The 6 Best Road Trips to Take This Winter

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 during sunset

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

Photo by Colorful Moments/Shutterstock

I get it: The idea of defrosting your windshield and putting snow chains on your tires can be off-putting for any trip. But winter has several advantages when it comes to on-the-road adventures. Taking a road trip during this season allows you to see well-loved destinations during their off-season and is a fine time to visit environments that get unbearably hot in the summer.

Across the country, there are plenty of road trips that may be more fun (and cost-effective) than jetting off somewhere by plane. It’s important to note, however, that winter road trips require an extra layer of precaution. Sudden accumulation of snowfall and other weather changes can make 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.

With that in mind, here are six of the best road trips to take this winter.

1. Explore California’s deserts

  • Start: Los Angeles
  • End: Joshua Tree National Park
  • Distance: 125 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 100 miles on I-10 and then hop on CA-62 east for 25 miles to get to Joshua Tree National Park. You don’t have to spend much time in the 1,242 square-mile park to admire the twisted, prickly “trees” that give the area its name.

For more desert exploration, drive north for about 270 miles to get to Death Valley National Park, which becomes a lot more appealing in the winter. You can stop here, but another option is to drive an hour west and get on Highway 395. This classic California road trip leads to prehistoric forests, historic mining towns, and other geological features in the state.

Where to stay along the way

The Rum Runner Airbnb

Yucca Valley, California

Book now: The Rum Runner

Stop in the Joshua Tree area at this one-bedroom Airbnb, which opened in Yucca Valley in 2021. There are plenty of features—including a six-person hot tub, stargazing bed, and artwork from local artist Ana Digiallonardo—that may make you want to stay an extra day. Electric vehicle road trippers will especially appreciate the Tesla charging station provided at this stay.

View from the snowy summit of Stowe, Vermont, on a clear day.

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
  • Suggested 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 the towns and cities of Stowe and Woodstock, which are home to some of the most well-known ski areas in the state.

The trip starts in Stowe, where you can ski on its 116 trails across its resort’s terrain. From there, drive around 40 miles east on I-89 to Burlington, a lakeside town of 45,000. The small town is the ideal place to catch your breath after a day on Stowe’s slopes and fill up on wintery activities like ice skating in Arthur Park or viewing the holiday lights on Church Street. Then 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 vistas of mountains like Mansfield Mountain and a chance to stop by the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Waterbury.

Where to stay on the trip

Cozy Burlington Airbnb

Burlington, Vermont

Book Now: Cozy Burlington Airbnb

Accommodations can get limited in Burlington during its winter high season, so it’s best to book early. This Airbnb is one of Vermont’s best, as it’s within walking distance of Burlington’s downtown, the city’s waterfront, and the Church Street Marketplace. With one queen-size bedroom and private deck, this spacious stay can accommodate up to four people.

Aerial views of Miramar Beach in Florida

Starting in Miramar Beach, you can tour through part of Florida’s coast.

Photo by Matthew T. Johnson/Shutterstock

3. Drive Scenic Highway 30A

  • Start: Rosemary Beach, Florida
  • End: Miramar Beach, Florida
  • Distance: 24 miles
  • Recommended time: 2 days

“If Miami’s love language is spicy, then northwest Florida’s comes through in a syrupy coo,” Terry Ward writes in her article about Scenic Highway 30A. “Sure, you’ll come for the dreamy beaches and sparkling coastal dune lakes, but then you’ll try the local seafood and brewery scene and never want to leave.”

This roughly 24-mile route through Florida’s South Walton County hugs the Gulf of Mexico through most of it, perfect for escaping the winter snow with average temperature highs in the 60s throughout the season. Start in Rosemary Beach and take your time driving west to Miramar Beach. You’ve got gorgeous views of dune lakes (a natural occurrence found in only a few places around the world, including Madagascar and New Zealand), fresh seafood in places like East Pass Seafood & Oyster House, and plenty of walking and bike opportunities in Grayton Beach State Park and other locales.

Where to stay along the way

WaterColor Inn

Santa Rosa Beach, Florida

Book now: WaterColor Inn

The WaterColor Inn’s 67 rooms and suites on Santa Rosa Beach are located 15 miles east of Miramar Beach. It’s a scenic stopping point that stretches out between its dune-backed sands and a freshwater coastal dune lake. In the summer of 2022, the property finished renovations that added seven suites, a zero-entry family pool with kid’s area, and an updated outdoor lounging area.

Plan your trip: The Florida Road Trip You’ve Been Missing

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 historical cities of the South

  • Start: Charleston, South Carolina
  • End: New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Distance: 750 miles to 800 miles, depending on route
  • 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.

After spending a few days in Charleston, drive south on U.S. Highway 17 and I-95 for about 100 miles to reach Savannah. From Savannah, you have a couple of options: You can get to the Big Easy on an inland route, crossing cities like Macon and Montgomery by crossing I-16, GA-49, I-85, and I-65.

Or you can continue to keep your trip coastal by driving along I-95 South until hitting Jacksonville, Florida, where you’ll head west along I-10 until you get to New Orleans. You can’t go wrong with either option, though you’ll want to allocate 1.5–2 weeks for this road trip so that any extra stops don’t feel rushed.

Where to stay along the way

Thompson Savannah

Savannah, Georgia

Book now: Thompson Savannah

Experience the energy of Savannah’s riverfront firsthand with a stay in the 193-room Thompson Savannah. The property opened in August 2021 and was intentionally designed to be perpendicular to the Savannah River to maximize view potential. The hotel’s interior boasts greenery reminiscent of southern landscapes and has the highest rooftop in the city (in the spirit of, once again, maximizing views).

Winter night at River Walk in San Antonio, Texas

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: 330 miles
  • Recommended time: 7 days

Whether it comes to its barbecue or abundance of summer road trips, Texas offers plenty to explore in its approximately 270,000 square miles. Its bigger-and-better spirit doesn’t hibernate during the winter, evidently, when Christmas injects its cities and towns with eye-catching liveliness toward the end of the year.

Start your festivities in Grapevine, the government-official Christmas Capital of Texas, where you can participate in more than 1,400 events in the 40 days surrounding Christmas. From Grapevine, head about 230 miles south on U.S. 67 and U.S. 381 to Johnson City. There you’ll see one of the most decorated courthouses and downtowns in the state; more than 1 million lights cover the town in gold during its Lights Spectacular Event.

However, the journey isn’t over yet: Drive U.S. 290 east for 30 miles until you hit Fredricksburg, where the historically German town puts a European spin on the holiday with decorations like its German Christmas Pyramid. 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.

Where to stay along the way

Canopy by Hilton

San Antonio, Texas

Book now: Canopy by Hilton

Stay close to the holiday action at the Canopy by Hilton, which is situated right by San Antonio’s River Walk. 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.

Zion National Park in Springdale, Utah, after a snowstorm

Red rocks and white snow are a gorgeous combination.

Photo by Donald Giannatti/Unsplash

6. Enjoy Utah’s Big 5 National Parks

  • Start: Arches National Park
  • End: Zion 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—came 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 a significantly lower risk of heatstroke. (Temperatures usually stay in the 30s to 50s range throughout the day.) Plus, you get 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, you start at Arches National Park, then head west to visit Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon National Park, and Zion, respectively.

Take a week for the journey, or stay even longer and hit other national parks on your Southwest road trip. Honestly, you should probably lean toward extending your trip while the crowds are scarce. 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.

Where to stay along the way

Zion National Park Lodge

Springdale, Utah

Book now: Zion National Park Lodge

As the only “in-park lodging” at Zion (note: this property isn’t run by NPS), Zion National Park Lodge on the National Register of Historic Places has 40 cabins and a main lodge. The lodge’s seasonal low rates during the winter give you a chance to snag a deal on one of its suites, which all come with a private porch, full bath, and a gas log fireplace to keep you warm. If you’re craving a bison-jalapeño cheeseburger or southwestern quinoa salad, go to the Red Rock Grill in the main lodge and admire Zion’s sweeping views from the comfort of the restaurant.

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.
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