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Ideas for winter road trip in the US

Saint Louis...
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Ideas for winter road trip in the US

Hi everyone,

I'm a French grad student staying in the US for an exchange program and I'm trying to find interesting ideas for road trips this winter—I'll have about a month of vacation from approx. Dec 15 to Jan 15, so this is the right time for me to explore the country. Too bad it's going to be winter though... I have plenty of ideas but I'm not quite sure about some of them because I'm afraid they might not be worth visiting in the winter, and that's why I'm writing this post. Basically, I'll have opportunities to travel this winter but also in May-June so if some places that I'd like to go to are not worth it in the winter I could wait until the summer.

Let me explain a little bit so you know what I mean by "not worth it". I don't mind if the weather is not at its best, I went on a road trip in Dec of 2011 to Vegas and the National Parks of Nevada, Arizona, Utah and then California (Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Monument Valley, Arches, Yosemite etc...) and I thought it was absolutely fantastic. It was cold for sure but the parks were still accessible by car and I didn't feel the winter made the parks less enjoyable in any way, the snow actually made them look really beautiful. The only exception here might be Yosemite which had rather bare plants and trees at this time of year.

Now, I don't know about all the natural parks in the US. One idea I had for this winter was to go to Yellowstone but I've heard that the majority of roads were closed and that you had to use snow shuttles to get around, and then snowshoes to go hiking etc... Now, that's something I wouldn't really like, because I'll be travelling on a budget and I'm not willing to pay for shuttles and the equipment needed to explore the park, and I'm not a big fan of winter activities like skiing or snowshoeing. At least that's not what I want to get out of my vacation.

Another idea I had for this winter was to explore the Seattle area: first of all Seattle, Portland and maybe Vancouver, plus the natural riches of the area: Snowqualmie falls, Mt Rainier, the Olympic Peninsula... I'm not worried about the cities, but are those natural places (plus any other interesting natural attractions in the area that I forgot to mention or don't know about) nice to visit in the winter? By which I mean, are they accessible and is the nature still beautiful at this time of year? Or would it be a better idea to go there in May or June?

If it turns out that Yellowstone and Seattle would be better in the summer, then I'd have to find other ideas for road-trips for this winter... I was thinking of visiting Savannah and Charleston, visiting Texas (I was thinking of going through Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio but I don't know too much about those cities, maybe some of them aren't that interesting), or taking a road-trip in the Southwest, around Phoenix and Tucson and maybe New Mexico. Another idea would be to go to Hawaii even though flight tickets would be more expensive (around $600). I also thought Florida could be a good idea but I don't know what's interesting to see there.

Also, I've already visited Louisiana and coastal California quite extensively so I'm not considering going there this winter, and I currently live in St Louis. I'm mostly interested in urban cultural activities and architecture, and natural scenic landscapes in general: I like desert, sea, forest and mountain landscapes.

Feel free to give me your opinion about all this, it would be greatly appreciated!

Atlanta, Georgia
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1. Re: Ideas for winter road trip in the US

I will vote for Charleston, Savannah, Amelia Island, St. Augustine, etc. and could also add in the Okefenokee Swamp and Golden Isles of GA including Cumberland Island national seashore. This would give you SC, GA and FL where climate will be warmer.

My other suggestion would be the Austin, San Antonio, and Texas Hill Country. We were there last December and had beautiful weather. This is a very interesting area and my favorite of all the places to visit in Texas.

Cleveland
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2. Re: Ideas for winter road trip in the US

Pierre-Louis, welcome to TA and the road trips forum.

Florida would offer many options but wouldn't be cheap in winter. Texas and the southwest also would be good, but Arizona and New Mexico also are "snow bird" destinations, likely raising lodging costs.

For a different budget trip, given your interests, check out the availability of hostels for the likes of Washington, DC, and NYC. NYC especially would be a great place to visit during the holiday season. It's magical. You could save some money by taking a bus to Washington, DC., then using Amtrak train or buses (Greyhound, Megabus, of Bolt) between northeast corridor cities.

You could rent cars locally for road trips, avoiding drop charges. There's much to see in the Greater Washington area, such as Williamsburg during its 18th century holiday celebration, Mount Vernon, Monticello (along with the Univ. of Virginia, making Charlottesville a top architectural destination), and much more.

