When most people plan a winter road trip they head south. And for good reason… winter weather can stop a road trip anytime. If you’re prepared and ready for the unexpected, though, a winter road trip can be just as successful as a summer road trip.
Of all of our trips, this trip remains the most unique. While we were on a vacation and we were having a good time, this trip served a completely different purpose. In short, it was a test for us.
Over the years, we’ve talked about moving west a lot. There’s just something about the wide open spaces, lack of traffic and natural beauty that we are drawn to. After having a heart attack in the summer of 2015, it was time to seriously consider a change. We figured that we should visit some western cities in the winter to see if we could really handle the weather.
We visited several small to medium-sized cities in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Colorado – some of our favorite states! Seriously, we’re ok with the biggest traffic jams being those caused by wildlife.
In addition to being a test to see just how well we handle the REALLY COLD temperatures, it was an opportunity to scope out a few cities. We returned to a few places we’d been before (Cody, WY and Bozeman, MT) and checked out a lot of new places, too.
Check out our tips on Preparing for a Winter Road Trip.
Updated May 2019
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Our Route West
When we head West, especially in the winter, we often travel across I-40 for much of the drive out then turn north. We do this for several reasons:
- We prefer crossing the Mississippi River in Memphis, which is a great town in its own right, as opposed to St. Louis. The traffic getting across the river is much lighter and easier to deal with.
- We avoid the serious blowing snow and high winds of the Plains.
- There are two Hampton Inns along the way which charge very little in terms of Hilton Honors points, making them very cheap places to stop. We often stay in the Hampton Inns in Clarksville, AR and Dumas, TX, both of which are category 2 hotels and charge the point equivalent of $50 per night. (Dumas has since changed categories but nearby Pampa, TX remains a good stop.)
From the Texas Panhandle, we cut northwest across New Mexico to Interstate 25 for the drive north along the Front Range of Colorado. There’s plenty of cool stuff to see along this drive (like Capulin Volcano National Monument, Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site or Garden of the Gods) but, this time, we kept trekking to make Cheyenne by nightfall.
One thing that is weird to deal with is how quickly the sun goes down in the winter further north. We aren’t used to it being dark by around 4:30 in the afternoon!
The temps certainly dropped as we headed north and were well below freezing by the time we reached our hotel in southern Wyoming.
Winter Road Trip Itinerary
We spent a total of 15 nights on the road, traveling from Atlanta out to Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah and Colorado. Yes, we did a lot of driving! We also saw a lot of great cities, several national park sites and even got to visit family along the way. Thankfully, we only ran into a little winter weather.
Where we stayed on our winter road trip:
- Clarksville, AR
- Dumas, TX
- Laramie, WY (2 nights)
- Cody, WY (2 nights)
- Bozeman, MT
- Missoula, MT
- Boise, ID
- Salt Lake City, UT
- Moab, UT
- Pagosa Springs CO (2 nights)
- Dumas, TX
- Clarksville, AR
- Woodstock, GA
Cheyenne and Laramie
Our first true “destination” was Laramie, WY. We spent a night and a day exploring Cheyenne and Laramie, walking the town and looking at the neighborhoods.
Both towns were neat, but quite a bit smaller than what we are used to. We live in a small suburb of Atlanta of about 24,000 folks. While the town is great, the greater metro Atlanta population is more than 5 million and living in a large metro area definitely wears on us.
Cheyenne only has about 60,000 folks and Laramie is half that. Indeed, there are fewer folks living in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming combined than in the greater Atlanta area.
We really enjoyed both cities. Cheyenne certainly feels larger than Laramie and had a lot more in the way of stuff to do but Laramie is home to the University of Wyoming which brings a lot in the way of culture, etc. to the town.
The nice thing about both towns is there were smaller, older homes that were affordable for folks like us and it is not that far a drive to Denver for the airport there.
We did run into some snow on the drive back to our hotel in Laramie (the Hilton Garden Inn) so Bonnie got some experience driving in snow.
Cody and Powell
Driving across Wyoming in the winter was a lot of fun. The state takes on a completely different character in the snow. Even areas which aren’t all that scenic, like the Great Divide Basin, become pretty in the snow.
