We’re getting close to the end of winter—snowy and white, bright and festive, full of wonderful reasons to get outside, on snowshoes and skis and snowboards, amidst the snap of a cold, sunny day. But for some? They don’t love it so much. Because winter also means slippery roads and difficult commutes, and too much shoveling out the driveway.
But the cold months, long as they can be in some parts of the country, reward those who embrace the weather. And with travel to tropical locales still a little uncertain, now’s the time to get away on a late-winter trip to a town that absolutely celebrates the season. Here are some of the best places in the United States to do just that, where the snow (and the cold) are very good things.
West Yellowstone, Montana
Tiny but bustling in the summer, when the weather turns cold, this village of some 1,200 year-round souls becomes a sort of heaven for those who love vast, Western winter landscapes and snow-laden outdoor pursuits. Roar right through the heart of town on a snowmobile, then head out onto a trail system spanning 400 miles. Or, take it slow, strapping on cross-country skis and venturing down the Rendezvous Trails, more than 20 miles in total, which wander through lodgepole pines at an altitude of almost 7,000 feet. And at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, you’ll have a chance to get very close to these magnificent animals.
With the village directly abutting Yellowstone National Park, in the winter, the roads into and throughout the park are closed to regular traffic. You can only access its geothermal and natural wonders on “oversnow” modes of transportation, including something call a “snowcoach.” Basically a tour bus mounted on massive fat tires designed to handle the snow, guides will shuttle you into a world that few get to see. Perhaps America’s most famous national park (and definitely its first), the park is a place transformed in the cold months. Brown bison encrusted with ice wander across endless white plains. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone’s distinctive pinks and yellows are interspersed with layers of snow, with the blue of the water flowing through the Yellowstone River, tumbling over the Upper and Lower Falls and looking like liquid sapphire. Hot springs bubble and throw off steam. And you haven’t really seen Old Faithful blow until you’ve witnessed its white plume rising from a field of snow.
Sun Valley, Idaho
Yes, there’s skiing—some of the best in America. This mile-high village of less than 1,500 was the very first destination ski resort in the country, built in the 1930s to match the glamour of European mountain towns such as St. Moritz and Interlaken. Back then, passengers on the Union Pacific Railway could ride the Sun Valley Special right into town. Built quickly on a former ranch, the original resort included the first chairlifts in the United States, as well as round indoor pools, a rarity at the time, which fast became a press sensation. Celebrities responded and came to ski and stay here, everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Gary Cooper to Ernest Hemingway, who finished “For Whom the Bell Tolls” at the lodge. (You can still book and sleep in the Hemingway Suite.)
Today, Sun Valley’s skiing is still ranked as some of the finest in the country, on two hills—Bald Mountain and Dollar Mountain, the latter excellent for beginner skiers. Plus, they offer a heli-skiing program for the experienced, where a helicopter will drop you on a mountaintop and you carve your own path home. But there’s plenty more to do, including a fabulous outdoor skating rink that provides views of the valley, where you just might rub elbows with Olympic and professional skaters who use the ice for training. It’s also open year-round, and in the summer, hosts the village’s vaunted Ice Shows, a sort of scaled-down version of the Ice Capades.
Traverse City, Michigan
Set on the shores of Grand Traverse Bay—part of Lake Michigan—this quaint, character-filled town of about 15,000 offers plenty of ways to warm up. For starters, skiing on the flanks of Schuss Mountain and Summit Mountain at Shanty Creek Resort. But their 5,000-acre property offers plenty of other winter pursuits. Fat tire bike or snowmobile down their network of trails, try your hand at ice fishing, or just settle into a big inner tube and chute down the slopes at their Alpine Tube Park. Then head to the vast, windswept shores at the remarkable Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Roam along the top of the 400-foot-high dunes on snowshoes, Nordic, or skate-skis, and even thunder down the side of the wide Dune Climb on a sled, 260 feet from top to bottom.
Then, head back into town for some indoor pleasures. The City Opera House, built in 1891, hosts live music, while the State Theatre, which dates back to the era of silent movies, has been restored to its former glory, all art deco and nostalgic charm. (In a normal year, it’s one of the main homes of the Traverse City Film Festival.) Then, wander the waterfront shops downtown on Front Street—many sell very stylish winter apparel. Then grab a bite at the Mercato, at The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, a shopping and entertainment complex built under the Victorian gables and turrets of a rambling, former mental hospital. All indoors, warm up with the town’s best brunch, or some farm-to-table Italian, or a glass of vino from an award-winning winery.
Travel the world, and you’ll still never find a place quite like Gatlinburg. In the summer, warm-weather tourists flock to this ultimate tourist town, bedding down in the thousands of hotel rooms here. They teem through the streets, visiting gift shops and tucking into hearty Southern fare and listening to live country music at the local Opry, before heading into Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s busiest, with 12.5 million visitors in 2019.
And while winter is slower, and quieter—that’s a good thing. Ski, snowboard, ice-skate, and tube above 3,000 feet at Ober Gatlinburg, or just sit back, relax, and enjoy the view from their aerial tramway. This fully enclosed gondola spirits guests from the heart of town, more than two miles, over rooftops and trees, rising more than 1,500 feet up the mountains. You can also find stunning views of the snowy Smokies at the Gatlinburg SkyBridge, the longest pedestrian suspension bridge on the continent, which dares you to stride out over glass panels, some 15 stories above the white valley floor below. Then, head into the national park and hike to a wintry overlook or a frozen waterfall—you might just have the trail all to yourself.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
While the spicy Southwest may not seem like a particularly wintry destination, Santa Fe stands out. Snow falls on the adobe houses and shops in town, giving them a gingerbread house feel, and even more of the white stuff layers on the surrounding mountains. Looking lovely under some of their 300 days of sunshine every year, at night, everything lights up with “farolitos,” paper lanterns that line walkways and streets and rooflines, casting their flickering glow on the historic central plaza and other scenic spots around town.
You can definitely have fun outdoors—they offer ice-skating and do-it-yourself sledding right in town, and horse-drawn sleigh rides and skiing at nearby resorts. But Santa Fe is an excellent place to enjoy the winter from the inside, too. Soak in an outdoor hot tub at the spa at the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado, then head inside to sit by a roaring fire and prepare for a decadent treatment, like a warming winter scrub, or a chocolate truffle body wrap. Then browse the 80 galleries along Canyon Road, choosing a café or restaurant along the way, one with a kiva stove, crackling away, to enjoy a hot toddy and a true New Mexican dinner, with both green and red chiles.
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling, in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.