Starting surrounded by horse farms in Woodford County and culminating at Lexington’s Distillery District, it’s easy to see why the Federal Highway Administration named Old Frankfort Pike a National Scenic Byway
Remember when the term Joy Ride had a negative connotation? When it was thought that taking a Joy Ride meant you were frivolously enjoying yourself rather than getting to the task?
Kentucky Tourism is all about forgetting the task at hand and enjoying yourself with their new Joy Ride campaign. On outings across the 16-county Bluegrass Region, weekend road warriors are encouraged to become less warrior-like and slow down to enjoy all the region has to offer: Horses, bourbon, historic homes, nature preserves, wineries, and world-class views down every winding byway.
“The Joy Ride campaign encourages people to travel like they did in the ’50s and ’60s,” says VisitLEX president Mary Quinn Ramer. “When they took time to stop at scenic sites along the way and enjoy the experience of getting to their destination.”
How to get to Kentucky distilleries: Three Joy Rides from Lexington
November and even parts of December have plenty of brisk, sunny days left to experience the beauty of the Bluegrass adorned in its wardrobe of gold, orange, and scarlet. And what better way to enjoy a road trip on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail with brisk, sunny days and fall colors than the commonwealth’s signature spirit?
So, when you ask for directions don’t ask for the fastest way to get to the distillery. Instead, enjoy the journey just as much as you’re going to enjoy the bourbon at the end of the road trip. Here are three Joy Rides to take from Lexington around Central Kentucky, each with a bourbon-themed destination in mind. These road trips will navigate you on the back roads to three iconic Kentucky bourbon distilleries.
Lexington to Woodford Reserve Distillery, Woodbridge County
Sure, we all know that Woodford County offers some of the best scenery in the state but when was the last time you took time to stop and take a long look? Crossing the county line the Kentucky Castle looms on a hill beckoning you to a 21st century Camelot. You may not be planning to overnight at this luxury hotel but you can detour for a peek at the lovely gardens at the back of the Castle. From the Castle, eschew US 60 in favor of Old Frankfort Pike which in 2021 was designated a National Scenic Byway. It’s easy to see why.
The scenery on both sides of the road is eye-popping—a lush tapestry of Thoroughbred horse farms framed by the region’s iconic rock fences (a horse farm tour always makes for a good stop.)
A brief detour—and on a Joy Ride you are free to take as many detours as you want—will get you to the Instagram-worthy Weisenberger Mill with its cascading waterfall. A stop at the red brick Romanesque Mt. Vernon Baptist Church will introduce you to an architectural style not usually found in the Bluegrass and a plaque in the churchyard will tell you that it dates back to 1822 and is still welcoming congregations.
You may have come to the intersection of the Pike and US 62 and wondered what the story was behind the white Colonial-style Offutt-Cole Tavern. Well, the story is a good one as it dates back nearly 250 years and at various times has been a tavern, a stagecoach stop, and the home of Zerelda Cole, mother of outlaws Frank and Jesse James.
From here you can either stop in Midway for a leisurely lunch or perhaps take an even more winding road to Nonesuch for lunch at The Glitz at Irish Acres Antiques but be sure you have a reservation. History buffs will want to stop at Huntertown Community Interpretive Park, the former site of an African-American freetown settled after the Civil War. No structures remain but the setting honors Huntertown’s history.
By now, you’re ready for a tour and tasting at Woodford Reserve Distillery on picturesque Glenn’s Creek (if you booked in advance, that is.) Should you want to extend your stay, book a room at the Woodford Hotel, a new property in downtown Versailles. The hotel’s eight suites are named for some aspect of the bourbon industry—from the Wild Turkey Suite to the EH Taylor Suite.
Lexington to Four Roses Distillery, Lawrencburg
Lawrenceburg offers Joy Riders multiple opportunities to appreciate all the Burg offers. If you’re into historical preservation there’s no better example of it than the Ripy Mansion completed in 1888 by bourbon baron T.B. Ripy. The 11,000-square foot, 24-room mansion, a mix of Queen Anne/Victorian/Romanesque Revival styles is available for tours (with a reservation) and as a bonus you can wander through the gardens lush at peak season with roses, tiger lilies, hydrangeas, phlox, irises, and viburnum.
If one of you is into historic preservation and the other is an adrenaline junkie you can both be happy on a Joy Ride to Lawrenceburg. Nothing gets the juices flowing like a plunge from the 240-foot Young’s High Bridge spanning the Kentucky River in the shadows of Wild Turkey Distillery. You will have to do a little planning as bungee jumping through Vertigo Bungee is only offered one weekend a month (May through October.)
However, tours and tastings are offered year-round at Four Roses Distillery whose unique Spanish-style architecture is more reminiscent of southern California than Central Kentucky. You will love the romantic story about how the distillery got its name almost as much as you will love the silky taste of its single-barrel bourbon. Settle in for a bourbon flight and if you don’t feel like driving back afterward you can overnight in a bourbon barrel. Well, at least the only accommodations in the U.S. are shaped like bourbon barrels. Bourbon Barrel Retreats is a collection of seven barrel-shaped cottages 16 feet in diameter that can sleep two people (plus a furry companion should you wish to bring one.)
Each cottage has a kitchenette equipped with a refrigerator, coffee pot, and hot plate for cooking, a full bath, and a small sitting area (three cottages also have an outdoor hot tub). The most impressive feature, however, is the large circular window mimicking a barrel top that is the focal point of the bedroom. The Bourbon Barrel Retreats’ common area allows guests to sit around the fire pit and swap bourbon stories.
Lexington to Buffalo Trace, Frankfort
By now, you’re aware that a tour of Buffalo Trace distillery on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail requires some planning (well in advance.) But once you’ve got that treasured ticket don’t be in a hurry to get there. Before your assigned time check out Franklin County’s non-bourbon offerings.
US 60 with its stunning horse country scenery is the perfect location for a joy ride. Once you cross the county line stop at Rebecca Ruth Candy for a bourbon ball (just to whet your appetite for what’s to come.) If you want to enjoy a spirit other than bourbon detour to Prodigy Vineyards and Winery and belly up to the onyx bar for a sampling of this family-owned winery’s vintages from semi-sweet to dry reds. If your sweet tooth extends beyond wine, B’s Bakery in downtown Frankfort is a must. “B” aka Beth Carter who once catered for Taylor Swift and Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman has a selection of scones, cookies, and cupcakes that will leave your mouth watering for days.
If you need a refresher course in Commonwealth history, check out the burial site of Daniel Boone. The jury is still out as to whether Dan’l is buried here but the grave is impressive and the view from the overlook even more impressive. Or you could take a tour of Liberty Hall, an oft-overlooked slice of history that encompasses not only that of Frankfort but of Kentucky and Colonial-era America.
To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, “it’s about the journey as much as the destination.” Take a Joy Ride and find out for yourself.
If you’re dreaming of where to travel to experience it all, here are my picks for the best places to RV in December
Children see magic because they look for it.
In his 2004 book Lamb, acclaimed author Christopher Moore tells the story of Jesus Christ’s childhood through the eyes of Jesus’ fictional boyhood friend Biff. Early on in the story, Biff tells us, “Children see magic because they look for it.”
He recounts how Jesus “shone like a bloom in the desert. But maybe I only saw it, because I was looking for it. To everyone else, he seemed like just another child…”
Because the book is written for adults, this line seems almost like an invitation. We were all children once. Perhaps, as adults, we may still see magic if we look for it.
It’s December which means that as of today you’re officially allowed to hang up Christmas lights without any judgment from your neighbors. Don’t just take my word for it: A recent survey of ~4,000 US homeowners found that December 1 was the day most people identified as acceptable to put up Christmas lights.
OK, but what day is it acceptable to set out the holiday chili to appease Yeetch, the snow creature, so it doesn’t cut all the powerlines in your neighborhood?
Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out my monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in October and November. Also, check out my recommendations from December 2022 and January 2023.
1. 30 Years of Masa Dreams
The Indio International Tamale Festival taking place every December (30th annual; December 1-3, 2023) is the largest festival in the world dedicated solely to the steamed savory treat. Visitors will see over 300 tamale vendors as well as live entertainment, interactive art spaces, beer gardens, craft stalls, and, of course, the largest-ever tamale. There is also a competition for the best-tasting tamale.
Other bites available at the event include tacos, nachos, carne asada fries, funnel cake, ice cream, and kettle corn. The festival is also known for its carnival rides and—since last year—the World’s Biggest Bounce House for kids and adults alike.
2. Best birding
Arguably among the top birding destinations on the planet, Bentsen–Rio Grande Valley State Park south of Mission, Texas teems with vibrantly hued tropical creatures. You might spot a chachalaca, a great kiskadee, or a green jay, any of which would appear right at home in the Amazon jungle. Climb the two-story hawk observation tower for a spectacular view. Along with more than 360 avian species are bobcats nosing through the brush.
3. Jungle Gardens
Avery Island is known as the birthplace of Tabasco sauce. It’s also home to lush forests, swamps, and a beautiful spot called Jungle Gardens. Wander through azaleas, camellias, and bamboo as you keep an eye out for alligators, raccoons, and deer. Within Jungle Gardens is a bird sanctuary known as Bird City. The sanctuary is the migration site for thousands of egrets, whose nesting season begins in February as well as herons, roseate spoonbills, ibises, coots, and more. Bird lovers can book a tour while others can simply enjoy the scenery.
4. Experience the Great Migration of the Sandhill Cranes as They Return to New Mexico
Celebrate the return of the sandhill cranes at the 34th annual Festival of the Cranes, December 6-9, 2023. Join birding experts from near and far for a chance to learn about Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and many of New Mexico‘s overwintering birds. The Festival offers over seventy creative workshops in the field at Bosque del Apache and indoor workshops at New Mexico Tech.
The festival celebrates the survival and yearly migration of the enigmatic sandhill crane. The sandhill crane is an ancient species of waterfowl that migrates from Canada and the northern U.S. to winter in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico.
