Every State, Ranked by How Miserable Its Winters Are
Chicago's just the tip of the iceberg (literally).
Maybe you happen to live in some fairytale ski town where your winters are a perpetual state of après-ski. Maybe you spend the holidays wearing shorts and sipping piña coladas on the sand. But chances are, if you’re living in America, your winters are a pretty miserable slog of chapped lips, snow shovels, terrifying commutes and so, so many layers. But to be blunt, there are few states that you actually want to visit in colder months.
Because misery loves company, we’ve spent the past several winters researching and debating which states have the most abjectly terrible winters. We considered everything from brutal weather to treacherous roads and the longevity of those giant mini-mountains of gray/brown sludge that sprout up in parking lots. We weighed winter recreation against icy isolation and the general malaise experienced by residents. And it made us delightfully miserable to do it.
Welcome to the one list where Hawaii ranks dead last and both Dakotas are in the top 10—this is every state, ranked by winter misery.
Aloha means hello, goodbye, and “who cares about what month it is when the average temperature during winter is 81ºF anyway and we’re all over here eating malasadas.”
Seeing how it’s mostly a humid, subtropical state filled with the type of people who unironically adorn their cars with statement bumper stickers and don’t blink for long periods of time, Florida’s winters tend to be mild. It's as if they're actively trying not to make any sudden moves lest the population gets nervous and starts throwing alligators.
Occasionally, retired Kroger business executives from Ohio and their Pilates instructor second wives will accidentally move to Flagstaff and get very sad and angry when they realize the average winter temperature is somewhere in the 20s, then go off to Sedona to find themselves (and a third spouse) in a vortex. But most of Arizona offers up that dry desert day heat that is good for arthritis and any lingering guilt about leaving their first wives to deal with their delinquent teenage kids back in Indian Hill.
It’s hard to generalize a state the size of Italy and with enough varying climates to populate a new Star Wars planet, but each section of California has it pretty good in winter. Tahoe and Shasta look like Ansel Adams paintings; San Francisco barely changes, except during the weird time during the summer when it becomes winter and everyone misquotes Mark Twain; and people in LA and San Diego put on $200 beanies and panic-buy space heaters when it dips below 68 degrees and talk about going to Palm Springs for a couple of months until things warm up. (There are no known meteorologists in Fresno, so we don’t really know what goes down there.)
In most any other state, enduring the sheer amount of snow that drops on Colorado during a month would feel apocalyptic. But for those living here, getting a couple feet of snow overnight just means you wake up early and drive up the side of a mountain. Snow’s kind of the point in Colorado, where the sun’s almost always shining, the winter sports are world class, and nobody stays inside unless it’s to gather around a roaring fire, drink a beer that recently won 38 medals at the Great American Beer Fest, and talk about going back outside.
45. New Mexico
Did you know that New Mexico is basically Colorado? And I don’t mean that as in they both tend to attract spiritually earnest people who value physical fitness, have weirdly nice calves, and prefer to be outdoors wearing shawls with Native American symbols on them (though that is also true). In the sense of topography, New Mexico and Colorado both have high plains, mountain ranges, deserts, basins, fantastic winters, and affiliations to green chiles.
You think they’d have Mardi Gras in February (or early March) if that wasn’t an ideal time for a party? Wait, what do you mean “It’s set by the church calendar to always fall the day before Ash Wednesday?” Well, either way, Louisiana is a decent state when it comes to dealing with the colder months.
Other than in the northern reaches of the state, Nevada is generally devoid of the worst aspects of winter; in fact, this is the best time of year to be in the desert, since you can stand outside for more than a few minutes without feeling like you’re going to have a full-on heat stroke. While crowd favorites like Vegas are protected from terrible weather, they are NOT protected from packs of bros getting unruly because they expected the hotel pool to be open even though it’s actually only like 49 degrees out.
Psychologically, it seems like Georgia should be safely out of the winter pain zone, and often that holds true. But freezing rain is nothing to mess with, tornadoes somehow continue to be a thing even in February, and when snow does hit, no city does “wow, we were woefully underprepared for this” quite like Atlanta.
