The national parks are some of the most majestic plots of land in America, but you might not consider them quintessential winter vacation destinations. You should. Of the 60 U.S. national parks, only one (Michigan’s Isle Royale) closes completely for the winter, and the colder months offer a huge advantage: fewer crowds.
Just remember: Planning a trip to a national park takes planning, especially during winter months when road closures are common and activities can be weather-dependent (of course a government shutdown can also throw a wrench in your plans).
“Some of the coolest things to do in the parks won’t be available if you try to do them at the last minute,” notes Caroline Bach Wood of Caroline Travel who customizes trips around the western national parks.
So, if you have some time, set your sights on one of these parks. They’re best seen before spring’s thaw.
10 Best National Park Hikes
Haleakala National Park
Since Kilauea ended its world-famous lava streak last year (you’ll no longer see glowing lava after a long day of backpacking), Michael Joseph Oswald, author of Your Guide to the National Parks suggests an alternate: Maui’s Haleakala National Park. It’s broken into two distinct regions, The Summit (hiking, stargazing, and sunrise at 10,023 feet) and Kipahulu (best known for its seven sacred pools and Pipiwai Trail, which leads through a bamboo forest to the 400-foot Waimoku Falls), he explains. Spend some time outside the park, too. Thousands of humpback whales migrate to Maui’s surrounding waters each winter. At Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea, sightings aren’t a rarity. The resort even plans whale-watching trips, outrigger canoe expeditions, and the chance to see the creatures from above via helicopter.
Yosemite National Park
You could wait 90 minutes to get in the gates at Yosemite—a 1,200-square-mile wonder in the Sierra Nevada—during the summer months, or you could drive straight in during winter for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and epic wildlife sightings. Stay at The Majestic Yosemite Hotel, which is open year-round. Or, if you’re up for an adventure, book far enough in advance and cross-country ski the 10+ miles to Glacier Point Ski Hut. Pair Yosemite with a ski trip to nearby Tahoe (with a stay at Edgewood Tahoe) for a double adventure, Wood suggests.
Death Valley National Park
“It’s one of the strangest places on the planet,” Oswald says of Death Valley National Park, a basin of seasonal extremes. His suggestion? Off-road it to a place called The Racetrack, where rocks move of their own volition. “You’ll never see them move from one place to another, but tracks provide ample evidence to know they have somewhere to go.” The park’s Badwater Basin also puts you 282 feet below sea level, the lowest place in North America. A bonus: “Long winter nights, comfortable temperatures, and minimal light pollution provide ideal stargazing conditions.”
Joshua Tree National Park
More people might visit Joshua Tree during the winter than the summer, but for good reason: Milder temps make California’s deserts, home to the world’s largest Joshua Tree forests, more comfortable for explorers. Rock climbers likely already have Joshua Tree on their list but hiking trails and 4WD opportunities are abundant, too, notes Oswald.
Yellowstone National Park
Every year in early November, most park roads at the world’s first National Park close to regular traffic—something that deters crowds. Winter visitation is around 20,000 to 35,000 people per month December to March versus 800,000 to 940,000 people per month in the summer. But entering the park via snowmobile or snowcoach tour is half the fun. Get dropped at the Continental Divide and ski back to where you’re staying, suggests Wood. “Watching steam rise from any one of the park’s geothermal features is a spellbinding experience,” adds Oswald. Listen up at night, too, says Wood: “Wolves don’t hibernate, so there’s a good chance of hearing them when you’re out in remote places.”
Zion National Park
One of the big draws at Zion come winter is that you can drive yourself into the Zion Canyon (instead of taking the bus shuttle system that runs during warmer times of the year). And while attractions—such as the 1,500-foot rock formation Angel’s Landing—are insufferably crowded in the summer, winter brings solitude. There’s very little snow and ice (but bring traction devices to be safe), and you’ll practically have the trails to yourself, Wood says.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Only a short distance from urban life (a half-hour from Cleveland), Cuyahoga Valley is quite an escape, especially for those looking to tube, ski, or snowboard, says Oswald. You can ski or snowboard at Brandywine Ski Resort, as well as hike, cross-country ski, and snowshoe, says Oswald. Plus, the Winter Sports Center rents gear. Don’t miss Blue Hen Falls and Brandywine Falls trails, both of which wind their way to must-see waterfalls.
Biscayne National Park
Fun fact about Southern Florida’s favorite National Park: 95 percent of it is water—and most people who visit for the marine life, boating, and scuba diving enter by boat. Once you’re in, explore the shallow reefs at Long Reef, Elkhorn Reef, and Bache Shoal via snorkel. Don’t miss the guided (or self-guided) Mandalay shipwreck eco-tour along the park’s Maritime Heritage Trail.
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