Many outdoors lovers take snowflakes as a cue to pack away their hiking boots and start a Netflix binge that lasts until spring. But just because it's winter doesn't mean you should give up on visiting America's national parks. Some of their best nature dishes doesn't emerge until the frost sets in. And with smaller crowds, you'll be more likely to see the beauty that Mother Nature is displaying.
The first national park in the United States — and in the world — Yellowstone National Park in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, was created in 1872 when Civil War hero and U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act. The act jumpstarted a trend — there are now 58 national parks (and hundreds of memorials, rivers and related sites) scattered throughout America. Visitor numbers are booming, and in 2016, the National Park Service logged 331 million recreation visits, a second straight record-breaking year for visits [source: National Park Service].
The vast majority of visitors hit the parks during the peak summer months when school is out and weather is more accommodating. Then, minivans, tour buses and RVs pack park roads and campgrounds by the millions.
But some of America's parks are just as amazing — sometimes even more incredible — in the winter months. Sure, in some places, the off season means some areas may be inaccessible due to snow. But you may find that winter unleashes an entirely new personality in the parks you love. Here are 10 worth visiting in the colder months.
You may have seen Old Faithful blasting into the sky in August. But have you ever witnessed this monster geyser shooting up white mist into the frosty winter air?
Each year, more than 4 million people crowd the roads in Yellowstone National Park, one of America's crown jewels. Few of them will leave the pavement — and almost none of them visit during winter. They are, in a vast understatement, missing out on some of the best the park has to offer.
For instance, in winter, the park's famous geysers blast near-boiling water that freezes almost immediately in the air and falls as unique "geyser rain." Herds of animals like elk and bison cluster ever closer together for protection and are easier to spot in the white of deep snow drifts. Ice skating, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are also popular in Yellowstone.
The frigid Western weather drives away the masses, and lodging is scarce, so there are no traffic jams or long lines. In fact, normal civilian traffic is prohibited from park roads from November to March, meaning visitors must take snowmobiles or snowcoaches to access Yellowstone [source: NPS].
If you're daring, fit and prepared, you can even opt for backcountry camping during the winter season. You may find that you have millions of acres of Yellowstone's majesty all to yourself.
Big Bend National Park is located in southwest Texas, snuggled up to the Mexican border. Translation: In the summertime, Big Bend is almost unbearably hot, with temperatures above 100 degrees F (38 degrees C). In fall and winter, however, Big Bend's more moderate temperatures tempt outdoor lovers from around the world.
That means you can soak up the vast desert vistas and go hiking for miles to places like Boquillas Hot Springs and Cattail Falls without worrying about heat stroke. It's worth noting, however, that even though daytime temperatures might exceed 60 degrees F (15 degrees C), the chill of the night can quickly plunge into the 30s (source: NPS).
Unlike parks in northern climes, the campgrounds in Big Bend are open year-round. That means you'll typically be able to find a spot to park an RV or pitch a tent. Be aware, however, that the days leading up to and following Christmas and the New Year are often exceedingly popular, to the point that all front-country spots are booked (source: Thomas).
The pink-orange spires of Bryce Canyon offer surreal beauty any time of the year. But when those same spires are capped with fresh snow, their gorgeousness is almost overwhelming.
Although it's a cold area in wintertime, the park service provides guided snowshoe tours, including a full moon snowshoe hike. Astronomy programs are also held in the winter months, so provided the skies are clear, you can use powerful telescopes to behold the spectacular stars against the dark skies above this remote area of Utah. The park also hosts a winter festival over Presidents' Day weekend in February [source: NPS].
The desert climate means that there are a lot of sunny — and warm — days during wintertime. However, at night, that all changes. Because parts of Bryce Canyon top more than 9,000 feet (2,743 meters) in elevation, winter temperatures are often brisk, if not downright frigid. That means you'll have to dress accordingly. But the smaller crowds also mean off-season discounts at local motels, so you can snag a room instead of suffering in an ice-crusted tent on a nearby mountain [source: Laypath].
