20 Top Destinations for a Winter Vacation in the U.S.A.
Updated December 10, 2019
There are two types of winter travelers: those who flee cold weather and those who flock to it. Thanks to the size, natural diversity, and varied climates of the United States, there are plenty of destinations across the country to suit both the pro-snow and pro-sand factions. (Winter can also be a great time to snag bargains on hotels, restaurants, and attractions in tourism hotspots that are busier in the summer.) No matter what side you fall on, you’re bound to find some travel inspiration in this roundup of 20 great places in the U.S. for winter vacations—because hibernation is for the bears.
And when summer rolls around again, check out our favorite U.S. destinations for that time of year.
The winter season is your best bet for experiencing what Yellowstone was like before cars came along. Most park roads are closed to regular traffic starting in early November, leaving many areas accessible only to “oversnow” modes of transit such as cross-country skis or guided snowmobile and snowcoach tours. Smaller crowds than in summer and scenes of frozen lakes, white-frosted forests, and steaming geysers are worth the extra effort (which also involves braving frigid temps). After a snowshoe trek or ranger-led nature program at Yellowstone, head to nearby Jackson Hole to hit the slopes at one of three mountain resorts, sample a lively après-ski scene, and find lodgings ranging from cozy log cabins to four-star hotels.
Pictured: Buffalo in the snow at Yellowstone National Park
While those in northern climes shiver through the coldest part of the year, the weather is pretty much perfect in the Florida Keys, where the average high temperature in January is 74 degrees Fahrenheit (eat your heart out, Buffalo). Of course, this isn’t exactly a secret—winter is typically Key West’s busiest and most expensive season. But that means you can experience the party atmosphere when it’s at its height on lively, quirky Duval Street (pictured) and during the nightly Sunset Celebration in Mallory Square. More laid-back pursuits include dining on fresh seafood, catching sight of the famous six-toed cats at the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, and simply lounging on sandy beaches.
That’s right: Minneapolis. While it’s true that this bafflingly underrated Midwestern metropolis gets frigid in the wintertime, Minnesotans embrace the season in a way that would make many a Scandinavian forbear proud. The city’s top cold-weather outdoor events have been combined to form a 10-day superfest called the Great Northern, featuring family-friendly winter carnivals, ice sculptures, the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis, and the beloved City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival. The highlight of the latter is the magical Luminary Loppet (pictured above), when cross-country skiers traverse a frozen Lake of the Isles illuminated by torches, lanterns, candles encased in blocks of ice, and the occasional fire dancer. Among Minneapolis’s many indoor delights: thriving arts and culinary scenes as well as the Skyway System, 11 miles of climate-controlled pedestrian footbridges connecting dozens of buildings downtown.
Every January 1, Pasadena's Rose Parade heralds the new year with marching bands, teams of clip-clopping horses, and elaborate floats festooned with several botanical gardens' worth of flowers. A beloved tradition in Southern California, the parade is surrounded by related events such as Deco Week, during which you and your family can volunteer to help adorn floats with blooms; Bandfest, showcasing the parade's participating marching bands from across the country; and, of course, the Rose Bowl college football game. Be warned: If you want to attend any of the above, start planning early—buy your tickets, like, yesterday.
Opened in 1960, this New England classic in Londonderry, Vermont, is a throwback to the small-scale ski resorts of the era before wide, treeless trails became the norm. Consequently, the terrain can be difficult for those unaccustomed to steep, winding slopes through wooded areas. But intermediate-and-above skiers are likely to welcome the challenge—as well as the smaller crowds and lower prices for lift tickets compared to mountain resorts elsewhere in New England and in the Rockies. Perfect for purists, the place has a learning center for kids and beginners as well. Post-slope drinks in the tavern come with live music, views overlooking the mountain, and a chance to confab with the resort’s devoted fans.
The indisputable highlight of a New Orleans winter arrives in February with the city’s annual Mardi Gras celebration—the mother of all street parties held the day before Ash Wednesday. There’s more to the festivities than beads and booze (though if that’s what you’re after, get thee to Bourbon Street). A rich and colorful tradition of parades, pageantry, krewes, and king cakes surrounds the event, not just on Fat Tuesday but in the weeks leading up to it as well. Hotels are booked solid during the long weekend before Mardi Gras, so start planning well in advance; there’s no such thing as too early. Slightly less hectic weeks in January and February are also good times to visit the French Quarter and jazz-rich historic neighborhoods like the Marigny and Treme. Temperatures are far more pleasant than in the scorching summer, and the good times roll year round.
