From scenic coastal journeys to wildlife watching in Yellowstone, Hawaii, and Alaska, we found a trip for every type of winter wanderer.
Published December 7, 2023
• 14 min read
Winter may not be everyone’s favorite season, but with fewer crowds and serene landscapes, it could be one of the best times to travel. The key, besides the right winter wardrobe? Diving into adventures from coast to coast. Here are a few hot spots for embracing the cold.
Take a train through Alaska’s winter wonderland
The Alaska Railroad operates year-round, connecting Anchorage and Fairbanks across “The Last Frontier.” Watch ivory landscapes, sapphire blue skies, and wild moose glide past the large windows from inside the Aurora Winter Train. Spend a night in Fairbanks under the emerald glow of the aurora borealis, or get your adrenaline going in Anchorage with endless options for ice climbing, cross-country skiing, and dogsledding.
See: Stop at the Aurora Ice Museum in Fairbanks, said to be the world’s largest year-round ice environment, created from more than a thousand tons of snow. Don a complimentary parka and head to the bar for a cocktail served in a glass carved from ice.
Stay: Get off the beaten path at the remote Eleven Winterlake Lodge on the Iditarod National Historic Trail, where visitors ride helicopters over ice-glazed peaks and glittering lakes to reach the 15-acre adventurer’s paradise.
Fun fact: Auroras make weird noises—spectators often report crackling and hissing sounds during powerful displays.
(2024 may bring the best northern lights in 20 years.)
Road-trip down Oregon’s scenic coast
One of Oregon’s Seven Wonders, this 363-mile stretch of coastline is punctuated by moody landscapes, towering waves, craggy headlands, and spectacular winter storms. There’s no shortage of stops on the scenic route from Astoria to Brookings. Visit quirky coastal communities, spot sea lions at Shore Acres State Park, watch dancing jellyfish at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, and explore 79 state parks.
See: The nine-mile stretch of coast in Ecola State Park offers stunning views of stacked coastal mountains, sweeping shorelines, and crashing waves. The park’s Indian Beach was the filming location of La Push beach in the Twilight movies.
Eat: Stop at the Tillamook Cheese Factory—the largest cheese factory in the world—for locally produced treats, including gooey grilled cheese and homemade fudge. Belly up to the bar at Pelican Brewing Company for a local brew with a view.
Fun fact: Astoria, the launching point for your four-wheeled journey, is the oldest American settlement west of the Rocky Mountains.
Enjoy the light show in San Antonio, Texas
From late November to early January, millions of twinkling lights illuminate the San Antonio River Walk in a dazzling display. Riverboats carrying an eclectic mix of bell choirs, folk groups, and Latino ensembles fill the air with carols on evenings through late December.
See: When you’re not browsing cozy cafés and shops along the cypress-lined River Walk, explore south-central Texas’ colonial heritage at the 18th-century San Antonio Missions, the first UNESCO World Heritage site in the state.
Eat: Indulge in San Antonio’s famous Tex-Mex cuisine, savor a charcuterie plate at Cured, or splurge on a whopping 10-course culinary adventure at Mixtli Mexican Culinaria.
Fun fact: In 2014 Amazon named San Antonio the most romantic city in the United States, based on the city’s purchases of romance novels, relationship books, romantic movies, and music.
Sundance and stargaze in Park City, Utah
Every January, thousands of Hollywood movers and shakers flock to the sugary slopes of Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, the largest independent film festival in the U.S. Even if you don’t manage to snag highly coveted movie passes, Park City offers plenty to do. Stargaze for celebrities in the lively bars, quaint shops, and eclectic galleries lining the historic Main Street, or get lost in the gorgeous mountains with some exhilarating winter sports.
See: While everyone is sitting in darkened theaters, hit the low-traffic slopes at the posh Deer Valley Ski Resort.
Eat: Stop at the kitschy dive bar No Name Saloon and Grill on Main Street for a game of shuffleboard and some buffalo sliders.
Fun fact: Sundance wasn’t always held in Park City—neighboring Salt Lake City hosted the festival for its first three years.
Soak in New Mexico’s natural hot springs
With more than 300 days of sunshine a year, five national forests, and 17 national parks and monuments, New Mexico is an oasis of outdoor adventure. After an active day, loosen up your muscles in soothing geothermal mineral springs, or indulge in Native American-inspired spa treatments. Fifty miles south of Santa Fe, soak in rejuvenating waters of Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort and Spa while surrounded by high desert mesas, lush river valleys, and miles of trails.
