The Top Hidden Gems for Snowbirds: Find Your New Winter Escape

This study identifies a collection of hidden gem cities—warm places waiting to be discovered by those keen on avoiding the cold and the crowds. Architectural Digest ranked 75 U.S. cities based on various factors to guide you to these notable locales.

Snow and chilly weather aren’t for everyone. Many choose to head to warmer climates during the colder months. If you’re a snowbird seeking a retreat outside popular sun-soaked places this winter, you’ve landed in the right place.

Mobile, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Key findings

  • The number one hidden gem destination for snowbirds is New Orleans
  • The snowbird destination with the greatest selection of activities is Sedona
  • Mobile, Alabama, has the highest-rated light-traffic outdoor trails
  • Ajo, Arizona, has the most affordable homes on Zillow with an average cost of $161,048; Santa Barbara, California has the most expensive at more than $3.7 million
  • Maui has the best weather score with average daily winter temperatures near 80 degrees Fahrenheit
Ajo, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ranking the best winter escapes

Architectural Digest ranked cities based on housing and lodging availability, Yelp ratings for activities and eateries, home sale prices, and winter weather conditions to determine the best cities for snowbirds. To ensure these destinations are hidden gems, each location boasts establishments with high ratings—between four and five stars on Yelp—but only six to 75 reviews indicating that they are still relatively undiscovered.

Considering these factors, they assigned each of the 75 cities in this study a national ranking from 1 to 75.

Their research uncovered common traits among the top-ranked winter escape cities: pleasant weather throughout the winter months, unique experiences, and highly rated yet lesser-known establishments. These locations also had many homes for sale on Zillow or lodging options on Yelp catering to both seasonal tourists and those seeking a more permanent residence. Below, I explore the distinct qualities that set each of the top five cities apart from one another.

New Orleans, Louisiana

  • Overall rank: First
  • Housing and lodging availability: First
  • Activities and dining: Third

New Orleans scored 86.9 out of 100 points securing the top spot overall and for housing and lodging availability. The city’s blend of French, Spanish, and African cultural heritage coupled with its many festivals, dining, and entertainment options make it a top choice for a winter escape.

Corkscrew Sanctuary near Naples, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Naples, Florida

  • Overall rank: Second
  • Housing and lodging availability: Second
  • Activities and dining: Fourteenth

Nestled within the Sunshine State, Naples boasts pristine beaches and an upscale way of life establishing itself as an ideal haven for a sun-soaked seasonal getaway. With a commendable 10th place in the weather category and beautiful Floridian homes widely available, its appeal is undeniable.

Honolulu, Hawaii

  • Overall rank: Third
  • Housing and lodging availability: Eighth
  • Activities and dining: Second

Honolulu is the vibrant heart of Hawaii offering more than just postcard-perfect beaches and swaying palm trees. Located on the southern shore of the island of Oahu, this tropical paradise provides a harmonious blend of natural beauty and urban sophistication. With a high rank in housing and lodging availability, you’ll likely be able to find a luxurious island home here for the winter.

Palm Springs, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palm Springs, California

  • Overall Rank: Fourth
  • Housing and lodging availability: Fourth
  • Activities and dining: Fifth

This Sonoran Desert jewel is a hidden gem in the Coachella Valley offering a unique blend of relaxation and midcentury-modern charm. Despite its property costs and weather rankings at 48th and 43rd, respectively, Palm Springs still holds allure as an under-the-radar winter escape with many housing, activity, and dining options.

Riparian Preserve in Gilbert, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gilbert, Arizona

  • Overall Rank: Fifth
  • Housing and lodging availability: 38th
  • Activities and dining: First

Located southeast of Phoenix in the Valley of the Sun, Gilbert is a true hidden gem waiting to be discovered. While its 38th position in housing and lodging might suggest limited availability, it shines brilliantly as the number-one location for activities and dining.

The study as a whole has limited use for RV snowbirds since a key focus of the researchers was housing and lodging availability and cost. As a result, I will focus the remaining portion of this article on factors relevant to RV snowbirds: eateries and walking trails.

Average winter daily temperatures and UV index were of limited use since the top three locations were Maui, Honolulu, and Key West. But how practical is it to get your RV there?

I’ve identified hidden gem cities for snowbirds based on several key factors all determining whether a city is an ideal escape during the winter months. I’ve spotlighted each category below to further explain how cities fared across the rankings. The key factors/categories I’ve selected—eateries, activities, and trails—are relevant for most RV snowbirds.

Number of highly-rated hidden gem eateries and bars:

  • Gilbert, Arizona (150)
  • New Orleans, Louisiana (107)
  • Palm Springs, California (86)

Number of highly-rated hidden gem activies:

  • Sedona, Arizona (109)
  • Honolulu, Hawaii (97)
  • Santa Barbara, California (29)

Percentage of total walking trails with high ratings and low traffic on AllTrails

  • Mobile, Alabama (68 percent)
  • Yuma, Arizona (62 percent)
  • Idyllwild, California (60 percent)

Other categories including the number of homes for sale in Zillow and the number of highly rated hidden gem lodging options were also included in the rating but unrelated to RV snowbirds and thus omitted  in this article,

Where to Go to Escape the Snow

Planning for a future RV snowbird road trip? Need to know where it doesn’t snow? Here are the top six states with the least snow to get you started on your plans.

Keep reading…

The Best RV Driving Routes for Snowbirds

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.

Keep reading…

Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12 of the Best State Parks for Snowbirds

It doesn’t matter if you’re looking for a well-developed RV site with all the bells and whistles or a wooded tent spot far from any sort of road or development, there’s a state park campsite for you. To lend a hand—there are over 10,000 state parks, after all—I’ve profiled a list of some of the best campsites in state parks that are known for their popularity and unique beauty.

