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Road Trip: America’s Most Picturesque Cold Weather Routes

By: Bridget Clerkin December 6, 2017
From east to west and north to south, you'll find spectacular winter roadtrips all over the United States. Lake Tahoe's Emerald Bay presents a grand view to motorists willing to brave the winter roads.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year—not only filled with good cheer, but great views, too.

Winter offers a unique vision of the world, coating everything in a white both exquisitely austere and filled with artistic potential, the landscape assuming the inviting quintessence of unmarked canvas.

Witnessing even a familiar environment in the throes of the season can be a transformative experience, with a layer of snow able to bring special attention to the contours and cracks of the place and lay bare the beauty of the land.

Winter travels are often more complex to plan than warm weather jaunts, but the extra work pays off in the chance to appreciate nature in a way few others do—and, more practically, run into fewer tourists, and, typically, less expensive excursions.

While there are stunning snowy drives to be found around the country, a few roads seem practically made for the experience, snuggled up against spectacular mountains, ringing lakes, or cutting through scenic expanses.

Of course, it’s necessary to practice caution, as too much weather can be a bad thing. Make sure to check whether the roads are safe—and open—before departing on your journey.

And, after getting the meteorological green light, make sure to bring the hot chocolate.

Lake Tahoe Scenic Drive, California/Nevada

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Nevada State Route 28 on Lake Tahoe's East Shore is a great place to get close to the water in wintertime.

As it loops around the famous lake, this 68-mile route actually spans three highways—Route 89 on the California side; U.S. Route 50 in Nevada; and Route 28 bridging the states. Following the overall path is easy, however, and the roads can be accessed from a number of points on either side of the California/Nevada border, including the larger towns of South Lake Tahoe, Tahoe City, Incline Village, and King’s Beach.

Once on the route, drivers are treated to a number of picturesque pull-offs, as the highway often zigzags away from the lake shore, traversing through tree-lined paths and passing by more expansive vistas of the area, with noted lookouts like Emerald Bay and Logan Shoals.

While the lake itself—one of America’s deepest—never freezes, it takes on a glassy edge and reflects perfectly the winter skies and towering peaks of the area.

For those who’d like to do more than look at the scenery, the Lake Tahoe region offers countless opportunities to play in the snow, including excursions in Sugar Pine State Park and D.L. Bliss State Park, both accessible from the drive. And don’t forget the 12 world-class ski resorts encircling the lakeshore, including Squaw Valley, home of the 1960 Winter Olympics.

Other outdoor adventures, like snowmobiling, snow tubing, or snowshoeing, can be enjoyed in any of the major towns surrounding the lake.

The High Road to Taos Scenic Byway, New Mexico

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At the end of the Taos Scenic Byway lies Taos Valley, a skier's paradise, especially on a bluebird powder day.

This 55-mile stretch will take you along a number of state highways: Routes 503, 502, 76, 75, 518, and 68, in order from start to finish.

Still, navigating the course, which starts about 17 miles north of Santa Fe in Pojoaque, New Mexico, is easier than it seems, offering patient drivers some extraordinary views for their troubles.

The road starts off in the high desert, with juniper trees, pinyon pines, and the occasional desert shrub lending contrasting shape and color to an enchanted, snow-filled environment. Along the way, you’ll also pass through Cordova, a village of pueblo homes built in the 14th century, before climbing the 13,000-foot Truchas Peak of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Ending the journey in Taos invites a number of opportunities to embrace the cold weather, or maybe opt for a cozier time. The city is known not just for its natural splendor and outdoor recreation, but also its bustling art scene, complete with a collection of museums and studios that offer artful musings and warmth on a biting winter day. 

Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina

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Cades Cove Loop whisks drivers along picturesque Great Smoky Mountains National Park scenery. The park protects some of the thickest old-growth forest east of the Mississippi.

Tennessee may technically be part of the south, but that doesn’t mean it can’t host some superb winter drives. In fact, snow can often be found decorating the trees and peaks of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, including the impressive Mount Cammerer, which tops out at 4,928 feet. (You can even go skiing on some trails.)

Located just outside of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, but also close to North Carolina hotspot Asheville, the park offers a number of routes to traverse through its wide range of forests.

Cades Cove Loop Road is an especially popular drive, as it offers not only picturesque vistas but access to a number of park highlights, including Abrams Falls, Thunderhead Mountain, and Rocky Top. Keen-eyed visitors can also look out for some of the area’s plentiful wildlife, including black bears, deer, raccoons, and even bats.

Daring drivers can also take Parsons Branch Road to Route 129, more commonly known as The Tail of the Dragon, a road praised by motorcyclists and sports car enthusiasts for its inviting curves. 

Lakes to Locks Passage, New York

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Lake Champlain beckons visitors to its shores, even during the frigid Upstate New York winter.

Another National Scenic Byway, this 190-mile route hugs the Adirondack Mountains and runs along the Champlain Trail, which connects Lake Champlain to the intricate series of canals watering fertile Upstate New York. Starting at the beautiful border town of Rouses—which sits just across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec—the route eventually winds its way down to Waterford along U.S. Route 9, New York Route 22, and U.S. Route 4.

During winter, the waterways are likely to freeze over, throwing a healthy amount of sparkle into the journey. But the road also travels through a number of quiet and quaint Adirondack towns, where snow collects on rows of peaked roofs and there are plenty of chances to walk through a winter wonderland.

And the road offers more than just scenery, as many locales along the route served important roles in American history, particularly throughout both the French & Indian and Revolutionary wars.

Fort Ticonderoga is an especially popular historical point. The 18th century structure, situated near the southern end of Lake Champlain, played crucial roles in both major skirmishes, coming under attack a number of times and even receiving a visit from General George Washington.

Badlands Loop Scenic Byway, South Dakota

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Bighorn sheep greet visitors to South Dakota's Badlands in the winter.

The breathtaking beauty of this 38-mile route is tantamount to its abject remoteness. Filled with strange stone buttes, cliffs, and other windblown natural formations, the unique landscape is like nothing else on earth—and with no other humans likely to be around, it may even feel like another world.

Still, the area surrounding the road—South Dakota Highway 240, which is most easily accessed from the town of Wall—isn’t completely devoid of life: bighorn sheep are a common sight along the Badlands route.

The road’s 15 major overlooks—including points like the Pinnacles Overlook, the Yellow Mounds Overlook, and the Big Badlands Overlook—offer even more stunning visuals, which are often covered in a dusting of snow during winter.

For those who need to stretch their legs during the drive, the area is home to a number of popular hikes, like Door, Window and Notch Trail, although be warned: it’s not uncommon for temperatures to reach zero degrees.

The general isolation of the road should also warrant extra precaution when planning a drive: take care to keep track of developing weather conditions and keep emergency supplies in the car.

But make sure you also keep a camera handy to capture the distinctive dreamlike destination.

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