10 Top National Parks to Visit This Winter
Get a fresh perspective on unique park backdrops and iconic sights with a winter getaway.
Check out sublime natural landscapes and plentiful wildlife in these must-see parks.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is the driest and lowest spot in North America – and the record-holder for the hottest recorded temperature on earth at 134 degrees Fahrenheit in 1913. But come winter, temperatures drop into mid-60s, making it the perfect time to explore the park's desert beauty that includes colorful badlands, sand dunes, rugged canyons, salt flats and mountain peaks. For hikers and campers, winter is really the only safe time to fully range in the backcountry. If you don't want to rough it, the Inn at Furnace Creek offers winter specials, a spring-fed pool and the Furnace Creek Golf Course, which is in full swing in the cooler months.
Yellowstone National Park
Geysers, bison, elk, bears and flower-sprinkled valleys make America's first national park the quintessential American national park experience. But of the nearly 4 million annual visitors to Yellowstone, fewer than 100,000 visit during winter. Wildlife abounds, and it's even easier to spot fascinating animals as they concentrate near hot springs for food. The cross-country skiing in Yellowstone is world-class, and snowmobile tours get you into the heart of this winter wonderland. Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel remain open during the winter, and Yellowstone Association Institute programs offer unique opportunities to view animals and capture once-in-a-lifetime photos.
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado preserves thousands of Native American cliff dwellings left by the ancestors of today's Pueblo tribes. While nearly 600,000 people visit Mesa Verde annually, winter days only average 50 visits. The Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center and Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum are open year-round, as is the 6-mile Mesa Top Loop Road to view the spectacular Square Tower House and Cliff Palace from the opposite mesa. Petroglyph Point Trail is open for hiking, and Cliff Palace Loop Road is open to cross-country skiers during the winter months. Snowshoes are available at the visitor center and museum as well.
Grand Canyon National Park
Nearly 5 million people from around the world visit the Grand Canyon each year, but come winter that number drops significantly, offering visitors the chance to enjoy a crowd-free getaway. All services at the South Rim Village are open during the winter, and choice view rooms at El Tovar and Bright Angel lodges are much easier to secure. Rim Trail mule rides are available in the cooler months, and hiking trails are open. Plus, the cross-country skiing along the rim is spectacular. Winter light brings out different hues and definition than in the summertime, and when the canyon gets blanketed by snowfall, the sweeping views take on a whole new beauty.
Hot Springs National Park
Federally protected in 1832, Hot Springs is among oldest areas in the National Park system (it became the 18th national park in 1921). It surrounds the north end of Hot Springs, Arkansas, and gave the city its name. For millennia the hot springs were used by Native Americans, and in the past 200 years, eight bathhouses have been built where patients would seek the curative waters. Today, more than 1 million people visit Hot Springs each year to relax in the 143-degree Fahrenheit geothermal waters that make the perfect winter getaway. Two bathhouses, the Buckstaff and Quapaw, are open for individual and communal soaking.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
This cave system in southern New Mexico remains at a consistent 56 degrees Fahrenheit year-round and is one of the largest cave systems in the world. Visitors explore enormous caverns such as the Hall of the White Giant, the Queen's Chamber, Fairyland, Witch's Fingers, the Devil's Spring and King's Palace filled with surreal natural features. Winter is also the perfect time to explore the 46,766 acres of the Chihuahuan Desert above ground that support a wide range of desert life, as well as other sites throughout Southern New Mexico, including the White Sands National Monument and the historic Lodge Resort and Spa in nearby Cloudcroft.
Denali National Park and Preserve
Even though the daylight hours are much shorter in Alaska, winter is actually the best time to view North America's highest mountain, as during the warmer months it's often shrouded in cloud cover. Take the Alaska Railroad to Talkeetna, where K2 Aviation planes will fly you into the park for eagle-eye views of Denali before returning. Drive into the park and enjoy a day of cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, aurora viewing and learning about dog mushing. For other winter expeditions to Alaska, tour operator John Hall's Alaska gets visitors into the interior seldom seen by travelers during the season.
Zion National Park
Soaring red sandstone cliffs, narrow slot canyons, waterfalls, streams and pockets of green oases under a brilliant blue Southwestern sky make Zion the epitome of Southwest beauty. During the winter, private vehicles are allowed on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, which is only open to bus traffic during the summer due to crowds. Daytime temperatures in the 50s at Zion make for comfortable hikes, though conditions can change rapidly. Zion Lodge within the park offers its winter bed-and-breakfast package that includes a room and breakfast for 40 percent less than the advertised rate for stays through March 3.
Acadia National Park
This rugged and beautiful park is home to Cadillac Mountain, the tallest mountain on the Atlantic seaboard, and was the first national park established east of the Mississippi. The park's 47,000 acres are home to many animal species, including seals, deer and bears. During the winter, the 27-mile Park Loop Road stays open for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling. More than 40 miles of old carriage roads cross the eastern side of Acadia for skiing and snowshoeing; maps are available at the park headquarters, which is open Monday through Friday in January and February. Ice fishing is permitted on the park's larger ponds, as well as winter camping at Blackwoods Campground.
National Park of American Samoa
The only national park in the Southern Hemisphere, the National Park of American Samoa protects the coral reefs and rainforests of Tutuila, Ofu and Ta'u, which are U.S. territories. With warm year-round temperatures, this South Pacific park makes the perfect winter getaway, though it's difficult to reach, with its isolated location 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaii. Snorkeling with turtles in coral reefs and hiking in the tropical rainforests to see Samoan flying fox bats are just some draws for visiting the park. Throughout the park the traditional Samoan way of life is honored, and visitors are encouraged to take part in cultural practices such as communal eating and celebrations.
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