- Winter is a great time to travel if you love adventurous snow sports or cozy cabin stays.
- I have an annual tradition of taking a winter trip somewhere in the US to enjoy holiday festivities.
- Here are some of my favorite places to go, from Colorado to New Mexico.
Leading up to the holiday season, I have an annual tradition of taking a winter vacation in the US to try out new winter sports, shop European-inspired Christmas markets, or soak in hot springs.
Over the years, I've discovered plenty of festive destinations throughout the US that embrace the cold and are as scenic as snow globes. These are my favorite vacation spots for winter wonderland vacations.
As a Colorado resident based in Westminster, I love a "two-for-one" staycation that blends city life with the mountains in my home state. Not only do I love the variety, but mountain stays are pricier in the winter, so it's more affordable to stay in Denver instead and drive to daily activities.
I start off in Denver, usually by booking a room at one of my favorite hotels, The Halcyon, a hotel in Cherry Creek, which I love for their winterized cabanas and ice curling rink on the rooftop. If they're booked up, I also consider the Catbird Hotel, another cozy spot where guest rooms come with lofted beds and pull-down projector screens that are perfect for streaming holiday movies.
After a good night's rest, I set an early alarm and bypass all the mountain traffic by taking the roughly two-hour scenic Winter Park Express train, aka "the ski train," that runs along a track to Winter Park, which is the closest ski resort to Denver. My friends visiting from out of town love the ski train because it's scenic and you don't have to worry about making sure your rental car is properly equipped with snow tires or chains. Once there, the resort has 3,000 acres of skiable terrain, as well as a sledding hill and snowcat tours.
I've also rented a snowmobile in Winter Park to take on a high-speed adventure, and I've gone snowshoeing on a trail with views of the Continental Divide, the mountainous backbone along the crest of the Rockies.
One of my favorite places to eat after a day on the slopes is Hernando's Pizza Pub, a quirky spot in Winter Park serving pastas and pies that's wallpapered with $1 bills.
Utah has trademarked its powder as "The Greatest Snow on Earth," and as a regular in Park City, which is one of my favorite towns to go skiing in the country, I have to agree.
I usually stay at the Washington School House Hotel, a cute boutique hotel in a historic schoolhouse in downtown Park City that has a more intimate vibe than the bigger resorts, and spend an afternoon going to the High West Saloon, which is a ski in-ski out distillery that you can access from downtown and has great whiskey.
Beyond skiing, I also come here to live out my Olympic dreams at Utah Olympic Park, which is just a 15-minute drive from Park City's Main Street. During my last winter visit, I strapped on a helmet and slid into a bobsled to ride the lower third of the track. I was guided by an actual bobsled athlete, and picked up a top speed of 63 miles per hour during the one-minute ride.
Most people tell me because of its desert landscape, they're surprised to learn that it snows in Santa Fe. But the city actually sees great snow, around 32 inches a year in town and up to 300 inches in the higher altitude ski zones. Years ago, I took my first-ever ski lessons at the local ski resort, Ski Santa Fe, and loved schussing down the mountain since it didn't have a ton of crowds, and I had a friendly instructor.
After a day on the slopes, and with the snow still falling, I soaked my achy muscles at Ten Thousand Waves, a spa with outdoor hot tubs that are modeled after the onsens in Japan, which are natural hot springs. I think it's a great way to pair an active day outside with a rejuvenating experience that is unique to the area, and you can even reserve your own tub for a peaceful soak.
I had such a good time that I returned to Santa Fe last year with my mom to celebrate Thanksgiving and booked an Airbnb that was within walking distance of downtown. I recommend staying somewhere central like we did so you can be near the "Margarita Trail," a collection of casual to upscale restaurants all serving unique margaritas. My favorite stop was Del Charro for a spicy hatch chile margarita and a cheeseburger.
I also liked how Sante Fe is wonderfully festive during the holiday season, with farolitos, or paper bag lanterns, lining and illuminating businesses and homes throughout town. To warm up one afternoon, my mom and I stopped into Kakawa Chocolate House for rich drinking chocolates. We also attended the Holiday Tree Lighting Festival on the plaza, which takes place each year on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
I'm originally from Michigan, and while some of my family members try to leave the state during its very cold winters, I love going back, particularly for the holiday festivities.
In Ann Arbor, I always go to KindleFest, a seasonal outdoor market which reminds me of the Christmas markets I've seen in Europe. The stalls are lined with artisans selling holiday decor and gifts, snacks serve mulled wine and roasted nuts to enjoy while walking around, and there's roving musicians and fire pits. I also like to catch a holiday concert or show at The Ark, a folk music venue in downtown because it's an intimate venue that often brings in up-and-coming artists.
Adding to the town's magic are the little decorated "fairy doors" that I try to spot outside of businesses and homes year-round. They're meant to act as portals for the college town's mythical residents.
When I'm visiting, I book a room at The Graduate Ann Arbor, a collegiate-themed hotel near the University of Michigan campus. I've worked from a long library-style table in the lobby, which makes me feel like I'm in college again, minus the all-nighter study sessions.