I believe Chicago has a hostel and Cleveland has a well-rated one by TA reviewers in its market district (see West Side Market in the following travel article). The Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall also is the thing of memories in the holiday season. As a grad student, if you check sufficiently early, you may be able to get discounted tickets. Ditto, for the many events at PlayhouseSquare (also check "smart seats" there), one of the nation's great theater districts. The Cleveland Museum of Art, one of the best in the nation, and an architectural wonder, has no admission charge. I. M. Pei's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum has become a Cleveland architectural icon.

tripadvisor.com/Travel-g50207-c198218/Clevel…

The Arcade, Terminal Tower and Tower City, West Side Market, Soldiers and Sailors Monument, the world-renown Cleveland Clinic's Crile Building, Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, Frank Gehry's Peter B. Lewis Building at Case Western Reserve University, PlayhouseSquare theaters, and Severance Hall, Cleveland's "Taj Mahal," are among the significant architectural accomplishments in Cleveland and all easily visited using public transport.

http://www.bluffton.edu/~sullivanm/ohio/cleveland/crile/pelli.html

http://www.bluffton.edu/~sullivanm/ohio/cleveland/gehry/lewis.html

Cleveland also has a brand new convention center and the nation's only medical merchandise mart, the newly opened Global Center for Health Innovation.

cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2013/10/aft…

A road trip from Cleveland and back, given your interests might include the Holden Arboretum and the Kirtland Temple in Kirtland, the ASM Geodesic Dome in Russell Township, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Stan Hywet Hall in Akron, the Butler Institute of American Art and Mill Creek Park in Youngstown, Ohio Amish Country southwest of Canton, Malabar Farm State Park in Ohio's Mohican region (see if the hostel there is open in the winter), and the Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art (also free admission), and Oberlin College, one of the nation's most historic liberal art colleges, with one of the nation's best university art museums, and with a collection of architectural gems. All are discussed in the following travel article.

tripadvisor.com/Travel-g50207-s407/Cleveland…

…cleveland.com/architecture/2010/06/oberlin_…

Megabus offers service between NYC, Cleveland, and Chicago. Train service also is available.

Chicago obviously is an architectural wonder if you haven't visited it yet.

In the height of winter in January, a road trip around Lake Michigan from Chicago and back, or even perhaps into Minnesota (check out winter activities in Brainerd, MN, a popular winter destination), could be beautiful. Especially check out Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, the Mackinac Bridge, and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Copy and paste (or search Google for "randomspace Ann Arbor Mt. Evans") this website for many winter experiences in the region, especially Michigan.

http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jensenl/visuals/album/

You likely would run into some bad weather, but perhaps not. Global warming has significantly muted winters in the Great Lakes region. E.g., ice cover on the Great Lakes has been greatly reduced.

This would be a memorable, potentially relatively inexpensive adventure, and a unique chance to experience America in winter as lived by a significant portion of the nation's population.

Good planning!

Seattle, Washington
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3. Re: Ideas for winter road trip in the US

Can we assume you're using your own vehicle or are you considering flying somewhere and renting a car as an option?

You say you've visited "coastal California quite extensively." Does that include the redwood forests between San Francisco and the Oregon state line? If not, then I would propose one possible itinerary that might be of interest.

Follow California Hwy 1 north from San Francisco then US 101 through the redwoods. The trees are awesome, and winter isn't a bad time to visit - drippy and misty to be sure, but very atmospheric.

Continue up the Oregon coast through stunning coastal scenery and interesting little towns, then continue up the Washington coast to the coastal strip of Olympic National Park. The beaches and rocky shoreline are beautiful, but the real treat are the rain forest valleys of the Quinault and Hoh rivers - quite unique.

The alpine parts of Olympic National Park will be probably be inaccessible due to snow, but maybe not - you'll have to wait and see. (The same goes for Mount Rainier - one of the snowiest places on earth and if it's not snowing it's usually foggy, making visits less than ideal.)

Note you'll probably be in the rain for much of the trip up the coast. They don't call it "rain forest" for nothing. But it's still beautiful, and if it's stormy, even more so.

This is where it gets interesting. Circle around the top of the Olympic Peninsula and take the ferry from Port Townsend over to Whidbey Island then drive to the Fairhaven district of Bellingham, WA, arriving on a Friday morning. Find an inexpensive place to park the car for a few days.

That evening, go aboard the Alaska State Ferry - http://www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs/index.shtml - for a trip up the Inside Passage to Alaska. Go as far as Juneau, arriving early Monday morning. Spend Monday touring Juneau (great old Russian church, lots of history) then take a short flight on Tuesday to Ketchikan and visit Totem Bight State Park (totem poles, fascinating coastal native American history) and Creek Street, Ketchikan's historic former bordello center. On Wednesday get back on the ferry in the afternoon, arriving back in Bellingham on Friday morning.

