Road trips are always popular in the spring, summer and fall, when flowers and foliage are at their best. However, road tripping in the winter has its own set of advantages…
A winter road trip means that you won’t need to deal with the crowds and traffic that peak travel season brings, and you will likely find accommodation rates are much lower in the winter months too. Plus, there’s something so special about frosty, snow-dotted landscapes, giving the scenery an almost magical quality.
If you’re prepared to brave the cold for the ultimate travel experience, here are four American road trips worth taking in the winter.
Oregon: Portland, Mount Hood & Oregon City
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Brrrr… it's getting cold out there! ❄️ Snuggle up with a hot cup of coffee or cocoa, ☕️ and enjoy this beautifully chilly photo of Oregon's highest peak 🏔 playing peekaboo in the snow and fog, by AAA Member Kari Ferber (@kkferb). Located 50 miles east of Portland, Mount Hood keeps itself warm, too: It's part of the Cascade Volcanic Arc 🌋and Pacific Ring of Fire 🔥. . Where have you been lately? Post your photos with the hashtag #ViaAdventure. . . . #mounthood #mthood #mounthoodoregon #mthoodoregon #cascades #volcanoesofinstagram #oregon #visitoregon #discoveroregon #pnw #pnwonderland #pnwlife #upperleftusa #photography #travel #roadtrip #ViaMagazine #ViaAdventure #AgreeVia @traveloregon @oregonexplored @bestoforegon @oregon.nw @oregonwild @pnwisbeautiful @pnwonderland @p.n.w @cascadiaexplored
Often referred to as the Christmas Tree Capital of the World, Oregon has so much to offer in the winter months. This road trip begins and ends in Portland, taking you to Mount Hood and Oregon City, including a stop at the Christmas Fantasy Trail.
The largest of Oregon’s cities, Portland is packed with numerous winter activities, so you may want to plan for at least a couple of days here. Ice skating is always a popular activity in the colder months, with the city being home to a few different rinks. If you would prefer something warmer, take a day trip to the Bagby Hot Springs to treat yourself to its bubbling, healing, mineral-rich waters. Of course, spending your time in Portland wining and dining yourself is never a bad idea, especially since the city is home to so many incredible restaurants and bars.
Once you have had your fill of Portland, it is time to head on over to the Mount Hood Scenic Byway.
Boasting the highest peak in the state, Mount Hood stands at 3,427 meters high. Not only is it famous for its size, but Mount Hood is also a dormant volcano, adding an exciting element to every visit. The Mount Hood Scenic Byway stretches out for 100 miles around the mountain, showcasing the region’s dense forests and fruit valleys. As you make your way around the mountain, you’ll be able to try your hand at everything from skiing to snow tubing, and can spend the night at one of the nearby luxury lodges to end your day in front of a cozy fire.
Rather than heading straight back to Portland from Mount Hood, Oregon City is only a slight detour, and will give you the opportunity to visit the festive Christmas Fantasy Trail – something that kids are guaranteed to love. Another must-see in the city is the Oregon City Municipal Elevator – it will take you 130 feet up from the downtown part of the city to the historic McLoughlin area. If you plan on spending the night and want to sample the city’s nightlife, the Coin Toss Brewing Company is one of the newer breweries in the city with some delicious craft beers, while the Oregon City Brewing Company even has a brew named after the city’s municipal elevator.
From Oregon City, it’s just 13 miles back to Portland, making your journey back to the start a quick one.
Florida: Orlando, Tampa, Sanibel & the Florida Keys
Known for having one of the mildest winters in the USA, Florida is pleasant and balmy in the winter months. The fact that you won’t have to deal with the intense heat of the summer means that you will be able to see and do so much more. This road trip takes you from coast to coast, and could take anywhere from between two weeks to a few months, depending on how long you have!
Orlando is internationally famous for its theme parks, with there being more than a dozen in the city. From Walt Disney World to Universal Studios to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, you could spend weeks simply visiting the theme parks of Orlando. If theme parks aren’t your thing, spend your time visiting the alligators at Gatorland, or visit the NASA headquarters at the Kennedy Space Center. If you’re blessed with a clear day (and chances are, you will be) a ride on the 400 foot wheel at ICON Park is a must for the views alone. If you find yourself at Florida Mall, be sure to stop off at the OROGOLD Orlando Store for a VIP gold facial.
Tampa’s best attractions are its cultural ones, and these can be enjoyed throughout the year. Visit the old cigar factories and traditional cigar shops in Ybor City, or learn about Tampa’s heritage at the Tampa Bay History Center, as well as the Tampa Museum of Art. Fun for the whole family can be had at Busch Gardens Tampa, an African-themed amusement park that offers a variety of different activities.
From Tampa, you can then enjoy a scenic drive along the coast until you reach Sanibel Island.
Sanibel Island is famous for its wild, untouched natural beauty. Over half of the island consists of wildlife refuges, mainly for the 230 different bird species that live here. If you’re seeking rest and relaxation, Sanibel won’t disappoint, with 15 miles of unspoiled beaches for you to explore. There isn’t much to do here, but that’s all part of its charm, making this the perfect stop on an American road trip.
As you make your way from Sanibel to Florida Keys, consider spending some time exploring the Everglades National Park, which you will pass by on your drive.
The string of tropical islands that make up the Keys are a haven for water sports. Whether you’re into scuba diving and snorkelling or fishing and boating, this is the perfect place to try your hand at these popular sports. A visit to the Conch Republic is a must, with this area being designated as its very own micronation. Make sure that you don’t leave without sampling some of the region’s famous key lime pie, with the Blond Giraffe being known for cooking up some of the best.
If you’re heading back to Orlando, the drive is long – just under 300 miles. However, there is so much to see on the way, from Miami to the Everglades to Palm Bay, which is why this road trip could easily take a few months if you wanted.
