The Best Winter Road Trips in the U.S.

Why winter is the best time to take a leisurely trip through the South or visit Utah’s popular national parks.

Joshua trees in the snow with low sun in background

The desert is one landscape that’s easier to explore in the winter than summer.

Photo by Colorful Moments/Shutterstock

Winter road trips in the United States can take many forms: sun baking the windshield as you enter the Mojave Desert en route to Joshua Tree, or chain-clad tires gripping the winding mountain roads of Vermont or Utah. Hitting the Great American highways anytime from November through late February could lead to well-loved destinations during their shoulder season, or to hot, dry corners of the country when many temperatures aren’t quite as high. Prices often come down in January and allow for more opportunities for lingering without the crowds. It all depends on what you want: world-class food, national parks, arts and culture, all of the above.

With that in mind, here are six of the best road trips to take this winter across the U.S., all tested and recommended by AFAR staff and contributors.

1. Explore California’s deserts

  • Start: Los Angeles
  • End: Joshua Tree National Park
  • Distance: 150 miles
  • Recommended time: 4–5 days

While California’s Pacific Coast Highway is a treat no matter the season, head inland for a taste of the Golden State’s desert—without the overbearing heat. From Los Angeles, head east for about 100 miles on I-10 to Palm Springs. Or if time is on your side, try I-60, a slightly longer and more scenic route that passes through Riverside, home of the historic Mission Inn Hotel and Spa, dating back to 1876. Any one of the half-dozen dining spots at the hotel makes for a photogenic lunch break.

From there, it’s only an hour east to the desert oasis of Palm Springs. Consider bunking for two nights here, anywhere from Arrive by Palisociety, a hip adults-only hotel with 32 rooms in the Uptown Design District, to family-friendly Hyatt Regency Indian Wells with its seven outdoor pools. Sensei Porcupine Creek in nearby Rancho Mirage offers an even more upscale, wellness-focused retreat. Consult our 48-hour guide for ideas on where to eat and play, or book now to visit during Palm Springs’ International Film Festival in January.

Change gears (metaphorically and physically) after this tony town and make for Joshua Tree National Park. You don’t have to spend much time in the 1,242 square-mile park to admire its namesake twisted, prickly “trees.” But we recommend at least an overnight stay at a Joshua Tree–area Airbnb: The options are varied and whimsical, everything from renovated Airstreams to a luxury high desert lodge designed by a Frank Lloyd Wright protégé. Go for a hike, collapse with a cold drink on a patio beneath the stars, and consider the good life for a moment.

View from the snowy summit of Stowe on a clear day, with row of snowy evergreens in foreground

Hit the slopes and road in Vermont.

Photo by Anton Vattay/Shutterstock

2. Travel through Vermont’s snowy mountains

  • Start: Stowe
  • End: Woodstock
  • Distance: 130 miles
  • Recommended time: 3 days

Vermont is well associated with fall road trips, in part thanks to its leaf peeping (should we even use that term?) opportunities. But during the winter, snowcapped perfect-for-skiing mountains become the star of the show. Consider this winter New England road trip for a getaway weekend bookended by stays in Stowe and Woodstock, which are home to some of the state’s best-known ski areas.

The trip starts in Stowe, where you can ski 116 trails across the resort’s terrain. Enjoy an après-ski session of raclette and whiskey at WhistlePig Pavilion off Spruce Peak, or post up to hear live music at Stowe stalwart the Matterhorn, “infamous since 1959.” Overnighting options range from the Austrian-inspired Trapp Family Lodge, a family-friendly resort where the outdoor hot tub seats 20, to well-appointed Airbnbs in the town of Stowe itself.

From there, drive around 40 miles east on I-89 to Burlington, a lakeside town of 45,000. The town is the ideal place to catch your breath after a day on Stowe’s slopes and fill up on other wintery activities like ice skating in Arthur Park or viewing the holiday lights on Church Street. Accommodations can get limited in Burlington during its winter high season, so it’s best to book early. This Airbnb guesthouse with a yard and deck is among Vermont’s best, as it’s within walking distance of Burlington’s downtown, the city’s waterfront, and the Church Street Marketplace.

On your third and final day, drive 90 miles via Highway 89 to get to Woodstock, a town close to one of the oldest ski areas in the country. Along the way, you’ll get views of mountains like Mansfield Mountain and a chance to stop by the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Waterbury.

Overseas highway to Key West island, Florida Keys, USA. Aerial view beauty nature.

There are very few stretches of U.S. highway as breathtaking as the Overseas Highway in Florida.


