Find your winter bliss in Bryce Canyon National Park — Photo courtesy of swissmediavision / iStock Via Getty Images Plus
If you’re looking to escape the crowds and peak road-trip season at one of our national parks, don’t go right when school lets out for the summer. Whether you’re looking for snow-capped mountains or desert glory, winter is a fabulous time to visit the parks for up-close-and-personal nature encounters. Fewer crowds can mean more meaningful experiences on the trails, in the lodges, and at the visitor centers.
In the national parks that receive bountiful snow, thrilling outdoor adventures abound. If you don’t mind bundling up, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing amid pristine wilderness are awe-inspiring. On the flip side, if you’re seeking an escape from wintry weather, a visit to one of the national parks in a climate that’s warm year-round might fit the bill.
Here’s why you should check out any of these U.S. national parks on your next winter vacation.
Yellowstone National Park
Take in epic snowmobile views of Lower Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park — Photo courtesy of NPS / Jacob W. Frank
Located mainly in the northwest corner of Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park comes close to hibernating like its resident grizzlies in the winter months. With major roads closed, the best way to see Old Faithful and the park’s other key geothermal features is with a guided snowmobile or snowcoach tour. Snowcoaches are heated shuttles with giant rugged tires or snowmobile tracks that can navigate the snowy terrain with ease.
Bears will likely be sleeping, but you could spot resident wolves, foxes, and bison. Don’t forget binoculars! Cozy lodging options, like Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel & Cabins, are great for kicking back after a day of adventuring in the snow.
Rocky Mountain National Park
You might have an elk sighting in Rocky Mountain National Park — Photo courtesy of Thomas Elliott / Flickr
Due to its high elevation, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park is a winter wonderland once the snow begins to fly in the late fall. The curvy Trail Ridge Road, which traverses the park and peaks at 12,183 feet, is closed in the winter. However, visitors can still reach dramatic scenery via snowplowed roads in Estes Park on the eastern side of the park and the Grand Lake west entrance.
Rent cross-country skis or snowshoes in either gateway town to traipse around wooded or lakeside trails while keeping eyes open for moose, elk, coyote, and bighorn sheep. You can also make a reservation for a ranger-led snowshoe walk.
Hot Springs National Park
Take a winter dip in the Quapaw Baths on Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs National Park — Photo courtesy of Kara Williams
In Arkansas, Hot Springs National Park is one of America’s most accessible national parks. There’s no entry fee, and its main attraction — Bathhouse Row, composed of eight restored bathing facilities originally built between 1892 and 1923 — sits on the tree-lined main avenue in downtown Hot Springs.
Don’t miss the highly informative museum with fascinating artifacts and exhibits at the visitor center. Then take a relaxing and rejuvenating soak in the Buckstaff Bathhouse mineral waters just like travelers did a century ago. The steamy indoor experience is particularly inviting in the winter when it’s not so sultry outside.
Bryce Canyon National Park
In winter, the hiking trails amid towering hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park are otherworldly — Photo courtesy of Kara Williams
The rock pinnacles in Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park are magical all year round, but the orange pillars, or hoodoos, are especially otherworldly with a dusting of fresh snow under bluebird skies. Paved roads are open through the winter, so you can drive from the visitor center to viewing areas, such as Sunset Point, Sunrise Point, or Inspiration Point.
Trails can be icy with snowmelt after a winter storm, so be sure to pack traction devices for your waterproof shoes if you plan to hike. Consider the moderate 3-mile Queen’s/Navajo Combination Loop for a variety of stunning canyon vistas.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
A steam vent in Kilauea Caldera is a magnificent sight in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park — Photo courtesy of Kara Williams
On the tropical island of Hawaii (aka “the Big Island”), Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a brilliant place to learn not only how the volcanic islands were formed millions of years ago, but also how more recent lava flows have changed the landscape of the island. Two volcanoes are still active, and if you’re lucky you might even witness an eruption during your visit.
You’ll need a car to efficiently take in the 523-square-mile park’s rugged scenery. Stop along Crater Rim Drive for dramatic views of massive Kilauea Caldera. You also can get close to steamy vents, walk through verdant Thurston Lava Tube, and hike to petroglyphs.
Saguaro National Park
Expect winter temperatures to range between 50 and 70 degrees in Saguaro National Park — Photo courtesy of Jeff Hollett / Flickr
If your winter travels take you to toasty Tucson, Arizona, it’s easy to dip into Saguaro National Park, which has two distinct districts on either side of the city. In either you have plenty of opportunities to see the giant saguaro cactus.
Handy hiking guides spell out options for short, easy nature walks in cactus groves as well as longer, steep treks in the wilderness. Bring plenty of water to stay hydrated in the dry climate. Also watch for rattlesnakes along the trail, as well as honeybees that build their hives in cactus cavities.
Joshua Tree National Park
Visit the peacefulness of Joshua Tree National Park — Photo courtesy of Matthew Digati / iStock Via Getty Images Plus
Temperatures at California’s Joshua Tree National Park can soar to 100 degrees in the summer. Winter temps are cooler and better suited for daytime exploration of the desert landscape. The park is named for the funky-looking yucca tree with gnarled branches and leaves that look fuzzy from afar but are actually quite sharp and spiky.
Joshua Tree is wildly popular among rock climbers, with more than 8,000 climbing routes and 2,000 boulder problems. If you prefer not to leave the ground, consider a scenic drive through the park, a ranger-led tour of historic Keys Ranch, or hiking in the Black Rock Area. The remote area is also a magnificent place to stargaze.