Summer road trips are about getting there: for finding circuitous routes on great roads that allow a car to romp across brilliant landscapes. But a winter holiday road trip is something else.
Because the winter world is cold and road conditions are often nasty, winter holiday road trips are about the destinations. Places that are best seen when the weather has cooled them down or made them more visually spectacular. Places that won't be as crowded as they would be in summer — or are appropriately crowded for the season. Places where you can overindulge in the goofball insanity that exists among those celebrating the holidays.
Where you go on this winter road trip depends upon where you start. So here is a scattering of 10 interesting North American destinations — at least a few of which should be close to you.
1. Marfa, Texas
What to drive: Hand-painted 1967 Chevrolet C10 pickup to embody an artsy Texas vibe.
What to bring: A love for the absurd and the abstract and an open mind.
What to leave at home: Most every preconceived notion about Texas.
What to wear: Boots, exquisitely distressed jeans and a T-shirt featuring a silk-screen Picasso.
Marfa sits on the western edge of Texas alongside Mexico and underneath New Mexico. Only about 2,000 people live there and it would be easy to ignore if so many of them weren't artists.
For the last 40 years artists have been flocking to this one-time railroad water stop and have rebuilt the town in their own eccentric image. There's Building 98, once part of Fort D.A. Russell, which features massive murals painted by German prisoners of war during World War II and houses various art exhibits today. Take a trip about 40 miles out of town and there's Marfa Prada, a sculpture in the form of a lonely Prada store that never opens. Throw in dozens of other galleries and art installations that spring up in every unlikely place.
You're guaranteed to want to take some piece of art home. So come with your debit card loaded.
2. Santa Monica, California
What to drive: Tesla Model S with a UCLA faculty parking sticker.
What to bring: A guide to movie locations and a firm faith that kale is the greatest of all foods.
What to leave at home: All hope that you could possibly afford to live in Santa Monica.
What to wear: Flip-flops with anything.
Santa Monica is Edmunds.com's hometown and so familiar to us that it takes some effort to remember that most of the country isn't like this place. After all, we're used to more than 300 days a year of sunshine; to seeing guys who look like bums driving Ferraris and guys who look like architects picking through dumpsters; and to clerks at Whole Foods looking at us like we just killed a blue whale because we forgot to bring a reusable bag with us to tote home the groceries.
But the Southern California coast — from Santa Barbara to the north down to San Diego in the south — is one of the great wonders of the world. First because the coastline itself is flat-out gorgeous, and second because there is an overwhelming amount of stuff here. Museums, sports, places you've seen over and over again on TV, and the best dang theme parks on Earth. And Santa Monica is smack in the middle of it all.
Every American owes himself at least one drive down Pacific Coast Highway and one stop at what everyone assumes is Cher's house (an assumption that changes week to week). Then take a side trip onto the entertaining roads that snake through the Santa Monica Mountains, including famed Mulholland Drive that runs atop their ridge.
So come visit us. We'll let you buy lunch.
3. Las Vegas, Nevada
What to drive: Conspicuous consumption on four shiny wheels.
What to bring: Money, your bail bondsman's phone number and a plausible alias.
What to leave at home: Dignity, common sense and all access to your home equity line of credit.
What to wear: Something you wouldn't wear anywhere else.
Las Vegas uses the seven deadly sins as its marketing plan. So if you want to indulge in lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, pride and even wrath this holiday season, Vegas is your place.
That noted, no place does the winter holidays quite the way Las Vegas does. Virtually every shop, show, casino and attraction will be open on Christmas day in Vegas and some of the decorations are truly spectacular. You really haven't experienced holiday extravagance until you've seen the display at the Bellagio — which includes a polar bear family made of white carnations, flying reindeer made of pecans and a 42-foot-tall Shasta Fir Christmas tree so big the ornaments are the size of regular Christmas trees. Or you could head to the Venetian for ice skating and a light show. You know, traditional and deeply meaningful Christmas stuff.
4. The Mall of America, Minnesota
What to drive: Chevrolet Suburban with little stickers representing each member of your family on the back window.
What to bring: A long shopping list.
What to leave at home: Sarcasm.
What to wear: Layers and layers. Then more layers.
Bloomington, Minnesota, isn't a winter wonderland, but it is home to the Mall of America (MOA) and malls don't come any bigger than this 96.4-acre enclosed space. That's almost 4.9 million square feet of retail capitalism. There are more than 520 stores in this place. Spend 10 minutes in each one and you've blown three and a half days without taking a bathroom break or stopping for a corn dog.
The MOA goes nuts for this season when something like 120,000 shoppers cruise through the doors every day. More than 200 Christmas trees are placed around the mall, including two giant ones in the central rotunda. There are more than 50 miles of LED lighting. And yeah you can have your photo taken with Santa. Several different Santas, in fact.
The scale of the MOA and the consumption it embodies is staggering. Almost as staggering as how cold it can get in Minnesota in December.
5. Branson, Missouri
What to drive: Winnebago Journey
What to bring: Nostalgia
What to leave at home: You drove your house here.
What to wear: No one will care.
Branson is kitschy and old-fashioned and cornball and overflowing with talented musicians, G-rated comedians, puns, wax museums and a half-scale replica of the Titanic. And at this time of year it practically explodes with joy.
