You know it’s winter in North America when ads promoting the Caribbean, Mexico and Hawaii start appearing in droves in newspapers and online. The message: winter is something you should flee.
Counterpoint: those balmy destinations are great year-round. The places that hit peak beauty at the chilliest times of year, on the other hand, are at their best for a short length of time. So grab your parka, embrace the chill and be one of the few to see these rare moments of winter wonder.
Snowshoe through Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Towering red rock hoodoos melting away into rolling badlands under blue jay skies: Bryce Canyon is a stunner at any time of year, but a dusting of snow turns it into a crystalline fairyland. The other benefit of a winter visit: solitude. The height of summer sees 15 times the number of visitors that come during the snowy months. With fresh snow, Bryce Canyon becomes one of the premier snowshoeing destinations in the US. If you don’t have your own, join one of the ranger-guided snowshoe walks where a pair is provided free of charge.
Admire the bubbles at Abraham Lake, Alberta
If Banff and Jasper National Parks don’t fully satisfy your craving for winter beauty, just outside the parks sits Abraham Lake with a peculiar claim to fame: beautiful bubbles. When the lake freezes over, methane released from decaying matter on the lakebed becomes trapped in the ice, creating a remarkable effect that draws photographers from around the world. To see the beautiful bubbles in person, timing is everything. Go after the lake has fully frozen and is safe to skate on, but while the ice is still clear enough to see through – usually late December into January. And bundle up – this is one chilly adventure.
Experience the lights in Fairbanks, Alaska
Winter is the season for the northern hemisphere’s most spectacular light show: the aurora borealis, aka the Northern Lights, and Fairbanks has everything you need: most importantly, an international airport really far north. The Northern Lights won’t always come to you – it can take some patience, a little luck and some stalking. For the best viewing, head away from the lights of town. Popular viewing spots include Creamer’s Field, a bird sanctuary on the north of side of Fairbanks, and along Chena Hot Springs Road. For a more adventurous approach, guided tours leave from Fairbanks taking you north along the famous Dalton Highway across the Arctic Circle to Coldfoot and Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve.
Experience the weird at Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park
Until quite recently, the ‘sailing stones’ of Racetrack Playa were a long-standing mystery of Death Valley National Park. Any traveler who makes the long, bumpy trek to the flat playa will see that numerous large rocks have, over time, carved clear, meandering trails across the desert floor. How do they move? Since the 1940s, dozens of theories piled up until researchers finally cracked the case in 2014. The culprit: winter. Thin sheets of ice that form on the playa floor melt in the morning sun, and wind pushes the floating ice against the rock, pushing them along at up to five meters per minute. The Racetrack can be visited at other times of year, but winter is one of the most pleasant times to visit what is often the hottest spot in the US.