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Tropical islands and ski resorts are popular destinations during the holiday season, but why wrestle the crowds in Aspen or the Caribbean when you can explore an off-season spot that’s just as beautiful this time of year instead? These six places in the U.S. are just as fantastic in January as they are in July. Before you travel, make sure you check mask mandates and COVID-19 restrictions for each state you plan to visit.
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872 as the world’s very first national park, welcomes upwards of four million visitors a year. On the busiest summer days it can feel like those four million nature-lovers are all there at once. Even so, the park which spans parts of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, is a must-visit. Where else can you experience 1,000 miles of trails in addition to 300 geysers, 290 waterfalls, and a chance to see 67 mammal species and 285 bird species?
Traveling to Yellowstone during the winter is far less hectic — you might feel like you have all 3,472 square miles of wilderness to yourself. Of course, not every trail and facility is open in the dead of winter, but you can still go snowshoeing through a winter wonderland, see bison roam and bighorn sheep lock horns, or take a guided snowcoach tour to visit Old Faithful. Ice-skating, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing are popular activities available at Yellowstone. After all that exploring in chilly temperatures, you can warm up at one of the two cozy Yellowstone lodges that remain open year-round.
Kansas City, Missouri
The Midwest is known for its harsh winter weather conditions, but there’s lots to explore in Kansas City when the temperature drops. For one, the city was recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage City of Music in 2018 for its rich jazz heritage. Start at the 18th and Vine neighborhood, a national historic district famous as the birthplace of jazz in Kansas City. Aside from music venues that offer a steady stream of live performances, the area is famous for its Kansas City-style barbecue joints, the American Jazz Museum, and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
Beyond the city’s jazz district, visitors can also dine at world-class restaurants, enjoy musical theater performances at the Kauffman Center, go ice-skating at Crown Center Ice Terrace, and see exhibits at one of the city’s numerous art museums. Holiday visitors can also enjoy the lights and decor at the city’s historic Union Station, a Beaux-Arts-style train station that opened in 1914 and was extensively renovated in the 1990s. Make sure you get a cinnamon bun — the sweet treats are another classic Kansas City specialty that will warm you right up after a day of exploring.
Each February since 2016, the city of Portland celebrates during the Pacific Northwest’s cold, dark, and rainy winter with a Winter Light Festival. Rain or shine, the festival lights up the night with laser shows, light sculptures, games, bonfires, and a life-size Lite-Brite (remember the popular children’s toy?). Organized by a nonprofit arts organization called the Willamette Light Brigade, the series of events is an effort to connect the community and celebrate Portland’s diversity during the long, wet winter. The various events begin after dark and are a bit different each year, but you can count on a mix of art and technology including fireside storytelling, silent discos, interactive exhibits, and live music and dance. Best of all, everything is free.
Apart from the festival, Portland has an amazing food scene with Asian restaurants serving Vietnamese pho and banh mi and Thai noodle dishes, dozens of food trucks specializing in breakfast bites and fusion cuisines, and a slew of vegetarian, vegan, and health-focused cafés. You can warm up with a craft beer from one of the city’s range of over a hundred independent breweries. Fans of antique and thrift shopping will be right at home in Portland, with a host of shops selling oddities and ephemera alongside vintage clothing and mid-century decor. Other musts include the tranquil Japanese Garden and Powell’s Books — the world’s largest independent bookstore.
Cape May, New Jersey
Located at the southern tip of the Jersey Shore, Cape May is America’s oldest seaside resort and boasts miles of white sand beaches and a national historic district with almost 600 preserved Victorian buildings. The idyllic beach town hosts over nine million visitors each year and most of them enjoy the pastel-colored houses affectionately called the “Painted Ladies” and ocean waves during the summer. A visit to Cape May in winter is a great way to beat the crowds, have a little quiet time, and save a few bucks on a night’s stay at one of the many quaint, historic inns and bed and breakfasts along the shoreline.
Visitors exploring Cape May in December can enjoy a host of holiday events, ranging from tree lightings to caroling, and witness the epic holiday decorations that look extra magical paired with the ornate architecture. You can also take tours of the historic homes and explore nature at the beaches, parks, and the Cape May Bird Observatory. Visitors in March can even dip in the icy ocean water during the Polar Bear Plunge — if they’re brave!
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park, which stretches from California into Nevada, is too hot for most travelers in summer. As one of the hottest places on Earth, average temperatures in July can top 107 degrees Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, winter temperatures rarely fall below the 60s and 70s, making January or February perfect for exploring the park’s secluded sand dunes and salt flats.
Established in 1994, Death Valley is the largest national park in the contiguous U.S. It’s also the driest and the lowest national park, with spans that are 282 feet below sea level. The landscape in the valley can appear almost otherworldly, with rugged mountains and rock formations, spires of stone and salt, and a series of mineral pools with steaming, bright blue water. Fortunately, over a thousand miles of roadways and a network of trails make it easy to explore the magnificent desert wilderness that offers some of the most breathtaking sunrises and sunsets in the world. Late winter and early spring visitors may even luck out if the area gets enough rain — they’ll experience an eruption of wildflowers buzzing with bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds — a phenomenon known as a desert bloom.
Providence, Rhode Island
Though quite chilly in winter, the capital of Providence, Rhode Island offers tourists many activities during its off-season. Start on Benefit Street, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. It is known as the “Mile of History” for boasting both America’s highest concentration of colonial and Federal architecture, as well as a stretch of museums, art institutions, churches, and the campuses of Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. The city is also home to cozy, gourmet restaurants that serve everything from crêpes to Italian pastas topped with fine parmesan and rich marinara — great for warming up after an afternoon of ice-skating at Providence Rink or enjoying discounted admission at the Roger Williams Park Zoo (the resident snow leopards and red pandas especially love to frolic in the snow).
Winter in Providence also welcomes numerous festivals. In January, the city hosts a restaurant week, an emerging fashion event called STYLEWEEK Northeast, a children’s film festival, and a range of art events at local galleries.