Both cranes and snow geese begin arriving in smaller numbers at the refuge in late October. By early December, tens of thousands of cranes and snow geese make the Middle Rio Grande Valley their home until they migrate back north in mid-February.
Sandill cranes can also be seen in large numbers at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico and Whitewater Draw neat Wilcox, Arizona.
5. Its cool underground
Take a captivating journey to Bisbee, Arizona, a town that once glittered as a copper mining jewel at the turn of the century. Uncover the tale of hidden wealth, chance discoveries, and the rise and fall of this mining community nestled in the Mule Mountains. Explore the depths of the past with the Copper Queen Mine tour where you’ll don a yellow slicker, and a hard hat, and venture into dark, narrow tunnels guided by a former miner sharing gripping stories of Bisbee’s mining heyday.
Beyond the mine, discover Bisbee’s vibrant artistic scene and consider staying at the historic Copper Queen Hotel where history and charm converge.
6. Newspaper Rock
Bears Ears National Monument includes red rock, juniper forests, a high plateau, and an abundance of early human and Native American historical artifacts. The Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Hopi Nation, and other tribes are tied to this land in southeastern Utah.
Native American Indians have been engraving and drawing on Newspaper Rock for more than 2,000 years. Their markings in these ruins tell the stories, hunting patterns, crop cycles, and mythologies of their lives.
Newspaper Rock is located 15 miles west of U.S. 191 along the 41-mile Indian Creek Corridor Scenic Byway (S.R. 211) in Bears Ears National Monument now part of the 71,896-acre Indian Creek unit designated December 4, 2017, by U.S. President Donald Trump.
7. Architectural Digest names Mobile as one of the top 10 winter escapes for snowbirds
Looking at some of the best places for people to travel to avoid the cold, Architectural Digest listed several Alabama cities as among the best little-known places in the country for snowbirds.
Last month, the magazine compiled its list putting Mobile at No. 10 among 75 of the hidden gems in the U.S. for snowbirds or people who travel to warmer parts of the country during the winter.
After Mobile, Huntsville, and Birmingham ranked 23rd and 24th respectively. Rounding out the final three Alabama spots on the list were Montgomery (31st), Tuscaloosa (33rd), and Gulf Shores (38th).
8. The Lady from Twentynine Palms
If this city’s strange name sounds familiar, you might be remembering the Andrew Sisters 1947 tune about a bold young lady who called it home. But although it’s small and far more remote than other popular southern California destinations, Twentynine Palms has a lot to offer.
It’s a gateway city for legendary Joshua Tree National Park whose twisted namesake flora and star-studded night sky are stunners. It’s also just an hour from Palm Springs, of summer film festival fame, a mecca of recreational activities from horseback riding to golf.
Plus it’s deliciously warm and dry in the wintertime although it will cool off at night. (It’s in a desert, after all!)
The Twentynine Palms RV Resort offers 168 full-hookup RV sites as well as a sauna, fitness room, and pool. And according to its website, hardly a day goes by during winter when there isn’t something fun going on in the Clubhouse from ice cream socials to live music.
9. Grand Canyon
Although tourists flock to Grand Canyon National Park in droves from spring through fall every year, the winter and Christmas seasons are some of the best times to visit this famous landmark attraction. With fewer crowds and cooler temperatures in December, you won’t have to worry about cars clogging the most popular destinations or the sweltering heat of Arizona’s summers.
RV camping is available year-round at the Trailer Village RV Park which is located in Grand Canyon Village on the south rim of the South Rim.
The Grand Canyon Railway which is also located in the Grand Canyon Village is a must for anyone visiting the park any time of year but it gets even better at Christmas when it’s temporarily transformed into the Polar Express.
10. Swim with the manatees
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.
Once again, we come to the Holiday Season, a deeply religious time that each of us observes, in his own way, by going to the mall of his choice.
—Dave Barry, Christmas Shopping: A Survivor’s Guide
As another year draws to a close, you’ll likely notice a few familiar patterns beginning to take shape. Your social calendar fills with holiday fetes, giftgivings, and cookie swaps galore. The days until Christmas seem to slip away faster than you can click add to cart. And the pressure of seeing every last great aunt and twice-removed cousin over the holidays begins to mount.
With all the added pandemonium that the most wonderful time of the year can bring, getting away for an end-of-year road trip may be just the thing you need to reset before the New Year.
Whether you want to head for the mountains or the seashore these 22 Southern destinations are ideal for a year-ending RV road trip.
Whether it’s the Gulf Coast, a German village in Georgia, or Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg all of these southern destinations are worth a spot on your Christmas travel list.
1. Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Head to Gatlinburg for holiday fun in the Great Smoky Mountains! Few mountain vacation destinations are as popular as this one where you can find everything from a high-flying RV resort experience to a tranquil cabin in the woods. If you’re looking for a winter wander you’ll find it near this fun town which is known as the Gateway to the Smokies. Also, if you’re lucky and the weather’s just right you might just get to experience the beautiful landscape surrounding Gatlinburg blanketed in snow.
2. Asheville, North Carolina
See and hike the snow-capped Blue Ridge Mountains on a trip to this well-known western North Carolina city. Winter trips should always include a tour of the Biltmore Estate to see it all dressed up for the holidays. Other must-dos are a stop at the Omni Grove Park Inn to check out the gingerbread house competition finalists and an evening of hot chocolate sipping at French Broad Chocolate Lounge.
3. San Antonio, Texas
If you’re not in the mood to be bothered by the winter chill, hightail it to the Lone Star State for a road trip to San Antonio. This historic city is ideal for an end-of-year getaway where shopping and snacking are high-priority. You’ll surely find a sense of wonder in the thousands of multicolored string lights adorning the scenic River Walk.
4. Dahlonega, Georgia
If you’ve been sleeping on Dahlonega’s Old-Fashioned Christmas, it’s time to wake up and smell the gingerbread cookies. Americans everywhere travel from far and wide to catch this place during Christmastime. The North Georgia town is draped in twinkling lights and overrun with rambling horse-drawn carriages. The town’s month-long celebration features everything from a hometown parade to charming tree lighting.
5. Gulf Shores, Alabama
You may not get snow but you can find a different kind of white Christmas on the white sand shores of this Southern beach town. We can’t imagine anything more perfect than a sunset picnic on the quiet beaches here in the off-season.
6. Natchitoches, Louisiana
This small Louisiana town celebrates Christmas in a big way. The annual Festival of Lights runs for 40 days and attracts visitors from all over who arrive with family in tow to take in the more than 300,000 glittering lights and riverbank holiday decorations on display. The Christmas Festival is also a huge draw replete with a boat parade, fireworks, and a holiday market. This small-town Christmas celebration is well worth a road trip. Don’t leave town without trying one of Natchitoches’s famed meat pies.
7. Charleston, South Carolina
While most people associate South Carolina with seafood-scarfing and sandy-toed summer vacations, it’s also a great place to visit in cooler months. Average temperatures hover around 60 degrees so you’ll be perfectly comfortable as you tour through town stopping into specialty stores and swooning over the rows and rows of adorable pastel-colored homes.
Bonus: You can attend the annual Illumination Charleston event (December 1-2, 2023) that includes a holiday market, cooking demos from some of their favorite Southern chefs, and a fabulous opening night party.
8. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Enjoy the coastal charm of Myrtle Beach at Christmastime. Don’t miss Brookgreen Gardens which is filled with Christmas trees, twinkling lights, and flickering candles during the winter season. And be sure to catch a Christmas show with your family at one of Myrtle Beach’s beautiful theaters.
9. Savannah, Georgia
Enjoy the cinematic charm of Savannah minus the high-season crowds by visiting the Hostess City of the South during winter. On top of great weather and plenty of strollable streets, you can also visit for the Mountainfilm Festival (January 18-21, 2014) and Savannah Book Festival from February 15-18, 2024.
10. Lewisburg, West Virginia
The Greenbrier resort (in nearby White Sulphur Springs) is reason enough to plan a trip to the Lewisburg area. Families have been spending Christmas at The Greenbrier for centuries and once you see the incredible decorations at the hotel you’ll understand why. There are plenty of other places here where you can feel the holiday magic including the lovely shops of downtown Lewisburg. To really get in the spirit, catch an area performance of the West Virginia Symphony.
11. Bardstown, Kentucky
Bardstown‘s beloved Main Street is a perfect destination for your seasonal adventures. Kick off the holidays with the Light Up Bardstown event, a light-filled festival that signifies the beginning of the season in this small Kentucky town. Don’t miss the much-anticipated visit from Santa Claus or the plentiful browsing opportunities in Bardstown’s downtown shops.
This college town has Christmas spirit aplenty lighting up with glimmering decorations, lush greenery, and seasonal decor each December. Check out the Gingerbread House Village, Santa’s Workshop, and Holiday Ornament Auction, as well as the Oxford Christmas Parade on the downtown square for family fun. Before you leave, make sure to hit Square Books to find a unique gift.
13. Helen, Georgia
If you’re looking for a Bavarian-style winter wonderland you’ll find it and more in Helen. From downtown parades to Victorian Christmas celebrations to a Christkindlmarkt (German Christmas market), there is no shortage of festivities to enjoy in this small Georgia town with a big Christmas charm.
Among the gingerbread-style homes with their steeply pitched roofs and lovely cross-gables, you’ll find plenty of restaurants serving up bratwursts, schnitzel, and plenty of sudsy brews. For lovers of vino, there are several nearby wineries.
14. Branson, Missouri
Visit Branson, Missouri for the Ozark Mountain Christmas festival, a month-long holiday extravaganza complete with great music, festive lights, and fun parades. Grab the kids and jump on the Branson Scenic Railway’s Polar Express Train Ride for a rollicking time on the tracks and plenty of excitement for the whole family.
