Fall and winter in North America are considered to be the shoulder and off-seasons in many areas (excluding ski towns, deserts or ever-sunny tropics). Kids are in school, people are saving money and vacation time for the holidays, and weather tends to be less desirable. But the colder months of mid-September through February in many parts of North America are full of seasonal charm and natural beauty.
After an impromptu December road trip through the PNW, we were pleasantly surprised by how the landscapes and cities transformed into winter wonderlands. Since then, we’ve come to love wintertripping and hiking - and sometimes prefer it. It does come with some extra effort and considerations, but the rewards can be worth it and more.
So if the idea of vacationing in long underwear doesn’t completely bum you out, here are some thoughts on how awesome winter adventuring can be.
1) You will save money
Lodging, flights, car rentals… lots of things are cheaper in the off-season. Some people equate warm, sunny skies with ideal vacation weather, and while it does make hiking a mountain or drinking beers poolside that much more enjoyable, it comes at a cost. We’ve found hotels during the colder months often come in at one-third the price than their high-season rates. This is especially true around national parks where the number of visitors drop off significantly. This rule does not apply to areas that are big in winter tourism or cities that have major conferences/events this time of year - so do a cursory check on hotel rates to get a quick sense of the overall demand during that time.
Also, CYBER MONDAY. Deals for winter travel peak on Cyber Monday (and Travel Tuesday). But in reality, prices dip throughout this whole season (as long as travel isn't to a peak winter destination or during the holiday week).
2) There are fewer people
This has become more valuable to me in my 30's as I grow into my introversion tendencies (with great satisfaction btw). It's cheaper because demand is less, hence, fewer people. This means lesser crowds at parks, trails, parking lots, scenic points, grocery stores, cafes, hotels, and roads. That plus the extra congestion every point along the way all adds up to more stress overall. Imagine a crowded parking lot at 9am, requiring you to wait 45 min in line to take a shuttle from an overflow lot 20 min down the highway. Gross. Or a series of tour buses unloading hundreds of tourists at a point of interest. Hard pass. Don't underestimate this one!
3) It's comfortable
You may get fog, snow, rain, moody clouds and some sun here and there. Personally, I think sweater weather makes for a much more agreeable climate to travel in. I love driving through a weathery landscape playing mellow music, wearing some cozy boots and sipping hot tea - its like a winter wonderland theme park ride. If you've got an aversion to inclement weather, it's all about warm layers, waterproof shoes, and a rain shell. As they say, there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. And this is doubly true for hiking. Winter hiking is one of my new greatest pleasures. It just takes a few key pieces of warm weather gear and some Microspikes, then you've got entire parks nearly all to yourself.
4) Towns are cutest in the holidays
I absolutely love visiting new places in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years. Towns big and (especially) small deck out their main streets and businesses for the holidays, and odds are you'll be able to catch a local festivity like a winter brew festival, holiday concert or parade. We've spent the holidays in cities like Charleston, Seattle, New Orleans, Big Sky, Portland and Moab - and they will all put you in the holiday spirit.
5) So much moody and winter-wonderlandy photography
You're less likely to get bright midday sun, which can make for some flat and ehh photos. Wet weather sounds unfortunate, but it can yield some dramatic skies and moody atmosphere. And obviously anything topped with snow looks magical. We always enjoy the mixed bag of weather this time of year brings, which makes for more memorable sunrises/sunsets, and overall more interesting shots throughout the day.
However, with the good comes the... less good.
To make sure you're prepared for the potential challenges of cold weather travel (particularly talking to you, Californians), there are some additional considerations to weigh before you set out on a winter adventure.
Things to watch out for:
Winter driving has its own precautions, including potential need for tire chains, ice scraper for the windshield, or a shovel. Even walking requires special traction soles. So do your research.
Travel times may take longer due to weather conditions or road closures. Check Google Maps and parks' road conditions before you set out for the day, and then regularly throughout to avoid surprises.
National parks close most, if not all, services as soon as mid-September. Mountainous parks also close main roads for the snow season, sometimes greatly limiting access to major scenic areas. In some cases sights are accessible only by guided coach vehicles (such as Yellowstone NP). However, these unplowed closed roads are often popular for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, so there is a plus.
Days are shorter, so less daylight will make for less ground covered per day.
If you're looking at dreamy travel pics in idyllic seasonal conditions, just be realistic about what awaits given the time of year and current weather conditions. Google the destination and the given month you'll be there, and if its in the near future, I like to search a location's latest posts on Instagram.
Bottom line: cold weather travel offers you the opportunity to see a locale transformed by the peaceful beauty of winter, while avoiding crowds and saving big money.