Updated: Sep 28, 2020
We all love a great summer road trip where the sunshine beats down and ice cream stands are our go-to rest stop. However, a winter road trip may be the adventure you are looking for as the amazing sites are less crowded, National Parks are empty and lodging is heavily discounted.
And best of all, a winter road trip means that you will see sites in a totally different way and experience roadside attractions and activities that you would otherwise miss in the spring or summer months.
Of course driving in the winter also comes with its own caveats. You will most likely need a vehicle that handles well in the winter with either all-wheel drive or 4X4. And remember to have planned an alternate route to your destinations as road closures in the winter can be lengthy.
There are some amazing winter road trips in the United States and Canada that offer very unique experiences. Here is our list of the best winter road trips in North America:
10. Yellowstone National Park, United States
Yellowstone transforms itself from a tourist mecca into a serene winter wonderland in the colder months. In the winter months it seems as if the entire park is yours and yours alone to discover. Start off in Mammoth Hot Springs and trek your way into the park on the 52-mile scenic parkway making note of wolf packs who are seen in Lamar Valley. The wild Bison in the winter are also a site to behold. End your drive at the upper geysers to see a spectacular site. Restricted vehicle access and limited services make winter visits far different than the summer experience. Every year in early November, most park roads close to regular traffic to prepare for the winter season. The only exception is the road between Mammoth Hot Springs and the northeast entrance, which is open to regular traffic all year. Around mid-December, roads open to limited snowmobile and snowcoach travel. Most stores, restaurants, campgrounds, and lodges are closed during winter. The Old Faithful Snow Lodge, Mammoth Hotel, and Canyon Yurt Camp are open. Some visitor centers and a series of warming huts are opened throughout the park.
9. Great Smoky National Park, Tennessee, United States
The scenic route of Interstate 40 and U.S. 321 through the Great Smoky Mountains, from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Asheville, North Carolina offers spectacular story-book winter scenes. You will drive through tall forests covered in white, fluffy snow and find many pull outs to snap photos and take in the natural beauty. There are countless hiking, snowshoeing and skiing opportunities for those in need of adventure. Make sure to take the aerial tramway in Gatlinburg and fuel up on great food before you start your adventures. Accommodations in the winter can be 20-40% cheaper than those in the peak season so you will be able to snag a high-end accommodation for a fraction of the cost.
8. Cowboy Trail, Alberta, Canada
The Cowboy Trail runs north and south from the US border in Montana up to the western edge of Calgary and on to Mayerthorpe about a 150 km northwest of Edmonton, Alberta.
The Trail follows old Highway 22 in a more or less straight line in either direction with slight detours along the way. This route highlights the cowboy's old route through Western Alberta with the jaw dropping Canadian Rockies as a backdrop and rolling hills and historic sites guiding you along. The endless white-covered landscape provides a dream-like atmosphere and if you travel at night, look up into the star-filled night sky.
7. Florida Keys, Florida, United States
For those who would rather drive next to white sand than white powder, the Florida Keys is your winter driving destination. The Overseas Highway conveniently connects all the shallow islands, making it a whopping 113-mile one-way drive. There are over 1700 keys here and plenty of roadside attractions, beaches and activities. And of course, no snow!
6. Lake Tahoe, Nevada, United States
If you choose Lake Tahoe as your winter road trip you will have plenty of options to visit many different attractions including taking the Sierra Nevada Mountain ranges, Yosemite and the coast of California at Big Sur. With the scenic drive having hundreds of pullouts and photo ops as well as each town and city offering attractions and experiences, this is a road trip not to be missed.
5. Big Bend National Park, Texas, United States
Winters in Big Bend National Park are generally mild, with the occasional short cold snap. Usually, the skies are clear, and day time highs can run into the 70’s or higher. Under clear skies, however, it gets colder at night, often near freezing and there can be a 40-50 degree difference in air temperature between dawn and early afternoon. But if you plan ahead for both a mild day temperature and a cold night temperature your drive into Big Bend National Park in the winter can be well worth it. There are literally dozens upon dozens of activities you can do in Big Bend National Park in the winter including hiking, biking, and even river trips using canoes or rafts. There are a lot of scenic drives and you will no doubt be returning to capture all the beauty of the canyons and upper plains.