15. Williamsburg, Virginia
Experience Colonial flavor in Williamsburg at Christmastime! The yearly Colonial Christmas celebration lets visitors explore the Jamestown Settlement and meander the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown—so you can celebrate Christmas and learn about American history at the same time.
16. Pine Mountain, Georgia
Nothing will make the kids happier than Christmas at Callaway. Located in the small town of Pine Mountain, Callaway Gardens hosts what can only be described as “the ultimate Christmas extravaganza.” The main attraction: Riding through a dazzling illuminated forest complete with synchronized Christmas carols. But you can also make merry (and shop for gifts) in the Christmas Village, meet holiday characters up close, and have an overall festive stay at Callaway’s resort.
17. Seaside, Florida
Head to Florida for a coastal Christmas full of festivities and seafood galore! Seaside is a fantastic beach town because there is so much to do on 30A in December. Marvel at the beautiful holiday decorations, shop for your gift list, and check out the amazing restaurants for celebratory drinks and meals.
Added bonus: You won’t even need to bring a jacket!
18. Grapevine, Texas
Do you know about the Christmas Capital of Texas? Let us introduce you. Grapevine touts more than 1,400 holiday events throughout the season but don’t overlook the Christmas Wine Train. Family-friendly activities range from The Parade of Lights to watching classic movies or Christmas concerts at the Palace Theatre. The Gaylord Texan Resort—already an impressive sight—is transformed with millions of lights, a rotating Christmas tree that’s more than 50 feet tall, miniature train sets, and even a life-sized gingerbread house.
19. Mount Dora, Florida
Visit merry Mount Dora to experience the best of the holidays. Central Florida doesn’t get much more festive than this fun small town where you can see two million twinkling lights throughout the town. Stop by St. Nick’s Holiday Shoppe to get your celebration on and don’t miss the annual Christmas walk, a fun block party for the community complete with carolers and musical performances. There’s also a Christmas tour of homes and the local-favorite Christmas boat parade which brings the festivities to the water.
20. Blue Ridge, Georgia
This is the closest thing you’ll get to the Polar Express down in these parts. This mountain getaway feels as magical as the man in red himself. Start your holiday journey by hopping on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway’s Santa Express. Your family will hear a Christmas story, sing carols, meet holiday characters, and visit Santa and Mrs. Claus as the famous couple makes their way through the train.
21. Fredericksburg, Texas
Small-town Texas gets an infusion of Christmastime charm with the annual festivities held in Fredericksburg, a community located in Central Texas west of Austin. The town’s old-fashioned celebrations are characterized by carolers, a three-day Christmas festival extravaganza, and plenty of nostalgic downtown shopping every December—all the while paying tribute to its German heritage. Enjoy kolaches (yeast buns filled with fruit) and Christmas bratwurst.
22. Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Spend Christmas in Eureka Springs for an unforgettable holiday season. Don’t miss the Eureka Springs Christmas Festival, the annual Silver Tea at the Crescent Hotel, a downtown Christmas parade, and the annual Christmas tree lighting. The kids will love an afternoon with Santa (and reindeer games) in one of the town’s charming parks. This small town promises music and merriment aplenty.
Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.
Mount Dora, a laid-back, relaxing getaway just an hour from Orlando offers the pleasures of Old Florida country living
Lake County, Florida is home to over 1,000 lakes and is the state’s geographical center. It’s often called Real Florida or Old Florida—beauty and allure that pre-date Disney or Universal by decades.
To me, Mount Dora brought home the Old Florida moniker. We fell in love with this small, charming town. There are no high-rise condos…no chain hotels or restaurants. The streets are still cobblestone in some areas, everyone knows each other, and the locals still outnumber the guests. This small town in Florida is worth a visit.
Mount Dora has the feel of a small New England town but with lots of Old Florida charm and there is so much to do. No matter what kind of getaway you’re looking for whether it’s a couple’s retreat, a girls’ weekend, or a family trip, there is truly something for everyone.
Once a haven for hunting and fishing enthusiasts arriving by steamboat to escape chilly northern winters, today’s visitors flock to Mount Dora, just 40 minutes northeast of bustling Orlando to play on 4,500-acre Lake Dora and see wildlife but also to shop for antiques, soak up the vibrant art scene, and stroll the historic downtown.
The charming, compact city center sports an abundance of restaurants, sidewalk cafes, independently-owned shops, and art galleries situated along picturesque streets studded with palms and towering oak trees cloaked in Spanish moss—a true postcard-worthy scene.
While the pace is slow there is never a shortage of things to do. Start with my list of 11+ things to do in Mount Dora!
1. Spend a day by the lake
Lake Dora is one of seven cobalt-blue lakes in the Harris-chain-of-lakes, each connected by rivers or canals for a total of 77,000 acres to explore. The waters are a haven for bass fishing, bird watching, boating, and even manatee spotting but simply taking in their beauty from the shore is a rejuvenating way to spend a day.
Mount Dora’s eastern location on the lake means gorgeous lakefront sunsets too. Camp at a local RV park or stay at historic Lakeside Inn where you can walk the shoreline, relax by the waterfront pool with a book, or dine at their on-property restaurants with the lake as your backdrop.
2. Hunt for antique treasures
Collectors from across the country descend upon Renninger’s Antique Market, a sprawling antique center, flea market, and farmer’s market where 200 vendor booths overflow with vintage finds in all styles. During its Antique Extravaganzas, the market hosts more than 1,500 antique dealers and more than 800 booths.
3. Stroll the downtown streets
The walkability of Mount Dora is a true highlight and just about any local inn or bed and breakfast will afford you easy on-foot access to all the charm of downtown. The unique downtown makes Mount Dora special; there isn’t another city like Mount Dora because of its historic downtown. With all independently owned shops, bars, restaurants, and museums, Mount Dora is truly one of a kind in Florida.
4. Get out on—or over—the water
Ready to venture beyond the shoreline? Lake Dora’s water activities are plentiful with a variety of boat tours and rentals, seaplane rides, and water sports of all sorts from skiing and tubing to wakeboarding and wake surfing. Beautiful Lake Dora offers many scenic tours by way of covered pontoon boats, seaplanes, kayaks, or cat boats.
The history of the waterway and the nature you will experience on any of the tours offered is amazing. Adventure Cat Boat Tours are two-hour, guided trips on a two-person mini catamaran where you’re in the driver’s seat (after some instruction from the pros, of course). You’ll experience nature and history in the most unique way as you cruise across Lake Dora and through the famous Dora Canal.
Cruise at a slower pace on the 80-foot New Orleans-style paddlewheel boat, Dora Queen, which launches from the adjacent town of Tavares and offers two-hour rides complete with live music and cocktails on board.
5. Support the arts
Mount Dora is an artist’s and art lover’s haven with independently-owned galleries throughout town and art festivals throughout the year. The largest, Mount Dora Arts Festival takes place in February (49th annual; February 3-4, 2024) and is one of the top-ranked fine arts shows in the country. This year, 250 artists will line the streets in addition to a kid-friendly area, food and drink vendors, and live music.
6. Walk the boardwalk
A must-see for any Mount Dora visitor is the Palm Island Boardwalk on the south end of town on the waterfront. This elevated nature walk will take you out onto Lake Dora at a safe distance from the water for the ultimate viewing of wildlife. The boardwalk may be experienced on foot or via a Segway PT for the adventurous. Visitors stroll under old-growth live oaks and tall cabbage palms and among knobby cypress trees with ample opportunity to spot migratory birds and even gators.
7. Visit a freshwater lighthouse
Just a bit north of Palm Island Boardwalk is Grantham Point Park, home to one of Florida’s few freshwater lighthouses. Sometimes referred to as Lighthouse Park, Grantham Point Park was created from road rubble and fill to create one of Mount Dora’s famous landmarks—the lighthouse. Built to represent the Port of Mount Dora, the lighthouse appears on many symbols. The 35-foot-tall lighthouse is one of the city’s most prominent landmarks and a great place to watch boaters and enjoy the sunset.
8. Step back into the future
Home to an impressive collection of midcentury modern furniture, Mount Dora’s Modernism Museum is a worthwhile stop for design history buffs and those who want to learn. The museum has hosted many exhibits since opening in 2013 including Memphis Collective furniture and design objects owned by David Bowie and sculptural furniture by artists George Nakashima and Wendell Castle.
9. Mount Dora restaurants
For a town of 13,000, Mount Dora has a lot of good options for dining. With more than 36 restaurants and cafes in the downtown area all within walking distance you are sure to find something that will satisfy your palette. For sunset, the big patio at Pisces Rising has terrific views. In 1921, elevated fare from celebrated chef Norman Van Aken pays homage to local Florida ingredients with an eye toward modernity and sustainability. You can’t beat the clam chowder at Tony’s Clam Chowder Seafood Restaurant.
Several of the bars and restaurants have live music on weekends.
10. Get into the holiday spirit
Christmas in Mount Dora is spectacular with millions of lights throughout town and a large singing Christmas tree. Festivities kick off the weekend after Thanksgiving when over 2 million lights get draped over downtown, its historic homes, and Donnelly Park; and the Christmas tree on Main Street is officially lit. This night is arguably the most magical of the season.
Get your decoration inspiration at the 45th Annual 2023 Christmas Tour of Homes on December 2 and 3—it’s a self-driving tour of six beautifully decorated homes decked out in their holiday finest.
11. Visit the oldest continually operating hotel in Florida
Whether you stop by to take in the Lakeside Inn’s spectacular Lake Dora view, grab a meal at one of its four on-site restaurants, or book a stay, a visit to this pretty yellow piece of history is a must. The oldest continually operating hotel in Florida started as the 10-room Alexander House when visitors in the late 1800s enjoyed Florida’s mild winter weather and the bounty of the lake. Today, visiting the 85-room Victorian-era inn feels like stepping back in time and is a place where you can truly unwind.
