The phrase road trip might produce images of a convertible whizzing past a sun-backed horizon and possibly a sunglasses-wearing dog in the back seat. Add the word winter to that phrase, however, and the journey might seem more like the result of a missed flight or bad break-up. But winter road trips come with their own serene beauty and only a fraction of the traffic. Need proof? Ahead, we rounded up some of the best winter road trips to take around the world. Bring a camera, buckle up, and drive safely.
Slicing through Canada’s Banff National Park and Jasper National Park, the Icefields Parkway reward steady drivers with scenery of glaciers, the Canadian Rockies, and ice-covered lakes. About 140 miles long, its two lanes are filled with RVs and tour buses in the summertime. In the winter, travelers can take in the views and wildlife — bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and woodland caribou are all regularly seen near or on the road. Scenic stops include Tangle Falls, Bow Lake, and Crowfoot Glacier. Some stops, like Peyto Lake and Nigel Pass, require snowshoes. Road clearing starts in the early morning and ends round 3:30 in the afternoon, which means you need to plan your driving while there’s plenty of light.
Route 1 (or the Ring Road), a road that runs near much of Iceland’s coast, is punctuated with beautiful snow-capped mountains, volcanic rocks, and stunning waterfalls. During the winter, the landscape becomes even more stark with black sand beaches covered in porcelain white snow. However, seeing such otherworldly natural drama may mean braving pelting sleet, blinding snow, and ice-covered roads. Timid drivers should definitely stay in Reykjavik, but adventure-seekers willing to rent a 4×4 with tire chains will be rewarded with unforgettable views and the occasional expletive-laden scream while trying to figure out the hairpin curves and slippery straightaways. Most of the road is only two lanes and on the eastern part of the island, while some sections are only gravel. Just watch out for reindeer, as they occasionally wander onto the road.
Known as the Badlands Loop, Highway 240 is known for its rock spires, which lure hikers and photographers from around the country. Movie fans may also recognize the backdrop from “Starship Troopers” and “National Treasure: Book of Secrets.” While it only takes an hour to drive the path directly, nearly everyone stops to take a peek at one of the overlooks along the way. The summer brings thousands of visitors who want to see the sedimentary rock sculpted by millions of years of erosion. In the winter, the rock formations are dusted with snow, but just as picturesque. Wildlife includes the pronghorn antelope, mule deer, and the endangered black-footed ferret. Folks may also come across buffalo. Two trails offer hikers the chance to venture deep into the park before returning to the car to finish up the ride.
Fans of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” series will appreciate the rugged terrain found along New Zealand’s Southern Scenic Route. The approximately 400-drive will bring you past fjords and remote beaches as well as through quaint towns and big cities. Keep in mind that the coldest months in New Zealand are June, July, and August. During this time, snow frosts the mountaintops and a cold breeze comes off the water along the coast. Of course that won’t be a big concern as long your car has heat, but a stroll along the beach will require a scarf and warm coat. Along the way, stop to see the underground Milford Sound and Waitomo Glowworm Caves. The Willowbank Wildlife Reserve on the way has kiwis, wallabies, and lemurs. Get back in the car and you’ll be zipping past majestic waterfalls in no time.
5. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
While many U.S. national parks, including as Yellowstone and Yosemite, are excellent locations for a winter drive, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers a dramatic landscape nicely accentuated by snowfall. There are over 60 types of trees and shrubs found on the park’s hills and valleys, including sweet pignut hickory, smooth hackberry, and pumpkin ash. And while some are lacking leaves during the winter, they’re still quite striking. Many of the hiking trails are still open and offer a trip into a wilderness that isn’t packed with campers. The deer and elk can also be seen scampering through the trees. While the park’s main roads are almost always clear, travelers planning to stay nearby should know that the driveways to cabins in the private communities may not be immediately plowed after a big snowfall.
Starting at Lake Louise and winding to Banff National Park, the Bow Valley Parkway has a reduced speed limit that gives drivers time to slow down and enjoy the scenery and wildlife. Elk and bighorn sheep are plentiful along the roadway. Driving isn’t allowed from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., so the area near the road remains a calm respite for animals. Some of the scenic stops may be snowed in during the winter, while others make for excellent snowshoe walks. Johnston Canyon, which can be found on the way, was formed by water currents 8,000 years ago. Now, waterfalls splash over its ragged walls. Several historic structures can also be found in the area. Morant’s Curve, which offers a widescreen view of Bow Valley, is also well positioned for beautiful photography, thanks to a train bend in the foreground and the Canadian Rockies on the horizon.
A relatively new thoroughfare, Jebel Jais Mountain Road is still partially under construction. However, the scenic blacktop views attract numerous fast drivers and sight-seers in the area. Drivers must be careful because of the hairpin turns and lack of lights during the night. Plus, temperatures are chilly (between 30 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit). Travelers who make the ascent will be treated to mountain landscape views (the highest peak on the UAE side is about 6,000 feet above sea level). Plans are also in the works to build a hotel and golf course on the mountain.
There’s a 50-mile loop in Parke County, Indiana that boasts the biggest concentration of covered bridges in the U.S. The land around bridges was shaped by the last great glacier expansion and includes sandstone cliffs, waterfalls, and dramatic ravines. For those who are searching for a dose of quaintness, many of the bridges are located near preserved mills that date back to the 19th century and have been refashioned into restaurants and shops. American history fans can also stop the car in Billie Creek Village to look at an early 20th-century schoolhouse as well as farmhouses that date back over 100 years. Turkey Run State Park in the area features creeks that become even more charming when framed by snow. And while the height of the covered bridge season is during the Covered Bridge Festival in October, winter months here are arguably more serene.
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