4. Hudson Valley, New York, United States
The Hudson Valley in New York State offers stunning vistas and charming roadside towns offering a unique experience to those making the trek in the winter. You can drive along the Saw Mill River Parkway and not even know you are near New York City as everything is quiet and slow and more memorable. If history is your jam, map out a route through the Hudson Valley.
3. Route 100, Vermont, United States
Route 100 in Vermont will take you through a very picturesque part of the United States. Here you will find amazing forests, charming towns and villages as well as amazing lodges and roadside attractions. The road weaves considerably but with care, the winter roadtrip will offer you a scenic first hand view of this magnificent landscape dotted with ski resorts and glistening snow.
2. Sea to Sky Highway, British Columbia, Canada
A short drive from Vancouver and through Stanley Park and onto Route 99 you drive north toward the ski town of Whistler. The drive is only about 1.5 hours one way but the Sea to Sky Highway starts at sea level, and gently climbs up past tiny islands visible in the Pacific Ocean until it starts to enter the mountainous region where towering formations appear on each side as you climb, literally above the clouds. In Whistler you will find accommodations and food flavours for every palette. Enjoy a run on the ski hills or take in a Gondola ride to enjoy the views.
1. Icefield's Parkway, Alberta, Canada
One of the world's best drives any time of year, but winter can be especially enjoyable. The drive takes in the northern part of Highway 93 past massive Canadian Rocky peaks, past ancient glaciers and towering waterfalls. Take a break and stand in awe at the crystal clear waters rushing by on raging rivers or snap photos of the unbelievable turquoise blue waters of many alpine glacier lakes. There are plenty of activities in this area, but lodging, especially in winter can be slim. Plan ahead and prepare for an adventure into the wild of Western Canada.
Winter Road Trip Planning Ahead
Check the weather forecast. This is obvious, but weather changes all the time. Even if you can’t change your travel plans by a day or two, changing your driving schedule by an hour or two could make a very big difference to your safety and enjoyment.
Set a reasonable pace. In the summer roads are clear and days are longer and we plan on driving faster, longer. In winter plan on a shorter drive as there are fewer hours of sunlight in the winter and winter driving can be more tiring. Also, a six-hour day drivingd in winter can put you into a whole new weather system altogether.
Plan arrivals and departures around the traffic. If major cities are on your route, plan to leave and arrive before or after the AM and later afternoon rush hours. Navigating a new city can be stressful enough without adding more traffic than necessary and the possibility of bad weather and collisions.
What to Bring on a Winter Road Trip
Cell phone and charger for the car. You’ll need a cell phone charger that plugs into your vehicles charging port or USB. In case of an emergency you’ll not want to run out of battery in your phone. Consider also purchasing a separate battery for your phone that can quick-charge your phone on the fly.
GPS and a paper map. It is important to have both GPS to navigate, but also an old-fasioned paper map. Many of the routes we discussed earlier have no or very weak satelite signals, especially in the event of a major snow storm. Having a paper map will add that level of security to finding your way on your winter road trip.
Extra windshield washer fluid. Top up your windshield washer reservoir before leaving and have an extra bottle or two with you. You can go through a bottle very quickly and depending on where you are, the next place to purchase one may be miles away. If you per-purchase at a department store you will also save a lot of money than if you had to purchase at a gas station.
Ice scrapper and snow brush. Don't forget your ice scrapper and snow brush to clear your vehicle. Carry an extra small ice scrapper in case your main one breaks. Often times they are made of cheap plastic and it is best to have a back up in case you absolutely need it.
Booster cables. It is very easy to wear out a car battery in winter. A inside dome light left on could kill the battery. Starting in extreme cold conditions may also prove fatal to your battery. You may also want to consider a boosting box whereas a pre-charged battery provides boost to your battery in case no other vehicle is available for a boost.
Winter survival kit. Bring an extra blanket, socks, hat and extra clothing in case you get stranded. Keep a few candles and matches in your kit to light for a little warmth. Make sure if you do get stranded to not run your engine if the exhaust is snow covered or if it gets into the passenger compartment. Your kit should also include some food and water in case you need the energy for a long, cold night.
Small shovel, sand and kitty litter. Bring a small steel shovel to dig out your car from ice and snow. Sand and kitty litter will provide the necessary traction you will need to get out of ice situations.