On the spectrometer of thrills, winter driving lies somewhere between utilitarian necessity and white-knuckle extreme sport. But now that gas is affordable and holiday lights are twinkling from the East Coast to L.A., it’s time to hit the open road and give the ultimate test to your car’s pimped-out winter extras—heated steering wheel and front seats, windshield wiper de-icers, snow tires and all-wheel drive to name some. Once you’ve got your car dressed for the season, drive on with confidence through these eight winter wonderlands.
Alaska: Northern Exposure
Anchorage to Talkeetna
Distance: 226 miles, round trip
Time: 3-5 days
This 226-mile, out and back will make you feel like an Ice Road Trucker. An hour north of Anchorage on the Glenn Highway, stop off in the Mat-Su Valley to Nordic ski on the 10K trail system designed by Olympian Bill Spencer, in the middle of 8,060-acre Government Peak Recreation Area. At mile 98.7 on the George Parks Highway, turn right on the Talkeetna Spur Road. Talkeetna is a town of 1,329 tough souls sitting in the shadow of Denali and is the real-life model for Northern Exposure. There, ditch the aslphalt for some air with a fixed wing flight around the snowy peaks. Go at sunset and catch the alpenglow on Denali. Bed down at Talkeetna Roadhouse. The owner, Trish Costello, bakes famously large and gooey cinnamon rolls.
Oregon: Christmas Tree Capital of the World
Portland to Mount Hood to Oregon City to Portland
Distance:137 miles, round trip
Time: 3-4 days
Let it roll through the “Christmas Tree Capital of the World.” From Portland, take the Mount Hood Scenic Byway 1.5 hours on I-84 and U.S. 26 to Timberline Lodge. Explore Mount Hood’s 3,690 vertical feet of terrain on top of an 11,245-foot volcano and warm up with hot cocoa around one of three massive fireplaces in the lodge. Top off the day with a sleigh ride through the snowy, historic streets of Government Camp before holing up in a king-size fireplace suite back at the lodge. On the way back to Portland, loop through Oregon City on Oregon 99E to get your holiday fill along the “Christmas Fantasy Trail” where you’ll find thousands of sparkling lights, music, and bonfires.
New York City & Pennsylvania: Norman Rockwell Countryside
Manhattan to Bradford
Distance: 348 miles, one way
Time: 7 days
Shop your way through Williamsburg, SoHo, and Fifth Avenue, skate around the Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center, then exit onto I-80 to drive 348 miles northwest through Norman Rockwell countryside before stopping in Ellicottville, for a few runs at HoliMont, the largest private ski resort in North America. Warm up with hot chocolate under the town’s three-story Christmas tree, then turn south on U.S. 219 bordering the evergreen forests of Allegany State Park to the Relais & Chateau Lodge at Glendorn, which has its own ice-skating pond, sledding hill, cross-country ski trail network, and secret ice fishing spots stocked with walleye. No need to worry about catching a chill. The lodge has 43 fireplaces.
New Mexico & Colorado: Soak and Ski
Santa Fe to Wolf Creek Ski Area
Distance: 152 miles, one way
Time: 3-4 days
It will be hard to extract yourself from the silver coin margaritas, green chile stew, festive farolitos, and wafts of burning piñon pine drifting through Santa Fe, but the early-season skiing at Wolf Creek Ski Area, which gets an average dump of 430 inches of snow per year, is worth it. Book a room down the mountain in Pagosa Springs at the 29-room LEED-certified Ecoluxe Hotel, which allows 24-hour access to 23 thermal baths, one of which spews out of the earth at 114-degrees. The winter wonderland you’ll find along U.S. 84 on this 152-mile drive is classic Southwest, varying from the flat-topped peak of 9,862-foot Pedernal, in Georgia O’Keefe’s old stomping grounds near Abiquiu, to the jagged white San Juans.
Vermont & New Hampshire: White Mountain National Forest
Burlington to Jackson
Distance: 142 miles, one way
Time: 3-5 days
If Santa Claus lived in the Lower 48, he’d probably set up shop up in Jackson, New Hampshire, an idyllic winter burg in the midst of the White Mountains with red covered bridges and 154k of cross-country ski trails. To fuel the journey, start in Burlington, Vermont, with a cup of La Golondrina Colombia at Maglianero Café, then drive 142 miles due east on I-89 to Montpelier and U.S. 2 and 302 through White Mountain National Forest. Stop off at Bretton Woods to bomb a few downhill runs before heading to the Christmas Farm Inn and Spa to balance your chakras at the spa, fuel up with pan-seared salmon in Champagne sauce, and bed down in a barn room before hitting the xc trails.
Nevada & Utah: New Year’s Eve in Zion
Las Vegas to Zion National Park
Distance: 244 miles, one way
Time: 7-10 days
Watch the Bellagio fountains dance to “Santa Baby” and catch La Reve at the Wynn in Las Vegas before bombing 244 miles northeast on I-15 through the dry desert to the high cliffs of Zion and spooky hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park. Time it with the New Year and join REI on a six-day snowshoeing adventure that includes trekking across a forested plateau and taking a New Year’s Eve hike up Walter’s Wiggles, a series of 21 steep switchbacks to Scout Lookout in Zion. Stay at a private ranch and ring in the New Year right—that is, if you still have any energy left.
Texas: The Stars at Night, Are Big and Bright
Texas Hill Country
Distance: 345 miles, spoked
Time: 4 days
This is a 345-mile, spoked wagon-wheel of a road trip that follows the “Regional Christmas Lighting Trail” through some quaint 'burbs in Texas Hill Country. The hub, Johnson City, is President Lyndon B. Johnson’s birthplace strung up with one million lights over the holidays. There likely won’t be white fluff here, but 58 miles northwest of Johnson City is Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, a garden of granite domes and boulders with more than three dozen crack, roof, chimney, and other climbs ranging in difficulty from 5.0 to 5.11. Almost 12 miles east of Johnson City is Pedernales Falls State Park, with the seven-mile Wolf Mountain hiking trail that wraps around Tobacco and Wolf Mountains. Stay at theLighthouse Hill Ranch that sits on 1,000 acres and has 50-mile views.
Minnesota & Wisconsin: Ice Caves
Duluth to Hayward
Distance: 240 miles, round trip
Time: 3-5 days
Get an early start for this roughly a 240-mile loop that starts in Duluth and immediately crosses into Wisconsin on state route 13 for a visit to the otherworldly ice caves of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore lining the Bayfield Peninsula on Lake Superior. If the ice is solid, hike into a surreal world of icicles and whorled frozen drama. Stay at the Old Rittenhouse Inn in Bayfield before heading south on U.S. 63 to Hayward and the best Nordic skiing in the country along the 107k American Birkebeiner trail system. Return to Duluth for the dazzle of Bentleyville, a massive and free million-light Christmas extravaganza on the shore of Lake Superior.