I said I’d offer 11 things I love about Mount Dora but there are more: I love it for the sunsets over Lake Dora, all the birds you see on the lake (including bald eagles), the big Christmas light display in December, and Boathouse Row, a few blocks of boathouses converted into cottages perched over the water along Lake Dora Road. (Start at the restaurant Pisces Rising, cross the railroad tracks, and stroll down Lake Dora Road.)
I could go on, but you get the idea: There is a lot to love about this little town.
The very name Florida carried the message of warmth and ease and comfort. It was irresistible.
Tamale is a traditional Mexican dish made of masa or dough which is steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper
“Hot tamales, and they’re red hot, and she got ‘em for sale.”
Although this song has a double meaning it definitely alludes to the women selling tamales who “got two for a nickel, got four for a dime” from a cart on the busy streets of major cities in the Americas.
From Blind Blake to Eric Clapton to Kanye West to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, countless musicians have crooned about one of the world’s most versatile foods. Even the child entertainers The Wiggles wrote a song called Hot Tamale though it was later changed to Hot Potato.
No matter your musical taste, the world of tamales has something to please your palate. From pork to potato-filled, these tightly wrapped taste sensations will make you smile.
History of the tamale
The history of tamales is long and storied, dating back to pre-Columbian times. Tamales were first mentioned in Aztec texts and they were also mentioned in the journals of Spanish conquistadors. Tamales were a favorite food of the Aztecs and Mayans and they were often eaten as a portable meal while traveling. The Aztecs would wrap tamales in corn husks and the Mayans would wrap them in banana leaves.
Tamales came to the United States with the Mexican immigrants who brought their traditional recipes. Tamales became especially popular in the American Southwest where the climate is similar to that of Mexico. Today, tamales are enjoyed by people all over the world and they come in a variety of flavors and styles.
Women made tamales and the painstaking process was part of their daily routines and important religious traditions. Tamales were originally cooked over hot ashes in a buried fire. Later, when Spanish conquistadors brought pots and pans women started steaming the corn-wrapped packages. The Spanish also introduced more flavors adding meat and lard to the vegetable delights.
Legends surrounding the tamale
The history of tamales is surrounded by mystery perhaps because the delicacies are hidden in inedible corn husks or because they are regularly mentioned in religious stories passed down through generations.
One important tamale legend dates back thousands of years and features Tzitzimitl, the grandmother of the ancient god Chicomexóchitl. She was said to sacrifice her grandson and use his meat to make the first twenty tamales.
The tamale is also described in the Popul Vul, the Mayan’s major mythological document which says that humans acquired their lasting form from corn. The legends continued over the years.
Tamales were often offered to the gods during religious ceremonies. Spanish missionaries incorporated these native traditions to spread Catholicism in Mexico. Where tamales had been used in pagan rituals of the past they soon became associated with Christan holidays as explorers spread their ideas and religion.
Even today, some mystery remains around tamales. Some believe there is a curse on whoever eats the tamale that sticks to the pot. But if you cook them correctly there should be no tamales stuck at all!
Symbolism of tamales
What is the significance of the tamale as a food symbol? Corn tamales were commonly sent with hunters, travelers, and soldiers on their journeys to provide them with sustenance and luck and they were commonly chosen as the feast for spiritual and community gatherings. It is thought that the Aztecs used the word tamalli to wrap everything around their bodies.
It is now a world-famous dish with a long and fascinating history that has spread beyond continents and cultures. They are still popular in many Latin American countries including Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Colombia where they were created.
What is a Tamale?
So what exactly is a tamale? Tamales are made of masa which is ground corn moistened with water. The masa is wrapped in whatever leaves are available such as corn husks, banana leaves, or even tree bark.
The wrapping gives the tamale its name as it comes from the word tamalli, the Náhuatl word meaning wrapped. Inside the tender masa is a filling of tender meats, aromatic spices, and carefully chopped vegetables. There are as many tamale-filling flavors as there are families who make them as each cook adds her own twist.
Pork tamales with red chilis are one of the most well-known varieties but fillings like shredded chicken, black beans, and beef are also popular. Imagination is the key; there are even turkey tamales!
The tamale has come a long way since the early Aztecs ate them at war. With the addition of flavorful fats and meats like lard and pork butt the flavor of the tamale has skyrocketed.
Tamales in America
So how did tamales cross the border into the United States? One historian believes that Mexican migrants brought tamales to Mississippi when they came to pick cotton in the early 1900s. Another historian writes that tamales hitched a ride with U.S. soldiers returning from the US-Mexican War in 1848.
Everyone agrees that by the 1870s in Los Angeles, tamales were plentiful on street carts. In fact, they were considered such a nuisance that officials tried to ban them. The story was the same in San Antonio, Texas.
In Mississippi, tamales became a hallmark of African American food even inspiring jazz songs. These days, the tamale bends so many ingredients and ways of life. History professor Monica Ketchum says, “The modern tamale is a blending of cultures.”
It also brings together families and is a wonderful reminder of the past. Because of the labor-intensive method of making tamales, they are no longer a daily or weekly treat but are more often made for special occasions like the Day of the Dead, Christmas, and New Year’s.
How to make tamales at home
No matter what kind of tamales you make know that it can be a long process. For instance, the Oaxacan style includes 120 specific steps! The ratio of masa to filling is of utmost importance. To make excellent tamales you want to be able to taste the succulent fillings not just the dough. A 50/50 ratio is best.
Depending on where you live, you can often find masa in stores or you can always make your own. When mixed into dough, masa has a custardy texture. The corn dough is mixed with spices and lard and your goal is to create the consistency of peanut butter with nothing sticking to the sides of the bowl. When the dough is no longer sticky, you’re ready to go!
While you knead the dough, have the corn husks soaking in water. Trimming the husks is important for properly sized tamales. About five inches is a good length. Next, place two tablespoons of masa on each corn husk and spread it out with a spatula or putty knife.
Popular tamale fillings
When it comes to the pork filling, experts recommend using your filling when it’s cold placing it in a line down the middle of the husk so it doesn’t run to the edges during cooking. Whether you fill your tamale with tender beef, green chiles, potatoes, and garlic, or shredded chicken, corn kernels, and red sauce, the combinations are as endless as your imagination.
For pork with red chile sauce, use pork butt or shoulder as well as spices like oregano and cumin, topped with a spicy red chile sauce. Another popular filling is black beans and cheese.
31 Years of Masa Dreams
The Indio International Tamale Festival taking place every December (31st annual; December 2-3, 2023) is the largest festival in the world dedicated solely to the steamed savory treat. Visitors will see over 300 tamale vendors as well as live entertainment, interactive art spaces, beer gardens, craft stalls, and, of course, the largest-ever tamale. There is also a competition for the best-tasting tamale.
Other bites available at the event include tacos, nachos, carne asada fries, funnel cake, ice cream, and kettle corn. The festival is also known for its carnival rides and—since last year—the World’s Biggest Bounce House for kids and adults alike.
Food Network ranked the Indio International Tamale Festival in the top 10 All-American Food Festivals in the nation. The festival is a special occasion that kicks off the holiday season bringing the entire community together.
More than 300 vendors will be featured plus a tamale eating contest, five stages of live entertainment, and wine and beer gardens. Attendees will be able to sample a wide variety of tamales from traditional recipes to vegan and vegetarian options.
Admission is free.
Do you want to make a tamale with peanut butter and jelly? Go Ahead! Somebody will eat it.
Hiking, camping, and biking are among the many outdoor activities at Canyonlands National Park
Nowhere are the shape-shifting powers of water, wind, and rock more dramatically on display than in Canyonlands National Park in southeast Utah. This immense expanse of the Colorado Plateau has been etched by the Green and Colorado Rivers into a relief panel of chiseled buttes, twisted rock spires, and deeply incised canyons.
Here, millions of years of geologic upheaval, compression, and erosion have left behind a magical landscape where you can peek into caves; wander between rock formations resembling castles, towers, and fantastical creatures; and slip through canyons narrow enough to touch both sides.
Human history also comes alive in Canyonlands National Park with archaeological evidence of human habitation dating back more than 10,000 years. Native tribes, pueblos, and communities are associated with the land in a region that served as hunting grounds for early hunter-gatherers and then home to the Ancestral Puebloan people. This heritage is still apparent in the park with ancient cliff dwellings, petroglyphs and pictographs, and trails that have been traveled for centuries.
Canyonlands was established as a national park in 1964. It owes much of its more recent history to the role of mining in this part of the American West.
But uranium, not gold or silver, lured fortune-seekers to this isolated and intimidating region—the chemical element was in high demand during the 1950s and early ’60s. Ultimately, however, little uranium was mined here although the 1,000 miles of roads funded by the Atomic Energy Commission opened up the inner canyons to exploration and convinced locals that this geological wonderland deserved protection and preservation.
The largest of Utah’s five red rock national parks at 337,598 acres, Canyonlands is essentially three parks in one separated by the Green and Colorado rivers which come together in a confluence near the center of the park.
No roads connect the sections of the park (each has its own entrance) and no bridges span the rivers.
Depending on your time and how much you want to explore on foot or by driving, you may do as most visitors do and limit your experience to just two sections: Island in the Sky, a high mesa that comprises the park’s northern end and The Needles on the park’s southeast side, named for its impossibly spindly rock spires.
The third area, the rugged and remote labyrinth of canyons on the park’s southwestern side deservedly called The Maze requires four-wheel-drive to go beyond the ranger station and is a favorite among advanced hikers (steep and unmarked trails) and backcountry campers.
Within the park boundaries, the Colorado River shoots through the sheer-sided chasm of Cataract Canyon creating Class V rapids. While Big Drops and Satan’s Gut challenge even the most experienced rafters, quieter stretches provide plenty of fun for families and novice rafters.
