Baby it’s cold outside—let’s go see a National Park!
Covid-19 Disclaimer: Make sure to check the status of the states, regions, and establishments in which you’re planning to visit prior to travel. Many regions continue to see high infection rates and deaths, while many states and counties remain under varying stay-at-home orders. Those traveling from areas with high rates of Covid-19 should consider avoiding travel for now in order to reduce spread.
While there’s never really a bad time to visit a National Park—unless, of course, it’s the middle of the day, in the middle of the summer, in the middle of Death Valley (a.k.a. “the hottest place on earth”)—some seasons are better than others. Whether it’s because of the ideal weather, fewer crowds, fresh perspective, or even just refuge from winter itself, the following 10 parks are especially enticing in winter.
Top Picks for You
Arches National Park
Absolutely slammed in the summer but largely quiet in the winter, Arches is one of the best “driving” parks in the country. Located just a few minutes from iconic Moab, a single road will take you to virtually every point of interest in the park—only this time you might catch a coating of snow atop the many arches, vertical fins, balancing rocks, and mesmerizing Park Avenue. While the drive itself is worth writing home about, you’re rarely more than a half-mile (or less) from an impressive lookout, trailhead, or stunning rock formation.
INSIDER TIPDon’t miss nearby Canyonlands National Park, which is just 30 minutes away from Arches by car and is equally stunning in winter.
Sequoia National Park
Imagine the biggest trees in the world, dump a bunch of snow on them, and then behold the hauntingly quiet and visual collage of red, green, white, and blue skies all around you. To make it even more inspiring, you’ll climb several thousand feet by car to make it to the top of a plateau where the massive trees grow and increasing amounts of snow accumulate. Four-wheel drive or tire chains are often required this time of year, and hiking, snowshoeing, winter viewpoints, and playing in the snow are all highly recommended.
Black Canyon National Park
Officially called “Black Canyon of the Gunnisson,” this woefully overlooked park and insanely deep canyon takes on a magical quality in winter. If you catch it on a good day, low-lying winter clouds can sometimes fill the massive chasm, while snow coats the top and many of the crevices in between. Located over an hour southeast from Grand Junction, popular winter activities in Black Canyon include hiking, cross country skiing, and snowshoeing.
Grand Teton National Park
Like so many others on this list, Grand Teton sort of hibernates in winter, as many of the usual summer crowds stay away. Unlike others on this list, however, there’s also an amazing in-park resort called Triangle X Ranch that’s open in winter and serves as a five-star-rated launch pad for the nearby hiking, cross country skiing, wildlife tours, and outstanding photography opportunities. When you’re finished, relax in a hot tub while taking in the surrounding mountains blanketed in snow. This one’s a looker.
Glacier National Park
First, the bad news: if you haven’t already, you will want to visit this park in summer someday as select areas can close in winter due to inclement weather. As one of the nation’s most iconic parks, it’s totally worth visiting in both seasons. But even with the chance of limited attractions in winter, what remains is a dark sky park where you can actually catch an unobstructed view of the northern lights over popular Lake MacDonald. Better yet, the park is discounted in winter, and you’ll still get to drive the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road and Logan Pass thanks to the help of snowplows.
Virgin Islands National Park
WHERE: U.S. Virgin Islands
If you’re tired of all this winter talk and need a break from the cold, here’s one for you: Virgin Islands National Park. As of October, this unique park is fully reopened to all visitors. Occupying the majority of St. John, this remote, water-filled preserve includes excellent beaches, such as Trunk Bay, coral reefs for snorkeling, and sea turtle spotting in Francis Bay. On top of that, you can go boating or just soak up the serene Caribbean view—no passport required.
Joshua Tree National Park
With an average summer temperature of 100 degrees, Joshua Tree is far too hot for most of the year. In winter, however, it’s quite pleasant during the day. The nights can drop below freezing though, so you’ll still need your winter gear. Your reward for doing so: fewer crowds and bearable access to all of the park’s highlight attractions, including the namesake Dr. Suess-like trees, Skull Rock, Keys View, and Cottonwood Spring.
White Sands National Park
WHERE: New Mexico
Like Joshua Tree, White Sands National Park can be downright deadly in summer. In winter, however, it’s usually a walk in the park. In January, for instance, it’s often t-shirt weather at a “chilly” 60 degrees. Although it can sometimes snow in the winter, you’ll likely enjoy our nation’s newest National Park with its endless dunes of snow-white sand. To get there, you’ll need to travel well off the beaten path. White Sands is located an hour and a half north of El Paso and the Mexican border, so don’t forget your sunscreen.
Olympic National Park
Located on the tippy-top corner of the northwestern United States, not far from the Canadian border, Olympic National Park is a beautiful meld of rain forest scenery and the Pacific Ocean. For ideal winterscapes, head to the snow-covered Hurricane Ridge. If there’s no snow, which is often the case, check out Olympic National (Rain) Forest. For the best of the coastline, visit Ruby Beach, Second Beach Trail, and/or Rialto Beach. Wherever you go, bring lots of layers. Olympic in winter can quickly devolve from a sunny day in the morning to a monsoon by afternoon and a blizzard by night. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?
Grand Canyon National Park
Colder temperatures, shorter days, fewer crowds, and a chance of snow bring a welcome calm to an otherwise bustling place. Although the North Rim is closed for winter, the more popular South Rim stays open year-round, except for when freak storms temporarily close roads. As always, the vistas are huge and will make you feel incredibly tiny. But they take on an entirely new look with a dusting of snow. What’s more, wildlife is especially active this time of year in the Grand Canyon. If planning to hike the popular Bright Angel Trail, be sure to bring snow spikes—this is not a place you want to slip.