8 Great American Winter Road Trips
Explore legendary routes that pack plenty of scenery and few crowds.
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.
Big Bend National Park - Texas
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.
Florida Keys - Florida
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.
Hudson Valley - New York
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.
The Pacific Coast Highway - Southern California
"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.