Sitting atop a mesa more than 1,000 feet above the surrounding lands, the Island in the Sky district is one of the most popular of Canyonland’s sections. There, a scenic drive zigzags around the rim providing one dramatic canyon view after another. When arriving from Moab in the north many visitors start at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center just inside the park. There you can see fauna, flora, and geology exhibits; watch an introductory video to the park; and check out the schedule of ranger programming.
The Needles, named for its layers of spiky sandstone striped in gold and ocher, has its visitor center inside the entrance to this section about 74 miles southeast of Moab. The Maze, on the park’s western side, is served by the Hans Flat Ranger Station where you’ll find a small selection of books and maps, a vault toilet, and a picnic table. There are no paved roads there although the unpaved path to the station is navigable with two-wheel drive; its other roads require a four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle.
As a high-desert region of the Colorado Plateau, Canyonlands National Park experiences extreme climate and weather fluctuations. It’s not uncommon for days to top 100 degrees in summer with nighttime temperatures dropping into the 40s and 50s. Spring (April and May) and fall (September and October) are temperate and pleasant with daytime temperatures ranging from 60 to 80 and nights dipping from the 50s down to the 30s.
In the winter, daytime temperatures average 30 to 50 degrees while temperatures at night average 20 to zero. The region also experiences a monsoon in late summer and early fall with sudden heavy rains and possible flash floods.
Winter is an overlooked opportunity to visit Canyonlands and not just because you’ll share the landscape with fewer people. Take that beautiful red rock and the gorgeous blue sky, put a dusting of powder white snow on it, and you’ll see it’s even more stunning. The park is an all-season hiking destination since snow accumulation rarely exceeds more than a few inches deep but the park recommends winter hikers use traction devices on their shoes since trails can be slippery.
There is some cellphone coverage along the Island in the Sky scenic drive depending on carrier but cell service is limited to nonexistent in the canyons and on remote trails. There is little to no service in the Needles and almost none in The Maze except at the ranger station. Wi-Fi is available at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center.
Things to do
Take a driving tour
You’ll find the park’s top views strung along Island in the Sky scenic drive which makes a Y shape with access to Whale Rock. Because the shapes and perspectives shift so much as you move around the mesa you won’t want to skip any of the main overlooks which include Green River, Buck Canyon, and Grand View Point.
Hundreds of miles of trails varying in length and difficulty thread through Canyonland’s diverse terrain. The most-visited are in Island in the Sky including the Mesa Arch Trail, a 0.6-mile easy hike round trip leading to the park’s iconic photo op as the cliff-side arch frames the canyon below.
Another hike in this section is the moderately challenging, 1.4-mile Aztec Butte Trail which traverses a flat and sandy wash before ascending around 200 feet to reach an Ancestral Puebloan archaeological site.
At Grand View Point, the southernmost end and turnaround point of the Island in the Sky scenic drive, the level and comfortable 1.8-mile Grand View Trail winds along the mesa rim between expanses of slick rock and stands of gnarled and stunted piñon. Thanks to the elevation, this is one of the best views in the park.
In Needles district, trails spiderweb among the spindly rock towers and gnarled outcrops. When you’re in The Needles, you’re down in the canyon walking among all these otherworldly landforms and sculptural formations instead of looking down on them from the mesa. This also means many of the trails are easier because there’s less elevation change since you don’t have to hike down into the canyon and back up.
A top pick for a shorter hike is the Cave Spring Trail, a 0.6-mile round trip past a natural underground spring with prehistoric rock markings and the remnants of a historic cowboy camp. Other favorites include the Chesler Park Trail, a 5.4-mile loop through knobby sherbet-colored hoodoos, and the 8.6-mile Lost Canyon Trail which loops among eerily twisted formations.
Watch sunset or sunrise
The park’s two popular spots for sunrise and sunset viewing are Grand View Point Overlook and White Rim Overlook, the last two stops on the Island in the Sky scenic drive. The Grand View Point Overlook has great views just steps from its parking lot but it’s an easy 1.8-mile hike to White Rim’s overlook where fewer people interrupt the peace of the dusk.
Designated an International Dark Sky Park from DarkSky International, formerly the International Dark-Sky Association, in 2015, Canyonlands National Park goes a level beyond with a Gold-Tier designation reserved for the parks with the darkest skies. The park stays open all night so stargazers can see the spectacle with stargazing programs scheduled during summer. Some are listed in the park calendar but it’s best to check at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center for updated activities.
Visitors are encouraged to take a DIY approach to stargazing. Every night that isn’t cloudy there is a dark-sky show in the park whether there is a ranger there or not. On a moonless night, all you have to do is pull off the road, turn your back to the direction of Moab where there’s a little glow, and you’ll see stars and constellations you’ve never seen before.
An ever-expanding network of mountain bike trails has turned the area into a bucket-list destination for riders. You’re surrounded by trails everywhere you look and there is so much to do at every skill level. A favorite ride is the Dead Horse Point Singletrack Loop trail which starts in Dead Horse Point State Park north of Canyonlands and continues into the park winding over terraced buttes that afford dramatic views of the valley spreading below.
Experienced mountain bikers come to the park specifically to ride all or part of Island in the Sky’s White Rim Road which drops into the canyon and traces a 100-mile loop along the mesa, its ragged red cliffs towering above.
Go river rafting
Some visitors choose to see Canyonlands National Park and its iconic Cataract Canyon on rafting trips. Accessing Canyonlands by river is a way to get down in the heart of the canyon and see some things in the park that you wouldn’t see otherwise. Wildlife sightings are common with bighorn sheep frequenting the slopes above the river and bald eagles soaring overhead.
Western River Expeditions offers two- and four-day trips to the canyon both traversing the stretch of the Colorado River from Moab. Shorter rafting experiences that explore stretches of the Colorado River outside the park are available from Moab Adventure Center and other Moab-based outfitters such as Mild to Wild Rafting and Adrift Adventures.
Older adults and those who prefer tamer rafting could check out J-Rig trips. The J-Rigs are really big rafts with a lot of different seating flexibility and people can sit 20 feet back in the raft if they want a quieter experience,
With numerous camping options, an RV trip to Canyonlands is a breeze.
Let’s start with identifying the best time to plan your Canyonlands camping trip.
Winter can be challenging due to low temperatures that could harm an RV’s water system. Additionally, snow and ice can make travel difficult and potentially dangerous.
Summer camping in Canyonlands is a popular choice. However, Utah’s summer heat requires ample water and cooling methods. Note that in-park campgrounds do not offer hookups so if you need to run your RV air conditioner, consider staying outside the park.
I recommend spring and fall for Canyonlands camping. During these seasons, you’ll experience sunny days and cool nights, perfect for dry camping. If possible, plan your visit in April, May, October, or November.
Now that you know the best times for your Canyonlands camping adventure, let’s explore the best places to camp. The area offers a variety of options including in-park campgrounds, boondocking, and full-service RV parks.
Here are my top picks:
Island in the Sky Campground
Island in the Sky Campground is a small in-park campground near the visitor center. It offers 12 first-come, first-served campsites at $15 per night. While there are no hookups, you’ll find potable water outside the visitor center and amenities like toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground. This is really not a big rig-friendly campground but it is easy to maneuver and there are a couple spots that will accommodate a big rig.
The Needles Campground
The Needles Campground, another in-park option, offers 26 individual campsites and three group sites. Reservations are accepted from spring through fall with first-come, first-served availability during the rest of the year. The camping fee is $20 per night and amenities include toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings.
For free camping on government-owned land just a few minutes outside of Canyonlands National Park, consider Gemini Bridges Road Designated Dispersed Campsites. While amenities are non-existent, the location between two national parks and proximity to Moab makes it a fantastic choice for boondocking.
Sun Outdoors Moab Downtown
If you prefer a full-service camping experience, Sun Outdoors Downtown Moab is an excellent choice. Located in the heart of Moab, you can easily access shopping and dining. The campground offers full-hookup sites, a swimming pool, and clean restrooms with showers, ensuring a comfortable stay.
Most visitors to Canyonlands National Park base their stay in the lively outdoor adventure hub of Moab, the largest town (population 5,321) near the park. Once a ranching community and later a base of uranium mining, Moab has transformed into a hipster hangout with the arrival of mountain bikers and outdoor adventurers. It now buzzes with lively brewpubs and a constant stream of festivals and events such as the Moab Folk Festival in early November.
Never gone mountain biking before and want to try it? Rent a bike from one of Moab’s many cycle shops and ask directions to the Courthouse Wash Loop, an easy seven- to 10-mile (depending on preference) circuit around a wide-open bluff northwest of Moab. It’s gentle terrain with a little bit of singletrack, a little bit of slickrock, and a little bit of everything, so you can experience what riding here is all about.
Moab offers a wide range of camping and lodging options as well as an up-and-coming food scene for some creative dining.
Come morning, before heading into the park fuel up on pastries, huevos rancheros, or a sunrise panini at Love Muffin Café. After your exploring, quench your thirst with ales, IPAs, and stouts, and savor flavorful burgers in the capacious dining room at Moab Brewery or line up for crispy fried chicken and waffle fries at Doughbird.
If you’re planning to focus most of your time in the Needles District, the quiet mountain town of Monticello, 49 miles southeast of the Needles Park entrance offers several quality RV parks including Mountain View RV Park and Campground and Devil’s Canyon Campground.
Dead Horse Point State Park
Take a slight detour on the way to Island in the Sky from Moab to Dead Horse Point State Park. The park provides one of the best views in the area from a peninsula like spur that sticks out over a branch of the same Colorado River canyon country as Canyonlands National Park.
Drive the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway
When traveling to Canyonlands from the north replace the more direct U.S. Highway 191 with a tour down State Route 128, the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway. The route traverses broad valleys that may look familiar from starring roles in numerous Western films and presents a stunning photo op at a red rock Fisher Towers silhouetted against the La Sal Mountains.
Visit Arches National Park
Most people traveling to Canyonlands National Park combine their visit with Arches National Park, 26 miles to the northeast. The two parks make a perfect complement, doubling the fantastical appeal of water-carved, wind-burnished, and ice-chiseled rock markings.
