13 Beautiful Winter Drives Around the United States

From iconic national parks to a covered bridge tour.

High-angle view of Colorado's Million Dollar Highway in winter
Photo: Getty Images

Winter often means fewer tourists (and less traffic) in many popular destinations around the U.S., which — apart from sometimes-treacherous driving conditions — also makes it an ideal time to explore America's open roads. Cruising through a sparkly white winter wonderland is a dreamy way to set the mood for the season, like traveling in a real-life snow globe.

Of course, winter driving comes with its own set of precautions: The more majestic the conditions, the more dangerous the road in many cases, especially when navigating unfamiliar routes. The Department of Transportation recommends stocking your ride with a basic winter survival kit containing a flashlight, batteries, blankets, snacks, water, gloves, boots, and a first-aid kit. (Tire chains, an ice scraper, jumper cables, and road flares couldn't hurt either.) Always confirm that your vehicle's maintenance is up-to-date before embarking on a winter trip.

Ahead, 13 of the most beautiful winter drives the U.S. has to offer.

01 of 13

Arches National Park, Utah

Utah arch at golden hour with snow on the ground
NPS Photo by Jacob W. Frank

Starting Point: Moab, Utah

The Route: 36 miles round trip 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 — much to the delight of desert photographers. Because it's run by the National Park Service, the scenic drive is quick to be plowed after a snowfall. The process, however, could take several hours.

The paved Arches National Park Road, an out-and-back route, provides easy access to park attractions like the historic cabin Wolfe Ranch; the Windows Section, home to some of the park's largest arches; and the Delicate Arch viewpoint, the most well-known attraction in the park.

Where to Stop: Park in the Windows Section to stretch your legs on a half-hour stroll beneath North Window or Double Arch. About four miles further on the drive, stop at Wolfe Ranch and pretend you've traveled back to the 1800s. From here, you can hike a mile and a half uphill to Delicate Arch, but beware of ice on the trail.

02 of 13

Seward Highway, Alaska

Icicles on cliffs alongside the Seward Highway

Alaska Stock/Alamy

Starting Point: Anchorage, Alaska

The Route: About 50 miles on the Seward Highway from Anchorage to Portage

What to Expect: Find the epitome of beautiful winter scenery in the Chugach National Forest, Turnagain Arm, and alongside Kenai Lake on Alaska's Seward Highway. Finish the journey upon reaching the ghost town of Portage or steel your nerves — and make sure you have chains — for the mountainous remainder of the journey all the way to Seward, another 80 miles past Portage.

Although Alaska is known for its cold and snowy climate, Seward Highway is a highly trafficked (i.e., usually clear) route. The drive from Anchorage to Portage takes only about an hour — two and a half hours if you go all the way to Seward — so it can absolutely be done in a day.

Where to Stop: The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center provides a close-up view of native wildlife — like reindeer, lynx, moose, and grizzlies — that have been injured and can no longer survive in the wild. The tiny settlement of Whittier (about halfway between Anchorage and Seward) once went viral as "the city under one roof" because most of its residents live in one 14-story building that also houses the town's post office, police station, convenience store, and health clinic. Its remoteness and notably small population (of about 200 people) have turned it into a tourist attraction.

03 of 13

Yosemite National Park, California

Snow coating the Yosemite Valley
© Don Smith / Alamy

Starting Point: Groveland, California

The Route: About 45 miles on CA-120 from Groveland to Yosemite Valley

What to Expect: Driving through Yosemite Valley in the off-season reveals an awe-strikingly silent winter wonderland. Snowfalls coat its granite monoliths and transform the billowing cascades of Bridalveil and Yosemite Falls into frozen sheaths of ice. The park has many annual winter road closures, but Yosemite Valley and Wawona remain accessible by car all year. Specifically, Wawona Road (Highway 41), El Portal Road (Highway 140), Big Oak Flat Road (Highway 120 from the west), and Hetch Hetchy Road are open year-round but subject to weather-related closures.

Where to Stop: The adventurous set can enjoy downhill and cross-country skiing mid-December through early April, when Glacier Point/Badger Pass Road is plowed to the Badger Pass Ski Area. Besides that, make sure to stop under El Capitan in the Valley and admire its grandeur.

04 of 13

Parke County, Indiana

Covered bridge i the snow
Vicki Newlin

Starting Point: Rockville, Indiana

The Route: Rockville to Bridgeton to Rosedale to Mecca, then back to Rockville, totaling about 47 miles

What to Expect: With 31 historic covered bridges, Parke County is known as The Covered Bridge Capital of the World, and you can explore the many rustic structures by car, bike, or motorcycle (though you can't beat a heated car in the winter). The vibrant red bridges — many built in the 1800s and still in use — cross icy rivers and streams, contrasting gorgeously with snow-blanketed meadows. There are many different routes you can take, but this loop showcases eight bridges and takes about an hour and a half.

