By Kara Williams
The United States' 58 national parks make brilliant destinations all year round. After all, they are home to some of the country's most stunning (and protected) landscapes – towering red rock, rocky coastline, lush everglades, even active volcanoes. But the summer months are by far the most popular time for sightseers, campers, hikers, and kayakers to hit the parks. For example, the Grand Canyon drew 648,000 visitors last July, and only 141,000 in January 2012.
Winter is, of course, the perfect time to avoid the crowds which means greater access for you to landmarks and wildlife viewing. But which parks are still worth a visit when the temperatures drop? Here are our top five picks...
Summer temperatures in below-sea-level Death Valley National Park in eastern California (and spilling into western Nevada) regularly reach 120 degrees—in the shade. Who wants to get out of an air-conditioned car then? The daily average high in February, however, is a pleasant 73 degrees, typically cooler in the high elevations than the low valley. Death Valley—"the land of extremes"—is vast, with more than 3 million acres of mountain peaks, desert dunes, and even a historical "castle" to explore. To get the lay of the land, stop at Furnace Creek Visitors Center, which was just refurbished with expanded restrooms, solar panels, and filtered water stations for filing bottles. Then motor the scenic Artist's Drive loop, stop at Badwater salt flats, the lowest point in the US, and snap photos at Zabriskie Point or Dante's View.
Wyoming, Montana, Idaho
A snowy winter wonderland awaits in Yellowstone National Park between December and March; the steamy geysers and bubbling hot pots paint an otherworldly scene against stark white snow. Plus, it's sometimes easier to spot wildlife—black bears, red foxes, and grey wolves—in their winter habitat. Note that only the north and northeast entrances to the 3,500-square-mile park are open to car traffic; don't plan on entering the park from the Wyoming border. Once inside, book a guided tour via snowcoach, snowmobile, snowshoes, or cross-country skis to see such famous sites as Old Faithful, sparkling Yellowstone Lake, or the cascading Lower Falls. (The boardwalks to terraced Mammoth Hot Springs are accessible by car.) Rental snowmobiles, snowshoes, and ski gear are also available if you'd like to venture out at your own pace. Pack your long underwear!
Visitor numbers actually increase to Everglades National Park in the winter months: 134,000 in February this year versus 56,000 in June. That's because the winter dry season brings more moderate, less humid temperatures—and fewer mosquitos. Birds, frogs, lizards, turtles, and yes, crocodiles and alligators, flock to diminishing water sources, so wildlife is easier to spot. Plus, the wide array of ranger programs and guided tours offered in the winter make this park—dubbed the "River of Grass"—worth a visit December to April. Consider Gulf Coast boat tours amid the mangroves or narrated tram tours on land with views of wetlands and sawgrass prairies in every direction. Fishing guides take visitors to favorite spots in the park. Or, rent your own bicycle, canoe, or kayak to explore on your own.
Utah's Bryce Canyon, filled with odd-shaped, pink-orange rock formations called "hoodoos," is relatively sleepy in the wintertime, but if you happen to visit just after snowfall, the spires and pinnacles covered in a white blanket are especially dramatic. All roads are typically open in the winter, though after a particularly fierce snowstorm, some may close until they are safely plowed. Winter brings free, ranger-led guided snowshoe hikes, some by the light of the full moon. Otherwise you can bring or rent your own snowshoes or cross-country skis; stop by a visitor's center to get the scoop on best places for snowy treks. And if you plan to hike, bring along some traction devices to attach to your boots so you don't slip on icy trails. Another popular winter activity: free evening astronomy programs. The dry, crisp winter air makes for especially good stargazing.