We have been to Cody before and love the town. It is one of our favorite places out West. We are particular fans of the rodeo in the summer and it is located right outside Yellowstone National Park.
We got in early enough to spend some time walking around the streets of the town. Surprisingly, most of the bars and restaurants were open. Cody is a summer tourist town so we expected most everything to be closed for the season.
We decided to stay in the historic Irma Hotel, which was originally built and owned by Buffalo Bill Cody, founder of the town. It was comfy but nothing to get excited about.
We spent Christmas Eve day driving out to Powell (an even smaller town east of Cody) and exploring the neighborhoods of Cody. Both towns were homey and we could easily see living in either town. There is a small university in Powell and it’s about halfway between the Bighorn Range and Yellowstone National Park, so there would be a lot to do, outdoor recreation-wise.
We decided to spend the afternoon driving out to Wapiti and into the Shoshone National Forest, i.e. the road into Yellowstone NP. The entrance to the park is closed in the winter but the drive proved to be quite scenic with plenty of wildlife, including bighorn sheep!
After gassing up the truck and making sure we had something for breakfast for Christmas morning, we grabbed dinner, then headed back to the room to watch Love, Actually, my favorite Christmas movie.
Pro tip: when traveling on Christmas Day in rural areas, finding open things for food and gas is sometimes difficult. Plan ahead.
While, yes, we miss seeing our family at Christmas, sometimes we want to do our own thing and, to us, this was a perfect way to spend the holiday.
We woke up early on a Christmas morning and drove north into Montana. We got hit by a good amount of snow heading west on the interstate but we made it through just fine.
The snow continued throughout the morning as we drove through Bozeman. We spent the morning exploring the downtown and neighborhoods. We loved Bozeman. The town is gorgeous but we were limited by the snow and the fact that it was Christmas Day.
Were it any other day, the roads would have been more clear but because it was Christmas Day, the roads start to fill with snow. We headed to our hotel and relaxed for the rest of the day. We thought we might find a few restaurants or bars open for lunch but no such luck, so lunch was microwaved burritos and soup in the room.
One of the reasons we like staying in Hilton Garden Inns on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is you can typically get dinner that night at the Garden Grill. So, we relaxed, worked out, enjoyed the hot tub and watched the snow fall until dinner.
Overall, it was a great Christmas.
Missoula and Hamilton
The next morning we woke up to some beautiful, snowy views in Bozeman. We continued our trek west, driving to Missoula.
Along the way we were rewarded with amazing scenery at almost every turn. We drove through and around several mountain ranges throughout the day and the snowy vistas just never got old.
We enjoyed driving through the city, checking out the various areas in town and really liked the vibe. Missoula was the home of Norman Maclean, one of my favorite authors, so I have always enjoyed spending time there.
We decided to also check out the small town of Hamilton, which is just about 45 minutes south of Missoula. Its population is only about 3,000 but it was a nice town with a great park.
Hamilton is nestled in the midst of the Bitterroot and Sapphire mountain ranges and is gorgeous. We could seriously stand to live here, especially with easy access to Missoula to the north.
Driving Through Idaho
Our drive into Idaho officially added another state and another time zone to our road trip resume.
As we left Missoula, we drove west through the north/central part of Idaho through the Bitterroot, Clearwater and Nez Perce national forests.
Lolo Pass in the winter was one of the prettiest places we have ever been. We crossed right at dawn and the light was amazing.
We drove through some fairly uninhabited area of northern Idaho and had long sections with little to no cell phone service. Still, it was rugged and gorgeous. It even got above freezing in a couple of spots but not for long. We have not been above freezing at this point since we passed through Denver.
But that quickly gave way to more National Forest and more beautiful scenery. We stumbled upon the resort town of McCall, ID, which receives the most snowfall of any city in Idaho.
The amount of snow on the ground (and rooftops) was incredible; easily several feet of snow and they hadn’t even hit the snowiest month yet! It was a remote town with a lake for summer tourism and mountains and trails for winter tourism. And they have one of the best schools in the state! It may be a small town, pretty much in the middle of nowhere but the restaurants, shops and scenery were all top-notch.