3. Follow Florida’s “floating highway” to Key West

  • Start: Miami, Florida
  • End: Key West, Florida
  • Distance: 165 miles
  • Recommended time: 2–3 days

Running from Miami all the way south and west to the tip of the Florida Keys, this scenic stretch of U.S. Route 1 follows the course of the historic Florida and East Coast Railroad. A hurricane knocked out the tracks in 1935, but a few years later the route reopened as a highway. Nowadays, it has many names: the Overseas Highway, “the floating highway,” the highway of 42 bridges. They’re all accurate depictions of the route, often suspended high above the archipelago of some 1,600 islands, whisking visitors past palm trees, beaches, coral reefs, and crocodile habitats.

Begin the drive in Miami, mapping toward Florida City and the beginning of “the Stretch,” 18 miles of Highway 1 connecting mainland Florida to the Keys. (Some may detour to Card Sound Road for conch fritters at the famous local/biker beach bar Alabama Jack’s, but this highway has been under repair in 2023.) Arrive in Key Largo by way of the Jewfish Creek Bridge, a 65-foot-high span with sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean and Florida Bay. Once here, you’re almost obliged to have your first taste of Key lime pie at Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, a local institution, before moving on to Islamadora. This village of six keys has one of the biggest downtowns between Miami and Key West; within is Morada Way Arts and Culture District, a nexus of shops and galleries that also has one of the Keys’ liveliest Art Walks, with live music and late-night gallery openings every third Thursday, 6–9 p.m. Stay overnight at the (brand-new in 2024) Postcard Inn Resort and Marina and grab a hearty shrimp-and-grits breakfast at Green Turtle Inn before moving on.

Traveling with kids? Pit stop in Marathon, Florida, home to Aquarium Encounters (touch, feed, and tank dive with coral-reef creatures) and Marathon Wild Bird Center, where you can see birds being rehabilitated before they’re released.

Final destination—aka Mile Marker 0—is Key West, where visitors can shop, snorkel, kiteboard, and kitsch out to their heart’s content. There’s an experience for everyone down here; venture off the beaten path with a Key West Food Tour. Seek the six-toed cats at the Hemingway Home and Museum, and linger over cocktails poolside at the Southernmost Beach Resort.

Christmas Lights on the corner of Royal and Dumaine streets in New Orleans

New Orleans is a festive place to visit all year round.

Photo by Colin D. Young/Shutterstock

4. Tour historic cities of the South

  • Start: Charleston, South Carolina
  • End: New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Distance: 750 miles, give or take
  • Recommended time: 10–14 days

Charleston, New Orleans (not counting the visitor uptick during Mardi Gras), and Savannah are a few cities in the U.S. South that experience their low season during the colder months. Take advantage of their off-season prices—and lack of humidity—to tour the Gothic, antebellum, French, and other influences that have given these cities their character.

Start with a few days in Charleston, whose food scene is reason enough to visit. (We also recommend Charleston Culinary Tours—shout-out to guide Dana Levine!—for a primer on local eats.) The biggest draw these days, though, is the striking new International African American Museum, set at Gadsden’s Wharf, where an estimated 40 percent of enslaved Africans entered the country. Pair that with a stop at the Old Slave Mart Museum for an honest look at the city’s past. Charleston also has more than its share of stylish, standout boutique hotels within the main corridor; we want to check out new kids the Pinch and the Loutrel on our next visits. (Read on for our full Charleston travel guide.)

Too full of Lowcountry dishes to move? Save some room for the next stop: Drive south on U.S. Highway 17 and I-95 for about 100 miles to reach Savannah, Georgia. The city’s oak trees drip with Spanish moss, creating that haunting vibe, and restaurants and hotels all have heaps of character. Experience the energy of Savannah’s riverfront firsthand with a stay in the 193-room Thompson Savannah. The hotel opened in August 2021 and was intentionally designed to be perpendicular to the Savannah River to maximize view potential. It also has the highest rooftop in the city (in the spirit of, once again, maximizing views).

Coming soon is Hotel Bardo, by the people behind Perry Lane Hotel, set to open early 2024; its Italian restaurant Saint Bibiana is ready to feed you now, though. Savannah locals also love the food and vibes at Brochu’s, Common Thread, Dottie’s Market, the Wyld (waterfront views), and the very cool Strangebird inside an old Streamliner car. (Read on for more of the best things to do in Savannah.)

From Savannah, turn toward the Big Easy on an inland route, crossing cities like Macon and Montgomery and visiting key markers on the Civil Rights Trail. Allocate 1.5–2 weeks for this road trip so that any extra stops don’t feel rushed.

Once in NOLA, make Hotel Peter and Paul your base in the Marigny, only a few blocks from Frenchman Street (New Orleans’s main live-music drag) and on the outskirts of the French Quarter, and settle in for days of art, music, bourbon, and beignets. (Read on for the best things to do in New Orleans.)

