National parks are for more than just summer hiking. Break out of your cold-weather hibernation and check out these 10 national parks that are at their best winter.
Editor’s Note: Some national parks may have reduced hours/closed amenities. Please check the park’s website before visiting for the most up-to-date information.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Big Bend National Park serves as a border between the United States and Mexico, and offers a unique way to cross between the two countries—by rowboat. Visitors can pay $5 to be ferried across the Rio Grande on a small boat, or you can walk across for free (at your own risk, and only at a designated area when the water levels are low).
Winter is one of the best times to visit Big Bend National Park, as the temperatures average around 60-70 degrees during the day, whereas in the summer it can get dangerously hot (over 100 degrees).
Olympic National Park, Washington
Olympic is one of only three national parks with a full ski area in the winter. (To find out the other two, keep reading.) The Hurricane Ridge Ski and Snowboard Area has one lift and two rope tows, and operates from mid-December through March depending on conditions. Ski here, and you’ll be able to brag “I skied in the Olympics” without technically lying. The Elwha Ranch Bed and Bath overlooks Olympic National Park and the Glacier Mountains.
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Virgin Islands National Park, U.S. Virgin Islands
Not embracing the cold? Hit the beach at Virgin Islands National Park, where daily high temps hover in the 80s throughout winter. Covering half of the island of St. John, the park is a lush undeveloped landscape of dense forests and beaches fringed with coconut palms. Dive into the warm, clear Caribbean waters of Trunk Bay, with its 225-yard snorkeling trail that includes underwater signs to help you identify the coral and 30 species of fish that could be swimming around you. In winter, whale-watching excursions spot humpback whales on their migration routes through the Virgin Islands.
Death Valley National Park, California
Death Valley is the hottest and driest place in North America, and has set the world record for the highest air temperature (134 degrees). Unsurprisingly, it’s not a place you want to visit in the summer. In the winter, you’ll get mild temperatures that rarely drop below freezing, plus smaller crowds—the weeks after Thanksgiving and before Christmas are the least busy time of the year, according to the NPS. The Ranch at Death Valley is located next to the NPS Visitor Center, offering easy access to the park. The 224-room hotel has restaurants, a general store, and even a saloon to keep you entertained.
Everglades National Park, Florida
Winter is the best time of year to visit Everglades National Park, as December through April is the dry season. You’ll usually have temperatures in the upper 70s with low humidity, the biting insects that can be prevalent in summer are gone, and lower water levels make it easier to spot wildlife. There are no hotels inside the park (although there are two campgrounds), but Everglades City is just next to the park and has plenty of overnight options. Everglades City Motel is affordable and a five-minute drive from the park.
Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
Embrace winter at Mount Rainier National Park, which has a designated “snow play area” where you can go sledding or tubing. Ranger-guided snowshoe walks are also available, as are plenty of trails for cross-country skiing. The National Park Inn is the only hotel within Mount Rainier National Park that is open year-round. This quaint property has 25 guest rooms, a dining room, and a general store, so you don’t have to leave the park once you’ve checked in.
Yosemite National Park, California
Enjoy a side of history with your skiing at Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area, California’s oldest downhill skiing area. Located off of the park’s Glacier Point Road, lifts here serve 10 runs, and there are also more than 90 miles of marked trails for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. For an unforgettable winter experience, you can even cross-country ski a 10.5-mile trail to Glacier Point, which overlooks Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls.
Built in the 1920s, The Ahwahnee (formerly called The Majestic Yosemite) has been painstakingly renovated to preserve its heritage. This AAA Four-Diamond property is located within the park and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Approximately five million people visit the Grand Canyon every year, but only about 10 percent of visitors come in the winter. Although the North Rim is closed in the winter, the South Rim is completely open year-round. Certain roads that are closed to personal vehicles in the summer reopen for the winter (weather-dependent), allowing you to explore at your own pace. Temperatures on the South Rim are generally cold, but if you venture to the canyon’s floor, the weather is much warmer, reaching up to 60 degrees during a winter day. To learn more about the park, see Planning a Trip to the Grand Canyon. You can find great winter deals at the normally expensive El Tovar Hotel, a historic lodge located on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
When winter falls on Utah’s Bryce Canyon, deep snow blankets the plateau and settles in layers on red-rock hoodoos like striped candy spires. Set against a huge blue sky, the colors are absolutely striking. When you look out across the Grand Staircase, it feels like a Dr. Seuss-inspired planet, one you get all to yourself. On a clear day, you can see nearly 200 miles to the Black Mesas in Arizona. At night, this vast sky becomes one of the darkest in North America. Winter’s cold, clear, dry air gives naked-eye stargazers a chance to see 7,500 stars, more than three times what you typically see in the country’s rural areas.
Join rangers every Saturday night for the winter astronomy program’s multimedia show, complete with stargazing through telescopes. The park’s “Dark Rangers” also lead one- to two-hour nocturnal hikes under the full moon, on which you’ll see snow-dusted hoodoos illuminated by moonlight. Snowshoe rentals are free throughout winter.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
A low-key alternative to Colorado’s nearby big ski resorts, Rocky Mountain National Park is a backcountry paradise in winter. You can easily reach remote areas on snowshoes or skis, while hiking boots will suffice for winter treks in the lower elevations of the 250,000-acre wilderness area. Watch for moose along the Colorado River on the park’s west side and bighorn sheep along Highway 34 on its east side. Don’t miss the frost-encrusted trees along Bear Lake under a full moon. For a more extreme adventure, hire one of Colorado Mountain School’s certified guides to take you rock climbing, ice climbing, or winter mountaineering on Longs Peak.
Rangers lead free snowshoe and cross-country skiing programs. In Hidden Valley, on the bunny hill of a former ski area, sledding is a family tradition. The warming hut opens on weekends. This is one of the few national parks to offer backcountry camping in winter.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 10 Incredible National Park Lodges in the U.S. (and the Best Time to Book Them)
- A Year of National Parks: Your Month-by-Month Guide to America’s Best Idea
- 12 Gorgeous Photos of America’s National Parks
Caroline Morse Teel wants to visit all these best national parks in winter. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for more national park photos.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2019. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Jamie Moore contributed to this story.
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