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WHILE SUMMER MIGHT SEEM LIKE THE BEST TIME TO EXPLORE AMERICA'S NATIONAL PARKS, WE INSTEAD THINK YOU SHOULD CONSIDER THE WINTER - IF ONLY FOR LESS PEOPLE AND MORE FUN.
While the summer months might seem like the best time to visit one of America's 63 national parks, in truth, the winter months - November to March - might in fact be the most optimal time to do some national park exploring. In many places, once the cold weather hits the number of visitors drops significantly. Meaning less traffic and emptier trails.
Below are a few of the best parks to visit during the winter - not only for their lack of people, but for their stunning winter wonderland landscapes and snowy adventures.
8 NATIONAL PARKS TO EXPLORE IN WINTER
1 | Rocky Mountain National Park
While Rocky Mountain National Park might be one of the busiest parks to visit in the summer, come winter the park feels totally empty. If you are down to layer up and switch your hiking boots for snowshoes, you can practically explore every trail in the park just like you would in the summer (except Longs Peak of course).
We recommend checking out the Bear Lake area - which during the summer is usually closed off to private drivers due to the high number of visitors. But come winter, more than likely will only run into a few hardy travelers like yourself. From the Bear Lake Trailhead you can head to Mill's Lake or Emerald Lake - both of which are beautiful during the snowy season.
>> Explore our comprehensive adventure guide to Rocky Mountain National Park.
2 | Sequoia National Park
Similar to Rocky Mountain National Park, one of the best reasons to visit Sequoia in the winter is the lack of people. During the warmer months, Sequoia National Park is full of other travelers, but once the weather starts to cool down the number of people also drops. Popular winter activities in the park include snowshoeing - either solo or with a park ranger - and cross country skiing.
One winter adventure worth considering is heading up to Pear Lake Winter Hut, which is only open from December through April. You can stay inside the pellet-stove heated hut, which sits just above beautiful Pear Lake. To reach the hut, start at Wolverton Meadow Trailhead and then head out for six miles until you reach the lake. From there it is ⅜ of a mile further north to the hut.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: you do need to reserve the hut in advance. It sleeps 10 people and costs $50 per person/per night.
EXPLORE MORE | THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO SEQUOIA & KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARK
3 | Yellowstone National Park
Sticking with the theme of visiting busy parks in the winter for smaller crowds, Yellowstone National Park is another great spot to escape the throngs of people that visit during the summer months. But what makes this park even more special during the colder months is the overall change in landscape. Think steaming geysers, snow covered bison and frozen rivers. The whole park takes on a very winter wonderland-y feel.
One of the best ways to explore the park is by skis, snowshoes, snowcoaches, or snowmobiles. Due to the heavy snow, many roads are closed by November and by December the only way to get around - including to famous spots like Old Faithful Geyser and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone - is either with a snowmobile or snowcoach tour, or on your own snowmobile (regulations apply). You can learn more about winter services and regulations here.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the only area of the park open to vehicles in the winter is Mammoth Hot Springs and the Northeast Entrance.
While we absolutely love visiting national parks in the winter - not only for a lack of people but because to us there are few things prettier than snow covered mountains and pine forests - there are also a number of parks that actually up their services and visitors once winter hits.
Many of these national parks are located in the southern half of the United States where during the summer months the temperatures can be incredibly brutal (think 100°+ F). This is especially true in desert national parks (Arches NP, Zion NP, Death Valley NP).
Below are a few national parks that truly come alive once winter hits.
4 | Saguaro National Park
We were lucky enough to visit this desert national park in February, and while we definitely did not have it to ourselves, we also were rewarded with beautiful blue skies and refreshing temperatures.
If you are wanting to hike around either side of Saguaro National Park (the park is split into two areas), we definitely suggest exploring it during the winter months (November - March). The weather is nice and all facilities are open (it is like the opposite of the parks above). Plus, this is one of the best times to take on the longer hikes in the park, including up to Wasson Peak.
💬 INSIDER TIP: we also recommend stopping in at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum to learn more about the surrounding landscapes. The museum is located on the road to the Tucson Mountain District, the western half of the national park.
5 | Everglades National Park
Winter is also known as the Dry Season in this subtropical national park. Come November, Everglades National Park starts to experience less rain, lower humidity, and a decrease in bug activity (including mosquitos). Plus, the temperatures are practically perfect (think average highs of 77°F and lows of 53°F) - meaning plenty of opportunity for day hikes.
Another great thing about visiting in the winter is the better wildlife viewing opportunities. Because of the lack of water (rivers and ponds start to really dry up), animals begin to congregate in specific areas. This means you will have a better shot of seeing animals like alligators and crocodiles - often in big groups. Similarly, the Everglades is famous for being a bird watchers' heaven, and this is even more true in the winter when tons of birds stay in the park to wait out the cold.
EXPLORE MORE | THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK
6 | Big Bend National Park
Similar to Saguaro National Park, Big Bend National Park is a desert park located in the far southern tip of Texas. During the summer, temperatures often reach 100° F by mid-morning, making hiking not only less fun, but also dangerous.
That is why visiting in the winter might be your best option.
While you will likely have to deal with a bit more people (though the park never gets thaaaat busy), you will also have the chance to do some great hikes without worrying about dehydration and heatstroke. Some great hikes worth seeking out during the winter include Mariscal Canyon Rim Trail (6.5 miles round-trip) and Marufo Vega Trail (12 miles round-trip), both of which are dangerous during the summer due to lack of water and sun exposure.
Another adventure to consider is seeking out the various hot springs that dot the Rio Grande River - which runs through the park. The easiest hot spring to visit is literally called Hot Spring. It is located in an old hot spring resort (only a few buildings remain) that once sat along the Rio. Learn more about it here.
\\ Other Parks to Explore During the Winter
MAMMOTH CAVE NATIONAL PARK
Located in central Kentucky - a state that doesn’t see much of a winter to begin with - Mammoth Cave National Park is a great spot to explore during the winter because no matter the temperature outside, within the massive cave (the longest in the world) it is always 54º F.
OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK
Due to its northerly location, this park does see a fair amount of snow - especially in the Olympic Mountains, including the famous Hurricane Ridge Area. The high mountain area is a great spot to partake in snow adventures. Including, snow shoeing, cross country skiing and even downhill skiing (there is a small ski lift that runs during the weekend).
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the road up to Hurricane Ridge is only open Friday and Saturday during the winter, weather permitting.
But it isn’t just the mountains of Olympic National Park that are impacted by the change in weather. Along the coast, expect crazy swells and Pacific Coastal storms. While further inland, expect vibrant, lush rainforests - including Hoh Rainforest, which can see 12 feet of rain a year.
► Explore our comprehensive adventure guide to Olympic National Park.
While we love exploring national parks during the summer months, there is something special about heading out during the "off-season." Not only will you see fewer people and have the trails more to yourself, but the whole landscape completely changes once the weather starts to change.
So if you have ever considered exploring and adventuring in some of America's national parks during the winter, we highly recommend checking these 8 parks out.
Curious to learn more about America's incredible national parks? Then head here for more information and inspiration.
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