Technically, we have driven through Idaho before, but only for about four minutes, so we don’t count it. Our destination of western Idaho was a little spontaneous, so we weren’t expecting the Pacific Time Zone. As we passed the sign, we both said “oh” in a little bit of surprise/confusion. It was only for a few hours though, so no “transitioning” needed.
We continued our drive to the greater Boise area. The suburb of Meridian was recently named the best place to live in the US. We spent the evening driving around Meridian and Boise. It is a very clean area, with some obvious zoning restrictions which keep everything looking very nice.
For the biggest metropolitan area in the state, traffic was almost non-existent… a lot different than Atlanta!
Idaho is very remote. We definitely drove through LOTS of parts that have no residents at all, in fact that was probably most of our day. We were amazed at the varying amounts of snowfall. Some places had several feet, while others had almost no snow at all. There were some patterns, but it was somewhat sporadic.
Visiting Idaho National Parks Sites
Today, we continued our quest to visit as many National Parks sites as possible. We got three more of them, bringing our total to 98 sites visited together (December 2015).
The day started with a surprise two-for-one. We headed to Hagerman Fossil Beds National Historic Site, about an hour and a half southeast of Boise. When we arrived at the visitor center, we found that it was also the visitor center for the Minidoka National Historic Site, a Japanese Internment Camp.
The fossil beds consisted mainly of Hagerman Horse fossils, one of the oldest horses which predate horses being brought by European explorers. Today, the site is really just a big open area. And this time of year, it was covered in snow.
We didn’t realize that Minidoka NHS was as close as it was (about a 30-45 minute drive). The visitor center had a basic display of the history of the internment camps and the life of those who were forced into them. The site itself had a guard tower (a replica, I’m sure), and the foundations of a couple of buildings right at the entrance. Again, snow covered everything, so it was pretty much impossible to follow the trail, but it was still worth the trip.
There are two other NPS sites in southern Idaho: Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve and City of Rocks National Reserve. We didn’t have time this trip to do those sites justice, so we saved them for a later day.
The third stop for the day was the Golden Spike National Monument, just north of Salt Lake City. It was the site of the last spike that joined the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, completing the transcontinental railroad. They had a replica of the Jupiter, a steam locomotive, that did a quick run up and down the local tracks, just for show. It was interesting to read about the work and everything involved in building the railroad.
Canyonlands National Park
This morning we woke up just south of Salt Lake City to about a half-inch of snow on the truck and still falling. Thankfully, it was light snow and didn’t last too long, so no major problems getting on the road.
We drove south through central Utah. We decided Utah definitely gets prettier and has better scenery the farther south you drive! Southern Utah is full of national parks and monuments, state parks and other protected sites. We wish we had more time here!
We spent most of the afternoon in Canyonlands National Park at Island in the Sky. The various canyons and other land formations are just amazing. Words can’t even describe it. We are so blessed to have the time and money to be able to experience the beauty that our country holds!
We stayed at the Hampton Inn in Moab, Utah for the night.
Arches National Park
We got up before dawn and toured Arches National Park (our 100th unit of the National Park Service!). We tried taking pictures of the sunrise but, sadly, the clouds didn’t cooperate.
On a personal note, I generally never have a problem with other photographers. Whoever gets there first has dibs and you don’t get into another person’s shot. In the morning, you don’t get loud.
This morning was just the opposite. Apparently, Arches was the destination of the large tour group we had seen the day before. The group was so very loud and so very… Squirrel! Seriously, it was like being in a pack of ADD golden retrievers.
After it became apparent the sunrise shots were going to be a bust, we headed to Delicate Arch. We decided to take the trail, a 3-mile strenuous hike. It wasn’t bad until the trail took a 5-foot ledge with a 30-foot drop below. These kinds of heights really bother Bonnie, but the view at the end was worth it!
The sun finally came out and I got some great shots with my SLR. I took out my iPhone to grab a panorama… Dead. We have discovered our iPhone batteries do not like the cold. We each got one picture before the battery “died.”