Yes, it’s cold and the nights are long. But for fans of winter sports and snowy scenery, Alaska is a must-visit. There are a slew of ways to explore your frosty surroundings in Anchorage, from glacier hikes to dogsledding tours (the famous Iditarod race kicks off here every March). Take a ride further inland aboard the Aurora Winter Train, chugging through a Christmas-card landscape characterized by heavy snow and the occasional moose, to reach Fairbanks. Here you can learn all about Alaska's human and natural history at the Museum of the North, and feast your eyes on the Northern Lights, which are often visible between September and March.
The smallest of the Caribbean’s three U.S. Virgin Islands is also the most untouched. There’s no airport and no pier for cruise ships (most visitors arrive by ferry from St. Thomas), and a lush national park occupies more land than resorts do. Day trippers as well as overnighters are treated to turquoise waters great for snorkeling, pristine beaches such as Trunk Bay, emerald peaks, verdant groves with hiking trails, and close-up views of tropical flowers, pelicans, turtles, and other denizens of paradise. One thing to keep in mind about traveling to the Caribbean in winter: That’s right after hurricane season, so some locales might still be recovering. Before traveling to an area affected by storms, check in advance to make sure hotels, restaurants, and other businesses have reopened.
Named for a set of imposing, multicolored sandstone cliffs along Lake Superior in Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is transformed by snow and ice into an otherworldly landscape recalling Elsa’s arctic castle in Frozen. Caves covered in icicles feel like crystal ballrooms, while enormous frozen waterfalls and towers of ice prove irresistible to climbers equipped with picks and cleats. As a matter of fact, this is where the annual Michigan Ice Fest is held for ice climbers each February. Fans can watch from the scenic sidelines or get in on the action with free classes for visitors of all skill levels.
You can expect the casinos, clubs, and hotels of Las Vegas to be packed on New Year’s Eve—after all, it’s the most hard-partying night of the year in one of the country’s most hard-partying towns. But after that comes a period in January and February when demand for Vegas vacations is typically lower and room rates as well as airfares drop to their most affordable levels, especially for travel during the week instead of weekends (a glaring exception: the week in January when gadget seekers and sellers throng the city for the annual Consumer Electronics Show). While lightweights elsewhere nurse holiday hangovers, Sin City’s shows, gaming floors, offbeat museums, and thrill rides keep going all year round. Fight cabin fever with a hike at Red Rock Canyon or snowboarding on Mount Charleston. You won't be taking a dip in any outdoor pools, however: As some travelers are surprised to learn, average high temperatures in January and February are only in the 50s.
Long ago transformed from a gold mining town to a skiing mecca, Breckenridge nevertheless retains much of its 19th-century charm, especially in the downtown area, where shops and restaurants occupy carefully preserved Victorian buildings. Still, the main attraction by a long shot is Breckenridge Ski Resort, one of North America’s most popular spots for winter recreation. With nearly 3,000 skiable acres and more than 150 trails, Breck has something for everybody. Expert slalomers and snowboarders will find plenty of challenges, but the resort is best known for its accessibility—nearly half of the trails are marked beginner or intermediate. That makes this a great option for families. And its proximity to other Rocky Mountain slopes at Keystone (15 miles away), Vail (37 miles), and elsewhere gives vacationers plenty of good reasons to put a multiresort ski pass to use.
When the Gulf of Mexico cools down each winter, hundreds of manatees make for the perpetually 72-degree springs of Kings Bay on Florida’s western coast about 80 miles north of Tampa. The area’s Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is the only spot in the U.S. dedicated entirely to protecting the distinctively corpulent creatures. Although a few can usually be found swimming through the preserve no matter the season, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see dozens if you visit between November and April. Tours that let people swim with manatees have grown increasingly popular here, but if you’re worried about disturbing these gentle giants, you can watch them from the boardwalk at Three Sisters Springs. Marshes, tidal creeks, and the remains of a prehistoric human settlement—possibly the country’s oldest—are worth checking out, too.
And while we’re on the lookout for wildlife . . .
What could be more all-American than spotting a bald eagle along the Mississippi River? January and February are the best months for seeing those two majestic U.S. icons at once. Migrating south by the thousands, the birds keep close to the water in order to feed on fish and roost in the surrounding bluffs. To mark the annual event, river towns along the route host special events such as Bald Eagle Days in Rock Island, Illinois, and Iowa’s Dubuque Bald Eagle Watch. In addition to birding tours on foot and bus, participants at these and other festivals can attend informational sessions, watch Native American demonstrations, and look at photo exhibits, all centered on celebrating the national symbol. Base yourself in the Quad Cities—a quartet of Iowa and Illinois municipalities straddling the Upper Mississippi—for a nice mix of outdoor activities (snow tubing, cross-country skiing) and cultural offerings such as Davenport, Iowa’s Figge Art Museum, known for its substantial collection of works from the Western Hemisphere.
