4 Great Winter Destinations You Probably Haven't Considered (but Maybe Should)It's the middle of winter and most people in the northern hemisphere understandably crave a little sunshine and warmth, but I also think this is the absolute perfect time to experience some of the most amazing places in North America - without all the crowds. Sure, they can be cold, but this is also part of their attraction. Winter landscapes can be tranquil, beautiful and even surreal. I'm only mentioning four locations in this post, but really the list is practically endless.
|Ice and rapids on the Nantahala River, NC|
The places on this list can be accessed to a greater or lesser extent by car and include opportunities for hiking, snowshoeing, and often skiing. The choice of accommodations, restaurants and other amenities won't be as great as in peak season, but there are still more than adequate options and prices will be far less during off-season. Here then is my shortlist, but again there are many more places I think would be equally great in winter.
|Leaves and rocks frozen in pools on the Nantahala River, NC|
Yellowstone National Park
|Bison playing in the snow..|
Drive slowly and carefully because you are virtually guaranteed to see Bison, Elk and other creatures right on the road, or just off of it. My first encounter this past December was at night stopped at the end of a narrow bridge just after I arrived, when I saw a huge shaggy eyeball looking at me from a about three feet away when I rolled down my window. It turns out I had stopped right in the middle of a large herd of Bison just about to cross. They came in from the sides and I sensed them before I actually saw them - so glad I stopped! Just an amazing experience.
The only hotel open inside the park is the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and it's a grand old place. Not the cheapest digs around, but considering its location and history, I think it's worth it. I got there the same day it opened for the winter season (December - March) just before Xmas and got a single room with shared bathroom and shower down the hall for about $65 (although rack rates are around $90 for these). Despite a nearly full hotel, I never had to wait for the bathroom and the room itself was warm and comfy. Access to Yellowstone in winter involves about an hour's drive from nearby Livingston, Montana (anyone remember Jimmy Buffet's song..?). There are also more accommodations, food and services available in the town of Gardiner just outside the park's north entrance before the Roosevelt Arch.
South Dakota Badlands and Mount Rushmore et al.
|Mount Rushmore at night|
I stayed a hotel called The White House in nearby Keystone. Not fancy, but clean and about 40 bucks a night. Quiet of course, because almost no else was there. The nearby Chief Crazy Horse Memorial Monument is also a must see. It is still a long way from being finished, but it dwarfs Mount Rushmore by comparison. It has been under construction since 1948 by the late sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and his family. Warning - if you want to go right up the actual sculpture, you'll pay a premium for it (the entire project is self-funded), but there is plenty to see at and from the museum.
The Southern Appalachia of North Carolina
It's a nice time to visit The Eastern Band of the Cherokee and their museum is wonderful. Nearby Bryson City is very cute and their "Polar Express" seasonal theme on the train there attracts tons of people right up until Christmas. The Cork and Bean serves fabulous food and coffee, although they do close for January. Asheville and nearby areas also have many treasures to be discovered and uncovered. Chimney Rock State Park and Lake Lure have been featured in many films such as "Last of the Mohicans" and "Dirty Dancing." These is so much to see and do in this area during winter that I think even many people living in places as close as Atlanta, Charleston or Raleigh-Durham often overlook a lot of them.
Devil's Tower National Monument in Wyoming
This is another place I visited this December during a cross country drive, not quite corner to corner across the continental USA and into western Canada. Again, I had the place almost completely to myself although one other car showed up (and parked right up close beside me in an empty lot) later on in the day. This has been a spiritual center for the Lakota Sioux and without anyone else there on a cold winter day, it was easy to feel that energy.
|Sunset at Devil's Tower|
Devil's Tower has some of the finest traditional crack climbs anywhere and it's long been on my list of places to go climbing. For one reason or another I have never been there to climb, but now I have a renewed energy to go back in better weather and experience the incredible unique rock there.
What Are Your Favorite Winter Destinations that Few People Talk About??
Comments below - I'd love to know.