The hike back… Well, it was bad. I slipped and landed on my back… Which still hurt a couple of days later, though thankfully no major bruises. The camera, not so lucky. I busted the preview screen and it does not appear to be autofocusing properly. Ultimately, it was better to just buy a new camera, so I upgraded to the Canon 7D Mark II.
We continued on to several other sites in the park, using our recharged iPhones to pick up the slack, camera-wise.
We are so glad to make time on this trip to see five NPS sites. I know a lot of folks think it is just about seeing pretty places, but it is so much more than that.
In three days, we saw ancient fossil beds, an internment camp for the Japanese during WWII, the location where we joined transcontinental railroad together and two diverse desert canyon areas with amazing, unique landscapes.
After Arches, we drove to Pagosa Springs, CO, where we visited with Bonnie’s uncle Al, leading to a late night.
New Year’s in Pagosa Springs
The next day, New Year’s Eve, we toured Pagosa Springs, then rested and watched football in our room at the Econo Lodge. While it was comfortable, it was not up to the quality we are used to from Hilton properties. Still, there aren’t many inexpensive hotels in Pagosa Springs.
We’ve had a couple of long days recently and will have some relatively long and boring driving ahead of us, so having time to rest today was great. Watching college football made it even better if you ignore the fact that FSU lost.
We also took some time to drive around town. We have visited some lovely towns with great mountain scenery, but we really might have saved the best for last.
The mountain views as you drive around town are just spectacular. We caught a glimpse of the sunset coloring on the mountains and it was amazing.
The town is home to the largest/deepest hot spring in the world. There is a lot of tourism for the springs and also for the ski area just northeast of town.
The Wolf Creek Ski Area gets the most snow of any city in Colorado. We didn’t get all the way out there, but we’ve certainly seen a decent amount of snow buildup in town, so it’s easy to believe. And both yesterday and today, we could see the clouds and likely snow on the mountains while is was relatively clear and sunny in town.
Pagosa Springs typically only gets around 30 inches of snow per year and around 300 days of sunshine, making it a great place to live in my book.
New Year’s Morning was spent at Bonnie’s uncle’s place to get the full tour of his property. He has a large lot (30-40 acres) just west of Pagosa Springs. In addition to the house, there is a garage, a barn, a blacksmith shed and a shed for the fifth-wheel. The house looks out over a canyon with mountain views in the distance.
The property (and the entire subdivision) is absolutely beautiful. There are amazing mountain views around every corner. The lots are huge, and most houses are back off the road, so each house has its privacy.
Bonnie’s dad also owns a lot in the same subdivision. Right now it is blanketed in snow, so we weren’t able to really explore it much, but it is obvious that is just as amazing and would be a great place to build.
After exploring and visiting, we grabbed some lunch and officially started the drive home. We decided to take the back roads through northern New Mexico. We drove through some very remote places today. Most were very scenic.
Our drive took us through Taos, NM, which did not really meet our expectations (not that we had much). The building code requires adobe buildings, which are interesting, but when everything looks exactly the same it gets old.
Since we got a late start, we ended up driving after dark. That part was the not-as-pretty part (northeastern NM and northwestern TX)… we’ve been through this part before, so we weren’t too upset to miss the “scenery.”
We did enjoy the Hampton Inn in Dumas, TX tonight; the last two nights in the Econo Lodge were a good reminder of why we like Hilton properties. Tomorrow, we will continue our drive east, crossing back along I-40 to the Hampton Inn in Clarksville and then home.
The one thing we had going for us was all the bowl games on the radio… SiriusXM makes road trips so much better.
Leaving Dumas, the temperatures finally topped above freezing. We were on the road for 16 days. On day three, the temps dropped below freezing and other than one brief peek above freezing in Idaho, stayed below freezing until day 15.
Overall, we did well with the cold. There were quite a few places we would happily live. We found others we wouldn’t. Still, we loved the trip and spending time out West.
Ultimately, we decided to stay put in metro Atlanta. While we love the Western US, all of our immediate family is in Georgia and Florida. Additionally, Bonnie is only about 10 years from being able to retire if she continues teaching in Georgia. Being able to retire at 53 is not something to be overlooked. We’ll still continue traveling west often, I’m sure.
And, who knows, we may still end up moving one day.