Visit the Most Picturesque Winter Wonderlands in the West
From mountain-ringed, charming towns in Colorado to snowy landscapes in Alaska, these frosty locales are spectacular for wintertime
Please note that due to COVID-19, some attractions may be closed or operating at a reduced capacity. Please travel responsibly, and check for closures before visiting.
Just because the cold has arrived doesn’t mean you have to hunker down and hibernate. The icy months offer plenty of unique opportunities to experience the West’s natural beauty. Whether your idea of a winter wonderland means kicking back in front of a fireplace in a stately lodge, strolling a charming ski town illuminated by thousands of lights, or taking off for a big adventure to climb mountains and scout wildlife, you’ll find your ideal match in one (or more) of these destinations that look like snow globes come to life during The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
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Lake Tahoe, CA/NV
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The second-deepest lake in the country, Lake Tahoe defies the harsh cold of winter and remains unfrozen, making for a unique and peaceful setting on the border of California and Nevada. Not to mention it’s surrounded by peaks perfect for skiing. Take a break from the slopes and try a guided group kayak tour on the water with Kayak Tahoe for a closer look. If you have a pup in tow, the Truckee River Legacy Trail runs five miles one way, and it’s plowed so you can easily take in snow-capped sights, like the one pictured above.
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A trip to Alaska in winter to see the night sky might seem like an undertaking but is well worth it: The aurora borealis is a show unlike any other. The lights can be seen from late August into spring, but the longer and darker nights make winter a great time to catch the colors. By day, stick around the northern lights gateway town of Fairbanks, where dozens of winter wonderland scenes await. Take a hike around Creamer’s Field (pictured), a 2,200-acre wildlife refuge with trails for hiking, wildlife photography, skijoring, and even mushing in the backcountry acreage.
Yosemite National Park, CA
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It’s almost impossible to choose between all the fantastic vistas in this park, but beholding Yosemite Valley is not to be missed, especially in winter. The imposing rock rising up on both sides combined with the snow-blanketed ground and forest provides a serene setting. Frolic across the valley floor, when the area is blessedly devoid of tour buses and it feels like you have the entire park to yourself. Roads leading to the Tunnel View or Valley View spots are always open, even in winter.
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Winter in this tiny town, about 2.5 hours from Seattle, is legendary. All rejoice when the Bavarian-inspired village dons its holiday finest with 500,000-plus lights, signaling the start of the season. The town’s scenic Front Street shines bright with spirited businesses, like the Nutcracker Museum (stocked with about 7,000 figurines) and the year-round Kris Kringl Christmas store. Then, just beyond the main drag, you’ll hit the Leavenworth Reindeer Farm. The entire town gets in on the festive fun, too, taking advantage of the sloped downtown lawn that turns into the community’s sledding hill, and the gazebo where carolers and other holiday singers descend. Go just about anytime in winter—the lights keep twinkling until Valentine’s Day.
Midway Ice Castles, UT
Courtesy AJ Mellor/ Ice Castles
What started as a backyard ice skating rink and slide built by an industrious father in Utah took off to become a full-fledged icy business. The interactive installation crops up every year, with crews using harvested icicles to create the base for the walk-through castles, which drip and grow into shape as more water freezes. Although Ice Castles is now hosted in various cities, Midway provides the ideal frigid temps for the site and dozens of other winter wonderlands adventures that take place across the Hubert Valley—think: cross-country skiing at the Soldier Hollow Nordic Center, home to the 2002 Winter Olympics; fat-tire biking at the Wasatch Mountain Golf Course; scenic train rides on the North Pole Express; and stand-up paddleboarding in a 95-degree hot spring in a cave.
Courtesy Visit Telluride
It’s worth the trek to Telluride (about seven hours driving in good weather from the Denver area): As soon as you drive into the picturesque lot positioned at the end of a box canyon with Thirteeners and Fourteeners jutting out in almost every direction, you’ll see why. Once a prosperous mining town with millionaires and outlaws, Telluride still bears bits of all the personalities that shaped it over the years: the mining tycoons, the hippies who set up camp in the sixties, the low-key celebs that favor the ski town today. With its Victorian and Gothic Revival architecture, tons of hip events and locally owned businesses, and a gondola that provides direct access to the sleek ski village, Telluride nails it as a winter resort and real-deal Western town. For a world-class view, settle into The Peaks Resort’s Altezza restaurant, enclosed by floor-to-ceiling windows.
White Sands National Monument, NM
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For a fresh take on the winter wonderland dream, make for the sugary dunes of White Sands. Temps in the cold months tend to swing between the 60s during the day and 20s at night, but sub-zero dips are also possible. Enjoy the snow-like landscape—which gets its color from the mineral gypsum—by sledding down the dunes on waxed, plastic saucers (find them at the gift shop). Keep in mind that it’s easy to get turned around in the sea of white sand, so stick to the marked trails.
Courtesy Shore Lodge
Wintertime is the crowning jewel of this small resort community built around the Payette Lake and the Salmon River Mountains. Since the 1960s, the town has hosted its Winter Carnival, in which the streets get overtaken by ice and snow sculptures, snow bike races, even a Mardi Gras-style parade. Between the festivities, plan on snowshoeing to dinner in a yurt in the Ponderosa State Park with Blue Moon Outfitters and skiing at Tamarack Resort. Rest your head and weary bones at the rustic-luxe Shore Lodge, where the indoor and outdoor pools are steamy for the season.