This winter I’ve been on a bit of an extended road trip. After spending the Holidays in Wisconsin, I’ve been exploring southern Utah for a little over a month. Three weeks were spent in La Verkin, near Zion National Park and we stopped at the Badlands on our way out. As I write this I’m hanging out in Moab to explore Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and I realized that a winter road trip is so worth it!
We haven’t been on the road, somewhere new, the entire time, but I did learn a few things about winter road trips. They can be pretty awesome, but there are some drawbacks, so I’m here to share those things with you today along with all the reasons you should take a winter road trip.
We’ll start with the reasons you might not want to take a road trip in the winter. I will be focusing this mostly on a southwest road trip, but it will be similar around the entire US. There are so many amazing winter vacation rentals so you could always do more of an extended road trip, too, to spend a little more time in certain places.
Most of this is about the Southwest US, but can really be applied all around the country for any winter road trip. If you’re going to be somewhere snowy (which is still totally worth it) make sure you’re comfortable driving in snow or someone you’re with is.
While these may be on the con list, they really aren’t big reasons not to go, unless you want to do a specific hike or activity that is only available in the summer or just really, really hate snow and cold weather. You may get lucky (like us) and end up traveling during an unseasonably warm winter on your road trip.
A Lot Is Closed
I don’t mean roads, but some of those are, too, in parks like Yellowstone or Grand Teton. I mean hotels, restaurants, and shops. Or, if they are open, they can have really weird hours. Moab is a great example of this. A lot of the coffee shops and cafes are closed for the winter. One is open all day, until 5, the others that are open close at noon or 1PM.
In Wall, South Dakota we also saw this with a few hotels and restaurants closed. This made the sparse choices in restaurants even more sparse. I can’t say this is reason enough to not go on a winter road trip, just be prepared for that. One place that you won’t run into this is Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which would make an awesome winter trip.
This isn’t exclusive to winter. Arches had construction in the park over the summer, but now they’re doing construction in nearby Moab. They have also been doing some pretty solid construction in Springdale outside of Zion. It’s not a terrible thing, but depending on what they’re doing, it can cause delays making driving times between places longer. It’s more of an annoyance, really.
In the summer, there is a lot more daylight to work with and you can fit a lot more hiking and activities into one day. In the winter, you will be a little more limited. December has the shortest days, but you can still see a lot in that time.
In February, we’ve still had plenty of time to do the things we want in a day, but we also have had weeks in places most people will only spend a day or two on a traditional road trip. While that may be the case, there is still plenty of light to do quite a bit in a day. This is, honestly, probably the worst thing about doing a winter road trip.
If you’ve never driven in snow or don’t like snow, this is a downside of a winter road trip. It isn’t guaranteed to snow in the southwest, but it was snowy in the Badlands and will be very snowy in Wyoming if you wanted to see Yellowstone or the Tetons.
Of course, this means it can be pretty cold, too, and some hikes may not be possible with a lot of snow. Definitely, keep this in mind if you’re planning a winter road trip, especially when you’re considering where you want to go. A lot of parks will have roads closed, so research that ahead of time.
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Now, let’s get to the good stuff! Like I said, I’ve been on a sort of extended road trip for the last month and a half, and it’s been wonderful. There are some places I would definitely want to see in the summer, especially if I hadn’t already been to them, but I would rather take a road trip in the winter than in the summer after this experience. Here’s why!
Less crowded trails
This is like, number one. And then I would make it numbers two, three, four, and five, but I’ll save you time and keep it here. I have a couple examples here just from Arches. On our trip there in the spring last year (2017) it was so packed would couldn’t find a parking spot in the Windows area or Devil’s Garden.
We basically drove through and left. Last week, there were less than ten cars in the Windows section and maybe 20 in Devil’s Garden. It’s President’s Day weekend now, and it was super busy in the park again, but it’s a holiday, so it’s not the winter norm. It just reminded me how much we had to ourselves, like Double Arch and Landscape Arch.
Another example is Zion. There are approximately 8 million people there each day in the summer. It’s insane. It’s difficult to find a parking spot near the Visitor Center unless it’s super early or you’re lucky. You also can’t drive into the park in Zion Canyon (the main area), you have to take the shuttle, for good reason.
There is minimal parking at each stop. We were able to drive into the canyon and find parking easily at each stop and trailhead. We weren’t fighting past people on hikes and we had some areas to ourselves, too. If you really want to have a place to yourself in the winter, check out Kolob Canyons.
This goes with the point above. Moab is crazy in the summer. Come winter, you don’t have near as much traffic to fight your way through. This also means that park entrance lines are almost nothing.
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Snow may be a new experience for you, but I’m talking totally different park experiences. In Yellowstone, for example, you can’t drive most of the roads, but you can snowmobile your way around the park (with a tour) or take a snowcoach into the park and spend a night in the park. You can snowshoe your way around Bryce Canyon or Grand Teton. Admire the ruins at Mesa Verde under a blanket of snow, I know I’d like to!
Better For Budgets
Hotels and hostels are usually cheaper and offer winter rates. I’ve seen winter rates or winter deals on Airbnb (get $40 of travel credit with this!) a few times. Some parks may not even have an entrance fee in the winter.
If you have the park pass, that won’t affect you, but if you don’t, it can definitely help. Another way to possibly save money is to pick up tourist maps. Some have coupons and offers printed on them. You could check at the city visitor center’s for things like this, too.
I think we got lucky this winter and have had awesome weather. It’s been a little rainy and snowy in Moab, but temperature-wise, it’s been good. It’s so much nicer hiking in 40-50 degree weather versus the 85-100+ degree weather in the summer.
A lot of the hikes we’ve done so far I’ve thought “I can’t imagine what this is like in July!” and I live like, three hours from here where it’s just as hot. Yes, it can get super cold, especially in more northern places, but depending on where you are and what you’re doing, the cool weather is probably a little better.
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Now that you know all the reasons to take (or not to take) a winter road trip, you should probably get planning for next year! Or, if that’s just not possible, which I totally get because work or school, get planning for this summer! No matter the time of year, a road trip is a great idea.
General winter road trip tips:
- Hike more on weekdays while everyone is at work or in school. Weekends will be busier, but it’s still nothing compared to summer.
- Keep a blanket or two in the car, just in case something were to happen to the car and it was super cold.
- Research ahead for park road and campground closures. They both happen, some every year, other due to poor weather conditions. Some Visitor Center’s may be closed, too.
- Like summer, get a national park pass. It’ll save you a lot of money on entrance fees.
- You probably won’t need to book hotels ahead of time, unless you’re traveling on a holiday or during an event.
- Still want to see the US, but don’t have a car or a drivers license? Don’t worry! It’s totally possible! Here is an awesome guide to seeing the US without a car.
Have you taken a winter road trip? Where did you go? Did you like it? Would you consider a winter road trip?