Keep reading…

Worth Pondering…

My parents didn’t want to move to Florida but they turned sixty and that’s the law.

—Jerry Steinfeld

What is the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch?

Over 4.5 miles of trails weave through the park welcoming hikers, runners, bikers, horseback riders, wildlife watchers, and casual strollers

Gilbert, Arizona is located 17 southeast of Phoenix and offers a wide variety of activities but one of its biggest attractions is also one of its most natural: the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch.

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert was developed in 1999 to provide a combination of three functions: a recreational and educational area, a facility for water reclamation, and a wildlife habitat.

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Riparian Preserve is easy to access and enjoy with 4.5 miles of trails both paved and unpaved for walking, biking, hiking, or horseback riding. Plus, it’s pet-friendly so you can bring your beloved pooch along as long as it’s cool enough for them (tip: if you’re visiting Gilbert during the summer you’ll want to visit the preserve in the early morning or later at night to avoid dangerous levels of heat).

Ring-necked duck at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational & Educational Area

The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert offers a multitude of recreational and educational opportunities for all ages. There are over four and a half miles of trails throughout with several interpretive education panels on vegetation and wildlife along the walkways. Other educational spaces include a hilltop outdoor classroom, dinosaur dig site, a state-of-the-art observatory, and hummingbird plus butterfly gardens, to name a few. The Gilbert Trail System connects with the Preserve’s trails which allows for hikers, casual walkers, leashed and behaved dogs, also horses on specific equestrian trails.

Related article: 15 Amazing Places to Discover in Phoenix

There are seating and viewing areas along the Preserve’s paths. Restrooms and drinking fountains are also onsite. Several ramadas and campsites for group gatherings are available by reservation.

Another huge recreational benefit offered is the Water Ranch Lake for fishing. As a part of the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Community Fishing Program, those looking to fish for rainbow trout, sunfish, largemouth bass, and farm-raised channel catfish can do so with a proper fishing license.

Northern shoveler at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Water Reclamation Facility

Seventy acres of the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch’s 110 total acres comprises seven water recharge basins for 100 percent of Gilbert’s treated effluent water each filled on a rotating basis. For those of you, like me, who feel compelled to Google the word effluent to get a better understanding of its meaning this is for you. Per Wikipedia, “Effluent is an outflowing of water or gas to a natural body of water from a structure such as a wastewater treatment plant, sewer pipe, or industrial outfall.”

Related article: Amazing Places to Discover in Phoenix’s East Valley

American Avocet at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to the seven percolating ponds there is also a recreational urban fishing lake filled with reclaimed water. Also, one of the ponds contains a unique, desert-like distribution stream. The Water Ranch in the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch combines the Town of Gilbert Drinking Water Treatment Plant, the Southeast Regional Library building, Fire Station, Nichols Park, and the Salt River Project Eastern Canal. The Water Ranch property stretches from Greenfield Road east to Higley Road containing most of the land between Guadalupe Road and the utility easement.

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife Habitat

Arizona wildlife including birds, butterflies, insects, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and mammals call Gibert’s Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch home in its various vegetative zones of native riparian, marshlands, and upland vegetation areas. Let’s delve into the birds a little more; the Preserve is a bird watchers paradise with 298 species of birds identified. The National Audubon Society has also designated the Riparian Preserve as an Important Bird Area. Plus, there is a designated garden exclusively for hummingbirds and butterflies. For a close-up view of fish and ducks the urban recreational lake provides guests with a floating boardwalk that crosses the northern end.

Black-necked stilt at Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Programs

There are a variety of programs from public, school to youth and Scout offered at the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch. Public programs such as bird walks with Desert Rivers Audubon, The Gilbert Rotary Centennial Observatory’s Skywatch featuring a 16-inch Meade state-of-the-art telescope managed by the East Valley Astronomy Club, Naturalist Guided Preserve Tours, and the Outdoor Learning Project answering questions like “Can I Feed the Ducks?”.

Related article: Explore Phoenix Naturally

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Preserve is an excellent field trip destination for surrounding schools to offer a multitude of fun engaging environmental studies of birds, insects, desert life, Arizona groundwater, pollination, fossils, solar energy, and plants. Scout and Youth Groups also enjoy the Riparian Preserve with nature hikes, overnight camping, scout badge work, dinosaur digs, astronomy viewings, and group lessons on wildlife, water, plants, ecology, and conservation.

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Photo Opportunities

The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch offers a fantastic place as a wildlife habitat, water reclamation facility, and community recreational go-to spot. Still, there are extra benefits to be enjoyed. The Preserve might be the place for you if you’re looking for the perfect backdrop for a family or special event portrait. Or perhaps you’re adding to your nature photography portfolio. It might be safe to say many are looking for ways to make their Instagram pop. Can you say fascinating wildlife, stunning sunsets, gorgeous waterways, tranquil colors, and light? Yes, yes, you can. The bottom line is that there are multiple dynamic photo opportunities for cell phone cameras as well as novice and professional photographers at Gilbert’s Riparian Preserve.

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hours & Parking

The Gilbert Parks and Recreation Department manages the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch. Hours are from 5:30 am to 10:00 pm with the habitat area open dawn to dusk. The Preserve is at the southeast corner of East Guadalupe Road and North Greenfield Road. The most available parking is on the north and west sides of Maricopa County’s Southeast Regional Library at the furthermost northwest corner of the park near the community fishing lake. Additional limited parking is located on the north side of the park off of E Guadalupe Road.

Related article: Family-friendly Road Trips Through Arizona: Phoenix and Tucson

Worth Pondering…

Observe the wonders as they occur around you. Don’t claim them. Feel the artistry moving through and be silent.

—Jalal Ad-Din Rumi