Canyonlands National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.
Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:
Plus, most Americans say they don’t have much faith in airlines right now
Halloween is over, and pumpkins are being composted. And even if you aren’t someone who cues Mariah Carey’s holiday theme song as soon as the clock strikes midnight on November 1, you are already thinking about holiday travel.
And that’s going to be necessary considering that four different studies predict that most Americans will be traveling this season.
The 2023 holiday season is expected to be one the busiest on record with 122 million people or 63 percent of leisure travelers planning to travel between Thanksgiving and the New Year. Of those travelers, 20 million are planning to go RVing this holiday season, a 30 percent increase over 2022.
55 percent of RVers plan to take a trip within three hours of home allowing for less time on the road and more time enjoying friends and family over the holidays. Millennials are more likely to stay closer to home with 61 percent planning a trip within 3 hours while 43 percent of Boomer respondents said they are planning trips more than 16 hours from home.
According to the just-released RV Industry Association Holiday Travel Intentions Survey, the top reasons people are planning to go RVing are the love of road trips, the desire to travel in comfort, interest in exploring the great outdoors, and the affordability of RV travel. With RV vacations costing 50 percent less than comparable hotel and plane ride trips and a third less than hotel and car ride trips, RVing is an attractive option for people looking for the freedom to travel while also controlling their travel expenses.
Another top reason people are choosing RV travel is their pets. 60 percent of RVers are planning to bring their pets with them rather than boarding them over the holidays. Of those sharing the trip with their furry family members, 87 percent will travel with at least one dog and 52 percent will travel with at least one cat.
Not all will hit the road though. 56 percent of those planning to use an RV this holiday season will park it at home and use it for guest accommodations. 49 percent will use it as an extra kitchen for food prep and storage.
“With the rush and stress that comes with traditional travel during the holidays, people are choosing RVing as a way to still travel and see friends and family but do so in a more relaxed and comfortable way,” says Craig Kirby, President & CEO of the RV Industry Association. “Whether using an RV for guests or bringing your pets along for the ride, RVing allows people to spend more quality time with those they love this holiday season.”
A second survey conducted by Enterprise Mobility found that 56 percent of Americans surveyed are planning at least one overnight trip 50+ miles away from home between November 2023 and January 2024 with 61 percent of those trips to take place in an owned or rented vehicle this holiday season.
48 percent of trips are planned to take place in a personal vehicle, just over one in ten (11 percent) are anticipated to be a rental vehicle, and 2 percent plan to utilize a rideshare service.
Just over a quarter (28 percent) plan to use loyalty points toward booking travel and a third of those plan to use their points toward a rental vehicle.
Americans who are traveling are planning an average of two trips this season with Christmas being the most popular holiday for travel (66 percent) followed by Thanksgiving (49 percent).
Of all holiday trips planned in the U.S. more than half are to visit friends and family (58 percent) but almost one quarter (23 percent) are purely for leisure, a vacation getaway without visiting friends or family. And December is the busiest month for travel over the holiday season with 46 percent of all travel days happening in this month (departures and returns).
In addition, nearly half (46 percent) of trips are less than 200 miles from home and slightly more than half (54 percent) are 200 or more miles away.
Generationally, Millennials (age 27-42) are the most likely to have travel plans this holiday season (62 percent) while Generation Z (age 18-26) is the least likely (43 percent) and 53 percent of both Generation X (43-58) and Baby Boomers (59+) are planning to travel this holiday season. Of all the trips planned this season, Gen Z is least likely to have a trip planned to visit friends and family (47 percent) but most likely to have a vacation getaway planned, not visiting friends or family (27 percent).
When taking a holiday road trip the majority of Americans (90 percent) enjoy listening to at least some holiday music.
According to a survey conducted by Motel 6 of 2,000 Americans, 84 percent of respondents plan to travel to at least one gathering this year with at least 52 percent of respondents expecting to take multiple trips.
In another survey conducted by The Vacationer which polled 1,013 Americans, 67.23 percent of respondents said they plan on traveling for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or both. For Thanksgiving, specifically, The Vacationer study found that an estimated 117 million American adults plan to travel which was 2 percent more than last year’s estimates.
While the Motel 6 data and the Vacationer data differ, both studies show that well over half of the population plans to travel for the holidays. Given how crowded roads and airports were in recent years during the winter holidays this information serves as an indicator that we can expect the same thing this year.
There’s not much confidence in airlines from those who plan on traveling for the holidays which isn’t too surprising considering the delays, cancellations, and general chaos of recent years. The Vacationer study revealed that 59.23 percent of respondents have little to no confidence in airlines being able to avoid excessive delays and cancellations during the holidays.
Looking for more travel tips?
Whether you need destination guides or camping suggestions or make sure your RV is prepped for travel, I’ve got you covered. Keep reading for RV travel hacks and everything you need to help you plan your next big adventure.
Southward migration: underway! Sandhill cranes, ducks, and geese are arriving at Bosque del Apache! It is likely you will view them during your visit soon.
The world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
—Excerpt from the poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is located in San Antonio, Socorro County, New Mexico. Situated between the Chupadera Mountains to the west and the San Pascual Mountains to the east, the 57,331 acre Bosque del Apache was established in 1939 to provide a critical stopover site for migrating waterfowl. The refuge is well known for the tens of thousands of sandhill cranes, geese, and ducks who winter here each year. Over 30,000 acres of Bosque del Apache are designated wilderness.
Seasons of wildlife
While there is always something interesting to observe, you will find the greatest numbers of birds at the refuge from early November to late January. In the spring and fall, migratory bird species are moving through the refuge resulting in high numbers of species.
Each season, the Bosque del Apache offers unique bird and wildlife viewing opportunities. Peak visitation occurs in winter when bald eagles and thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese flock to the fields and marshes. Plan to visit the first week of December during the annual Festival of the Cranes. This world-famous event includes speakers, special tours, and arts and wildlife displays. More on the festival later
Winter (mid-November through late January)
Thousands of snow geese, Ross’s geese, and sandhill cranes spend the night in water to protect themselves from predators. Near dawn, the geese take off in a group in search of fields throughout the Middle Rio Grande Valley to feed in for the day. Smaller groups of sandhill cranes then leave the safety of the water for the same reason. Check the sunrise time and stop in the visitor center to learn the most recent roosting and feeding sites as they can change through the winter.
In addition to viewing cranes and geese and many species of ducks, you can drive the auto tour loop or hike the trails and see hawks, eagles, blackbirds, ravens, coots, and other birds along with occasional mammals such as mule deer, coyotes, and jackrabbits. Check in with the visitor center staff for recent sightings.
Spring (mid-February through mid-May)
The wetlands that were home to thousands of ducks, geese, and cranes all winter are slowly emptied of water in the spring providing prime feeding grounds for migrating sandpipers, stilts, plovers, dunlins, curlews, avocets, and twenty other shorebird species. Spring wildflowers add a bit more color to the landscape and greater roadrunners dart across and alongside the auto tour loop and Highway 1 in search of sluggish lizards and snakes.
Spring is also when flycatchers, vireos, and a dozen species of warblers filter through either as a rest stop on migration or as they determine the best locations for their nesting territories on the refuge.
Summer (mid-May through mid-September)
Summer is the time to see the colorful antics of black-chinned, calliope, broad-tailed, and rufous hummingbirds. The flowers of spring transition to the fruits of summer especially in the desert arboretum. Also look for the many young birds moving around the refuge. Some, like the quail, scurry around in long lines of a dozen or more.
Mornings and evenings are good times to view wildlife in the heat of the summer—most creatures will seek shade in the middle of the day. Near waterways are good places to search for wildlife and signs of wildlife (such as tracks).
Fall (mid-September through mid-November)
Late season sunflowers are a colorful contrast to the red-winged blackbirds that swoop and dart through the grasses. The first cranes and geese typically show up at the end of October during which time coyotes, mule deer, and javelina are moving through open fields as well. Wild turkeys begin moving to the northern part of the refuge to join up with other family groups in separate male and female roosting flocks.
The Dabbler Deck or Willow Deck are good places to take a break and search for ducks dabbling in the water for food especially the northern shovelers and northern pintails.
Because National Wildlife Refuges like Bosque del Apache are protected and managed lands, they can make ideal locations for the recovery of plant and animal species that are endangered, threatened, or have another special status through the Endangered Species Act. Bosque del Apache is a seasonal home to the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher and the threatened yellow-billed cuckoo. Bosque del Apache is a year-round home to the endangered New Mexico meadow jumping mouse and Rio Grande silvery minnow.
The waters, trees, and skies of Bosque del Apache yield a changing mix of birds throughout the seasons. Over 20 species of ducks and geese regularly spend part of their winters at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Seeds of grasses and sedges that have been growing all summer are the reward after migrating south for large numbers of northern pintail, northern shoveler, gadwall, and American wigeon. In summer, smaller numbers of Mexican duck, wood duck, and cinnamon teal may be found in the wetlands and ditches. Sandhill cranes are a winter visitor—typically from late October through late January.
34th annual Festival of the Cranes, December 6-9, 2023
Celebrate the return of the sandhill cranes at the 34th annual Festival of the Cranes, December 6-9, 2023 in Socorro. Join birding experts from near and far for a chance to learn about Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and many of New Mexico’s overwintering birds. The Festival offers over seventy creative workshops in the field at Bosque del Apache and indoor workshops at New Mexico Tech.
The Festival celebrates the survival and yearly migration of the enigmatic sandhill crane. The sandhill crane is an ancient species of waterfowl that migrates from Canada and the northern U.S. to winter in the Rio Grande Valley. The oldest fossil on record is 1.7 million years old. Both cranes and snow geese begin arriving in smaller numbers at the refuge in late October. By early December, tens of thousands of cranes and snow geese make the Middle Rio Grande Valley their home until they migrate back north in mid-February.
