Slightly off season
Fall and winter travel is easier than ever, now that daylight saving time lasts longer than daylight losing time.
Even after the great fall-back darkness descends, you can find plenty of greatly off-season travel. You just need to remember that traveling north gives you even shorter days while traveling toward the equator and hugging the time zone line can give you an extra 30 minutes of sunlight even while staying in the states.
Of course, the temperatures drop everywhere in North America. This can work to your advantage as December is about the only good time to visit places such as Death Valley and Phoenix where normally your car would explode if left parked in the sun. Most of southern California is also more tolerable in the winter. Cool gives way to cold in other spots. This means that many park campgrounds and KOAs have turned off their water and closed their shower rooms. You end up paying $30 just for a place to shiver.
You will notice there are more foreign tourists. Something has changed in the last 10 years. Somewhere in Europe and Asia travel agencies are heavily marketing trips to US national parks in winter. We have been to packed Zion, Bryce and Grand Canyon parks in December and were about the only native US citizens. I get that it is probably cheaper to travel overseas during the off-season but it can be subzero in the parks and there is only about two hours of daylight. Though I don’t miss the summer crush of American family tourists, there is something exotic about seeing Indian parents with cold, crabby children looking out at the red rocks and cursing the lack of cell phone coverage.
While more foreign tourists are in the popular places, it seems there are more locals in the diners. We just got back from a tour of Wyoming where we found ourselves surrounded by locals in every restaurant we picked. It is as if they were just waiting to come out, once the tourist season was over. Fortunately, we blended in as AARP-eligible, but not quite Medicare eligible, white people. If we dress casually and talk quietly we can blend in almost anywhere in the West.
While early December travel moves along at a blissful pace, we have learned that the week bookended by Christmas and New Year’s is the new high off-season. Death Valley, Zion and Bryce are often sold out this time of year. The highway from Los Angeles to Las Vegas is bumper to bumper. I guess because the Christmas hype lasts so long, people are ready to flee their homes the minute the packages are unwrapped.
True, some attractions are closed. Like the original Vacation movie, you might get to Wallyworld only to discover it is closed. Your favorite Northwest campground might be a mud hole. The whole east entrance to Yellowstone might be closed. Just about any highway in Wyoming might close at any minute. I once drove east to Iowa only to find that the entire state border was closed for two days due to ice storms. But you can still see Old Faithful in Yellowstone if you’re willing to ski in or take a snowmobile ride. And that may be the best way to see Old Faithful.
So yes, you could freeze to death traveling slightly-off season, but the experience might well be worth the risk.
Dennis Hinkamp is taking suggestions for Western winter trips this year.