Winter on the Inside Passage is incredible - silent, snowy forests sliding by, the chance to see orcas alongside the ferry. It's peaceful and friendly - the ferry is something of the "city bus" in SE Alaska, and it will probably whet your appetite for more Alaska later.

After Belligham, drive over the border for a couple of days in Vancouver, then head south to Seattle and Portland before heading back to St. Louis.

Anyway, that's one idea. Another (utterly unrelated) would be to do a music tour of the Mississippi - visit Memphis, Clarksdale, Rosedale, Tupelo... lots of history and fascinating places in the Delta and along the Great River Road. Include Nashville if you're thus inclined.

Edited: 28 October 2013, 17:44
Baltimore
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4. Re: Ideas for winter road trip in the US

Hi Pierre-Louis, this sounds like a great idea.

Most resident American road-trippers naturally select Southern destinations in winter and Northern destinations in summer. Of course you can understand how this makes sense, but don’t consider it all or nothing.

Some basics: in North America, almost as much as in Europe, our winter days are shorter. Besides, the sun lies lower on the horizon. Therefore, when planning winter road trips, any sightseeing one expects to do while driving is reduced. During mornings, when driving east, one encounters annoying – if not actually intimidating – sun glare; the opposite driving west late afternoons. Besides, our winters are wetter and of course wet in winter can mean snow, sleet or ice storms. Remember, if planning a US winter trip anywhere but the very far south you will want to be attentive to a possibility of winter weather systems usually moving west to east. If traveling west, smart road trippers will know to watch and either dip their westward route south or turn north to circumvent such a storm unless preparing to weather it out in place. Smart road trippers going east may either lie low, letting weather move ahead, or lickety-split it themselves in advance of the approaching weather.

None of these are reasons for everyone to avoid a Northern road trip. It’s only that one should plan accordingly. Personally, I think winter road trips in the North are more fun with larger towns or cities as destinations unless, of course, the visitor is a skier or winter sports enthusiast. You, however, mention you are not so much interested in cities or winter sport locations.

So, here goes. Yellowstone is out. Seattle and the Puget Sound area can be a great winter time destination. Be aware, it might rain the whole time. I have enjoyed myself in Seattle in the winter. It is less expensive. The same is true of San Francisco. But in either area, much of what I would like in winter is going to be urban. In my family we have always loved winter vacations in Yosemite. Indeed, for some decades now, I only set foot in Yosemite in the winter. But again, we like settling in at the rather pricy Ahwhanee Hotel – albeit at off-season rates – enjoying hotel life with delightful walks.

I think cold climate Northern New Mexico is magic in the winter. I love Santa Fe or Taos in the snow. The same is true of places in Colorado. Say it again: these are winter road vacations with rather urbane activities at destinations.

I do happen to love Big Bend and all of west Texas in the winter. These are places you can enjoy the out-of-doors, in the winter. South Texas, the Gulf States, the Deep South, and Florida are all entirely accessible in winter.

I guess, considering your post, conditions, and general outline, I wonder if you would not like driving part of the way on Route 66 from St Louis to Northern New Mexico; then heading south to Big Bend, then hugging the Rio Grande to near San Antonio, perhaps visiting there and Austin, then maybe far South Texas, or not. Since you’ve been to Louisiana, you might just Interstate it right over to the Gulf Coast visiting northern Florida, then Savannah and Charleston, then routing yourself back to St Louis via the Mississippi Delta and Memphis to discover some blues and jazz.

Edited: 28 October 2013, 18:11
Baltimore
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5. Re: Ideas for winter road trip in the US

Ibgardyloo’s Alaska State Ferry trip suggestion is one of the great American trips.

Saint Louis...
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6. Re: Ideas for winter road trip in the US

Hi everybody,

Thank you so much for your great answers! I really appreciate that, and I'll take the time to look into your suggestions.

TranscendentalEye: I guess I should have been more precise about what I had already done in the US... As it turns out, I've already been to NYC and I lived in Chicago for a year so I'm not considering going back there at the moment. I'm still not too familiar with the Northeast (I've only been to NYC and Boston) but the problem is that I'll probably be traveling with a friend who has traveled a lot in these parts and is not interested in going back there. It's actually pretty tricky to find something that would work for both of us!

ibgardyloo: I don't have a car, so I intend to fly to wherever I decide to go and then rent one and go from there. I assume this is quite significant as I won't be driving in and out of St Louis; I also would like to mention that I plan on visiting the cities that are closer to St Louis (mainly Memphis and Nashville) at some point but I'll try to do that during a weekend or a shorter vacation and reserve my huge winter vacation for places that are not as easily accessible.

