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. The Department of Transportation recommends stocking a basic winter survival kit (flashlight, batteries, blanket, snacks, water, gloves, boots, and a first-aid kit); tire chains, an ice scraper, jumper cables, and road flares couldn't hurt either. And always confirm your vehicle's maintenance is current before a winter trip.
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.
NPS Photo by Jacob W. Frank
Arches National Park, Utah
Starting Point: Moab, UT
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.
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Badlands Loop Road, South Dakota
Starting Point: Wall, SD
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, Massachusetts
Starting Point: Hyannis, MA
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.
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