One of the best times to visit one of the US National Parks is during the winter. The crowds are lighter, the scenery is as beautiful as always, and there are typically good deals to be found on accommodations. Here is my list of some of the top parks to visit during the winter.
New England & Mid-Atlantic
While most facilities—the visitor center, museums, picnic areas, campgrounds, and roads—close for winter, 45 miles of carriage roads in Acadia convert to snow-buried trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing with some groomed for easy touring. Winter travelers can tour the scenic 27-mile Park Loop Road on snowmobiles, or hop onto one of the park’s frozen lakes to ice fish. Hike-in primitive camping is available at Blackwoods Campground, while surrounding towns offer lodging in hotels, inns, and bed-and-breakfasts. Due to its northern latitude, snow, below freezing temperatures, and early darkness prevail.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park can see mild winters with valley daytime highs in the 50s while snow falls frequently in the mountains. Scenic drives on year round primary roads such as Newfound Gap, Little River, and the Cades Cove Loop may offer easier wildlife watching with the deciduous trees devoid of leaves. Hikers and backpackers need to be prepared for swollen streams and trail impediments such as bridge washouts, downed trees, and erosion. Stop at one of three visitors centers to tour exhibits, get up-to-date information on trail conditions, and check on campsites at Smokemont or Cades Cove campgrounds. Communities surrounding the national park in North Carolina and Tennessee offer a wide choice of accommodations including hotels, cabins, bed and breakfasts, and campgrounds.
Heartland & Rocky Mountains
Glacier National Park’s interior buries under 3-13 feet of snow in winter, making it a quiet reserve for cross-country skiing, backcountry skiing, and snowshoeing with closed roadways serving as trails. The park service plows 12 miles of Going-to-the-Sun Road along Lake McDonald for sightseeing. Visitors can overnight at the primitive camp in Apgar Picnic Area if prepared to handle temperatures that may plummet to below zero at night, and from the parking lot at the end of the plowing, skiers and snowshoers can continue to tour the road. Rangers usually lead snowshoe tours on weekends. With most in-park and surrounding community services closed, Izaak Walton Inn just outside the southern park boundary offers unique accommodations in cabooses, an engine, and a historic lodge plus groomed trails for cross-country skiing while Flathead Valley offers year round lodging, dining, and alpine skiing and snowboarding.
Winter brings a unique crowd-free time for watching geysers, bison, and elk (bears hibernate) in Yellowstone National Park. While the road to Mammoth Hot Springs from Gardiner to Cooke City is plowed all winter, deep snow buries most of the park roads, making them available for guided snowmobiling and snow coach tours. Trails convert to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing paths with winter overnight backcountry skiing an option by permit. Visitors can drive to the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel to overnight or take a snow coach to stay in the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. West Yellowstone, Gardiner, and Cooke City offer year round lodging, dining, gas, and shopping services.
For those who hate heat and crowds, winter is the cooler time to see Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park when daytime temperatures fluctuate between 20-55 degrees and few visitors clog roads, trails, and campgrounds. Moab provides a convenient base for exploring both parks in winter with year round services (hotels, restaurants, shops, gas, campgrounds). In Arches, well-marked trails lead to some of the park’s 2,000 most famous arches—including Delicate Arch, North and South Windows, and Landscape Arch—and the 16-mile scenic drive connects to Devils Garden Campground for camping. In Canyonlands, year-round camping in The Needles, Islands in the Sky, and the Maze provide quick access to trails for hiking and backpacking, four-wheel drive roads, and mountain biking the White Rim Road. Outdoor travelers need to use caution as sporadic winter rains or snow may make dirt roads temporarily impassible, and slickrock trails can become treacherous when wet, but the wet weather usually causes yellow biscuitroot to bloom in February followed by a rash of spring blooming in March.
Bryce National Park’s 9,000-foot elevation makes for temporary snowstorm road closures until plowing is completed, but also offers clear frigid night skies for winter astronomy programs every Saturday night. The Bryce Canyon Winter Festival is held annually over President’s Day Weekend, a good time to see the orange hoodoos light up in contrast to the white snow. While rim trails work for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing and rangers guide snowshoe walks, many canyon trails remain off-limits due to avalanche danger. Zion National Park’s lower elevation valleys offer milder temperatures with snow-free places to hike, backpack, canyoneer, climb, and float rivers; however, below-freezing temperatures, ice, snow, and flash floods may make some canyons inaccessible. Zion Canyon Scenic Drive remains open year round, with shuttles equipped with bike racks, and rangers lead activities on holiday weekends. Contrary to Bryce, where the lodge shuts down for winter, Zion Lodge stays open year round, and both parks offer camping in one campground.
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is open all year, including camping, lodging, restaurants, scenic overlooks, visitors centers, and ranger led programs. Take a mule ride down to Phantom Ranch to spend the night where temperatures remain mild and above freezing in contrast to the sweltering heat of other seasons. Hikers and backpackers can drop into the canyon on trail, but traction devices or crampons for boots are necessary to navigate icy sections of trails, especially the top three miles of Bright Angel Trail. The North Rim is snowbound, but offers a yurt that can be reserved for overnights, accessible by a long cross-country ski trek or hike and ski.
California & Pacific Northwest
High season comes to Death Valley in winter with the low angled sun lighting up snow capped peaks and wildflowers starting to bloom in the valley in February. In winter, the hottest, driest, and lowest park in the country boasts sunny cool days and chilly nights, making it more comfortable for travel. Hiking, mountain biking, and backpacking through the park’s colorful rock layers, water-fluted canyons, and rugged landscape are ideal in the cooler weather, and dirt roads provide scenic driving tours into the wilderness. Make reservations for lodging at Stovepipe Wells Village, Panamint Springs Resort, Furnace Creek Ranch, and the historic Furnace Creek Inn, or stay in one of the park’s nine campgrounds or additional off-road primitive campsites.
Yosemite National Park’s famous waterfalls dwindle to trickles by winter, but visitors can still experience the grandeur of the glacier-carved terrain under snow. The family-friendly Badger Pass Ski Area opens for alpine skiing, snowboarding, and tubing while the outdoor ice skating rink at Curry Village offers budding Olympians a place to twirl and spin. Rangers lead guided snowshoe hikes, and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias provides one of several cross-country ski destinations. Several park lodges stay open through winter, including The Ahwahnee, a National Historic Landmark that features fine dining, wine tastings, and holiday feasts. Carry chains to use during winter snowstorms.
Winters are mild at Olympic National Park coastal beaches with temperatures in the 30s and 40s, while snowfall can pile up to 10 feet deep in the mountains. Carry chains to drive up the road to Hurricane Ridge, which opens Fridays through Sundays for winter sightseeing, alpine skiing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, sledding, and stopping at the visitors center. The road into the Hoh Rain Forest remains open all winter to access trails muddy from rains. Campers prepared to handle the wet, cold winter can stay at the Hoh, Kalaloch, or Ozette campgrounds, and two of the park’s lodges–Kalaloch Lodge on the beach and Lake Quinault Lodge on the lake—offer year-round lodging.