Actually, I have visited pretty much all of coastal California, except for all that's North of the Napa Valley, so your SF - Vancouver road trip suggestion sounds like a very good idea. I guess I could rent a car in SF and drop it off in Seattle or drive back if I can't get a sensible drop-charge. I looked into the ferry trip idea and it seems really interesting but I find it pretty costly (about $650 for a round trip)... Maybe it's possible to make a shorter trip or even not use the ferry while still getting a feel of what's there?

SFCityGuy: I'm actually really interested in cities! If I end up going to Seattle, I would definitely spend some time there, probably between 3 days and a week depending on what other plans I might have. The only thing is that I'll only be here in the US until next summer and it would be more difficult to visit the country when I'm back in Europe, so I'd like to make the most out of every US region I visit. Typically, me and my friend would be interested in spending time in Seattle and possibly Vancouver but also experience some natural places like Snowqualmie falls (we're both fans of Twin Peaks, the TV series by David Lynch and that's why we're really intent on going there) and the rainforest... But judging from what ibgardyloo says, those places would also be nice to visit during the winter (please correct me if I'm wrong), which is great.

I haven't seen anybody comment on Hawaii... Does anyone have an opinion about it? I'm guessing December/ january will be a perfect time to go there but the travel cost is significantly more expensive than other areas like Texas or Arizona/New Mexico (which, by the way, look like solid choices to me).

Thanks again for everything!

Ohio
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7. Re: Ideas for winter road trip in the US

first of all, if you are able to do 2 trips-- one in winter and one summer-- I'd say for sure to save that summer time to fly to Denver and then make a road trip to the Black Hills and Yellowstone areas.

Winter-- I am not a city person, so... I am not sure I am much help. Arizona and New Mexico, I love! Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque-- Santa Fe would be great at Christmas time, I think. Loads of character, great food, shops... and the combo of the 3 towns is great. More southerly-- White Sands and Carlsbad are awesome national parks.

Do you enjoy hiking? We loved the Chiricahuas and Cochise Stronghold not far off I10 in NM and Az. Also Fort Bowie. Tucson is a place we really enjoyed too. The Saguaro Natl Parks and.... my favorite.... the airplane graveyards :) I know-- I'm weird. Titan missile site there to tour there also that I missed. Tombstone is along the I10 route. Fun for a bit. Definitely touristy, but... charming imo.

Okay-- there you go. My 2 cents :)

Seattle, Washington
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8. Re: Ideas for winter road trip in the US

Regarding the Alaska ferry -

You could certainly fly from St. Louis to Juneau (via Seattle) and take the ferry coming back. That way you could begin your road trip in Seattle and not have the cost of a rental car for the earlier part of the trip. I suspect the difference in airfare between STL-SEA and STL-JNU will be around $150, much less than the cost of the ferry. Or fly to Juneau, then take one of the shorter ferry runs to, say, Sitka (capital of Russian America and a very interesting city) then fly back to Seattle from Sitka. The major towns (all very small, but "major" by Alaska standards) - Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka - are all served by Alaska Airlines with easy service to Seattle.

As for the New Mexico/Arizona option, that seems like a bit of a repeat of your earlier trip. As you know, too, higher altitudes in those states can be just as challenging as lower altitudes in more winter-prone states.

Hawaii will be much, much more expensive then than other areas; that's really the peak of peak seasons.

If the Pacific NW doesn't cut it for you, I think the southeast could be a good choice - start in Miami and work north, maybe as far as Charlotte, or else work your way west and end up in New Orleans or even Houston.

Oh, meant to ask... have you been to Washington DC? Fabulous, and you could move south from there, say to Charleston or Savannah.

Edited: 28 October 2013, 20:23
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9. Re: Ideas for winter road trip in the US

I've lived on the Oregon coast for many years and can sum up the winter weather in one word - miserable. It rains buckets, can be terribly stormy and windy, and would certainly not be my idea of a nice place to visit this time of year! It's all well and good to say, "just bundle up" for the rain but wet grey dreary skies day after day quickly gets old to me.

Florida has a lot of cool, interesting places to see! The way to save money there is to look for older, smaller motels. They won't be glamorous but I think even in high season they are relatively inexpensive.

Washington DC is a good idea as there is so much to do and see there. It was snowy when I was there in March but the public transportation is excellent and it really wasn't a problem.

How wonderful that you are able to see so much of the USA!

Cleveland
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10. Re: Ideas for winter road trip in the US

Where has your friend been and what are your friend's interests?

Are you limiting your trips to those mentioned in your original posts, because you seemed to solicit additional suggestions?

Is Washington, DC out as a destination?