The 14 Best Off-the-Radar Winter Destinations in the U.S.
Whether you're looking for sun or snow, travel experts recommend these unexpected locales.
When it comes to the perfect winter getaway, some people are drawn to mountain towns with ski slopes and cozy cabins, while others want nothing more than to put away their jackets and frolic in the sun. Luckily, the U.S. is filled with incredible destinations for every taste and personality style, including some places that may not be on your radar when you think of winter travel destinations. We went to the experts and asked them to recommend their favorite places to visit in winter. Whether you yearn to bundle up by the fire or sip a fruity drink by the pool, this list has something for you.
14 Best Off-the-Radar Winter Travel Destinations
1. Palmer, Alaska
Alaska is at the top of many traveler's bucket lists, and rightfully so. The state is jaw-droppingly beautiful with unparalleled access to nature, recreation, and picture-perfect small towns. Combining all of these attributes is Palmer, Alaska, located in the Mat-Su Valley in the Chugach National Forest.
"It's a gateway town to stunning outdoor adventure while still being close to Anchorage and Talkeetna," says travel writer Heide Brandes. "The Knik Glacier is the biggest draw, with an ice field averaging 25 miles long and 5 miles across."
Brandes recommends taking a helicopter ride to the glacier for guided hiking, kayaking, or ice climbing. Afterward, enjoy local beer and burgers at Matanuska Brewing Company.
2. Hickory, North Carolina
With a population of 43,000, Hickory, North Carolina combines the charm and feel of a small town with the amenities of a larger city.
"The artsy mountain town at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains is the perfect compromise between cold and warm weather destinations," says travel writer Meg St. Esprit. "You can shop the cute downtown in crisp but still comfortable temperatures and enjoy hiking without donning heavy winter gear."
Hickory is especially beautiful during the holidays when the town square is strung with twinkling lights, heated outdoor dining, and live music.
St. Esprit also likes how the train tracks that run through the center of town "add to the old-time feel." For more historic fun, "you can have dinner inside the former train station at the Olde Hickory Station restaurant," she adds.
3. San Antonio, Texas
During the winter in San Antonio, daytime temperatures are generally in the mid-60s, ideal weather for biking the famous Riverwalk (which gets decked out with lights for the holidays!) or exploring the historic San Antonio Missions. The city also has a rich cultural heritage and some of the best museums in the country.
"The Museum of Art has a great collection, especially of Hispanic and Black art, and has a café overlooking the river that's lovely to dine at," raves travel writer Rusksana Hussain. "Don't miss the Pearl District at the end of the Riverwalk with fantastic restaurants and open green spaces for picnics."
4. Lake Charles, Louisiana
When the northern part of the country is cold and snowy, Lake Charles, Louisiana is in the balmy 60s.
"Folks tend to head straight for New Orleans, but Lake Charles is a lesser-known area with lots to do," notes Hussain. "Plenty of opportunities for kayaking, eco-tours, and other lake activities and biking."
There are fantastic Cajun and Creole restaurants in the region, and Lake Charles is also part of the Creole Nature Trail, an officially designated scenic byway filled with beaches, history, and wildlife. And if you're looking for some nightlife, consider one of the three casino resorts.
5. Ogden, Utah
The Wild West meets the ski slopes in Ogden, Utah, "a historic western town close to three incredible ski mountains—Nordic Valley, Powder Mountain, and Snowbasin," says travel writer Jeanine Consoli. "Plus it has a phenomenal food, art, and music scene."
While you're there, be sure to check out Union Station, a historic train depot that is now home to the Utah State Railroad Museum and the John M. Browning Firearms Museum. Perhaps best of all, Ogden is just over a half-hour drive from the Salt Lake City Airport.
6. Scottsdale, Arizona
"The incredible food combined with winter desert hikes and mild temperatures are my favorite," adds travel writer Julie Bielenberg.
In Scottsdale, the weather is not only perfect for activities like kayaking the Salt River or exploring the desert with companies like Desert Dog Offroad Adventures, but it is often warm enough to sunbathe by the pool as the delicious fragrance of the Creosote bush fills the air.
7. Big Sky, Montana
A name like Big Sky conjures up images of endless vistas and epic adventures, and this destination does not disappoint.
