Another strange year is coming to an end, but by now, hey, strange is normal. Nothing left to do but make the best of it. And despite 2021’s best efforts, December still means twinkling lights, powdery precipitation, and magic of all kinds.
We’ve got national parks to explore, winter road trips, a UFO site, amazing destinations, and new wine destinations for when the festivities get too much. ‘Tis the season for it!
Keep in mind that winter driving requires its own set of precautions: the more majestic the conditions, often the more dangerous the road especially when navigating unfamiliar routes. Stock 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.)
Explore a new national park
Just like road-tripping takes on a different sheen in the winter, so too do national parks. Some, like Zion, are more breathable without the crowds. Some, like Death Valley—aka the hottest place on Earth—shine brightest in these cooler temperatures. Everglades not only has thinned-out crowds and pleasant air temps hovering in the 70s but also fewer bugs and lower water levels which make for better bird and reptile viewing.
Few national parks boast the mythical and mystical quality of Joshua Tree. Massive boulder piles, bleached sand dunes, and Dr. Seussian yucca forests spread across hundreds of square miles of the desert are an otherworldly sight to behold.
And then there are the parks that lean into the frostiness of the season. Mount Rainier in Washington sees upwards of 50 feet of snowfall per year, perfect for winter sports and backcountry snowshoeing and camping. The hoodoos of Utah’s Bryce Canyon become otherworldly when dusted in snow.
In Lassen Volcanic the snowpack often lasts more than half the year and recreation opportunities include sledding, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, backcountry skiing/snowboarding, and joining a ranger-led snowshoe walk. Denali, in Alaska, is a top-tier destination for the northern lights as is Glacier National Park in Montana. Can you feel it? Winter magic is coming.
Trails to discovery
The arrival of winter means a reduction of tourists (and traffic) in many popular destinations, so it can be the ideal season to explore America’s open roads. Plus, driving through a sparkly white winter wonderland is the perfect activity to set the mood for the season.
Related: 6 Road Trips for the Holiday Season
With 31 historic covered bridges, Indiana’s Parke County is known as The Covered Bridge Capital of the World. The vibrant red bridges—many built in the 1800s and still in use—cross rivers and streams contrasting gorgeously with snow-blanketed meadows.
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.
The Alabama Coastal Scenic Byway connects the people and places in coastal Mobile and Baldwin counties and showcases the rich culture and flavor of Alabama’s Gulf Coast region. You’ll discover beautiful beaches, authentic downtowns, wildlife preserves, historic sites, and the freshest seafood in the state.
The truth is out there
Perhaps the most notable UFO crash in American history went down on the night of June 14, 1947. A farmer named Mac Brazel was driving around about 80 miles outside Roswell when he came across a flaming heap of rubber, foil, and sticks. He contacted local authorities who contacted the military who came to the site and publicly declared that a flying saucer had landed in Roswell.
The country was whipped up into a frenzy and soon after, the government changed its tune and redesignated the UFO a “weather balloon.”
Though Roswell may not have truly been the land of first contact, the town has since leaned into notoriety and become the greatest alien-themed town on the planet. It’s home to the International UFO Museum and Research Center and has a McDonald’s shaped like a UFO. The city hosts an annual UFO Festival that’s become a pilgrimage for self-proclaimed “UFOlogists.” Whether you believe in aliens or not, Roswell is an utterly fantastic, highly kitsch slice of Americana.
Bucket list destinations
There are plenty of amazing destinations in our own backyard. To help whet your appetite I’ve rounded up just a few to get you started.
The distinctive Spanish Moss-draped trees, antebellum homes, and horse-drawn carriages help to give a relaxed and comfortable feel. Much of Savannah‘s charm lies in meandering through the Historic District’s lovely shaded squares draped in feathery Spanish moss—all 22 of them.
If you delight in gazing at towering red rocks or driving through rugged canyons, then go to Sedona. If you admire exquisite art or are captivated by amazing architecture, then go to Sedona. Of all the places to visit in the Southwest, Sedona may be the most beautiful.
Monument Valley is one of the most enduring and definitive images of the American West. Eons of wind and rain carved the red-sandstone monoliths into fascinating formations, many of which jut hundreds of feet above the desert floor.
Avery Island is the home of Louisiana’s iconic hot sauce: Tabasco. See how it’s made during a factory tour, pick up a few souvenirs at the Tabasco Country Store, and tour the island’s Jungle Gardens.
Toast to the season in wine country
Do you know what’s also great around the holidays? Wine! But there’s no need to hit Napa or Sonoma Valley in California to taste the sweet nectar of Bacchus; there are actually 250+ American Viticultural Areas in the US—some probably near you—where you can revel in adult grape juice.
In the Sierra foothills, Amador County was once identified almost exclusively with zinfandel. During the past 20 years, vintners have begun producing a diverse array of varieties especially those of Italian and southern French origin. While zinfandel, with over 2,000 acres, remains Amador’s signature variety, the region’s wineries also produce superb examples of Barbera, Sangiovese, sauvignon blanc, and syrah; limited bottlings of pinot grigio, Verdelho, Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache, Mourvedre, Petite Sirah, Aglianico and tempranillo; lovely rosés made from a wide variety of grapes; exceptional dessert wines made from muscat grapes; and port-style wines made from zinfandel and traditional Portuguese varieties.
When it comes to wine country, Arizona doesn’t usually come to mind. But the Verde Valley near Sedona offers the dry climate and access to water that grapes need to thrive. If you’re a lover of vino, consider taking a day to follow the Verde Valley Wine Trail; this self-guided tour takes you to several of the area’s most popular wineries including Alcantara Vineyards, Page Springs Cellars, Oak Creek Vineyards, and Javelina Leap Vineyard as well as numerous tasting rooms of Cottonwood.
And north of the border in British Columbia is one of North America’s most overlooked wine regions: the Okanagan Valley. The Okanagan is home to nearly 200 wineries and more than 8,600 planted acres. The valley runs north/south for 150 miles following a chain of lakes bordered by low hills and stepped benches. The last ice age glaciers deposited a mix of gravel, silt, and sand; subsequent erosion has created large alluvial fans on which crops are grown.
And if you’re the RV sort, the boozy world is your oyster, as there are quite a few wineries, breweries, and distilleries that will let you camp out on their property and partake of their product (no drinking and driving here!).
Stay safe out there and don’t forget to check the air pressure in your RV tires. It’s so important.
Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.
—Norman Vincent Peale