Much like Florida, Alabama shakes off winter blues pretty easily, as any state would if it lay along the Gulf Coast. Winter temperatures around these parts are relatively temperate, and toward the end of the season when most other states are still wrapped up in coats, Alabama is already thinking about where to spend spring break.
40. South Carolina
Outside of the Blue Ridge Mountains, most parts of the state will remain free from snow for years at a time, and on particularly cold nights, people gather around the warmth of a whole-hog BBQ pit. The mild winters are needed, as there are more pressing matters at hand during the rest of the year, such as hurricanes, sharks, and other South Carolinians.
North Mississippi gets hit with a little blizzard action on occasion (snow tornadoes!), but it’s far from the norm. And even when a cold snap does hit, you’ll generally be back to sweet tea-sippin’ weather in no time.
38. North Carolina
Few places have a mountain range that acts like a shield preventing invasions by Midwestern winter weather. North Carolina is one of those lucky states, giving it a relatively mild and tame winter for its placement up the coast.
Historically, the Lone Star State has been a bit of a grab bag (West Texas is mostly an arid desert that gets the occasional blizzard; East Texas is subtropical and humid year-round). In years past, we may have ranked Texas as a place where winter comes and goes without much issue—but considering the devastating snowstorm that rocked the state in February 2021 (not to mention certain US senators that just so happened to be “dropping off their daughter in Mexico” while it all went down), we’ve had to place it further up on the list. We sincerely hope our Texan friends won’t have to deal with that level of chaos (and utter government failure) ever again.
Yes, it sometimes gets cold. Counterpoint: Hot chicken—which all publications are contractually bound to mention when speaking about Tennessee—is a much more effective belly warmer than hot chocolate.
Like Colorado, you can generally count on the fact that winters will be packed with sunshine and access to world-class cold weather leisure activities. Unlike Colorado, there’s no unfettered access to cannabis and great beer.
Once in a great while, Old Man Winter will rear his ugly head in a big way, but generally speaking, people need to be much more concerned about RAMPAGING FERAL HOGS.
The panhandle tends to experience the coldest temps (hey, just like an actual pan!), and the rest of the state typically has at least one serious snow or ice beating per winter, though they typically don’t linger too long. Bonus: On colder days, locals can humor each other with clever lines about the wind sweeping down the plain. Actually, nobody does that. But they don’t have to, because things are, more often than not, okay.
Generally speaking, the winters tend to be a little rougher the closer you get to DC, which could speak to either geography or the bone-chilling effects of daily political discourse. The mountains (obviously) also receive their share of snow, but they’re also quite beautiful and serene, so that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with whatever bullshit is happening on the Senate floor at any given moment.
If I had a dollar for every time someone has come up to me and said “Let’s talk about Maryland’s climate, specifically in the winter,” I would, as of now, have yet to collect any money. Anyway, if you take 68 and go west to Cumberland and farther past, it can get damn cold and snowy, but around Bawlmore, it remains relatively tepid.
Kentucky always sounds like a very warm place to Northerners, who hear the words “the South” and envision temperate climates where you can enjoy hot weather alongside your Hot Browns while wearing lavish hats filled with bourbon. And then you actually visit Kentucky and realize that it’s basically southern Ohio with more mountains and thicker accents.
29. West Virginia
John Denver once described the home of America’s newest national park as “almost heaven” despite not actually having been there (Lloyd Christmas was right!). However, he could have just as easily described it as “almost definitely the place you’re most likely to encounter terrifying driving conditions on I-77 and the nagging feeling that they could have come up with a more creative name for a giant ski resort than Winterplace. However, that would’ve really altered the rhythm of the song.
Missouri is far enough south to generally be removed from the worst of the worst, yet the major metropolitan centers are juuuust far enough north that you can typically count on a few wintry groin punches per season. Said winter blasts—which presumably resulted in the creation of Bud Ice once upon a time—are best countered with a piping hot, definitely-not-weird cracker-thin pizza dripping with processed cheese.
Being smack-dab in the middle of the country means you’re gonna have smack-dab in the middle winters—sometimes the hammer will come down, sometimes you’ll be like, “Hot damn, it might hit 80 today.” This causes Kansans to put particular stock in the unpredictable nature of their winters, but that’s mostly because there isn’t that much else to talk about.
