Jan. 24, 2014 at 6:28 PM ET
Ever dreamed of driving through a traffic-free Yosemite National Park? It’s possible when you step outside the typical summer season. In fact, winter’s embrace means a slackened tourist pace in many popular warm-weather destinations, so this is an ideal time to explore America’s open roads.
Witness Yellowstone Falls grow an icy exoskeleton as the river persists out of sight. In Utah’s Arches National Park, the low winter sun creates optimum conditions for photographing the mighty sandstone sculptures, even prettier with a dusting of snow. Out east, the Great Smoky and Shenandoah National Parks compensate for southerly latitude with frosty altitude and leafless, ice-glistened forests.
Just remember, winter driving brings its own set of cautions: the more majestic the conditions, often the more dangerous the road, especially when tooling along unfamiliar routes.
From Alaskan fjords to New Mexico’s high desert pueblos and covered-bridge country in Indiana, here are America’s top winter drives you’ll want to experience before spring.
Arches National Park, Utah
Starting point: Moab, Utah
The route: 36 miles on the park’s Scenic Drive
What to expect: Beautiful any time of year, Arches National Park’s natural sandstone sculptures assume an ethereal quality when covered in a layer of snow and bathed in soft winter light — best for desert photography. The scenic drive is paved, and even after a storm, snow usually melts off quickly.
Where to stop: Moderate daytime temperatures (usually in the mid-40s; dress in layers) invite a walk along the Park Avenue Trail, a stroll right through The Windows, and a pause to marvel at Balanced Rock.
Badlands Loop Road, South Dakota
Starting point: Wall, S.D.
The route: 40 miles on South Dakota Highway 240
What to expect: The temperatures may hover around zero, but the striking, stratified land formations that draw summer thousands remain steadfast — and look even more photo-worthy in a dusting of seasonally light snow. You won’t find many other travelers poking about, so it may just be you, the park rangers, and a whole bunch of bighorn sheep.
Where to stop: Any of the 14 scenic overlooks to watch the sun and shadows play tag on the badlands, even if it is a wee bit nippy out there.
Cape Cod, Mass.
Starting point: Hyannis, Mass.
The route: 60 miles on Massachusetts Highway 6A
What to expect: Few North American beaches compare to Cape Cod National Seashore in winter, where the snow filters through the dune grass and gathers on the beach like a monk’s mandala. Worth hopping out, but if you want to stick to your car, a brief one-mile stretch between Truro and Provincetown offers the most scenic views.
Where to stop: At any beach access point, massive black-and-white eiders (sea ducks) floating aloft the breakers and gulls battling head down into the bracing wind inspire us to dig into the sand and forge forward. Boardwalk strolls through Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Reserve and Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary offer additional protection for the birds — and you.
Parke County, Indiana
Starting point: Rockville, Ind.
The route: 24 miles on the Brown Driving Route (looping through Montezuma and Mecca via Howard Avenue and Strawberry Road)
What to expect: Parke County’s vibrantly red covered bridges contrast sublimely with its snow-filled meadows, especially when reflected in the ice that stalls the river below. Thirty-one covered bridges cross the rivers and streams here, and this being Amish country, seeing horse-drawn carriages trot through them only adds to the atmosphere. Each of five well-known driving circuits takes in at least half a dozen of the photo ops.
Where to stop: The Sim Smith Bridge is haunted — a young girl and her uncle heard horse hooves approaching on the bridge, but the buggy never materialized, so it’s said — which makes for a spooky stop on a full-moon night.
Northern Door County, Wisconsin
Starting point: Sturgeon Bay, Wis.
The route: 40 miles on Wisconsin Highway 57
What to expect: Northern Door County provides the Upper Midwest with its own Cape Cod experience, a series of coastal towns, local shops, and individually owned restaurants that invite winter escape. Like those who dive headfirst into the National Seashore, the bravest winter adventurers make it all the way to Gills Rock at the top of the peninsula.
Where to stop: Newport State Beach contains 38 miles of trails, many of which are groomed for cross-country skiing.
Lake Tahoe, Nevada
Starting point: Incline Village, Nevada
The route: 27 miles on Nevada Highway 28-E and US-50
What to expect: Mountains reflect off one of North America’s deepest lakes, filling the glassy surface with otherworldly imagery during any season, but especially resplendent in winter. Bring your camera and your skis, be they Nordic or alpine. You’ll also find plenty of beaches from which to look upon some of the planet’s clearest water.
Where to stop: Sand Harbor, part of the 14,300-acre Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park, is an ideal place to dip your hands in the icy lake (it never freezes but does get as low as 37 degrees), before hitting the trails for a winter walk, snowshoe, or ski.
Lakes to Locks Passage, New York
Starting point Waterford, N.Y.
The route: 190 miles on I-87
What to expect: Following the Champlain Trail from the confluence of the Erie and lesser-known Champlain Canals, through historic Ticonderoga and a score of other North Country villages, this National Scenic Byway provides plenty of history and scenery before arriving at the St. Lawrence River and Quebec.
Where to stop: History buffs make a point to stop at Fort Ticonderoga, among the most impressive structures that remain from the 18th century. Though widely associated with the American Revolution, the fort was actually built by the French during the French and Indian War in the 1750s.
Great Smoky National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina
Starting point: Gatlinburg, Tenn.
The route: 81 miles on US 321 and I-40E
What to expect: As you drive toward Asheville, N.C., Great Smoky National Park provides a wintry window into the southern alpine wilderness, with (often snowy) trails leading through stands of leafless frost-glistened forests. Best to keep two hands on the wheel and pull over to admire the subtle 4,928 feet of Mount Cammerer.
Where to stop: Few people from outside the South will believe you went skiing in Tennessee, so seize the opportunity at Ober Gatlinburg resort. Short on time? The 2.1-mile-long Aerial Tramway up there is a scenic treat in itself.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Starting point: Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyo.
The route: 52 miles on the Grand Loop Road
What to expect: Yellowstone’s summer traffic jams thin out to lightly populated wolf-spotting groups and the occasional bachelor bison (older males that have left the herd) that may have you applying the brakes. You can drive into the Lamar Valley to look for wolves, but bisecting the park to Old Faithful requires booking space on a snowcoach (reserve early).
Where to stop: The geysers look more impressive during winter than any other season so prioritize a stay in Old Faithful Snow Lodge. Ski, snowshoe, or walk upon miles of trails through the Upper Geyser Basin.
The High Road to Taos, New Mexico
Starting point: Pojoaque, N.M.
The route: 52 miles on six state highways (503 to 520, 76, 75, 518, and finally 68)
What to expect: A two-hour journey into high desert beauty begins when you turn off US-285/84 about 17 miles north of Santa Fe: dry snowflakes hang on junipers and piñon pines as you travel past the 14th-century Nambé Pueblo and wood-carving village of Cordova. Later, the snowcapped Truchas Peaks rise in the eastern distance, more than 13,000 feet in height, as the valley spreads below.
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