This parched desert park receives an average of less than 2 inches (5 centimeters) of rain per year. But what Death Valley lacks in moisture it makes up for in heat — in mid-summer, the temperatures there can kill you if you're not prepared. It's not uncommon for the mercury to hover at around 120 degrees F (49 degrees C) in July [source: NPS].
So perhaps it goes without saying that Death Valley is a very much wintertime destination. Daytime temperatures might require you wear a jacket (in the mid-60s F) but they're ideal for hiking. Nighttime temperatures are often brisk but only rarely plunge to freezing.
The more moderate temperatures mean you can hike and camp without crazy amounts of water and other provisions, although you should always be adequately prepared in this hard land, no matter the month — it is called "Death Valley" after all.
If you're lucky and there's a bit of rain here in January, you may witness a spectacular but brief wildflower season, which sometimes lasts into February, or at higher elevations, even into March. And ironically, even though the weather is more tolerable in winter, visitor numbers are actually lower this time of year than in spring, meaning that you may have some trails all to yourself [source: McManis].
Grand Canyon National Park is the nation's second most-popular national park in the U.S. — about 5.9 million people visited in 2016 alone (Great Smoky Mountains is No. 1, with 11.3 million annual visitors). And as with so many parks, the teeming hordes mostly descend in summertime, peaking in July when temperatures average around 90 degrees F (32 degrees C). November through February are by far the least crowded months [source: NPS].
The canyon is 277 miles (446 kilometers)long and in its most spectacular places, about 1 mile (1,609 meters) deep. The park is divided between the popular South Rim and the less-traveled North Rim. Due to its higher elevation, greater snowfall and more remote location, traffic on the North Rim dwindles in October and the park service ceases offering backcountry camping permits on October 31. But day use is still possible until the end of November, weather permitting [source: NPS].
On the South Rim, the reverse happens — roads that are typically closed to public traffic (due to huge volumes) may open, allowing you to drive the full stretch of the park normally reserved for only buses [source: Xanterra].
Whether you enjoy hiking, camping or just sightseeing, the mild temperatures and much smaller crowds can make the Grand Canyon an unforgettable wintertime experience.
If you're looking for respite from brutal blizzards and cold temperatures on America's mainland, it's hard to top Hawaii. You can really fire up your imagination by visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, on the "Big Island," which proudly features two of Earth's most active volcanoes.
There are spectacular driving opportunities, including Crater Rim Drive, which features scenic stops along major overlooks that offer views of craters and steam vents. You'll get glimpses of Mauna Loa and Kilauea, the latter of which has been erupting pretty much non-stop since the early 1980s [source: Bagley].
This park is a primeval wonderland, and two-legged excursions are just as great, if not better, than the four-wheeled journeys. You'll have your choice of hikes through lush junglescapes and can find lava tubes galore. Don't forget the side benefits of your journey to the islands — big surfing waves and whale watching are at their peaks during the winter months [sources: Wentzel, NPS].
Visiting in winter offers a couple of distinct benefits. Temperatures tend to be a bit more pleasant, meaning you won't be as sticky as you would in July. And the price of accommodations on this particular island are typically cheaper than those found on other Hawaiian Islands.
Southern Florida in the summertime feels like a giant swamp, with 90 percent humidity and temperatures typically hovering in the 90s F (30s C). But wintertime is the dry season and the best time to visit Everglades National Park [source: NPS].
From December until April, daytime temperatures often max out at less than 80 degrees F (27 degrees C) and lows in the 50s F (10 C) mean a jacket will keep you comfortable during your outings. Freezing temperatures almost never occur and rain is less common during winter, too. Humidity drops, and perhaps best of all, biting insects like mosquitoes are rarer and nearly disappear in some parts of the park [source: Shaw].