Travel writing on summer trips to Death Valley reads like post-apocalyptic fiction, outlining dangerous desert treks past landmarks with ominous names like Coffin Peak and Devil’s Golf Course in the hottest, driest, godforsakenest spot on earth. Visit in the winter months, though, and you’ll find that those punishing temps of 120 degrees Fahrenheit have dropped to a downright pleasant range in the 60s and 70s. That turns hiking and backcountry camping into non-life-threatening pursuits—and we find that it’s easier to appreciate scenery when it’s not trying to kill you. The park certainly has some stunning sights, from the expansive salt flats of Badwater Basin (at 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in North America) to far-reaching mountaintop vistas overlooking sand dunes and badlands in shades of red and gold.
Started in 1911, Dartmouth College’s annual winter carnival is now the country’s oldest university-affiliated festival of its kind. For three days in February the school’s campus in Hanover, New Hampshire, plays host to ski races, an ice sculpture contest, a polar bear swim, and other forms of wintry fun. Those not content to confine their cold-weather recreation to one weekend can hit the slopes at any point in the season at the Dartmouth Skiway or go ice skating on Occom Pond. Warm up by catching a show at the Hopkins Center for the Arts or trying one of several noteworthy restaurants in Hanover, a quaint New England town with a dash of Ivy League sophistication.
Pictured: a 1950s-era poster for the Dartmouth Winter Carnival
Asheville is an ideal choice for winter travelers who crave a mountain getaway but don’t care for heavy snowfall. Situated in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, the city abounds with year-round opportunities to explore the outdoors. Brisk hikes will take you to waterfalls, hilltops, and meadows that let you see the hazy, blue-tinged mountains in somber winter mode. Or stay in the car for a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is just as scenic yet far less crowded than in the summer months. The enormous 19th-century Biltmore Estate—still the record holder for America’s largest private residence—likewise stays open for tours 365 days a year. Back in town, Asheville punches above its weight class when it comes to arts and culinary offerings, with tons of galleries, Appalachian crafts exhibits, live music venues, gastropubs, and coffee shops.
Emphasis on the “big.” With 5,800 skiable acres spread across four enormous mountains in the Northern Rockies, Montana’s Big Sky Resort is one of the largest ski areas in North America. Dramatic views of snow-covered 11,000-foot peaks come standard with zippy trips down the notoriously steep slopes once known as Moonlight Basin (which merged with Big Sky in 2013) as well as gentler runs used in the resort’s acclaimed program of lessons and activities for kids. Adults and youngsters not interested in shredding and schussing can opt for zipline tours, sleigh rides, and ice skating, or head southeast for the wintry wonders of Yellowstone National Park (about an hour away by car).
To be honest, there’s not really a bad time to visit Kauai. Hawaii’s lush “Garden Isle” is blessed with pleasant year-round temps and a tropical climate ideal for trekking through rainforests and the colorful Waimea Canyon, marveling at the seaside bluffs at Na Pali Coast State Park, and discovering hidden golden-sand beaches. If you need to make the case for a winter visit, point to the migrating humpback whales (they show up from mid-December through March) and a need to reconnect with nature after the stresses of the holidays. Keep in mind that this is the rainy season, but downpours don’t last long and, after all, they’re what keeps everything so green.
After the ball drops in Times Square and the Christmas tree comes down in Rockefeller Center, New York City hotel prices take a dip in response to fewer tourists in town. Though bargains in the Big Apple are never easy to come by, room rates can decrease significantly from January through March (this does not hold true, however, during crowded special events like Fashion Week in February). A chilly stroll through Central Park may not appeal to everybody, but culture vultures can feast on a multitude of concerts, art exhibits, comedy shows, and much more. The theater season is still at its height in winter, and with less competition from other tourists for tickets, there’s a better chance of snagging seats at hit Broadway plays and musicals. After the show, toast to sparkling Manhattan views at a year-round (heated) rooftop bar or cozy up in an inviting tavern with a fireplace.
Winter is quiet in New Mexico’s dreamy capital city but every bit as enchanting as in the rest of the year. A dusting of snow adorns historic adobe buildings, kiva fireplaces glow, and the scent of cedar wafts through the high desert air. It’s no wonder the place has attracted so many artists past and present, whose work is displayed at galleries along Canyon Road, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, and the renowned artists’ colony of nearby Taos. Rich Native American traditions and Southwestern cuisine (chocolate and chili peppers are specialties) offer further sensory delights. Head into the imposing Sangre de Cristo Mountains for skiing and snowshoeing, or get pampered by sampling the spa scene.