See: Just 45 minutes north of Ojo is Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage site and National Historic Landmark. The adobe settlement has been continuously inhabited for more than a thousand years.
Stay: In addition to Ojo Caliente, consider staying in the small resort town of Truth or Consequences two hours from Albuquerque, which has 10 commercial bathhouses.
Fun fact: More than 100,000 gallons of water bubble to the surface of Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs per day.
Whale-watch on the island paradise of Hawaii
Between December and May humpback whales migrate to the Hawaiian islands, where they breed and nurse their young in the warm, shallow waters. Escape the cold and go on a sunny winter getaway during peak season from January to March. The Auau Channel between West Maui, Lanai, and Molokai is one of the best viewing spots in the world. While Maui is a top whale-watching destination, cruises are available at most harbors around the state.
See: When you’re not sailing Hawaii’s crystal waters, visit the otherworldly Haleakalā National Park. A twisting road leads up to the 10,023-foot summit area, where the breathtaking Haleakalā Crater will have you feeling like you’re on a different planet.
Eat: Indulge in the islands’ freshest seafood at Merriman’s, where 90 percent of the menu is locally sourced. The food is just as spectacular as the oceanfront view on the striking Kapalua Bay.
Fun fact: Hawaii’s whale-watching industry generates approximately $20 million in total revenue per year.
Discover the Navajo Nation in Arizona
The Navajo Nation extends 27,000 square miles into Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, where the legacy of the Anasazi people echoes throughout tribal parks, national monuments, and museums. Visit the majestic canyons of the Navajo National Monument, where prehistoric sandstone villages are carved into the alcoves and decorated with rock art. Head southeast to the Canyon de Chelly National Monument, one of the largest archaeological preserves in the U.S., to see Indian ruins dating from 2500 B.C.
See: The Explore Navajo museum, in Tuba City, was created with the guidance of leading Navajo scholars and artists and showcases the history of the Navajo people, spanning from ancient times to World War II.
Shop: Hopi and Navajo artisans sell rugs, jewelry, baskets, kachina dolls, and turquoise at the Hubbell Trading Post, the oldest operating trading post on the Navajo Nation.
Fun fact: In 1882 archaeologists found mummies in Canyon de Chelly.
Celebrate New Year’s with the mummers in Philadelphia
On New Year’s Day, thousands of brightly costumed revelers take to the streets of Philadelphia for the annual Mummers Parade, the oldest continuous folk parade in the U.S. The word “mummer” is rooted in the Old French word momeur—meaning miming, masking, and folk play. Thousands of people line the streets of the City of Brotherly Love from JFK Boulevard down Broad Street to watch the mummers flood the city in an explosion of color, music, and dance.
See: The Philadelphia Museum of Art houses a world-renowned collection, with artistic and architectural works from around the globe. Walk behind the museum to catch a glimpse of the glittering Boathouse Row—19th-century boathouses lining the Schuylkill River.
Eat: Sample the lauded fare at James Beard Best Restaurant 2023 award winner Friday Saturday Sunday, savor the breakfast pizza at Wm. Mulherin’s Sons, or sample a variety of Amish specialties and handmade confections at Reading Terminal Market.
Fun fact: During the 17th and 18th centuries, people carried their muskets and pistols to the parade and fired them into the air during the mummers celebration.
Marvel at winter wildlife in Yellowstone
Visit Yellowstone National Park’s steaming geysers, plunging canyons, and dramatic landscapes without the crowds. Elk, bison, and coyotes wander the park’s quiet winter valleys, easily spotted against the wintry scene. Learn about the reintroduction of the elusive gray wolf into Yellowstone and explore its iconic vistas.
(Here’s why Yellowstone is great for families in the offseason.)
See: Old Faithful is one of Yellowstone’s most celebrated sites, and a photographer’s paradise. Treat your lens to dense evergreens, colorful mineral pools, and frost-coated bison.
Stay: Reduce your travel planning anxiety by booking a spot on National Geographic Expeditions Yellowstone trip, where a wildlife expert guides travelers through the park’s fascinating ecosystem.
Fun fact: Yellowstone, established in 1872, is the country’s first national park.
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Editor’s note: This story was originally published on December 1, 2016. It has been updated.
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