Where to Stop: Stop along the route at McAllister Bridge, built in 1914; Neet Covered Bridge; Bridgeton Bridge; Roseville Bridge, the longest of the eight; Mecca Bridge, the oldest (completed in 1873); Phillip's Bridge, the shortest; Sim Smith Bridge, supposedly haunted; and Melcher Bridge. If you fancy a snack midway, stop in Rosedale for biscuits and gravy or a a slice of pie at Comar's Cafe.

05 of 13

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Road heading into a snowy, misty forest
AFP/Getty Images

Starting Point: Front Royal or Rockfish Gap, Virginia

The Route: 105 miles between Front Royal and Rockfish Gap on Skyline Drive

What to Expect: The Blue Ridge Mountains are arguably the prettiest peaks in the eastern United States, and Skyline Drive carries travelers right along their crest, offering panoramic views over the frosty valleys below. It's the only public road through Shenandoah National Park, but parts of Skyline Drive may close during inclement weather conditions. In the heart of winter, many of the 500-plus miles of trails in Shenandoah National Park remain open for snowshoe and ski enthusiasts keen to see crystallized waterfalls and more iced-over sites.

Where to Stop: Stick to the 35-mph speed limit and pick any of the 70 overlooks along the drive for sprawling views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west or the Piedmont Mountains to the east. Watch for wildlife, too — though many animals hibernate, foxes and bobcats remain active all winter.

06 of 13

Million Dollar Highway, Colorado

High-angle view of the Million Dollar Highway in winter
Getty Images

Starting Point: Ouray or Silverton, Colorado

The Route: 24 miles on U.S. 550 between Ouray and Silverton

What to Expect: Is this Colorado road called the Million Dollar Highway for its million-dollar views? Or because an early traveler was so spooked by the route's steep climbs and hairpin turns that he claimed he would never travel it again, not even for a million dollars? Perhaps, rather, it's because the road reportedly cost a million dollars a mile to build. Whatever the case, this dramatic drive is part of the San Juan Skyway, a Colorado Scenic Byway, and offers breathtaking mountain views.

Keep in mind that the highway, or sections of it, can close due to snow. Even if it's open, snow chains are recommended as it's a mountainous route with many steep cliffs and sharp turns.

Where to Stop: Consider stopping at Animas Forks, a ghost town and former mining hub just off the route. Pull over at any of the designated viewpoints to take in the Animas River Gorge, perhaps, which can be seen from Molas Pass, or the Red Mountain Overlook. If you plan to stick around for more exploring, make the historic town of Silverton your basecamp.

07 of 13

Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee and North Carolina

Road cutting through snow-covered forest
Getty Images

Starting Point: Gatlinburg, Tennessee, or Asheville, North Carolina

The Route: 81 miles on U.S. 321 and I-40E (one hour, 45 minutes), or 122 miles on U.S. Highway 441 and the Blue Ridge Parkway (three hours, 15 minutes)

What to Expect: The drive between Gatlinburg and Asheville passes through Great Smoky Mountains National Park and provides a wintry window into southern alpine wilderness. From Gatlinburg, U.S. 441 to the Blue Ridge Parkway is considered the scenic route, but if you opt for the shorter route (U.S. 321 to I-40E), you can pull over to admire all 4,928 feet of Mount Cammerer. Rest assured both routes abound with beautiful winter views, although road conditions on the Blue Ridge Parkway could be worse in inclement weather.

Where to Stop: Play for a day at Ober Gatlinburg, a mountainside amusement park with skiing, snowboarding, snow tubing, and more — the 2.1-mile Aerial Tramway from downtown Gatlinburg to the top is a scenic treat in itself. If you follow the Blue Ridge Parkway, you'll be treated to over 50 scenic pullouts from which to admire the surrounding mountains. On the other side, in Asheville, a tour of the 8,000-acre Biltmore Estate is a must.

08 of 13

Stowe to Rochester, Vermont

Horses grazing in a snowy pasture
Dennis Curran, VermontVacation.com

Starting Point: Stowe or Rochester, Vermont

The Route: 48 miles on VT-100

What to Expect: Most roads that traverse the beautiful New England state of Vermont are scenic, but the rural Vermont Route 100 (VT-100) is arguably the best of the lot. Why, you ask? It puts road-trippers in the perfect position for exploring the Green Mountain villages of Wilmington and Weston and tour the Mad River Valley and Moss Glen Falls. Winter is a charming time to visit this part of Vermont, big on skiing and winter sports. Even if you aren't in the mood for outdoor adventure, the atmosphere is cozy and lively as ever.

Where to Stop: Almost every village on the route offers a quaint country store, but Weston's Vermont Country Store is the ultimate pitstop for practical souvenirs — ever since the store's 1946 debut as a catalog, everything in its inventory "must be useful, work, and make sense" — and unique regional treats, as many items are made in Vermont. And it may be winter, but the Ben & Jerry's factory in Waterbury is nevertheless a must-visit.

