18 National Parks You Have to Visit This Winter
For many Americans, national parks are a staple of summer road trips, not winter getaways. But winter can be a perfect time to see the sites at many parks, when there are smaller crowds and unique cold-weather activities, and in some cases, it even means better weather. Whatever you're searching for, we've found 18 national parks that are worth a special trip before warmer weather returns.
Beat the heat at desert-bound Joshua Tree by coming in the winter, when highs are comfortably in the 60s and 70s -- but bring layers, because lows can dip into the 30s. This is a particularly great park for adventure seekers who love rock climbing, mountain biking, and tackling rough backcountry roads with four-wheel drive. Slower pursuits include birdwatching, hiking, horseback riding, and excellent stargazing.
Winter is the perfect time to go underground at Mammoth Cave, which stays remarkably temperate -- around 54 degrees -- even in the colder months. Most tours operate like usual, and range from family-friendly forays of about an hour to the extreme thrills of the six-hour Wild Cave Tour. Above ground, there's still camping in the backcountry or quiet winter hikes.
Popular Yosemite is a magical sight to behold without hordes of tourists elbowing for a photo. If it's snowy, there's skiing, snowboarding, and snow tubing at the Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area. There are also slower-paced adventures in cross-country skiing solo or with a guide, snowshoeing, a kid-friendly snow-play area or ice-skating in Curry Village. Note that some higher-elevation roads are closed, but many main roads are open and some trails stay dry enough for hiking.
The dramatic red landscape of Bryce Canyon transforms into something even lovelier with a layer of snow, and you'll be able to take in all the scenery because roads to the major overlooks stay plowed. Many winter hikes can be tackled with hiking boots outfitted with traction devices, cross-country skis, or snowshoes. From November through March, rangers even lead full-moon showshoe hikes when there's more than a foot of snow. In February, the Bryce Canyon Winter Festival offers everything from ski clinics to sled races and kids' crafts.
It's no surprise that Rocky Mountain, a national park near many of the nation's ski meccas, doesn't shy away from winter visitors. Activities include snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, sledding, and wildlife-spotting -- look out for moose, elk, bighorn sheep, and coyotes. You can even enjoy backcountry camping in the winter here; just remember that a permit is required, and no campfires are allowed.
Even if you can't walk on water, you can often drive on it in the winter at Voyageurs. Cars and trucks under 7,000 pounds can traverse a plowed, frozen road on Kabetogama Lake. Visitors can also pop a tent for ice fishing; go snowshoeing, snowmobiling, or cross-country skiing; or hit the sledding hill with the kids. Winter programming has included guided snowshoe hikes, kids' fun days, wildlife talks, and paddle carving.
If exploring the Everglades in sickeningly hot, muggy Florida summers doesn't sound appealing, you're in luck -- the winter weather here is pleasant, with dry air and temperatures ranging from the low 50s to the high 70s. Of course, that means the park will be more crowded, but it also means tons of activities are on offer, including canoe or kayak tours, fishing, and birdwatching. Willing to get your feet wet? Go "slough slogging" off-trail with a ranger.
Winter is the time to see the Grand Canyon without the throngs of tourists -- it's one of the nation's most-visited national parks -- and sweltering summer temperatures. While the North Rim is closed to vehicle traffic, the South Rim and its roads are open. Backcountry hiking and camping is still allowed, or you can take a train trip on the Grand Canyon Railway. You can also bundle up and enjoy some exceptional stargazing on a clear night.
Copious snowfall (usually the case from late December through mid-March) turns Mount Rainier into a winter wonderland. There's a designated snow play area for sledding and sliding, ranger-led snowshoe walks, skiing, and snowboarding. Note that all but a couple of main roads are closed to cars in the winter. Got a snowmobile? They're allowed in certain areas. Winter camping is kosher, too -- just make sure to get a permit.
Summer in Death Valley brings mind-boggling heat: The highest-ever recorded temperature in the United States, 134 degrees, occurred here in 1913. But winter brings cooler days and off-peak crowds, making it one of the best times to go. Though many major sites (such as the continent's lowest point, Badwater Basin) can be seen by car, winter weather affords the chance to hike salt flats, sand dunes, and canyons; go mountain biking on dirt roads; or camp in the backcountry. Stargazing is also top-notch here.
Here's one way to thaw out over the winter: Take a dip in the steamy waters at Hot Springs National Park, where the Buckstaff Bathhouse and Quapaw Baths and Spa offer thermal water soaks and spa treatments. You can also tour historic Fordyce Bathhouse, now the park's visitor center, and gawk at other buildings on Bathhouse Row. The park boasts scenic drives and hikes, and there's camping year-round.
A winter visit to Denali requires careful planning -- vehicle access is limited as snow closes most of the park's main road -- but it can be a rewarding experience for hardier souls. Visitors can make friends with the park's sled dogs at the Denali Kennels (and even arrange a dog-sledding ride through another private kennel), watch for the Northern Lights, or go fat-tire biking, cross-country skiing, or snowshoeing. Snowmobiling is allowed in certain areas, as is backcountry camping. Denali's annual family-friendly Winterfest is slated for the end of February.
Though it's technically a national lakeshore, Apostle Islands deserves a spot on this list because it boasts a unique wintertime activity: When the weather is frigid enough, Lake Superior freezes and allows intrepid hikers to trek out along the coast to find a series of majestic ice caves in the sandstone cliffs. Expect to see massive icicles, columns, and crystals, but don't expect to plan a trip far in advance -- conditions have to be just right for a safe hike, and some years may pass without that happening.
Yellowstone's geothermal wonders are even more striking as they bubble and steam alongside a thick blanket of snow. Though only the road from the park's entrance to Mammoth Hot Springs remains open to cars, snowmobile or snowcoach tours can be taken to other notable sites, including Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. There's plenty of ranger-led programs, skiing, and snowshoeing, and several warming huts allow spots to take shelter from frigid weather.
For a warm, winter escape, Biscayne is one of the best bets for dry, mild weather. South of Miami, this coastal park is mostly water. Naturally, that means choosing from water-based activities including fishing, canoeing, kayaking, snorkeling, diving, and boating. Birding is also popular, and those who want to stay dry can hike and camp on Elliott Key, the park's largest island.
Watch the winter waves crash against Maine's famously rugged coast at Acadia, where most of the park's main road is fair game for snowmobiles, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. Ice fishing abounds on ponds and lakes, and there are plenty of opportunities for winter hiking. Want to learn how to scale a frozen waterfall? You can sign up for an introductory ice-climbing course.
Winter can be rainier than normal in the Channel Islands, but the temperatures are moderate (50s and 60s) all year. One big reason to make the trip is whale-watching: Winter is prime time for spotting massive gray whales, as well as seals, sea lions, and dolphins. Also on offer: hiking, camping, birdwatching, sea kayaking, surfing, diving, and some of the best tidepooling in the state, with plenty of sea stars, urchins, anemones and all sorts of creatures.
If winter travels take you to the year-round warmth of Hawaii (lucky you), a stop at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the big island should be high on the list. After all, it offers an up-close view of the world's most active volcano, Kilauea; hiking or biking hundreds of miles of trails and roads; taking part in cultural demonstrations; even walking through a lava tube in a lush forest. Concerned about crowds? Late winter may be less packed as holiday vacationers head home.
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