Monday, January 26, 2015

4 Great Winter Destinations Probably Not on Your Radar

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
No, I'm not talking here about the super well-known ski resorts such as Vail, Aspen, Whistler/Blackcomb or Steamboat etc. These are all still places crowded out with teaming hordes and offering all the (costly) amenities anyone anywhere could ever want. What I mean are the places everyone goes to in the warmer summer months where you encounter huge mobs of people, inflated prices and wildlife mostly too freaked out scared ever to be seen.

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


Situated in the top northwest corner of Wyoming, only the north and/or northeast entrances will be open in winter. This limits access to most of the park, but there are options for exploring a little further afield via snow-cat tours and some back-country snowshoeing or skiing. Yellowstone winter weather conditions can be extreme so leave the back-country stuff to the serious experts. That said, there are tons of incredible things to see in winter. With a blanket of fresh snow, I think this would be a hard place to beat for natural beauty and wildlife spotting opportunities.

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.


This area is beautiful and although it can be cold here in winter, if you're bundled up and well prepared you shouldn't have any trouble exploring all kinds of incredible places. Again, I arrived in the early evening at Mount Rushmore and had the most incredible experience. They still had the floodlights on the massive carvings, but there was literally no one else there. I'm sure there were workers or staff around, but I didn't see a single other soul. Given the huge parking area and amphitheater, I'm guessing this place gets just mad crowds at other times of the year. Also, there is wonderful early dawn light for more photo opps of the monument.

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


The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is apparently the most popular park in the system, but it gets minimal traffic in the winter despite an immense amount of people coming in to experience the spectacular Autumn colors right up to Thanksgiving and slightly beyond. In fact the whole area winds down in winter, but I think remains just as beautiful as any other season. With blue skies, snow on the ground and icicles aplenty in the many rivers, creeks and lakes in the area, this time of year holds a special appeal for me.


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


If you've ever watched Spielberg's classic movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" then you've seen this incredible geologic feature. Depending on how much time and driving your schedule allows for, this is something that could easily be combined with Yellowstone and/or the Badlands of South Dakota. This is America's first national monument and rises spectacularly some 1,267 feet (386 m) from the relatively flat surrounding landscape. In fact, you can see it for miles before you ever get to the base.


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.