winter in Bryce Canyon
January in Utah means empty parks, and the Sundance Film Festival. | Cavan Images/they dig/Getty Images
January in Utah means empty parks, and the Sundance Film Festival. | Cavan Images/they dig/Getty Images

Find Your Fancy with These January Getaway Ideas

Get out there and get excited again.

Gearing up for the first month of a new year we always get chills—and not just because, for many of us, it’s actually chilly outside. No, we’re excited about new adventures, new outlooks, and maybe even a new haircut. Though the last few years have felt like déjà vu, this time it feels different, so let’s dream big. (Man, we hope we’re not jinxing anything.)

And let’s get a little wacky. Maybe with some snowy sports in the winter capital of Minnesota (ice golf or beard-growing, anyone?), or hopping a wolf-adorned George R.R. Martin train to nowhere. Or perhaps we hang with actual wolves in a national park (from a safe distance), dodge icy daggers in Ohio state parks, or escape to the Pacific coast of Mexico—or Vegas. Let’s pay tribute to those who paved the way for our civil rights, sip wine in places we would have never thought to before, and watch a ton of movies. Or just re-watch The White Lotus before hopping on a plane to Sicily. Who’s gonna stop us? That’s right: The name of the game for 2023 is “anything goes.”

Warm yourself on Mexico’s Pacific coast

Chilled to the bone? The cerulean Pacific shoreline of Mazatlán can easily cure that, with 20 miles of sand scads less touristy than its Cancun counterpart. It’s particularly appealing for those with appetites, as it’s located in the Mexican state of Sineola, which happens to provide a full one third of the country’s produce. That means local, inherently organic, farm-to-table everything, not to mention a bounty of seafood thanks to its beachfront situation.

And it’s also a feast for the eyes, with colonial architecture that pops with color, cobblestone plazas with Parisian-style cafes, and a seaside promenade rife with street performers. Jump off a cliff into the ocean—a local tradition—or lounge on one of several white sand beaches bustling with bars. For an overnight excursion, take a boat to Stone Island, not actually an island but a peninsula, with secluded stretches butting up against the hilly jungle.

Or find winter magic in Ohio

But maybe you’d like to lean into winter. Why not try Ohio? At the convergence of impressive waterfalls, caves, and gorges you’ll find Hocking Hills State Park. On the fringes of Appalachia, less than a four-hour drive from major cities like Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Indianapolis, winter here is especially magical. Over 2,000 acres feature seven hiking areas taking you past many natural wonders, like caves adorned with icy daggers—beautiful to look at, but definitely treacherous to walk under.

Much safer are the frozen waterfalls, suspended in time, one framed by a stone bridge near underground tunnels and rock formations with names like the Sphinx Head and Devil's Bathtub. And when you’re done, go park-hopping: Apparently Ohio has more state parks than Utah has state and national parks combined (!). Hocking Hills borders Lake Logan State Park, good for eagle-spotting, sledding, ice skating, or ice fishing—whatever tickles your frozen fancy.

Opt for adventure on a train co-owned by George R.R. Martin

Though the city of Santa Fe shot down his proposal to build a medieval castle in his backyard—“It is so clear that this is not an adobe building,” said the review board—Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin still has plenty of love for New Mexico. A resident of the state capital since 1979, it was inside his renovated bowling alley that art juggernauts Meow Wolf opened their first immersive installation, House of Eternal Return (a wise investment–they’re now up to three locations and boast former Disney execs on their board).

In December, Martin opened up Sky Railway, a refurbished version of the historic 141-year-old Santa Fe Railway, which once connected the city to the outside world and carried notables like presidents and Manhattan Project scientists. Collaborating with a group of his own contemporary notables, including Bill Banowsky, founder of Magnolia Pictures and Violet Crown Cinemas, and bestselling mystery author Douglas Preston, plus, according to his blog, a few margaritas, the decision was made to save the railway from its current state of disrepair and set it on a new mission: as twin dragon- and wolf-painted diesel locomotive chariots taking passengers on a scenic ride from Santa Fe to Lamy. There are themed rides from history to jazz to participatory murder mysteries, plus plenty to eat and drink. No word yet, however, if margaritas will be served.

Escape to—and in—Las Vegas

Las Vegas, AKA Sin City, trades on escaping real life, which is why folks like magician David Blaine choose it for their over-the-top, reality-adjacent residencies. But it’s also home to other immersive experiences, like Spiegelworld’s new performance space-nightclub-restaurant Superfrico, and Area 15, an entire complex dedicated to immersive experiences with alternate realities, VR experiences, and Meow Wolf’s dystopian Omega Mart.

But what if you wanted to, like, experience the world outside? Say on a rail biking journey with Rail Explorers, or perhaps via a trip to the legendary Hoover Dam, about 45 minutes away in Boulder City. For that, try Hoover Dam Rafting Adventures, which picks you up from your Vegas hotel for a half-day of dam history and floating on the Colorado River. January is also an excellent time to visit Death Valley National Park, with temperatures that won’t try to kill you just for trying being outside. For that, try Pink Tours, which makes stops along the US-95 “bizarro desert highway” route including Rhyolite Ghost Town and Goldwell Open Air Museum as well as the Area 51 Alien Travel Center, which also houses a working brothel. But you won’t have time for that.

Freeze your Minnetonkas off in Minnesota (but in a fun way)

Minnesota may have some of the coldest winters in the Lower 48, but they sure know how to make the most of it. The Sandstone Ice Fest (Jan 6–8) offers ice-climbing clinics in Sandstone, while Icebox Days (Jan 26–29) in International Falls gets wacky with frozen turkey bowling, canoe racing on ice, and a “Freeze Yer Gizzard Blizzard Run.”

