Why go now: It’s actually warmer along Oregon’s coast in the winter than farther inland (although it’s still wet), making this a more doable drive than you might think. And the incredible scenery here never quits in any season.
What to see: Gray whales migrate south to Mexico from mid-December through January, so if you park your car and aim your binoculars at these majestic mammals you might spot them. The state park in Depoe Bay, Ore., has a Whale Center just for this purpose. The famous Cannon Beach and its Haystack Rock get fewer visitors this time of year. And if you’re into fishing, winter is exactly the time when salmon and steelhead enter the coastal rivers.
Las Vegas to Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Why go now: Utah’s national parks are colder in the winter, but the rock formations of Bryce Canyon look spectacular any time of year.
What to see: You’ll need some of nature’s cleansing after starting your trip in Sin City, and you’ll get it as you drive up from the Vegas desert to the sandstone cliffs of Zion, and farther up to Bryce’s 8,000-foot elevation. As you hit Bryce, drive the 18-mile scenic stretch of Main Park Road, which takes you to the park’s highest elevation, Rainbow Point (9,100 feet).
Anchorage to Talkeetna, Alaska
Why go now: This snowy trip offers some real adventure, but it’s not a daredevil journey like the “Ice Road Truckers” drive from Fairbanks. Your destination is quirky and welcoming: Talkeetna was the model for Cicely, Alaska in the TV show Northern Exposure.
What to see: Fuel up on food and gas in Anchorage (a four-wheel drive is recommended) and drive slowly up the highway from there. For dog-sledding or cross-country skiing you could stop at Nancy Lake State Recreation Area, or for cultural history take a tour through Eklutna Historical Park with its native and Russian Orthodox heritage. And just maybe, you’ll be able to spot the Northern Lights from Talkeetna if you travel there.
Wilmington, Vt., to Stowe, Vt.
Why go now: This drive is famous in the fall for its foliage, but during the winter it retains its small-town charm while adding winter-sports opportunities, all with fewer crowds.
What to see: As you begin you’ll be gaze to the west in wonder at Green Mountain National Forest. Near Wilmington you can go skiing at nearby Mount Snow. During the drive you’ll definitely want to stop in Weston, with its Vermont Country Store. Moss Glen Falls in Granville is a favorite, and just before you hit Stowe, warm up with some delicious hot cider at Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Waterbury Center.
Los Angeles to Death Valley National Park, Calif.
Why go now: Death Valley is often associated with, well, death and hot weather. You can likewise find hospitable temperatures here in the winter – think highs in the 70s and lows in the high 30s (yup, it gets cold here, especially at higher altitudes).
What to see: Now is the time to do the hiking, biking, and other outdoor activities that would endanger your life in the summer here. Telescope Peak (the park’s high point at over 11,000 feet) is a favorite ascent here, or if you want to get really low, hang out at Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level – also where the hottest temperature ever was recorded (134 degrees). Enjoy the majestic views from the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, see multicolored rocks on Artist’s Drive, and tour the many ghost towns in and around the park.
Chicago to Peninsula State Park, Wisc.
Why go now: You get the big-city pleasures of Chicago, the small-town charms of Northern Door County, Wisc., and the great frosty outdoors of Peninsula State Park, which is open for camping in the winter. A frozen Lake Michigan can be a beautiful sight to see, even with the lake-effect snow.
What to see: Take in an improv show or check out the indoor Winter Wonderfest at Navy Pier in Chicago. Then dress warmly and begin the drive north, stopping in Milwaukee for a hearty meal of cheese curds, bratwurst, and beer. As you enter Door County, stop at its capital, Sturgeon Bay to tour the local shops. At Peninsula State Park, go cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or ice fishing.