When winter comes knocking, American travellers tend to sneak out the back door and flee to warmer climes. Unless you're an avid skier or ice fisherman, why stick around the cold parts of the US, right? Not so fast: the traveller willing to brave a little chill will be richly rewarded with unique seasonal experiences, lighter crowds, and the feeling like you and a select few are in on one of the US's great travel secrets.
The US is full of fantastic winter experiences, with places to go to celebrate the winter, party in spite of the winter, and break out the holiday cheer without having to follow the geese south or buy a pair of snow shoes. Here are a few of our favourite ways to celebrate the winter season around the US.
Yosemite - Bracebridge Dinner
No matter how many times it has been said, it bears repeating: visit Yosemite Valley in the winter. Yosemite is beautiful at all times, but nothing matches the majesty of Yosemite Valley under a fresh blanket of snow. The Ahwahnee Hotel is one of the great national park lodges and the perfect place to defrost in front of one of the fireplaces throughout the spacious lounges. And that view through the dining room window! The Bracebridge Dinner, the Ahwahnee's annual Christmas pageant, feast and mini Ren-fair is the hottest ticket of the season. If you want to join the fun and be entertained by over 100 actors in 17th-century garb, reserve your spot well in advance (you'll have plenty of time to get your costume together later).
Santa Fe - Farolitos on Christmas Eve
On Christmas Eve, Santa Fe at night is a magical place to be, with the scent of piñon pine and cedarwood fires and the soft light from thousands of farolitos (luminaries) playing on the famed adobe buildings of the US's oldest state capital. Santa Fe's Canyon Road, one of the great art destinations in the US with over 100 galleries stringing the narrow lane, is at its very best on Christmas Eve and well worth braving the cold and the crowds. Versions of this occur throughout the Southwest - the Festival of Lights in Sedona is another standout.
Ouray, Colorado - Ouray Ice Festval
The Ouray Ice Festival, billed as the biggest ice festival in North America (although there's some stiff competition elsewhere), is a four-day fiesta of ice climbing competitions and a variety of other winter adventure sport events and workshops. If ice climbing sounds more like something for other people to do, come as a spectator and enjoy the thrills and mountain views - not to mention the local microbrews - from a comfortable distance.
New York City - Christmas
No city does Christmas bigger or better than New York City. It's not going to be warm, but the Christmas displays alone will make you forget to feel the chill. Many visitors dream of a skate around the stories rink at Rockefeller Plaza. Go visit - it's a beautiful sight, but it's also surprisingly tiny and unsurprisingly expensive. For a better and equally magical New York experience, lace up your skates at Central Park's bigger and cheaper Wollman Rink.
Elko, Nevada - National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
Nothing takes the edge off a cold winter eve in Elko, Nevada like a little shot of cowboy poetry and camaraderie. Every January, wranglers and ropers and cowboy fanboys (and fangirls) gather in Elko for a week-long poetry and folklore reading festival. If you have a love of the West, cowboy culture, and poetry, this is the winter celebration for you. And heck, if you've got your own collection of verse devoted to cattle and saddles or tumbleweed haiku, sign up to perform yourself.
San Francisco - SantaCon
Born in San Francisco in 1994, SantaCon has now spread to cities around the world - after all, who doesn't want to dress up like Santa Claus and get drunk with a bunch of other Santas? Or set the world record for the largest gathering of naked Santas? It pays to read the SantaCon guidelines before you go: Santa does not make children cry, you MUST address everyone as "Santa", and no Santas will be left behind. Vomiting while dressed as Santa is discouraged. Needless to say, this is an adult-only bit of winter fun.
Anchorage - Fur Rendezvous
Late February's Fur Rendezvous Festival (the 'Rondy') in Anchorage, Alaska is the signal that the long winter is coming to a close. Well, maybe not right away, but soon-ish, and all of Anchorage is ready to celebrate even if they're in for more cold weather. Browse the pelts. Watch the ice sculpting. Take the coldest Ferris wheel ride of your life (or wrap yourself in some furs from the festival and stay warm). At the end of the Rondy, the famed 1100-mile Iditarod Trail sled dog race begins.
Philadelphia - Mummers Parade
The US's oldest folk festival comes on New Year's Day to Philadelphia, with thousands of participants in the Mummers Parade dressed to outrageous extremes in large and detailed costumes of sequins, feathers, and glittery makeup. They're joined by unamplified string bands that march with a variety of traditional instruments and perform elaborate routines. Think Mardi Gras in Philly and in the cold - but despite the low temperatures, turnout and spirits (and consumption of spirits) is always high.