Tennessee & North Carolina: Gatlinburg, the Great Smoky Mountains & Asheville
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Morning Hoarfrost at Cades Cove One of the most beautiful times during winter is when frost builds up on tree branches, blades of grass and fences. The whole world takes on a bright, shimmering white hue, and it makes the bitter temperatures worth it. You might even call it a winter wonderland. This type of frost is called hoarfrost and can look like white feathers growing on a variety of surfaces. It starts with water vapor or fog — the gaseous version of water — hovering over the ground the is at a maximum of 32 degrees. Because water freezes at 32 degrees or below, the water molecules in the air will come into contact with the freezing ground, a freezing branch, a freezing blade of big bluestem, a freezing metal arbor and will immediately turn from gas into a solid state as an ice crystal. The more moisture that is in the air, the more the ice crystals will interlock on freezing surfaces and will build larger and larger into those feather-like frosty structures that we see in the beautiful outdoors. These large accumulations of frost is what is called hoarfrost. If there is not enough moisture in the air, hoarfrost will not occur. Hoar comes from an Old English word meaning gray, venerable or old, and it was put with this kind of frost because it apparently made people think of an old man’s beard. Hoary is still used as a term for something that is gray or white with age. Other things in nature are also called hoary, like hoary vervain. This purple flower has a leaf that is covered in whitish hairs. #cadescove #hoarfrost #morningair #dawn #morningfrost #crispair #autumnair #winterwonderland #cadescovetn #smokymountains #gsmnp #winterinfall #greatsmokymountainsnationalpark #exploreoutdoors #hiking #gatlinburg #gatlinburgtennessee #twopines #gatlinburgcabins #cabin2pines
Without a doubt, the highlight of this road trip is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which really transforms into a winter wonderland in the colder months. This entire trip will reward you with some of the best views you will have ever seen, with the snow adding so much beauty to the landscapes.
Begin your road trip in Gatlinburg, a mountain town famous for being a gateway to the Smoky Mountains. Many of the attractions here, from the Space Needle tower to the Sky Lift, provide views of the mountains, so you will not need to spend too much time in Gatlinburg before heading off to see the mountains for yourself.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The most-visited national park in the USA, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park sprawls out for over half a million acres. This is one of the largest protected areas in the eastern USA, and there are so many scenic drives to choose from here. Many would say that the Cades Cove Loop Road is the most beautiful, with the Newfound Gap Road coming a close second. Each road has several viewpoints where you can pull over and take some photographs – something that you will definitely want to do! If you’re feeling adventurous, go skiing or try a winter hike, with 150 official trails available. The cascading waterfalls in the park are also worth checking out – they take on such a mystical feel in the winter when they are literally sparkling with ice and snow.
A city located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville will complete your tour of scenic winter mountain landscapes with a final sprinkling of jaw-dropping views. Of course, by now, you’re probably in need of a break from the elements, and Asheville can offer this with its many museums, art galleries and historic landmarks. The city has a relaxed, quirky, bohemian vibe, and its street art, craft breweries and farm-to-table restaurants could keep you busy for quite a while. The Blackbird Restaurant, which is located in the heart of the city, is one of the best for this, with traditional Southern cuisine that has been created from fresh, local, seasonal ingredients.
It takes less than two hours to drive back to Gatlinburg from Asheville, and you are guaranteed to experience even more scenic winter views along the way.
Utah & Nevada: Salt Lake City, Zion National Park & Las Vegas
If you’re looking for a road trip that combines incredible natural beauty with the ultimate in fun and games, this is it. It begins in Utah, before taking you through a stunning national park and then delivering you to Las Vegas.
Salt Lake City
The capital of Utah, Salt Lake City is vibrant and energetic, and really comes to life in the winter months. From skiing and snowboarding to snowshoeing and snowmobiling, there are plenty of winter sports to try here, making this a great destination for the active. If you would prefer to stay indoors, the National History Museum of Utah and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts will keep you entertained for hours. Salt Lake City is also famous for its culinary scene, making its restaurants worth visiting. Try the White Horse for upscale modern American, or the SLC Eatery for some authentic, yet creative, dim sum.
Zion National Park
There are actually quite a few national parks on the way from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas, but the Zion National Park is one of the best. This was the very first national park in Utah, with its highlight being the Zion Canyon. The 57 mile Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is an easy way to take in the park’s immense beauty, although keep in mind that this road is only open from December to February.
If you’ve got some time to spare and would like to check out some of the other parks in the vicinity, here are your top options:
- Bryce Canyon National Park – famous for its red rocks and pink cliffs, with sunrise and sunset being the best times to visit
- Snow Canyon National Park – home to a magnificent red and white Navajo sandstone canyon
- Valley of Fire State Park – a 46,000 acre park home to unique red sandstone formations that were formed more than 150 million years ago
Las Vegas doesn’t need much of an introduction – this desert oasis is bursting with life 24 hours a day. This is the entertainment capital of the world, not only in terms of its casinos, but also its live performances by some of the world’s most famous superstars. Foodies will delight in the many celebrity chef restaurants to choose from in the city, while those who love a life of luxury have some of the best hotels in the world to choose from. If you have spent the last few days being quite active, treat yourself to a relaxing spa day, with Vegas being home to some amazing wellness centers. Don’t worry if you find yourself missing the natural beauty of your drive – Vegas is home to some gorgeous landscapes too, from the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area to the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.
Whether you want to embrace the winter or escape it for some warmth and sun, these four road trips will have you covered. One thing to keep in mind – if you do plan on driving to and through a winter wonderland, make sure that you practice road safety, as some of those mountain roads can be quite precarious in the winter months.