As the entertainment capital of the Ozarks, Branson has dozens of shows ready to fiddle the spirit of the holiday season into your oversize RV-spec heart. Start with the "Miracle of Christmas" nativity page at the Sight & Sound Theatre and then work your way through a couple dozen more shows featuring old-school performers like the Osmond Brothers, the Lennon Sisters, Jim Stafford and, of course, Yakov Smirnoff.
America, what a country!
6. The Icefields Parkway, Alberta, Canada
What to drive: Dodge Power Wagon with snowplow and additional fuel tanks.
What to bring: Extra everything. And Chapstick.
What to leave at home: Cowardice.
What to wear: The most expensive winter gear REI sells.
Running from Canada's Banff National Park northwest to the Jasper National Park, the 140-mile-long Icefields Parkway is packed full of tourists during the summer. Running parallel to the Continental Divide, it features some of the most spectacular scenery in the Rockies including the awe-inspiring Columbia Icefield and Crowfoot Glacier. But when it gets cold, it's a whole different world.
The road is mostly empty in the winter, often subject to closures as extreme weather comes in, and snow can build up so quickly that cars on the shoulder are simply buried under it. It's a driving challenge that needs to be taken seriously and only after careful preparation.
But the reward for that preparation is like a trip to the ice planet of Hoth. The mountains take on a cold beauty accentuated by weather you can see swirling down their slopes, while the bighorn sheep come out in almost prideful defiance of the conditions. You don't even have to get out of your vehicle to appreciate the splendor. And usually it's not a good idea to get out of your vehicle anyway.
7. Death Valley National Park, California
What to drive: Audi RS 7
What to bring: Water and lots of it.
What to leave at home: Any notion that Mother Nature is a softie.
What to wear: Long pants, loose shirts and sunglasses during the day. Long johns, down jackets and wool socks during the night.
In the summertime, the temperatures in Death Valley can reach well beyond 100 degrees. In fact, the hottest temperature ever recorded anywhere on Earth was here in 1913: a roasting 134 degrees Fahrenheit. But in December, it rarely even gets into the 70s.
If there's no rain, Death Valley in December is one of the most temperate places there is. And that makes it easy to take in the stark beauty of what amounts to a massive hole in the Mojave Desert just west of Nevada. And if it does rain, there's a good chance a few days later a blanket of wildflowers will erupt across the valley with unfathomable color. This is a place of extremes.
The long, straight roads into and out of Death Valley invite extra-legal speeds. So that's between you and the California Highway Patrol. But stay under their radar long enough and you can drive from the lowest point in North America — Death Valley's Badwater Basin at 282 feet below sea level — up onto Mount Whitney (at 14,505 feet, the highest mountain in North America) in less than 100 miles.
You won't make it to the summit in a car, but it's a great drive up to the trailhead that leads skyward.
8. Monument Valley, Utah
What to drive: Cadillac Escalade ESV
What to bring: An iPad loaded up with John Ford westerns.
What to leave at home: Your John Wayne impression.
What to wear: Go cowboy.
Monument Valley is one of those places that's been featured in so many movies that you feel like you've been there. Then you go there and realize you've never been to any place like it.
In geological terms, the monuments in Monument Valley are a series of stratified buttes arising from the floor of the Colorado Plateau. As you approach the valley along U.S. Highway 163 it's not hard to imagine herds of wild mustangs stampeding across in slow motion all around you. You half expect to stop at a crossing for a train of Conestoga wagons on their way to California.
Generally speaking, the crowds in Monument Valley (it's actually a Navajo Tribal Park) are smaller in the winter and the weather much cooler than in the summer. The highlight for most is a 17-mile scenic drive along a dirt road that is liberally littered with breathtaking views.
9. Paradise, Pennsylvania
What to drive: A sleigh.
What to bring: Every Christmas tradition you can remember.
What to leave at home: Reindeer.
What to wear: A goofy Christmas sweater.
Places don't come much more touristy than Paradise, Pennsylvania, smack in the middle of Lancaster County which is, in turn, smack in the middle of Pennsylvania's Amish country. There are only slightly more than 1,000 people living there, but it is home to the world's only Christmas museum.
The National Christmas Center isn't very large and has way too many creepy-looking mannequins posed to look like they're participating in some traditional Christmas-time tradition. But the place is absolutely stuffed with everything and anything even slightly related to Christmas frippery, and at some point you bend to its will and succumb to the weird alternate reality it represents.
Then you hit the road again and dodge the Amish buggies.
10. Savannah, Georgia
What to drive: 1950 Buick Roadmaster.
What to bring: Etiquette.
What to leave at home: Your diet.
What to wear: Something slightly better than what you usually wear.
Everyone in Savannah knows it's the most civilized and beautiful city in the South, and they're happy to tell you why in exhausting detail. And during the winter holidays, they put on a mighty show down there.
Every Victorian and antebellum home in town seems to be ablaze in lights, and there are candlelight tours available so you can see every single one of them. Then there's the Annual Festival of Lights and the Boat Parade of Light and a slew of concerts, ballets and more rich food than exists in the entire rest of the state.