These National Parks Are Actually at Their Best in the Winter
All the wonder, none of the crowds.
Summer will always be the most popular time to visit our national parks. For generations, families have flocked to our precious natural wonderlands to commune with nature.... and to crowd precarious walkways, overtake campsites, and transform serene naturescapes into theme parks. No knock on them: We've been those kids screaming on a shuttle in the Grand Canyon, and look forward to yelling at our own kids to get off their damn phones at Old Faithful. But sometimes you long to experience nature without the sound of crying children. And to do that often involves packing a really thick coat.
Winter is a magical time for many of the parks. The trails clear. The campsites are less likely to be serenaded by a guitar-packing troubadour. Fire danger is down. And, unlike peak season, you'll feel like you have it all to yourself. These are the parks that are at their absolute best in the winter.
There are no amenities near America’s deepest lake in the winter. You won’t need them. The ethereal joys of snowshoeing or skiing around the caldera of this singularly gorgeous park—whose nearly 2,000-foot-deep waters are impossibly blue before they get even more reflective come winter—are unmatched. Whether you go it alone on an overnight trek or take advantage of a quick guided ranger hike, you’ll flit in and out of dense green forests, emerging to gaze on the waters. Meanwhile Wizard Island, plunked in the middle of the cloud-draped lake, goes full Gandalf, transitioning from gray to white with the snowfall.
California and Nevada
You’re probably familiar with Death Valley as the hottest place on Earth, so it stands to reason that this park is much more appealing to visit in January, when snow and ice are present, than in July, when they definitely are not. The park is quietest around the holidays, but you might also consider visiting in February, which is typically when the Death Valley Dark Sky Festival goes down (dates for 2022 are currently TBD); this park, too, is one of the best stargazing sites in the country. If you can swing it, aim to visit during a weekend that’s not a long holiday weekend—those have been known to see crowds, even in the winter.
We’ve said it once and we’ll say it again—interior Maine gets Game of Thrones-level winters, and your ass can and will come out of that wilderness looking like the Night King. But if you stick to the coast, where the weather tends to stay milder, you’ll find yourself in a frosted wonderland that makes up for in wintry views what it lacks in summertime’s blueberry pies. Acadia National Park (and the nearby, perpetually charming town of Bar Harbor) is at the center of that action. You can hike along trails blanketed in snow (bring traction cleats and trekking poles!) or try your hand at cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. Meanwhile, the cold-averse will be glad to hear that the best sights can be reached by car: Though the Park Loop Drive closes during the cold months, ever-scenic Ocean Drive, Sargeant Drive, and Jordan Pond Road all stay open for the season. And if you really want to be wowed, stick around past nightfall: if conditions are right, you might get lucky enough to catch the northern lights.
As a spoiler alert, you’re going to see three of Utah’s Big Five make this list. And to clarify, we’d include every single one of them if we had the space. Even with next-door neighbor Arches and NPS behemoth Zion both showing off Grade A sights when temperatures dip each year, Canyonlands stands out as a banger. The largest yet least visited national park in the state, Canyonlands’ snow-dusted spires, arches, mesa tops, and sandstone cliffs are made all the better by the fact that crowds clear out almost completely come winter, turning this into a place of spectacular, sweeping solitude. (Just be sure to check for road closures before you head out!)
Okay, so the Everglades didn't make this list due to a reduction in crowds. Winter is actually peak season here. But that’s because it’s truly the loveliest time of year to visit. Temperatures are in the 60s and 70s, the suffocating bugs are thinned out and minimally predatory, and the lower water levels mean that it’s easier than ever to spot alligators and spoonbills and all manner of other critters gathered around watering holes. Check out some guided tours to make the most of your visit.
The Everglades you visit because you want less winter. Mount Rainier, however, you visit because you want more winter. This Washington monolith sees upwards of 50 feet of snowfall per year and comes alive in the wintertime. You’ve got your skiing and snowboarding, your backcountry snowshoeing and camping, your fun-for-the-whole-family sledding and snowmobiling. This is truly a winter wonderland for all tastes, whether you prefer to experience the snow from the comfort of a tent or the warmth of the National Park Inn. This year, amenities remain limited throughout the park, but for those seeking isolation, that might be more a feature than a bug.