Whenever Delaware gets pasted with a winter storm, you can pretty much guarantee some other larger metropolitan area got it worse, thus leaving no one to notice the plight of Delaware outside of people living in Delaware. So, it’s basically a colder version of the rest of the year for Delaware.
Vermont has some seriously brutal winters, with most areas averaging around eight feet of snow. But—in the same vein of places like Colorado—Vermont actually seems to relish in the inability to drive anything without chains. That’s because the state also boasts the best skiing on the entire East Coast (as evidenced by all the New Yorkers driving 5 mph during a light snow), and partially because the over-consumption of maple syrup can do some wild things to a person’s psyche.
24. New Jersey
Imagine getting on a train on a winter morning, everybody wrapped in their puffy coats, salty and bleary-eyed. There’s one seat left between two dudes who definitely appear to be obnoxious. But hey, it’s a seat, so you take it. Yet, when you sit, you get the sense both of these guys regard YOU as the asshole. Now imagine that morning lasts for a few months. This is winter in New Jersey, starring Philly and New York as your bus buddies.
Pennsylvania has something of a split winter personality. In the east, you have more of the sharp-elbowed, horn-honking, battery-in-your-face-even-if-you’re-Santa kind of winter depression. Further inland, it’s a bit more of a Midwestern mentality—a kind of “let’s hunker down and get through this” mindset that leads to stuff like cramming a bunch of French fries inside a sandwich because you’ve basically given up, and losing count of how many pierogies you’ve consumed before deciding that it’s time to start over and order more pierogies.
22. Rhode Island
Unlike the issues in generalizing the climates of some of these large states, Rhode Island suffers from the opposite sort of problem—it basically just gets a little bit of whatever Mass and Connecticut are having. Also, you can’t enjoy Del’s Frozen Lemonade when your car is buried under 28 inches of snow and they’ve completely shut down 295 AND the Providence Place Mall.
21. New York
New Yorkers have a way of vacillating between bragging about their comparatively mild winters relative to other northern metropolises (Boston, Chicago), and freaking out when some serious weather comes their way. Meanwhile, Buffalo’s sitting up there getting pummeled by 30 feet of lake-effect snow, with residents constantly alternating between frantic shoveling and sitting at a packed dive bar at 4 am in anticipation of another hours-long shoveling nightmare when the sun comes up.
All of the brutal parts of the New England winter with none of the ski perks. And yes, we’re counting Mohawk, Ski Sundown, AND Mount Southington.
Between the breathtaking mountains, snow-dusted Douglas fir forests, temperate coast, picturesque high desert, and the marvels of Crater Lake, Oregon gets pretty damn dreamy in the winter. Yet in Portland, locals begin complaining about the rainfall when the first drops hit, then refuse to purchase an umbrella or go hang out in Bend to get a break from the neverending downpour. Occasionally, a few inches of snow will shut the whole city down for weeks on end while people debate the merits of actually salting the road and purchasing snow plows while doing neither. Which is to say, hipsters ruin even Crater Lake.
On one hand, the mountains are lovely in the winter, and there’s apparently a wormhole in said mountains that transports you to Bavaria to hang out with reindeer and drink spiced wine. On the other hand, getting there means driving through cold, sideways rain, which turns into sleet right around the time the road changes to switchbacks, then to ice. The never-ending rain that takes over much of Washington state during winter has bred some great music over the years, but there's a damn good reason most of that music has deeply depressing backstories.
One could make the case that Wyoming should be even higher up on the list. The Chinook winds coming in off the Rockies tamp down the bitterest of the cold, and even when the snow comes down hard, the Grand Tetons are so damn pretty in winter that you can’t possibly be miserable. Wyoming is basically the handsome middle child of the West—not quite as fierce and cold as its older brother Montana, or as awkward as Idaho, and somewhat ignorant of the fact that it’s even tangentially related to the Dakotas.
If you happen to live up at the top of Idaho’s chimney—up Route 2 by Bonners Ferry or beyond—then wow, you basically live in Canada. As such, you are in no way protected by those lovely Chinook winds we keep talking about, but you might have an in on getting cheaper prescription drugs, so it all balances out. Still, because most of Idaho is relatively temperate compared to other western climes, you’ll get rich West Coast people coming out in expensive fur-lined ski wear to use the facilities in Sun Valley.