Winter night at River Walk in San Antonio, with colored lights reflected by water

Don’t miss a stroll down the River Walk during the winter.

Photo by cheng cheng/Shutterstock

5. Visit the Christmas towns of Texas

  • Start: Grapevine
  • End: San Antonio
  • Distance: 355 miles
  • Recommended time: 4–5 days

Texas’s bigger-and-better spirit doesn’t hibernate during the winter, when Christmas injects its cities and towns with eye-catching liveliness.

Start the festivities in Grapevine, the government-official Christmas Capital of Texas, which celebrates 40 days of merriment just outside of Dallas. The North Pole Express may already be sold out, but the Christmas market in the Town Square Gazebo is in full swing this month and is a great introduction to local artists and makers. From Grapevine, head back toward Dallas for an overnight stay at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, a former private estate turned iconic Uptown hotel. (Alternatively, check into the Joule, a contemporary, artful downtown boutique hotel.)

Although you could stay several days in Dallas–Fort Worth alone, you’re on the hunt for the Christmas spirit, so press on the next day to Fredericksburg, about 262 miles south. The I-35 S takes you through Waco, so make time for a pit stop at Chip and Joanna’s Magnolia Market before arriving in Fredericksburg. The historically German town puts a European spin on the holiday with a traditional German Christmas Pyramid and Christmas Nights of Lights each evening in the Marktplatz. Shop along Main Street and book a night at Barons CreekSide, a Texas take on a Swiss log cabin village, set on a vineyard a few minutes down the road.

The next day, drive 70 more miles south via U.S. 87 and I-10 and you’ll land at your final stop in San Antonio. Throughout December, the city’s River Walk becomes one of the state’s most iconic holiday destinations, so admire the multicolored lights on your riverside stroll and stay close to the holiday action at the Canopy by Hilton. The hotel’s 195 rooms feature colorful art, textiles, and tilework to pay homage to San Antonio’s culture and history—matching the bright decorations you’ll find exploring the city. Don’t miss its open-air Otro Bar, and keep the celebration going with a handcrafted cocktail and south Texas–inspired small bites.

Towering red rocks at Zion National Park in Springdale, Utah, with dusting of snow

Red rocks and white snow are a gorgeous combination.

Photo by Donald Giannatti/Unsplash

6. Enjoy Utah’s “Big 5 national parks

  • Start: Zion National Park
  • End: Arches National Park
  • Distance: 380 miles
  • Recommended time: 7–10 days

According to the National Park Service, 70 percent of visitors for Zion National Park—Utah’s most visited—come between April and September. By contrast, the months of December through February received only 2–3 percent of its annual visitors per month. What this means for you: virtually no crowds, ample parking, and lower prices at stellar Camp Sarika by Amangiri or new glamping hot spots like AutoCamp Zion. (Note that temperatures hover in the 50s during the day, but can drop below freezing at night.) It’s also a chance to witness the red rocks of Utah’s parks contrast with the white snow—a sight those summer tourists miss.

As with all road trips on this list, you can modify this journey however you want. But for this particular itinerary, carve out (at least) a week and start near Zion National Park, with AutoCamp Zion as your base. Then head east two hours to Bryce Canyon National Park. Despite being one of the smaller national parks, Bryce has the highest concentration of otherworldly hoodoos on Earth. (Stay at Bryce Canyon Lodge in the winter and Under Canvas Bryce Canyon in the summer.) Then on to Capitol Reef, about two hours northeast, where a more compact but no less stunning national park awaits. Get a taste via the 7.9-mile Scenic Drive, or stay longer and overnight at the Lodge at Red River Ranch. Complete the pursuit of Utah’s “Big Five” at Canyonlands and Arches national parks, another—you guessed it—two hours east. The parks don’t have their own lodges but nearby Moab has several options.

There are also many excursions not in Utah’s national parks, and seasonal opportunities—like skiing in Bryce Canyon, where its high elevation makes it one of the few places in the Big Five with consistent snow—that warrant an extra day or two.

Want to tack on something special? Go big at Amangiri, with its ultra-luxe suites, tents, and pavilions near Zion and Bryce. (Although it’s closer still to the four corners of Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico, accessible via Page airport in Arizona and very near Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.)

It’s important to note that winter road trips require an extra layer of precaution. Snow may mount; storms may roll in, making a road unusable at a moment’s notice. Make sure you’re always well-packed and up to date on conditions affecting your road trip destination before embarking.

This article was originally published in December 2022. It was updated with new information and recommendations on Dec 4 2023.

Chloe Arrojado is the associate editor of destinations at AFAR. She’s a big fan of cafés, dancing, and asking people on the street for restaurant recommendations.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR