Introduction: 10 Beautiful Winter Drives Around the United States
Winter is an excellent time to explore America’s back roads. Cruising through a landscape blanketed in fresh snow is a dreamy way to travel during the off-season for many destinations. The fact that there are fewer tourists on the road during the winter certainly helps.
Of course, driving in the winter requires additional precautions. Snow enhances the scenery but also makes the roads slick. And slick roads are difficult to navigate in unfamiliar territory. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends keeping a basic winter survival kit in your vehicle, which should include an ice scraper, jumper cables, and road flares, as well as a flashlight, batteries, snacks, water, and a first-aid kit. (Tyre chains would also be beneficial.) Before going on a winter drive, make sure your vehicle is up to date on maintenance.
01.Arches National Park Road, Utah
Starting point: Arches National Park entrance
The route: 36 miles round trip on the park’s scenic drive
What to anticipate: Arches National Park’s natural sandstone sculptures take on an ethereal quality when covered in snow and bathed in soft winter light, much to the delight of desert photographers. The National Park Service maintains the scenic drive, though it may take several hours right after a snowfall.
The out-and-back Arches National Park Road provides easy access to park attractions such as the historic cabin Wolfe Ranch, the Windows Section, which contains some of the park’s largest arches, and the Delicate Arch viewpoint, the park’s most well-known attraction.
Where to stop: Park in the Windows Section and take a half-hour stroll beneath the North Window or Double Arch. Stop at Wolfe Ranch about four miles further down the road and pretend you’ve travelled back in time. You can hike a mile and a half uphill to Delicate Arch from here, but be cautious of ice on the trail.
2.Seward Highway, Alaska
Starting point: Anchorage, Alaska
The route: About 50 miles on the Seward Highway from Anchorage to Portage
What to anticipate: Travelling along Alaska’s Seward Highway, you’ll find the epitome of beautiful winter scenery among the snowcapped peaks of Chugach National Forest. Finish the journey in the ghost town of Portage, or steel your nerves — and make sure you have chains — for the remaining 80 miles to Seward, which is another 80 miles past Portage.
Despite Alaska’s cold and snowy climate, the Seward Highway is a heavily travelled route that remains relatively clear throughout the winter. The drive from Anchorage to Portage is only about an hour long — two and a half hours if you go all the way to Seward — and can easily be completed in a single day.
Where to go: The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Centre offers a close-up look at native wildlife such as reindeer, lynx, moose, and grizzlies that have been injured and are unable to survive in the wild. Whittier (about halfway between Anchorage and Seward) is known as “the town under one roof” because the majority of its residents live in the same 14-story structure (which also houses the post office, police station, convenience store, and health clinic). Its remoteness and relatively small population (around 250 people) have made it a tourist attraction.
3.Yosemite Valley Loop, California
Starting point: Groveland, California
CA-120/Big Oak Flat Road from Groveland to Yosemite’s El Portal Road, then El Portal Road to Southside Drive, looping around to Northside Drive, and ending back at El Portal Road, approximately 45 miles.
What to anticipate: Driving through Yosemite Valley during the off-season reveals an eerie winter wonderland. Snowfalls cover its granite monoliths, and cold temperatures freeze sections of Yosemite Falls. Although the park has many annual winter road closures, Yosemite Valley and Wawona are open all year. Wawona Road (Highway 41), El Portal Road (Highway 140), Big Oak Flat Road (Highway 120 from the west), and Hetch Hetchy Road, in particular, are open all year but subject to weather closures.
Where to stop: From mid-December to early April, the adventurous can enjoy downhill and cross-country skiing at Badger Pass Ski Area. The road leading to it is well-maintained, but tyre chains are frequently required. Aside from that, make a point of stopping in the Valley to admire El Capitan’s grandeur.
4.Covered Bridge Circuit Through Parke County, Indiana
Starting point: Rockville, Indiana
The route: Bridgeton Road from Rockville to Bridgeton, High Banks and Rosedale roads to Rosedale, Coxville Road to Mecca, then Mecca Road and U.S. Highway 41 back to Rockville, totaling about 45 miles(10 Beautiful Winter Drives)
What to expect: Parke County is known as the “Covered Bridge Capital of the World,” with 31 historic covered bridges, and the best time to see them is after it snows. The bridges, many of which were built in the 1800s and are still in use, cross icy rivers and streams, contrasting beautifully with snow-covered meadows. There are numerous routes to choose from, but this one takes about an hour and a half and includes eight bridges.
Stop along the way to admire the McAllister Covered Bridge, built in 1914; Neet Covered Bridge; Bridgeton Covered Bridge; Roseville Covered Bridge, the longest of the eight; Mecca Bridge, the oldest (completed in 1873); Phillip’s Bridge, the shortest; Sim Smith Bridge, which is said to be haunted; and Melcher Bridge. If you get hungry in the middle of the journey, stop in Rosedale for biscuits and gravy or a slice of pie at Comar’s Cafe.
5.Skyline Drive Through Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Starting point: Front Royal or Rockfish Gap, Virginia
The route: 105 miles between Front Royal and Rockfish Gap on Skyline Drive
What to anticipate: Skyline Drive takes visitors right along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are arguably the most beautiful peaks in the eastern United States. It is the only public road that runs through Shenandoah National Park (though portions of it may close due to inclement weather). Many of Shenandoah’s 500-plus miles of trails remain open in the winter for snowshoe and ski enthusiasts looking to see crystallised waterfalls and other iced-over sites.
Stick to the 35-mph speed limit and stop at any of the 75 overlooks along the drive for panoramic views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west or the Piedmont Mountains to the east. Keep an eye out for wildlife as well; while many animals hibernate, foxes and bobcats are active all winter.
6.Million Dollar Highway, Colorado
Starting point: Ouray or Silverton, Colorado
The route: 24 miles on U.S. 550 between Ouray and Silverton
What to expect: Is the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado named after its million-dollar views? Or because an early traveller was so terrified of the route’s steep climbs and hairpin turns that he vowed he’d never do it again, even if paid a million dollars? Perhaps it’s because the road was said to have cost a million dollars per mile to build. Whatever the reason, there’s no denying that the dramatic drive, which is part of the San Juan Skyway, a Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway, provides priceless mountain views.
Remember that the highway, or portions of it, may close due to snow. Because it is a mountainous route with many steep cliffs and sharp turns, snow chains are recommended in the winter.(10 Beautiful Winter Drives)
Stop at any of the designated viewpoints to admire natural wonders such as Bear Creek Falls and the iron-rich peaks of Red Mountain. Make the historic town of Silverton your basecamp if you intend to stay for more exploration. Animas Forks, a ghost town and former mining hub, is a little off the beaten path but well worth a visit.
7.Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee to Asheville, North Carolina
Starting point: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
The route: About 120 miles on U.S. Highway 441 and the Blue Ridge Parkway
What to expect: This drive will take you through the breathtaking alpine wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Pisgah National Forest. From Gatlinburg, take US 441 to Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome for panoramic views before continuing on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Before continuing your journey to Asheville, take a winter walk to the Devil’s Courthouse summit.
Where to stop: Ober Mountain, a mountainside amusement park with skiing, snowboarding, snow tubing, and other activities — the 2.1-mile Aerial Tramway from downtown Gatlinburg to the top is a scenic treat in and of itself. There are more than 50 scenic pullouts with mountain views along the Blue Ridge Parkway. On the other hand, a visit to the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate in Asheville is a must.
8.Route 100, Vermont
Starting point: Stowe, Vermont
The route: 142 miles on VT-100
What to expect: Most roads in Vermont are scenic, but Vermont Route 100 (VT-100) is arguably the best of the bunch. It places visitors in an ideal location for exploring the charming villages of Wilmington and Weston, as well as touring the Mad River Valley and Moss Glen Falls. Winter is a great time to visit this part of Vermont, which is known for its skiing and winter sports. Even if you’re not in the mood for outdoor adventure, the atmosphere is as cosy and lively as it has always been.
Where to stop: There are quaint country stores in almost every village along the route, but Weston’s old-timey Vermont Country Store is the ultimate pit stop for practical souvenirs and unique regional treats. Even though it’s winter, the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Waterbury is a must-see.
9.High Road to Taos Scenic Byway, New Mexico
Starting point: Chimayo, New Mexico
The route: 49 miles through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains between Chimayo and Taos on NM-76, aka the High Road
What to anticipate: An hour’s drive into the high desert will reward you with views of snow-dusted junipers and pion pines as you pass through Cordova, marvelling at the snow-capped Truchas Peak rising 13,102 feet in the distance. For a taste of history, head to Nambé Pueblo, a centuries-old Indigenous community just south of Chimayo.
Where to stop: Near the start of this drive, the Santuario de Chimayo stands on what some consider sacred ground with miraculous healing powers. Along the High Road, San José de Gracia de Las Trampas is a National Historic Landmark. San Francisco de Ass Mission Church, located closer to Taos, dates back more than 200 years.
10.Highway 57 in Door County North, Wisconsin
Starting point: Green Bay, Wisconsin
The route: 85 miles on Wisconsin Highway 57 from Green Bay to Gills Rock
What to expect: Door County North offers a Cape Cod experience to the Upper Midwest: Consider coastal towns, small shops, and family-run restaurants that invite a hearty winter escape. The popular hour and 45-minute winter drive between Green Bay and Gills Rock ping-pongs between the peninsula’s eastern and western shores. You’ll arrive at the top after passing through a few small, historic towns.
Where to stop: Take every opportunity to stop and soak in the sites of Lake Michigan. On the eastern shore, you’ll find the tallest dunes in Wisconsin at Whitefish Dunes State Park and some extraordinary cliffside ice formations at the nearby Cave Point County Park. At Newport State Park, on Lake Michigan near Gills Rock, you can cross-country ski on more than 26 miles of trails. Newport is also a designated Dark Sky Park, and long winter nights are great for stargazing.