15. New Hampshire
A general malaise creeps into the Granite State once they realize you can’t race NASCAR when you’re getting 70 inches of snow. Instead, New England’s sunburned neck of a state has to somehow get by on longing, hoping to God that somebody has plowed and salted I-93.
When it comes to Massachusetts winters, you pick your poison: Would you prefer slightly warmer winters on the coast with heavier snowfall? Or brutally harsh Tom Brunansky-bat-to-your-ears cold in Western and Central Mass with slightly less snow? Either way, you’ll suffer a bit, but hey, at least the state tends to do a good job keeping the Pike clear of snow.
If you’re taking things from a purely “how bad can things actually get, weather-wise” standpoint, Alaska would obviously claim the number one spot. Any data you want to pull on snow, wind, or cold will make most other states seem like Hawaii, not to mention the fact that the sun literally does not rise there for months at a time. But here’s the thing: Winter brings out both the best and worst of the Last Frontier. The subzero temperatures are a lot easier to swallow when you can look up at the dancing Aurora Borealis from a train or a cozy cabin or the front stoop of a quirky bar at the edge of the world—and there’s nothing quite like dog sledding across a glacier to get you to accept the cold. And hey, if that’s all too extreme, you can also literally watch ice melt and wait for a tripod to float down a river to signal the coming of spring. Depending on your sense of adventure, Alaska could sit just about anywhere on this list.
Did you know that the Continental Divide can create distinct differences in sunlight, wind, precipitation, and temperature, depending on whether you’re in the eastern or western part of the state? Did you know that, either way, all the insufferable celebrities who thought it’d be “rustic” to own a ranch up there sure aren’t taking advantage of said property in January? Wait, maybe that’s actually a positive?
The Region (that’s the creatively named NW corner of the state bordering Lake Michigan, for the uninitiated) definitely gets the worst of it—without warning, a foot of snow will just decide to show up and punch everyone in the face. For a state that grapples with this kind of thing on a regular basis, I-65, the state’s main artery, has a knack for turning into an undrivable frozen windswept hellscape to the point where the state actually shuts it down, forcing traffic onto equally dubious state highways.
You’ve got the lake-effect snowstorms of Lake Erie along the Snowbelt. You’ve got the moderate cold of the central lowlands and Columbus. But then you’ve got Cincinnati and it's basically Kentucky's subtropical humid climate and wall lizards, which are something most people think of in Florida or Texas. So basically, Ohio is more like three separate winter regions, all of them miserable in their own varied, unique ways.
Chicago winters are notoriously rough (and yes, occasionally Siberia-esque), but the people there have the kind of warm and generous spirit that leads to displays of solidarity like fighting over whether or not a pair of plastic lawn chairs constitutes indefinite rights to a shoveled-out parking place post-snowfall. Downstate, things tend not to be quite as bad, other than, you know, the fact that you’re in downstate Illinois.
People talk about winter in northern Maine the same way they talk about winter in Game of Thrones: brutal and essentially never-ending. Huge 1,000-mile swaths of the state are uninhabited or barely populated, and that is because the cold months up this way are on par with the Long Night. Still, the coast and the south have more moderate winters thanks to the Atlantic, and the Mainer attitude toward winter is a great one (they all seem pretty fired up to ski and sled despite not getting to eat blueberries for many months) and is much more upbeat, than say that of Bostonians. That attitude (and the general lack of people in the real harsh parts) prevents Maine from landing even farther down the line.
Nebraska doesn’t get quite the Midwestern winter gut punch you might think. The cold months are actually downright moderate in western Nebraska thanks to the moderating effects of the same Chinook winds that bailed out Wyoming, while people in the east are forced to just hunker down with their presumably vast stockpiles of corn. Still, winters here don’t exactly offer the long list of wintry things to do or see that you’ll get in other places across the country, which lands this state pretty high on our list.
