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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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 2021 are currently TBD); this park, too, is one of the best stargazing sites on the planet. 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.
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 snowshowing 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, restrictions have severely limited amenities throughout the park, but for those seeking isolation, that might be more a feature than a bug.
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.
Bryce is beautiful at any time of year, but if you’ve never seen those famous spires and hoodoos 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.
Want to see the northern lights? In the US, you can’t do much better than Alaska's massive Denali in the winter. While access to the dog kennels has been haulted for the winter, backcountry hikes and wildlife viewing are still wholly accessible. There’s a February Winterfest here, which is still tentatively scheduled and 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.
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.