The second annual World Snow Sculpting Championship (Jan 18–22) sees teams competing against the backdrop of the St. Croix River in Stillwater, while the St. Paul Winter Carnival (Jan 26–Feb 5) offers shenanigans from a beard-growing competition to ice-fishing tournaments, ice palaces, ice golf, dog coronations (why not?), and parades. It’s part of the Great Northern Festival, an 11-day extravaganza across Minneapolis and St. Paul, with additional events including outdoor orienteering challenges, climate-focused lectures, art exhibits carved out of ice, and live podcast recordings. Plus snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and skijoring, where competitors are pulled along on skis by dogs, who hopefully get plenty of treats for doing all the work.

Dance with wolves (from afar)

There’s no need to go to far-flung places for a safari: Winter in America’s national parks comes with its own kind of animal magnetism. In Yellowstone, animals like bison, elk, and moose move down to lower elevations to forage—and happen to be much easier to spot against a blanket of fresh white snow. (Watch out for shed antlers in December and January.)

And right behind those massive herbivores, stalking their prey? Gray wolves. You might actually hear them first, howling into the still silence (another plus for national parks in the winter). To see them, take a snowshoe safari, trekking as the animals do in an unrivaled backcountry experience. Or just keep your eyes peeled—you may see some couplings as courtship season arrives in February (if you want to see the babies, they’ll pop out around April). Yellowstone is best for looking at lupines, but you can also get lucky at Grand Teton, Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, and Katmai and Denali in Alaska.

Soothe yourself at a natural hot spring

We challenge you to find something more transporting in the winter than soaking your bones in nature’s warm water. If you visit Hot Springs, Arkansas, you might feel compelled: As you walk downtown, the vapors waft right out of grates in the ground. The historic town, surrounded by a national park, was once home to a row of bathhouses that attracted the likes of Al Capone and FDR—these days, however, most have been repurposed into things like museums and the only brewery in a national park. A couple still serve their original purpose though, plus now there’s also a gangster museum.

Hot springs are also particularly plentiful in Colorado, each filled with geothermal groundwater bubbling up to the surface. Get a cabin at the Mt. Princeton Hot Springs or descend upon Iron Mountain Hot Springs, which offers 16 steamy pools. For something a little more rustic, hike three miles round-trip to Piedra River Hot Springs for a secluded clothing-optional soak.

Elsewhere, Montana has natural hot springs for days, from hidden mountain pools to full-blown resorts. In the Pacific Northwest, many springs are surprisingly campable this time of year. In New Mexico, spring-hop though countless healing grottos, some clothing-optional, some shiny with obsidian. They don’t call it the Land of Enchantment for nothing.

Take a beat for MLK Jr. Day

January 16 marks Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a time to reflect on the history of Civil Rights in our country, spend the day in service of others, and, of course, get more familiar with the legacy MLK, Jr. For a visceral experience, walk (or rather, drive) the 54-mile Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail in Alabama, where, fresh off his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, the late revolutionary participated in a march in support of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices. Learn more with a visit to the Selma and Montgomery Interpretive Centers, part of the National Park Service.

Or you can always check out a national monument. The Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument is the cornerstone of the Birmingham Civil Rights District—which includes Dr. King’s headquarters at the A.G. Gaston Motel—while the Freedom Riders National Monument commemorates the violence faced by peaceful protesters.

Beyond Alabama, you’ll find monuments commemorating Booker T. Washington in Virginia and pioneering military officer Charles Young in Ohio, plus nationwide sites dedicated to the history of enslaved peoples, workers’ rights, women’s suffrage, LGBTQ+ liberation, and other human rights pursuits.

Sample wines in unexpected places

For some, January traditionally means abstaining from alcohol. Yet for others, it means jumping into the new year exploring as many under-the-radar wine regions as possible. Like the Verde Valley Wine Trail in Arizona, with more than 25 tasting rooms and vineyards between Cottonwood, Jerome, Clarkdale, and Cornville alone. Come for the wine, stay for the scenic train rides to top-notch restaurants, Pueblo ruins, and copper art museums.

Sip your way through Texas Hill Country, which now produces more wine than Sonoma County. Or swap tequila for wine in Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe, where Cortés took a brief respite from conquesting in the 16th century to order landowners to plant 1,000 Spanish vineyards. Go north to Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario, Canada for their annual icewine festival, which pays homage each weekend from January 13 to 29 to the concentrated dessert wine made from naturally frozen grapes. And then there’s Monsoon Valley, Thailand. Once the site of an elephant corral, its lush vegetation and proximity to the sea allows grapes to thrive in the loamy sand and salty air. Take a wine safari tour with Monsoon Valley Vineyards, visit their restaurant or tasting room, or hang with new friends at the onsite elephant sanctuary.

Pack some popcorn (and sure, skis) for Utah

Winter outdoors in Utah is a feast for the eyes, especially gorgeous when the red rocks become blanketed with white snow. And it’s definitely a feast for the ears when the crowds of summer finally dissipate. But when fans of the silver screen think of January in the western state, their minds turn to one thing: the Sundance Film Festival, this year running from January 19 to 29. Founded in 1978 as a small celebration of indie films, it now spreads out over Park City, with screenings and parties and plenty of notable celebrities in fashionable but hilariously impractical clothing.

This year, the festival features 101 films, with an opening night party honoring director Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), among others. Tickets can be purchased per film, or in packages. And if you can’t make it in-person, some films will also be available to stream on-demand.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. Please point her to your favorite hot spring.