Fish Creek is a quaint town on Green Bay's shores and is a gateway to Peninsula State Park, a scenic park with a historic lighthouse and a nice place to cross-country ski, snow tube, snowshoe and sled in the winter.
I'm always up to try a new activity, so when I visited for a few days in February 2021, I rented a kicksled from Door County Kicksled and zipped around the snow in the state park on the foot-powered sled. Popular in Nordic countries, the small sled has two runners which you stand on and a seat in front for a passenger, and you propel it by kicking the ground between the runners with your foot. I found it to be fun, and quite the cardio workout.
I also picked up skis from Nor Door Sport & Cyclery to go cross-country skiing on the park's groomed tracks, and spent another afternoon witnessing the beauty of frozen limestone rock formations at Cave Point State Park.
To warm up, I recommend visiting one of the area's many supper clubs for an Old Fashioned (the local-favorite cocktail, but in Wisconsin it's made with brandy instead of whiskey) and enjoying a fish boil at White Gull Inn. The traditional meal comes with whitefish and potatoes, plus a show as the broilmaster throws kerosene on the fire.
As the third-largest city in the US, Chicago might not seem immediately synonymous with a winter wonderland given its large urban sprawl. But after many visits over the years, I feel strongly that it's a great winter destination because snowy Lake Michigan is strikingly beautiful, and there are some great ice skating rinks.
Plus, with more than 450 retailers, the Magnificent Mile in Chicago is a premium destination for holiday shopping. Even if you don't want to haul home gifts, the holiday-themed storefronts make for fun window shopping.
My favorite thing to do when I visit Chicago is to catch an improv show at the Second City theater and warm up with belly laughs. They have multiple shows a day and holiday-themed performances in the winter, including an improv holiday brunch.
For more outdoorsy fun, I go ice-skating at Millennium Park or Maggie Daley Park, which has a quarter-mile ice skating ribbon that winds through a downtown winter landscape. After checking out the city's official Christmas tree in Millenium Park, I like to take a break from the cold by visiting Sue the T-Rex skeleton and browsing natural history exhibits at the Field Museum.
Known as "Christmas City," Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, got its name on Christmas Eve in 1741 when Moravian missionaries settled in the area. In 1937, the chamber of commerce decided to market Bethlehem as "the Christmas city," so the Lehigh Valley destination has a long tradition of being a charming holiday destination.
I find that Bethlehem always goes all out during the holiday season, with trombone choirs strolling downtown sidewalks and lots of festive Christmas trees and light displays decorating the city. Fegley's Brew Works, a local brewery, releases a seasonal "Rude Elf's Reserve" beer that I make sure to get whenever I'm in town over the holidays.
The last time I visited, I shopped at the Christkindlmarkt market, which runs on weekends from mid November to early December and brings together 150 artisans selling ornaments, nutcrackers, knit hats and gloves, and more. This year, there's also a brand-new ice skating rink to enjoy as well, The Ice Rink at SteelStacks, that's set to open on November 22 and is on my list to see this year.
I also like to stick around past Christmas as Bethlehem is also known for its unique New Year's celebration: The Peeps Chick Drop, where a 400-pound, lit-up Peeps Chick — yes, the same marshmallow treat enjoyed on Easter — is lowered from the air from a massive crane, symbolizing a sweet start to the year.
Snow is rare in Fort Worth, but that doesn't stop the Texas city from putting its own cowboy spin on the holiday season.
Each year, the city hosts a Christmas rodeo and a parade of lights with more than 100 illuminated floats. There's also the Lightscape exhibit at the Fort Worth Botanic Gardens that includes tunnels of festive lights, singing trees, and hot cocoa stations.
Should I find myself in town for the holidays, I'd be sure to book at Hotel Drover, which I think makes for a great stay during the holiday season with a cowboy-clad Santa who goes around the property and takes pictures with guests, and the hotel's bar makes winter-themed cocktails. My mom and I spent a few nights at the hotel while visiting last November and made a nightly habit of soaking in the property's spacious hot tub.
This year, a brand new 4,000 square-foot ice skating rink is set to open, the Stockyards Rodeo Rink. The rink will have a 40-foot Christmas tree, live music, fire pits and holiday lights. The nearby Mule Alley has plenty of places to grab a bite to eat or shop for unique gifts.
Estes Park, which is a gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, draws lots of crowds in the fall when elk sightings are more common. But I think it's a great mountain town for winter, too, with winter sports like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the national park, and a cute downtown area with great shops that sell holiday candies and gifts.
One holiday season, I booked a holiday-themed cabin with a group of girlfriends at Mountain Village at Lake Estes. The cabin looked like it was straight out of a Hallmark movie, with holiday lights, a massive Christmas tree, a fireplace, and lots of festive decor. We made fondue and watched holiday movies during our cozy getaway.
When we managed to peel ourselves away from the cabin, and conditions were right, we went tubing, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing in Rocky Mountain National Park. I have my own snow gear, but for those who need to rent I recommend going to Estes Park Mountain Shop for all of snowshoes, sleds, and skis. As a bonus, outdoors-loving employees will point you to their favorite trails, too.
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