The most popular presenters will return to offer education and up-close viewings of wildlife. Festival workshops focus on photography, birding, and environmental education as well as offering hikes and historical tours of the area. Registration for the general public opened Wednesday, October 11. Workshops are filling up quickly but many still have plenty of space available. To register and learn more about this year’s Festival, click here (https://friendsofbosquedelapache.ticketspice.com/2023-festival-of-the-cranes-registration).
Field workshops will be outdoors at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge with buses taking registrants to various locations. Additionally, there will be three nighttime photography workshops at the Very Large Array on the San Agustin plains, one hour west of Socorro. Indoor workshops will meet in classrooms at Macey Center on the New Mexico Tech campus in Socorro.
Visit the Expo Room located in the downstairs and upstairs lobbies at NM Tech’s Macey Center for the opportunity to meet and explore unique offerings from several vendors including camera and optics companies, eco-tourism partners, and this year’s art contest winner, Lisa Benham. The Expo Room is free to enter and open to the public. Anyone coming to the Expo Room on the first day of Festival will receive a welcome packet with great coupons and other goodies.
What do people love about Festival of the Cranes? Guests who attended the 2022 Festival shared that they loved the sense of community the festival provided. “Being able to gather with people from around the world and of all ages in a unique environment was an unforgettable experience,” said one attendee. Other guests were amazed by the educational quality of the workshops and the new skills they learned. Many attendees appreciated the opportunity to be outdoors and experience the amazing sites, wildlife, and healing energy of nature.
Why: We gather to celebrate the annual return of sandhill cranes and the delicate oasis ecosystem that supports them at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Festival is an opportunity for people who care about New Mexico’s wildlife and wild places to have fun outside, meet like-minded people, and learn how to sharpen their birding and photography skills.
What: 34th Annual Festival of the Cranes
When: Wednesday, December 6-Saturday, December 9, 2023
Where: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (outdoor workshops) and New Mexico Tech (indoor seminars)
Cost: Varies with some events and activities cost-free.
Who’s Invited: EVERYONE! Visit the fragile oasis in the high desert—a rare jewel that has been cherished by New Mexicans from all walks of life for generations.
I saw them first many Novembers ago and heard their triumphant trumpet calls, a hundred or more sandhill cranes riding south on a thermal above the Rio Grande Valley, and that day their effortless flight and their brassy music got into my soul.
Wondering where to travel in December? Why not opt for a nature getaway and visit one of America’s National Parks in December!
The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or at lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.
The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including Arches, Great Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 424 NPS units across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials. These sites are outside the main focus of this guide.
Which are the best national parks to visit in December? In this guide, I list five beautiful national parks plus six bonus parks and a road trip. Whether you are planning a family getaway during Christmas break or a vacation before the holiday season rolls around, I have lots of great ideas for you.
About this National Park series
This article is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year.
These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, I picked out what I think are the optimal times to visit each park. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at lease one occasion.
For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out my Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide will cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels. Please note this overview will be posted following the completion of this 12 month guide in February 2024.
And at the end of this article, I have links to the other guides in my Best National Parks by Month series.
Visiting the National Parks in December
December is a unique month to visit the national parks. The month starts out quiet. Many people are shopping, decorating, and getting ready for the upcoming holidays at the end of the month. This makes early December a very quiet time to visit the national parks.
The week between Christmas and New Year’s is a very popular time for people to travel and the national parks get a big spike in visitors. It’s one of the biggest travel weeks of the year. It can be considerably more expensive to travel the last week of December than the first week of December and camping reservations are difficult to find.
If you have flexibility for your travel dates it’s best to plan your trip for early December or wait until January.
Another thing to note is that in December, the days are the shortest of the year. In some places you may have less than eight hours of daylight. If you are planning long day trips or long, busy days in the national parks keep in mind that by 4:30 pm it could be getting dark giving you very limited sightseeing time. I provide the sunrise and sunset times for each park, a very important detail to note this time of year.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The information I provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures since these dates are constantly changing. Since roads can close in the national parks at any time, I recommend getting updates on the NPS website while planning your trip.
Best National Parks in December
1. Zion National Park
If you have been reading these guides, you might notice by now that I recommend Zion primarily for the shoulder-season months (late fall through very early spring). Zion National Park is the third most popular national parks in the US with over 4.6 milluin visitors in 2022 so for the best experience I recommend it for the months when crowds are at their lowest.
In December, the weather is chilly in Zion but there are several advantages to visiting the park at this time.
Early in the month, not only are crowds lower but you can also drive on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive in your own car. For most of the year, private vehicles are not permitted on this road. December, January, and February are the three months that you can drive on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (with the exception of the period between Christmas and New Year’s).
Since visitation is low, scoring a permit to hike Angels Landing is also easier.
For those of you who want to visit the park when it is the least crowded early to mid-December is a great time as is January.
Angels Landing and the Zion Narrows are two bucket-list worthy hikes that attract thousands of visitors every year. Angels Landing is one of the most popular destinations in Zion. Everyone who hikes Angels Landing requires a permit. You also need a permit to hike the Narrows from the Temple of Sinawava going upstream in the Virgin River. Since high water may prevent travel in the Narrows, check the park’s current conditions before you start your day.
But there are also numerous short, family-friendly hikes to choose from as well as multi-day backpacking adventures and hikes that require canyoneering experience.
Why visit Zion in December: To avoid the crowds. Early December is one of the quietest times to visit the park in terms of visitation (but crowds skyrocket between Christmas and New Year’s). You can even drive your car on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive since the park shuttle does not operate at this time (except for the week between Christmas and New Year’s).
Weather: The average high is 53°F and the average low is 30°F so Zion is chilly in December. But during periods of unusually warm weather it can get into the 70s.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 5:15 pm.
Top experiences: Hike Angels Landing, Observation Point, Hidden Canyon, Riverside Trail, Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, and Canyon Overlook. One of the best experiences in the park is hiking the Zion Narrows.
Ultimate Adventure: In December, you can hike the Zion Narrows from the bottom-up, just be aware that water temperatures are going to be very cold at this time.
How much time do you need? If you like to hike, plan to spend at least 3 to 4 days in Zion National Park. You can do three big hikes (one each morning) or use two of the days for a multi-day backpacking adventure. This also gives you time to explore Kolob Canyons at the northern section of the park.
Grand Canyon National Park is wonderful in December. Yes, it is cold. And yes, it can snow but that makes it even more beautiful.
Winter is sometimes called the secret season at the Grand Canyon. It’s the season when the skies are the clearest, the temperatures are the coolest, and the tourist numbers are at the lowest—meaning it’s an excellent time to visit.
The first thing to know about visiting Grand Canyon National Park in winter is that the North Rim is NOT open to vehicles between October and May. But the South Rim (where the majority of people go anyway) is still fully operational.
December is also a great time to go hiking.
The Grand Canyon is a magical place to visit all year long but around the winter holiday season it becomes even more special.
Why visit the Grand Canyon in December: Crowds are low early in the month and then really pick up between Christmas and New Year’s. The Grand Canyon makes a great winter break destination and you can combine it with Las Vegas or destinations in Arizona such as Sedona or Monument Valley.
Weather: The average high is only 43°F and the average low is 18°F. Snow is also a possibility this time of year. If you hike below the rim, the temperature gets considerably warmer the closer you get to the Colorado River.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5:10 pm.
Top experiences: Visit the South Rim viewpoints, watch the sunset, hike below the rim on the Bright Angel or South Kaibab Trail, and take a flightseeing tour.
Ultimate adventure: In the winter, hike the South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails as one big loop. This is a big day hike and only those who are very fit with lots of hiking experience should attempt it.
How much time do you need? I recommend spending three to four days on the South Rim to visit the highlights. Three days gives you enough time to visit the best overlooks on the South Rim, go on a helicopter ride, and spend some time hiking below the rim.
Capitol Reef National Park is full of many wonderful surprises. With an amazing scenic drive, hiking trails that rival those in Zion, rugged, remote areas to explore by 4×4, short, easy slot canyons to hike, and historical landmarks, this is one of my favorite national parks.
Most people drive right through the heart of the park visiting the sights along Highway 24 which are nice. But those who venture farther into the park either on the hiking trails or the backcountry roads are rewarded with incredible views of remote, rugged landscapes.
If you don’t like cold temperatures, you might want to avoid this park (and visit Saguaro instead) but this is a great time to road trip through Utah’s Mighty 5 and have lower crowds.
Why visit Capitol Reef in December: Crowds are low since the weather is so cool. Capitol Reef is a great place to add onto a Utah road trip throughout the month of December.
Weather: In December, the average high is 40°F and the average low is 21°F. There is the chance that light snow can fall in December.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5 pm.
Top experiences: Drive the 16-mile round-trip drive along Scenic Drive, drive Capitol Gorge Road, hike to Hickman Bridge, and watch the sunset from Sunset Point, hike to Cassidy Arch, and Loop the Fold.
Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure, drive the Cathedral Valley Loop. This rugged, remote district of Capitol Reef National Park is one of the best backcountry experiences in the national parks if you like exploring by 4WD.
How much time do you need? Plan to spend three to four days in Capitol Reef. This gives you enough time to explore and hike the trails in the core of the park (along Scenic Drive and Highway 24) and venture into the backcountry either in Cathedral Valley or by looping the fold.
Canyonlands National Park is made of up several districts. Island in the Sky which is located west of Moab is the most popular district to visit. This is the place to see Mesa Arch, hike to Upheaval Dome, and enjoy the many viewpoints with sweeping views from the top of the Island in the Sky mesa.
The Needles is an awesome place to go hiking. Located farther away from Moab than Island in the Sky, fewer people venture here. But with zebra-striped sandstone spires and a cool slot canyon to explore, this is a unique, less crowded area of the park to visit.
