8 Great American Winter Road Trips
Explore legendary routes that pack plenty of scenery and few crowds.
From North Carolina to California, here's where you should hit the road this winter.(Getty Images)
You've probably considered road tripping in spring or fall, when brilliant floral or foliage displays entice us to fill up the tank and take a drive. But in winter, when famed rock formations are frosted with snow and America's top national parks are crowd-free, you can experience the country's iconic routes with less traffic and reduced lodging rates. Of course, driving in winter comes with its own caveats. "Always have one or two alternate routes at the ready should weather force a plan B," advises Gabe Saglie, senior editor at Travelzoo. With that in mind, here are incredible drives across the country to experience this winter.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Tennessee and North Carolina
The scenic route along Interstate 40 and U.S. 321 through the Great Smoky Mountains, from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Asheville, North Carolina, looks like a storybook setting out of Europe in winter, says Rebecca Warren, Lonely Planet's eastern U.S. destination editor. "Incorporate the city of Gatlinburg for some kitschy fun, trading the road for the sky as you take the aerial tramway to get a great view across the mountains," Warren says. And don't miss hitting the trails when you need a break from the road. As for lodging, the LeConte Lodge offers high-end accommodations at a reasonable rate, with cabins (and two meals) available nightly for $140 per person through Nov. 22, 2016.
Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park offers plenty of striking landscapes to explore. "This enormous park is stunning, offering incomparable vistas across wide expanses of desert," Warren says. "With more than 100 miles of paved roads, the winter offers pleasant temperatures that allow you to stop and take in some of the park's fantastic hikes without having to deal with the triple-digit heat found here in summer," she adds. Don't skip cruising along the 30-mile-long Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which features striking geological formations and the limestone cliffs of the Santa Elena Canyon. Plus, you can score affordable lodging at Chisos Mountains Lodge, with nightly rates in December available for around $140.
Florida's famous 113-mile drive along Route 1 affords a memorable journey year-round, but in winter, you can escape the chillier temperatures of the Midwest and Northeast to enjoy outdoor pursuits like kayaking in Bahia Honda State Park and a dose of history in Key West. "Key West has a party-hearty reputation," explains Robert Firpo-Cappiello, editor-in-chief of BudgetTravel.com. "But it also offers Victorian homes, kayaking, art galleries and beautiful beaches," he explains. Plus, you can secure affordable accommodations in Key West. Hotel deal site goSeek.com shows nightly rates for three-and-a-half star accommodations in the area for around $115 in December.
Striking vistas abound after you hop across the Tappan Zee Bridge along Interstate 287 to visit charming towns, such as Nyack and Rhinebeck. "This region is beautiful in the winter, with winding roads and stately homes in plentiful supply," Warren says. "Drive along the Saw Mill River Parkway for peaceful views that make you feel like you are a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of nearby New York City," she adds. Along the way, stop at Hyde Park, an estate filled with a beaux arts palace and a Georgian colonial home that is part of the Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site. This history-filled journey is ideal for weekend jaunts.
Vermont's Route 100
Vermont bursts with picturesque scenes, characterized by glistening slopes, charming small towns and villages and quaint lodges. And along the idyllic Route 100 roadway, you'll weave past little-known towns such as Wilmington, Weston and Stowe, and have the chance to visit unique attractions, like the Trapp Family Lodge. For a stay to remember, don't skip bunking down at Stowe Mountain Lodge, A Destination Resort, which offers rooms starting around $280 in December (early booking promotions are also available). For a cost-effective alternative, Firpo-Cappiello points to Stratton, Vermont, as an enticing area in the Green Mountain State, thanks to its beautiful resort, pristine terrain and reasonably priced ski lift tickets.
Arches National Park
In winter, Arches National Park is blanketed in snow, making its stunning sandstone rock formations even more postcard-worthy. Plus, you won't battle many other visitors as you take in the area's surroundings and otherworldly desert scenes. Make sure to snake along Scenic Drive for the best views of top points of interest such as Delicate Arch and Balanced Rock. An ideal entry point to Arches is about 5 miles north of Moab, Utah, along U.S. Highway 191. After admiring park highlights and hitting the trails, head to the heart of Moab, where you'll find budget-friendly places to stay, like the Red Cliffs Lodge (rooms are available for around $120 nightly in December) along with plenty of charming eateries and breweries.
The Pacific Coast Highway
"Winter weather can be great in the Golden State, and rainfall becomes a much bigger factor in January and February, so hit the road in the first half of winter," Saglie says. He suggests taking a classic drive along the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to San Diego, with stops in Orange County, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and coastal areas, like Morro Bay. Firpo-Cappiello also suggests carving out some additional time to explore can't-miss and affordable attractions in San Diego, such as Balboa Park and its 100-acre zoo. The drive from San Diego to Santa Monica also affords the chance to experience alluring coastal areas, including Laguna Beach.
[See: America's Best Family Road Trips.]
If you've ever wanted to cruise along the 28-mile-long Lake Tahoe National Scenic Byway, consider making this scenic journey in winter. At this time of year, snow dusts the peaks along the Sierra Nevada range and the area's alpine regions beckon outdoor enthusiasts to partake in cold-weather pastimes, such as skiing, sledding and ice skating. You can also hit the trails and enjoy the splendors of the sprawling Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park and unwind in Incline Village, a charming town in North Lake Tahoe with plenty of skiable terrain and laid-back mountain lodges.
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