Birdwatching is incredibly popular at here, and many species migrate to the area to find shelter from colder temperatures up north. Because water levels drop during the dry seasons, many animal species find shelter in the wetlands, meaning your binoculars will help you view all sorts of animal species. Hiking, fishing, kayaking and wildlife watching are all popular activities made even more enjoyable thanks to the pleasant weather.
Unlike national parks in northern regions, Everglades' busy season is during winter, so that's when you'll find attractions crowded with visitors. So, be prepared to deal with peak season traffic and accommodation rates [source: National Parks Traveler].
If you like water sports, fishing, sailing and wildlife watching, the 170,000-plus acres (68,796 hectares) of Biscayne National Park may be your kind of winter wonderland. The park is mostly mangrove forest, sea-grass beds and coral reefs.
Like Everglades, Biscayne is a Florida national park that offers respite from the cold snaps of the Great White North. In winter, temperatures are mild, often topping out near 70 degrees F (21 degrees C), and monthly winter rainfall totals (about 2 inches or 5 centimeters) are half of what they are in the summertime [source: NPS].
Because December to April is the dry season, with more comfortable temperatures and greater numbers of visitors, ranger-led programs are held more often then. To get around the park, you'll need a watercraft of some sort, whether it's a one you lug along or one that you rent from a nearby company — the park is 95 percent water [source: National Geographic].
Want to stay in the park? Your only option is primitive camping on one of the islands, such as Boca Chita Key. Otherwise, you'll have to venture back to Florida City or Homestead for hotel accommodations. The busiest time of year on the water for this park is weekends in the warmer months, so you might find a winter visit ideal.
Located in southwestern Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is open all year long, but it's a vastly different experience once the snow falls. In January, the average high temperature is just 40 degrees F (4 degrees Celsius), and once the sun sets, lows are in the 20s. Snow isn't uncommon and it can close roads or make them treacherous for driving. Provided it's open, the Mesa Top Loop Road provides access to a variety of historical attractions and trails [source: Repanshek].
The park is renowned for its huge array of primitive cliff dwellings and architectural sites in the Rocky Mountains. Visitors can catch glimpses of elaborate homes built into the steep cliffs from prehistoric times. However, the only dwelling normally open for tours in winter (Spruce Tree House) has been closed for the foreseeable future due to safety concerns about falling rocks. Nevertheless, you can still glimpse it from overlooks near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, which is also open year-round and houses many prehistoric artifacts [source: NPS].
In the winter, visitors, can get their fill of cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and other winter sports. There are even ranger-guided winter ecology hikes for people who are interested in the local environment.
Zion National Park is a stunning desert landscape and is one park that is getting relatively crowded even in the winter. In the past 10 years, its visitor numbers have shot up by 35 percent — it is now the sixth-most visited park in America, with more than 4 million people clamoring for a glimpse of its spectacular views. In fact, even winter travelers have been reporting some traffic backups on the road leading to the park [source: Marcus]. The park is so overrun with tourists it's considering requiring reservations to explore its main canyons.
But let's give this some perspective. January and February may see 200,000 visitors altogether. In June and July, those numbers sky rocket to more than 1 million, and you can't even access the park in your vehicle — you're required to hop on a park shuttle instead. In winter, you can actually drive into Zion and take in the great views and wildlife, like mule deer and songbirds. Hiking is also very popular. Just be careful on the roads — they can be icy. The weather can be cold and wet (temps hover in the 50-60s F during the day and below freezing at night). And nearly half the annual precipitation may come between December and March. However, spring can come as early as late February [sources: Christ, Utah.com, NPS].
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Author's Note: 10 National Parks to Visit in the Winter
I spend an inordinate amount of time in national parks, writing about and photographing the natural majesty that is part of America's fortunate natural bounty. The mountain parks I prefer are brutal places in the winter, with raging blizzards, piles of sloppy, suffocating snow, and bone-snapping cold that often leave even seasoned mountain folk dreaming of Hawaii. So, this year ... maybe Hawaii is just where I'll be.
More Great Links
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