Most people don’t think about winter as a great season for visiting national parks. Many outdoor enthusiasts, understandably, are focused on a national parks road trip during summer. Occasionally, they might venture out during late spring or early fall, but once the holiday season arrives, they look elsewhere for their adventures.
However, many national parks are not just suitable for winter holiday visitation but offer some major off-season benefits. These perks include reduced crowds, increased wildlife activity, and an opportunity for a different view of iconic landscapes. Some national parks see snowfall during winter, while others have mild weather conditions perfect for casual outdoor activities.
When deciding which national parks to visit during winter, or on your holiday vacation, it’s important to consider which activities interest you most. Some winter visitors are content with driving scenic roads and stopping at viewpoints. Meanwhile, other visitors want to hike, bike, paddle, ski, or even swim. Some enthusiasts may want to return to their favorite parks for an entirely new experience.
Below, we suggest you plan your winter holiday visit to national parks based on the type of experience you seek. It’s important that before you embark on any winter or holiday trip that you are prepared for the wide range of conditions possible. When driving in winter, it is often necessary to carry chains or travel in an AWD or 4WD vehicle with snow tires. When hiking in winter, it is often necessary to carry traction devices that slip over your shoes or boots for traversing snow and ice. Even just visiting scenic lookouts on park roads will often require wearing warm layers of clothing. And, of course, more advanced activities like skiing or cold-weather paddling require technical equipment and expertise.
Also important to keep in mind is that some national parks, visitors centers, or attractions may be closed on certain holidays, including Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Years Day. Check the park web pages for more information.
One of the biggest criteria for some winter visitors is selecting a national park with mild weather. The states with national parks perfect for winter exploration are often located in the southernmost U.S., including the South, Southeast, Southwest, Southern California, and Hawaii. Because these parks are located in more temperate climates, they often see more winter visitors than colder northern parks.
Typically, popular park activities like hiking are not only possible during winter but are sometimes preferred due to the mild temperatures. In fact, many of these parks are so hot during summertime that winter is an ideal time for outdoor adventures. Examples include Everglades N.P., Big Bend N.P, White Sands N.P., Saguaro N.P., Joshua Tree N.P., Death Valley N.P., Haleakala N.P, and Hawaii Volcanoes N.P.
Another consideration when selecting a national park for winter festivities or a holiday visit is elevation. In general, the higher the elevation of the park, the colder the weather and the higher the chances for snow. Some higher elevation parks offer the opportunity for winter sports like snowshoeing and skiing. Conversely, many lower elevation parks in the southernmost states are perfect during winter for outdoor activities like camping, hiking, and biking.
Some winter visitors want to witness iconic national park landscapes covered with snow. It’s important to note that many parks do not have snow cover throughout the entire winter, but only during cold spells after snowstorms. For that reason, it can be tough to plan ahead for a winter scenery trip to many national parks. One park that’s increasingly popular for winter visits is Bryce Canyon N.P. in Utah. With the rim of Bryce Canyon located around 8000 feet in elevation, visitors must prepare for cold temperatures. Popular winter activities after snowstorms include hiking (in light snow), snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing.
Another park worth considering for a winter visit is Grand Canyon N.P. Only the South Rim is open in winter, which is located at around 7000 feet in elevation. After storms, the North Rim is often draped in a dusting of snow which adds further contrast to the colorful layers of sedimentary rock.
Of course, there are plenty more parks that offer great winter scenery. One such park is Yosemite N.P., which also offers a variety of winter activities, discussed below.
Winter Sports: Skiing & Snowshoeing
Some winter and holiday visitors to national parks are interested in outdoor sports like cross country skiing, downhill skiing, and snowshoeing.
Yosemite N.P. is one of only three national parks with a downhill skiing area inside its boundaries. The Badger Pass Ski Area is the oldest downhill skiing area in California. The small ski area has five lifts with about 800 feet of vertical relief. Also popular is cross-country skiing and snowshoeing nearby. Other popular winter activities in Yosemite include walking the paths in Yosemite Valley and ice skating at the Curry Village Ice Rink.
Many other national parks are popular for winter sports. The other two downhill skiing areas are Hurricane Ridge at Olympic N.P. in Washington and Boston Mills/Brandywine at Cuyahoga Valley N.P. in Ohio. Both parks are also popular for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Two other parks popular for winter sports are Yellowstone N.P. and Grand Teton N.P. The parks are located adjacent to one another, mostly in northwest Wyoming. Yellowstone has limited road access during winter, and only two of its hotels are open. But adventurous visitors are rewarded with a less crowded experience and an opportunity for a variety of winter activities, including snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling. Meanwhile, Grand Teton is popular for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and back-country skiing.
Winter is a great time to check out some of the national parks offering cave tours. Because the big highlights are underground, the weather up top becomes less of a concern. Mammoth Cave N.P., in Kentucky, offers a variety of ranger-led tours through the longest cave system in the world. Carlsbad Caverns N.P., in New Mexico, offers self-guided and ranger-guided tours of some of the largest caverns in the U.S. Wind Cave N.P., in South Dakota, offers ranger-led tours of the third-longest cave in the U.S. And Great Basin N.P., in Nevada, offers ranger-led tours of the Lehman Caves, known for their intricate geologic formations. Note that for most ranger-led tours, reservations are recommended or required. See the park webpages for more information.
Water Activities During Winter
While water activities like paddling and swimming are not many travelers’ first thoughts for a winter trip, there are several national parks that offer suitable choices.
In particular, Everglades N.P, in Florida, is a popular spot during the winter dry season. From November through April, the average daily high is 77°. In addition to short hiking trails, paddling is a popular activity in the park, which offers a variety of shorter and longer water trails.
Another popular spot for winter paddling is Big Bend N.P. The paddling trips in this remote park tend to be multi-day adventures for experienced river runners, but guided trips are also available. In addition to paddling, the park has scenic drives, hiking trails, and even some hot springs to discover.
Of course, there are a lot more national parks that can be visited during winter. The above discussion is designed to give you a brief overview of the opportunities for great winter adventures or maybe even an ideal Christmas vacation. A visit to certain national parks of America during the holidays can actually make the best Christmas vacation for families.
Have you ever visited national parks during winter? Comment below. We would love to hear about where you went and any tips you have to share!
Also, if you’re looking for an exciting and fun way to track your travels to each park, check out this unique national park scratch off map. You can scratch off a top foil layer to reveal a color graphic of each national park as you visit them!