One January, while inexplicably choosing to travel by car from Chicago to Iowa to watch an Iowa basketball game, I experienced a whiteout snowstorm so fierce that a truck jackknifed along I-80, causing a historically bad traffic jam that I only escaped by detouring down an equally terrifying, random farm road. It was nerve-wracking. Meanwhile, Iowans seemed to take this in stride with a suspiciously friendly Midwest-ness, possibly because Iowa has to deal with a super confluence of shitty weather. There are snowstorms in the winter; 50 days of thunderstorms; an average of 47 tornadoes a year (in 2008 there were 105); and the shitstorm that is sure to be the Iowa caucus. I mean, jeez, even Wikipedia calls their winters “harsh.”
Look, there’s a reason it’s practically state law that every block in a Wisconsin city or town must have a minimum of three bars on it. There’s a level of persistently gray, soul-squeezing frigidness here that can only be combatted with liberal doses of brandy Old Fashioneds and Spotted Cow along with various forms of fried dairy products and sausages filled with boiling juices and/or cheese.
4. South Dakota
A while back, we declared the Black Hills to be a misunderstood winter wonderland, and we certainly stand by that. But the thing is, South Dakota’s pretty damn big, and for most of the winter the state's famous sights—Mount Rushmore, The Corn Palace, the Badlands, the, um, fields—are battered with sideways winds and covered with enough ice that they look like they could serve as sets for a climate-disaster movie. Winters here are harsh and completely unpredictable, unless the prediction is “you’re gonna have to harden your very soul to get through this one.” In which case, the winters are very, very predictable.
For most Michiganders—at least in the lower, populated peninsula—this is winter: You leave work at 5 or 6 pm (the dead of night) to fight your way down some wretched stretch of highway where brown-salt sludge spraying up off the road keeps you from determining whether it’s raining or snowing as deer bound in and out of the roadway. Overnight, the road freezes, and when you wake up, it’s still dark. You scrape off your car, then get stuck in traffic as the cars ahead of you gawk at an SUV that slid into a ditch.
You do not look forward to outdoor winter recreation because there is none, unless you pretend to enjoy cross-country skiing on very flat land or are willing to consider a small mound with a rope tow a mountain. The sounds of revving snowblowers and snowmobiles will drive you to near madness. And, even when spring technically arrives, the giant piles of dirty snow will still be melting for a month. Meanwhile, if you're in the UP, they'll be there, along with the revving snowblowers, until at least early May.
To think of the generally cheerful brood of Nordic-bred people being the runners-up in any sort of contest of misery seems downright crazy. But beneath those adorable don'tcha knows, we feel that there must be some deep, dark languor. How can you remain so upbeat in these conditions? Parts of northern Minnesota see up to 170 inches of snow in the winter, and it can get down to negative 60 degrees—a temperature at which frostbite can occur in fewer than five minutes.
It is our belief that, despite all appearances and cheery winter festivals, Minnesota does, in fact, have one of the most miserable winters in the US. So to all the Eriks, and Astrids, and Christens, and Bjorns, and Brynjars, it’s OK to show a little displeasure at the meteorological hand you’ve been dealt. After all, don'tcha know emoting is good for the soul?
1. North Dakota
So many people choose North Dakota as their final state to visit that the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center has a “Best for Last Club” selfie station (it’s right next to the wood chipper from Fargo, which actually takes place in Minnesota.) We imagine that the winter is a big part of the reason folks are reluctant to go there.
A lot of states have broken all-time-low records recently. Not North Dakota. No, North Dakota is just always that cold. In fact, it ranks as the coldest state in the lower 48. July and August are the only months when it hasn’t snowed here. Every year sees temperatures in the minus 20s (and a few days in the minus 30s!). Once in the 1930s, it even dipped down to minus 60 degrees. This is just normal here.
The Canada-adjacent icebox is also the flattest of the Great Plains states, meaning there’s nothing to stop the winds from whipping across all that bare land, stripping you of any residual body heat, blocking all visibility on roads, and shutting down the only two major highways during blizzards.
But it isn’t just the freezing temps and soul-piercing winds that make this an awful place in the winter: In neighboring polar vortex-stricken Midwestern states, you can at least cozy up in a lakeside cabin and sip a beer while looking out at gorgeous wintry forests, lakes, and shorelines. In North Dakota, pretty much all you’ll get is prairies, grasslands, and wetlands—all buried in endless snow to the horizon—and nowhere to hide.