In the summertime, Zion is basically Disneyland. It’s crowded. It’s hot. You’re standing in two-hour lines to be able to do the one thing you most want to do that day, and they're often out of turkey legs. End this madness; go in the wintertime. Just 13% of Zion visitors journey to the park between November and March, and a wintertime desert is one of nature’s most glorious settings. Even better, once you've had your fill of the park and its legendary trails, you'll be able to explore all the surrounding (and vastly overlooked) state parks unencumbered.
As you may well know, the desert gets hot. Especially in Arizona, especially in the summer, and espeeeecially when you’re surrounded by the sweaty, fervent packs of tourists the Grand Canyon knows all too well. The solution? Go during winter, when the road trippers park it at home for a few months and temperatures drop off something serious (as does your risk of overheating on a mule ride). The colors of the sunrise over the Canyon look even more spectacular set against the pure white snow that carpets the buttes at this time of year—a perfect start to days spent exploring uncrowded scenic drives, hiking trails, and dazzling viewpoints. Plus, adventures inside the Canyon, including nights at the Bright Angel Campground and backcountry permits, become much easier to nab once the summer hype dies down.
Winter means great diving in this national park archipelago, which remains somehow overlooked despite being a stone's throw (and boat ride) away from LA. Underwater plants are flowering, and the visibility hasn't yet been distubed by spring rains. Chilly winter waters mean it’s the right time of year to watch gray whales along their migration routes; if you’re lucky, you might spot a pod of orcas here and there, too. Wintertime in the Channel Islands is also when you can see pelicans nesting, elephant seals and harbor seal pups newly born, and the islands exploding with wildflowers closer to the end of the season.
Want to see the northern lights? In the US, you can’t do much better than Alaska's massive Denali in the winter. Access to the dog sledding kennels is open on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, permits for backcountry hikes are free, and wildlife viewing is as spectacular as ever. There’s also February's Winterfest, which typically includes sled-dog rides, ice-carving, ranger-led snowshoe walks, cross-country ski races, and more or less every other winter-themed activity one could wish for.
Bryce is beautiful at any time of year, but if you’ve never seen those famous spires and tent rocks dusted with snow then you owe it to yourself to do so. The entire park is an embarrassment of riches come wintertime. There’s ice fishing, snowmobiling, and the drier air this time of year makes the desert skies unparalleled for stargazing; you’ll find regularly scheduled astronomy programs including full-moon snowshoe hikes at the newly designated International Dark Sky Park. Nowhere else on Earth will you get as vivid a look at Mars overhead while feeling like you're standing on the Red Planet.
Somehow overlooked and under-visited despite its proximity to bustling Tucson, Saguaro’s expanses of cartoonishly contorted cacti and relatively easy hikes are best explored during the winter. In the off season, the already thin crowds dissipate and you’re free to cavort with owls and gaze at petroglyphs with little interruption and minus the oppressive heat. Even better, the campsites—a relatively hot commodity numbering a scant 20—are easier to bag, allowing you to spend the night under the stars with only coyotes (and maybe roadrunners, given the landscape) as your company.
Snowshoeing, skiing, camping, backcountry camping (provided you have a permit), and, yes, another chance to see the northern lights. Some roads within this Montana treasure will be closed, as will the shuttle service that runs during the summer, so this is another trip that’s best enjoyed by those who really know what they’re doing. The historic Lake McDonald Lodge, though, should still be open to welcome you with some hot cocoa after a cold day in the wilderness.
Wintertime in Wrangell-St. Elias means another excellent opportunity to see the northern lights. While the park itself remains open, all the visitor centers and ranger stations will be closed for the season, meaning that this trip is for those who truly crave solitude in nature. Backcountry hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing are popular here in the winter—you can get around the rest of the time via snowmobile.
Andy Kryza is Thrillist's senior travel editor. He prefers his cabins made of logs and his stoves to burn wood. Follow him @apkryza.
Tiana Attride is Thrillist's associate travel editor. She grew up outside Atlanta, where a quarter-inch of snow can shut down school for a week. Follow her @tian.a.