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Jonathan Stull | 01.03.2018

Nobody says that winter is for road trippers. In cities in the Pacific Northwest, snow is such a poorly understood form of precipitation that many urban Northwesterners lose their god-given minds whenever it falls. But the sanity of the open road is a far-off thought.

Let’s change that right now. For winter adventures, the snow is your best friend—snow-capped mountains take a new form, roads transform into snowshoeing and skiing trails, and once inaccessible passes become backcountry skiing meccas. It isn’t just about the snow, either. The desert landscape provides a startling contrast in the winter, and the country’s southern reaches are a safe haven of warm weather when you need reprieve from the cold.

Ye Olde Oregon Territory

For a remote experience, try a winter road trip through southern Oregon. The winter temperatures often dip into the teens here, so you should be duly prepared for very chilly temperatures. Crater Lake is a startling sight with a coat of winter snow, and in a typical year there is plenty of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing to enjoy here. Farther east, the remote high desert offers a journey peppered with hot springs to soak in like an American macaque. 

Oregon has no lack for alternatives. A more northerly route circles the Cascades and traverses a wide variety of landscapes. Central Oregon’s volcanos are spectacular destinations with winter skiing at Bachelor, snowshoeing in the Jefferson Wilderness, and frozen waterfalls like Tumalo Falls. Finish your return trip north with excursions along the Oregon coast—Coos Bay, Yaquina, and the photogenic sea stacks of the northern Oregon coast.

The Pacific Highway and the Sierra

We have two routes in mind: a north-to-south route from Seattle to Los Angeles via the Pacific Coast Highway, and another from south to north that traverses the eastern basin beneath the Sierra Nevada. Both are spectacular for their own reasons: passing through the Redwoods in winter offers an unusual look at the misty, wet conifer forest giants that make the area famous, while the sequoia’s of Sequoia National Park offer their own awe-inspiring beauty.

Utah’s National Parks

Collectively, Utah’s Big Five national parks attract nearly 10 million people annually, and that number has risen year over year for the last decade. Know what that means? It’s a struggle just to find a campground in this crowded desert wonderland. Not so on this road trip in winter. While campsites may be closed, those that remain open are sure to offer more abundant camping. The desert scenery of Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands is little more striking than it is in winter, when water and ice work their magic: It’s during this season that much of the erosion occurs as water and snow trapped in the rock freezes and expands daily.

The canyonlands of the Southwest offer an equally spectacular dive into earth’s depths. There is a lot to choose from here, and it’s worth tacking on U.S. Route 163. The north-to-south route is recommended for the classic and iconic scene on approach to Monument Valley—think John Ford westerns and Forrest Gump. Mexican Hat is a cute roadside attraction, too, and if you’re planning to spend a day or two in the area, the drive through Valley of the Gods is easily Monument Valley’s equal without the crowds, kitschy tourist traps, and—let’s be honest—paved roads.

Untested Alternatives

Miami to Key West

Distance: 320 miles
Time: 3-4 days

While most of the country descends into cold winter weather, it’s 70 degrees in Florida. A drive down the keys might be exactly what you need to snap out of the winter doldrums. Spend a night at Dry Tortugas National Park, one of the most unique national parks in the country and a boat-accessed aging fort that is cut off from the mainland currently occupied by at least one crocodile. Don’t forget that the Everglades are just a right turn away. Winter is a tricky time in the Keys, so be wary of continental weather fronts that coincide with windy weather conditions.

New York City to Lake Placid

Distance: 500 miles
Time: 5-7 days

The wilderness of Upstate New York is a mountain playground replete with snowshoeing excursions, an Olympic site, and a minimum of one castle. Whiteface Mountain is the fifth-highest peak in New York, and it hosted many of the events during the 1980 Olympics. It’s now home to a castle that you can visit by snowshoe.


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