09 of 13

High Road to Taos Scenic Byway, New Mexico

Long road cutting through snow-covered desert and mountains
John Elk III/Getty Images

Starting Point: Chimayo, New Mexico

The Route: 49 miles through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains between Chimayo and Taos on NM 76, aka the High Road

What to Expect: An hour-long journey into high-desert beauty will reward you with sights of snowflakes dusting junipers and piñon pines as you travel past the wood-carving village of Cordova, marveling at the snow-capped Truchas Peak rising 13,100 feet high in the distance. Start at Nambé Pueblo, a 14th-century Native American cultural center just before Chimayo, for a dose of history.

Where to Stop: Santuario de Chimayo, near the starting point of this drive, is believed to be located on sacred earth with miraculous healing powers. San José de Gracia de Las Trampas is a National Historic Landmark along the High Road, and closer to Taos, San Francisco de Asís Mission Church also dates back over 200 years.

10 of 13

Door County North, Wisconsin

Snow and snow-covered trees lining a back road
DoorCounty.com/Door County Visitor Bureau

Starting Point: Green Bay, Wisconsin

The Route: 85 miles on Wisconsin Highway 57 from Green Bay to Gills Rock

What to Expect: Door County North provides the Upper Midwest with its own Cape Cod experience: Think coastal towns, local shops, and family-owned restaurants that invite a heartwarming winter escape. The popular hour, 45-minute winter drive between Green Bay and Gills Rock ping-pongs between Green Bay itself and the other side of Lake Michigan. After passing through a handful of small, historic towns, you'll land at the top of the peninsula.

Where to Stop: Take every opportunity to stop and soak in the sites of Lake Michigan. On the eastern shore, you'll find the highest dunes in Wisconsin at Whitefish Dunes State Park and some extraordinary cliffside ice formations at the nearby Cave Point County Park. At Newport State Park, on Lake Michigan near Gills Rock, 26 miles of trails are open during winter for cross-country skiing. In 2017, the park was designated a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association, so it's a great place to go stargazing.

11 of 13

Lake Tahoe, Nevada

Ski slopes of Lake Tahoe

Don Eim/Travel + Leisure

Starting Point: Incline Village, Nevada, or South Lake Tahoe, California

The Route: 72 miles around the perimeter of Lake Tahoe on NV-28, U.S. 50, and CA-89

What to Expect: The Sierra Nevada Mountains reflect off one of the deepest lakes in North America, casting breathtaking scenes on its glassy surface — an especially resplendent sight in winter. It takes about two hours to drive the perimeter of Lake Tahoe without stopping, but plan extra time for whatever beauty captures your attention along the way. The route on the eastern side of Lake Tahoe (in Nevada) is a National Scenic Byway, considered one of the most beautiful drives in America.

Where to Stop: Sand Harbor, part of the 14,300-acre Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park, is an ideal place to dip your toes into the icy lake (it never freezes but does get as low as 39 degrees) before hitting the trails for a winter walk, snowshoe, or ski. Additionally, stop near the state line closest to South Lake Tahoe for a scenic gondola ride to Heavenly Ski Resort, home to a viewing platform offering epic bird's-eye views of the lake along with tubing and an ice-skating rink.

12 of 13

Lakes to Locks Passage, New York

Snowy lookout point with lakes and mountains
Courtesy of www.visitlakegeorge.com

Starting Point: Waterford or Whitehall, New York

The Route: 60 miles on U.S. 4 between Waterford and Whitehall

What to Expect: The Lakes to Locks Passage travels north-south for 234 miles through New York State, but the stretch between Waterford and Whitehall is especially beautiful — and it's a National Scenic Byway. Winter is a special time to visit because the bays along this popular route turn into ice fishing destinations.

More into birds than fish? This winter drive is located within the Atlantic Flyway, so keep an eye out for overwintering dark-eyed juncos, evening grosbeaks, and purple finches.

Where to Stop: Enjoy views of the Hudson River and Champlain Canal along the drive, and about midway through, stop at the Philip Schuyler Country Estate, built in 1777 as the home of General Philip Schuyler, Alexander Hamilton's father-in-law. It's where the wedding of Hamilton and General Schuyler's daughter, Elizabeth, took place in 1780, and today it is part of the Saratoga National Historical Park.

13 of 13

Florida's East Coast

St. Augustine, Florida at the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument
Getty Images

Starting Point: St. Augustine or Key West, Florida

The Route: 477 miles; take I-95 from St. Augustine to Miami before switching to the scenic Overseas Highway from Miami to Key West (or vice versa)

What to Expect: Not up to battling winter road hazards? Florida has scenic drives aplenty, but heading south along its eastern coast — from St. Augustine, America's oldest city, all the way to Key West, the southernmost point of the continental United States — showcases the best of the Sunshine State. Skip chilly temperatures and enjoy Florida's glorious take on winter: Expect sand in place of snow and palms instead of pines on this coastal drive.

Where to Stop: Explore must-see Florida highlights like historic St. Augustine, the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, the Palm Beaches, Miami (make sure to stop for a cortadito in Little Havana for a perfect behind-the-wheel pick-me-up), and the Florida Keys, where you'll cross the famous Seven Mile Bridge on your way to Key West.

Updated by Crai Bower
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