route 40 through the town, which will surround you on all sides with mountains, hot springs, and waterfalls.
Don't depart Steamboat Springs without a ride on the eight-passenger Steamboat Gondola. Located at Steamboat Ski Resort, the gondola climbs to the top of Mount Werner, where you can take in panoramic views, hit the slopes, or just relax at the Oasis Sundeck, one of the resort's on-site eateries.
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).
Lake Tahoe Scenic Drive
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.
Saguaro National Park
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's a quick drive to arguably the most magnificent of all of America’s sights: the Grand Canyon.