"Big Sky is situated in the heart of Montana's Rocky Mountains and is home to some of the best skiing, hiking, and camping in the state," enthuses travel expert Matt James of Visitingly.
James says the area is home to big-name ski resorts like Big Sky Resort and Moonlight Basin, as well as several smaller, more intimate ski areas. And, if you're not a skier, you can still enjoy the stunning scenery and mountain air.
8. Taos, New Mexico
The high desert of New Mexico is one of the best destinations in the country for skiing and snow.
"With an average annual snowfall of 176 inches, the rugged peaks and sacred wilderness of Taos are filled with multicultural vibes," says travel expert Becky Moore of Global Grasshopper. "Perfect for skiers and anyone with a sense of adventure, this small town is steeped in legendary charm and quirky traditions."
9. Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Steamboat Springs, Colorado offers opportunities for ice skating, snow tubing, dog sledding, and other snowy activities, but what really makes the town special are the natural hot springs sprinkled around the town. They're the perfect place to soak your aching muscles after a hard day of playing in the snow.
"These warm pools have been around for over 100 years," says travel blogger Samantha Pearsall of the Rambling Renegade.
After a day of outdoor fun, be sure to check out all of the boutiques, art galleries, and incredible restaurants downtown.
10. Leavenworth, Washington
Although well-known to residents, Leavenworth, Washington is still under the radar for much of the rest of the country. Located in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, the tiny hamlet looks like a European Village, complete with Bavarian architecture and year-round al-fresco dining.
"The main tourist area is about six blocks long [and] the majority of it is dedicated to shopping and entertainment," says travel blogger Anna Krizova of Camino Adventures. She recommends Mozart's steakhouse "for the best schnitzel you've ever had."
11. Ely, Nevada
Ely, Nevada, a historic, small town, is the perfect place to visit this winter. "Sitting at Nevada's eastern edge of the 'Loneliest Road in America,' Ely is a remote mountain town where history, art, and outdoor adventure thrive," says Anna Roy, senior media relations specialist at Fahlgren Mortine.
For those outdoorsy types, Ely has plenty of fun activities (with fantastic views). "Whether you're into snowshoeing, skiing, snowboarding, or snowmobiling, Ely provides access to some of the best-untouched backcountry terrain in the western United States," says Kyle Horvath, director of tourism for White Pine County Tourism and Recreation.
Both Roy and Horvath agree that attending the Fire and Ice Winter Festival is a must. "It combines outdoor adventure, community arts, delicious food and drinks, live music, and two massive fireworks displays, creating a true winter wonderland for all ages," shares Horvath.
12. Fripp Island, South Carolina
Fripp Island, South Carolina, located between the popular tourist destinations Charleston and Hilton Head, is a private, under-the-radar destination that's perfect for anyone looking to take a break from the cold.
"Fripp Island has an adventure for everyone, making it an ideal destination for a family vacation or a weekend getaway for golfers and outdoor enthusiasts," says Michelle Groves, marketing director at Fripp Island Golf and Beach Resort.
From kayaking to riding on horseback to relaxing on the beach, this designated wildlife sanctuary has a variety of things to do. You can also stay at the unique Fripp Island Golf and Beach Resort, which offers rental homes or cottages rather than traditional hotel rooms or suites.
13. Broken Bow, Oklahoma
Even though the town has fewer than 5,000 residents, Broken Bow, Oklahoma, offers plenty of places to stay and activities to keep you busy.
Kourtney Shepard, vacation rental host at Lone Star Casitas, points out that you can stay at hotels near the Beavers Bend Marina on the lake or cabins by the entrance to the state park. You can then spend your days fly fishing, checking out the ATV trails, hiking in Beavers Bend State Park, or even going axe throwing.
Keep in mind, "The weather can shift dramatically in the winter (could be 35 or 70 depending on the day), so it's important to check before you leave and be flexible with your plans while you are there," advises Shepard.
14. Aurora, New York
This storybook-like town feels like a winter wonderland. Aurora, New York is a cute village on the edge of Cayuga Lake, right in the heart of the Finger Lakes wine region.
"Comprised of shops, restaurants, and six pristinely restored historic homes that make the Inns of Aurora Resort & Spa, the Northeast's newest wellness destination offers travelers an opportunity to reconnect with nature for a restorative retreat," says Alex Schloop, creative director and director of marketing at Inns of Aurora Resort & Spa.
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