Why visit Canyonlands in December: If you have plans to visit Arches National Park (mentioned next), Canyonlands is well worth adding on to your visit. It will be colder here due to its higher elevation but this is a beautiful park to see with a dusting of snow. For warmer temperatures, spend your time at the Needles District, rather than Island in the Sky (it will be about 5 degrees warmer).
Weather: The average high is 37°F and the average low is 23°F at Island in the Sky. Precipitation is low and typically falls as snow. Even though Canyonlands sits next to Arches National Park it is at a higher elevation so the temperatures are a bit lower here.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5 pm.
Top Experiences: Visit the overlooks on Island in the Sky, watch the sunrise at Mesa Arch, go hiking in The Needles, drive Shafer Canyon Road, and hike below the rim of the Island in the Sky mesa.
Ultimate adventure: Drive or mountain bike the White Rim Road. This is a 100-mile unpaved road that makes a loop around the Island in the Sky mesa. It takes 2 to 3 days to do this drive. It can be done in the winter but snow can close Shafer Canyon Road and cold temperatures will make camping uncomfortable for some people.
How much time do you need? You need at least two full days in Canyonlands National Park. Spend one day in Island in the Sky and one day in the Needles. But even more time is better if you want to venture deeper into the park.
Arches National Park with its iconic arches and unique rock formations is one of the most recognizable parks in the US. Delicate Arch is the number one landmark to see inside of the park but lots of other wonderful adventures.
Drive Scenic Drive for beautiful views of the park, gaze up at Balanced Rock, hike through Park Avenue, and photograph the Windows Arches and Turret Arch.
The best hike in the park is Devils Garden. You can keep the hike short and sweet, turning around at Landscape Arch. But for those who want to venture farther you can see eight arches in just one hike.
November is another fantastic month to visit Arches National Park.
Why visit Arches in December: For low crowds, at least early in the month. However, I think Arches and Canyonlands makes a great winter break destination since these are fun parks to take the kids. If you have warmer than average days, that’s great, but to see the parks with a little bit of snow is magical especially around the holidays.
Weather: The average high is 42°F and the average low is 24°F. On warmer than average days, the temperature can get into the 60s. There is a chance a few inches of snow can fall in December.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5 pm.
Top experiences: Hike to Delicate Arch, see Balanced Rock and the Fiery Furnace, visit Double Arch, Turret Arch, and Windows Arch, hike Park Avenue.
Ultimate Adventure: Hike the Devils Garden Trail. To reach Landscape Arch, one of the most iconic arches in the park, it is only 1.6 miles round trip. But for the ultimate adventure, continue past Landscape Arch to Double O Arch and Dark Angel and return on the Primitive Trail.
How much time do you need? One day in Arches is all you need to see the highlights but it will be a very busy day. With two to three days, you can visit the park at a more leisurely pace or go off the beaten path.
Temperatures are mild in Joshua Tree National Park in December with the average high coming in about 58°F. This is a great park to escape the cold, wintry conditions and makes a great add-on to a visit to Las Vegas, Death Valley, Palm Desert, or San Diego.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon did not make my December list since it is so cold this month. In December, the high temperature struggles to get above freezing with the average high in the mid 30s and the average low in the teens. Snowfall is likely.
If you don’t mind the cold weather and like the idea of seeing Bryce Canyon with a dusting of snow, December makes a great time to visit this park. It also completes the road trip to Utah’s Mighty 5 since the other four parks made my December list.
Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in December
Tumacácori National Historic Park
The oldest Jesuit mission in Arizona has been preserved in Tumacácori National Historic Park, a picturesque reminder that Southern Arizona was, at one time, the far northern frontier of New Spain. The San Cayetano del Tumacácori Mission was established in 1691 by Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, 29 miles north of Nogales beside the Santa Cruz River.
Chiricahua National Monument
The most noticeable natural features in Chirichua National Monument are the rhyolite rock pinnacles for which the monument was created to protect. Rising sometimes hundreds of feet into the air, many of these pinnacles are balancing on a small base, seemingly ready to topple over at any time.
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument contains an imposing four-story building dating from the late Hohokam period probably 14th century and contemporary with other well preserved ruins in Arizona such as the Tonto and Montezuma Castle national monuments. The structure was once part of a collection of settlements scattered along the Gila River and linked by a network of irrigation canals.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, a rare species in the U.S. The organ pipe cactus can live to over 150 years in age, have up to 100 arms, reach 25 feet in height, and will only produce their first flower near the age of 35.
December road trip ideas
The American Southwest
Spend 7 to 10 days road tripping through the American Southwest visiting the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon (if you don’t mind the very cold temperatures here). This road trip also includes Sedona, Monument Valley, and Antelope Canyon. It can be chilly/cold particularly in the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon but some places warm up very nicely midday such as Monument Valley.
Snowbirds migrate from the northern reaches of the continent to the Sun Belt when the weather starts to get cold and snowy just like millions of actual birds that migrate back and forth every year. And just like the flocks of birds that follow familiar routes, RV snowbirds tend to make this journey on a few well-traveled arterials.
The two major routes connecting these two seasonal zones are the two interstate highways near the west and east coastlines. That would be I-5 in the west and I-95 in the east.
Although there are several north-south interstate routes in the interior of the continent, these two main routes carry the bulk of RV snowbirds simply because the coastal regions of the continent are the most densely populated areas; therefore, there are more RVers in the coastal states and more RV snowbirds.
Interstate 5 is the best RV driving route if you are on the West Coast of the U.S. or Western Canada. It is a well-maintained, RV-friendly route that stretches from Vancouver, British Columbia to the Mexico border.
The highest elevation along this route is the Siskiyou Summit in Southern Oregon just north of the California border. Siskiyou Summit is 4,310 feet above sea level with numerous steep grades on both sides of the summit.
If you intend to travel on I-5 from late fall to early spring, be sure to check the weather conditions in the Siskiyou Pass before you try to climb that mountain range with your RV and discover it is covered in snow, and chains are required.
The steep grade in the mountains is not the only challenge on this snowbird route. Large sections of I-5 go through state and national forests and wildlife abounds along this route. Daytime driving and extra caution are recommended to avoid a collision with wildlife that might happen to venture into the roadway.
Other sections of I-5 may have dangerous winds which may affect your RV’s stability. One of the most notorious sections of I-5 for dangerous winds is the Grapevine which serpentines up through the Tejon Pass at 4,144 feet. This 40-mile section of road north of Los Angeles has several sections with steep grades, high winds, and occasional snow.
As with the Siskiyou Summit, it would be prudent to check with the California Department of Transportation regarding driving conditions in Tejon Pass before embarking on that part of your journey.
Where to go camping on I-5
You can drive from Vancouver, British Columbia to San Diego, California on Interstate 5 and I suggest you take your time to enjoy the diverse and beautiful scenery as well as some of the most productive agricultural land in the country.
If you’re looking for great campsites on I-5, check out Seven Feathers Casino RV Resort in Canyonville, Oregon (Exit 99) and Red Bluff KOA Journey in Red Bluff, California (Exit 649). See photos above.
The other main coastal route for snowbirds runs down the eastern seaboard from the Canadian border in northern Maine to the Florida Keys.
This interstate is over 1,900 miles in total length and it is the longest north-south interstate highway in the US. I-95 goes through 15 different East Coast states. It is the best RV driving route on the East Coast and is used by thousands of Canadian and U.S. snowbirds every year.
Many of the secondary routes in the east are older construction and can be a problem for big rigs because these secondary routes may have low overpasses, narrow bridges, or weight restrictions. Consequently, I-95 is the most popular route in the east because it’s beautifully maintained and appropriate for all types of RVs.
Most of the major cities along I-95 can be circumvented by using bypass routes.
Where to camping on Interstate 95
If you’re looking for midpoint RV parks on I-95, check out New Green Acres in Waterboro, South Carolina, and Coastal Georgia RV Resort in Brunswick, Georgia. See photos above.
Interior snowbird routes
The two main coastal routes carry the bulk of RV snowbirds between their summer and winter destinations. But if you are in the middle of the US or Canada, you might not want to drive to one of the coastal routes to make your north or south snowbird journey.
If you’re starting from a location in the interior of the continent you can use one of these alternate routes to migrate south for the winter or north for the summer. As you can readily see, the Interstate numbering system uses integers of 5 for major routes with a north-south orientation.
The following is not a comprehensive list of all north-south routes but these are the major thoroughfares and some of the best RV driving routes for snowbirds.
I-5 connects California, Oregon, and Washington as well as British Columbia.
I-15 connects Southern California, Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Alberta.
I-25 connects New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Manitoba. I-25 ends in Northern Wyoming but turns into I-90 which continues into Montana and points beyond.
I-45 and I-35 connect Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, and Ontario.
I-55 connects Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois. I-55 ends in Chicago but a multitude of connecting interstates continue up either side of Lake Michigan and eventually arrive in Ontario.
I-65 and I-75 connect Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, and Ontario.
I-95 as mentioned before goes up the east coast of the US, through Maine and gives you access to all the maritime provinces of Canada.
In addition to all these major freeways, you could follow the iconic Route 66 from Los Angeles to Chicago for your northbound snowbird journey or go from Chicago to LA on your southern journey.
However, Route 66 is not a freeway. In many places, it literally is Main Street in dozens and dozens of small towns in the West and Midwest.
This route is scenic and historic but not necessarily appropriate for big rig RVs. If you’re in an area of the country near part of this epic roadway, it might be worth a side trip just to say you were on Route 66 and to see for yourself what it’s like.
If you have a smaller RV, van, or small trailer you could probably follow the entire route.
Plan your RV driving routes
The best RV driving route for snowbirds may be the one closest to your starting point or it may be the one furthest away. After all, half the fun of RVing is getting there. Can you think of a better RV adventure than taking a road you’ve never traveled before?
It’s all about discovering new places, people, cuisine, cultures, and scenery. If you’re a regular RV snowbird, you could take a different route every time you go north or south until you have experienced them all.