If you’ve ever wanted to explore the national parks without the crowds, get ready to head out this winter on these jaw-dropping trails.
From mountains to forests to coastlines, these national park hikes see a lot of traffic in peak months. But in winter, you can instead expect solitude along these snow-dusted landscapes. If you want to avoid the crowds, you’ll find that these trails let you experience the parks like never before and enjoy a whole new world blanketed in white. The hikes below vary in length, difficulty, and experience required, but whether you’re an avid backcountry-goer or a summer day-hiker, you’ll be adding at least one to your winter bucket list.
Grinnell Glacier Viewpoint
WHERE: Glacier National Park, Montana
This 7.2-mile out-and-back trip is worth the hard work you’ll have to put in just to get to the trailhead, which includes a boat trip across Lake Josephine. However, in winter when the concessionaires don’t operate, expect an additional four miles tacked on to reach Grinnell Glacier Trailhead. The reward? Stunning lakeside views of retreating Grinnell Glacier after a journey through snow-covered alpine meadows and narrow cliff ledges. The glacier, which measured 710 acres in 1850, now spans less than 200 acres.
WHERE: Yosemite National Park, California
Half Dome rises almost 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley, providing unobstructed and unparalleled views of the surrounding granite monoliths. But not just anyone can score this vista: the 14.2-mile trail (round-trip) leading to the top is extremely strenuous, even in peak summer conditions. Metal cables—set up like railings with wood and poles—rise up the backside of Half Dome for the last 400 feet of the trail, giving hikers a way to pull themselves up the steep and featureless cliff face. In winter, however, extra hardware is removed from the rock, leaving the cables dangling from above with much less protection. Mountaineering and climbing skills, plus added equipment, are highly recommended, but you’ll most likely be the only souls up there.
INSIDER TIPPermits are required when the cables are up, so if you plan to bookmark this hike for tamer conditions, remember to apply via the park’s permit lottery online in advance.
WHERE: Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
It’s not every hike you get to see four stunning lakes in a matter of a couple miles, which makes this one so special. This 3.5-mile out-and-back begins at Bear Lake Trailhead climbs to Nymph Lake, continues onto aptly named Dream Lake, and finally reaches Emerald. Here, you can expect 360-degree views of jagged peaks and pristine winter scenery. Snowshoes or backcountry skis and skins are almost always necessary in winter months.
WHERE: Zion National Park, Utah
The juxtaposition of bright red rock and crystalline white snow makes this hike unbeatable in the winter. At the top, you’ll be rewarded with a tunnel-like view of the park and the river tracing its cracks below. But to get to the landing, this strenuous 5-mile out-and-back requires holding onto chains for support along the exposed upper portions. Keep in mind that the trail will likely be icy if there has been snow, so it’s best to bring along traction devices, and gloves are absolutely a necessity for gripping the freezing metal.
Bright Angel Trail
WHERE: Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
The beauty of the Bright Angel Trail is that you can choose your own adventure—that is, your stopping point. Opt for anything from a brief 0.18-mile jaunt to the first tunnel or continue six miles (one way) onto Plateau Point. The National Park Service notes that while this trail will most likely be covered in snow and ice (traction highly recommended), it will also offer more solitude than others throughout the park.
INSIDER TIPSince the trail descends and re-ascends the canyon, it’s very steep and strenuous. In other words, continuing onto Plateau Point is not a day trip for most in winter conditions. Plan your stopping point before heading out and make sure you’re prepared.
Navajo Loop Trail
WHERE: Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
The most defining features in Bryce Canyon National Park are hoodoos: vertical red-orange spires that protrude from the ground and rise into the canyon. And in winter, dusted with snow, they’re even more otherworldly. The best way to get up close and personal with these unique features is via the 1.3-mile Navajo Loop Trail that begins at Sunset Point and drops into the main amphitheater, switchbacking through jagged rocks to the bottom.
WHERE: Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
The 1.3-mile hike to Crumbaugh Lake (one way) is great for several reasons: it’s the perfect length for a snow-covered trail, it offers impressive vistas of the park, and it has limited elevation gain. All in all, it’s the perfect way to spend a relaxing and rewarding afternoon. After passing Cold Boiling Lake at 0.8 miles, Crumbaugh Lake isn’t much farther and is definitely worth seeing. You’ll likely need snowshoes for backcountry skis during colder months, so be prepared for a true winter outing.
WHERE: Arches National Park, Utah
Landscape Arch—the largest arch on Earth—offers a perfectly-framed view into Arches National Park, no uphill slog required. Predictably, this easily-accessible landmark can be a hot and crowded mess in the summer. But in the winter months, the viewpoint offers visitors solitude and an impressive clashing of seasons, as the bright orange archway opens up to a white-dusted horizon. Only a 1.6-mile round-trip trek along the relatively level Devil’s Garden Trail, this is a perfect stop even if you’re just passing through.
Mammoth Hot Springs
WHERE: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Full disclosure: This isn’t a typical hiking trail, but it’s still a boardwalk loop worth checking out in the winter (1.7 miles total). Mammoth Hot Springs—a large, dynamic complex of geothermal springs in Yellowstone National Park—is ethereal in many ways, especially when its terraces are caked in a fresh layer of powder. And unlike in other areas of the park where water ascends through lava flows, you’ll see limestone here, making the landscape even more unique.
INSIDER TIPYellowstone loves winter almost as much as we do, and they offer a plethora of tours and outings all season long. If you’ve already seen the geysers, check out the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone snowshoe or ski tour offered through the park—it’s absolutely breathtaking and feels entirely separate from the landscape you’ve just seen.
Jenny Lake Loop
WHERE: Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
The Jenny Lake Loop in Grand Teton National Park is a great option for those that like to earn their views. This 7.5-mile loop brings you to the shores of Jenny Lake framed by towering, rugged peaks rising above. Although rated as “moderate,” the hike will definitely require skis or snowshoes in winter. It’s also important to note that Jenny Lake Loop Road closes when conditions worsen in winter, so it’s best to check with rangers ahead of time. You’ll probably end up tacking on an additional five miles of ski touring or snowshoeing if so, but the views are worth it if you’ve got the right gear and experience.
INSIDER TIPThe best way to stay up-to-date with current winter conditions in the park is via the Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers blog.
Forney Ridge Trail
WHERE: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
The 3.6-mile out-and-back to Andrews Bald in Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers unparalleled views of the park, mountains, and surrounding highlands. Due to rocky terrain, significant elevation gain and loss, and lots of staircases, the Forney Ridge Trail can be strenuous, especially when caked in ice or snow. If there’s been recent snowfall, it’s best to bring along traction devices. The trail ends at Andrews Bald—named after a cattle herder who took livestock up there in the 1840s—which is where you can expect the bird’s-eye view of the Smokies.
WHERE: Acadia National Park, Maine
Otter Cliff in Acadia National Park is a prime choice for anyone who has limited time to explore. Choose from hikes ranging from less than one mile to 3.5 miles along the coastline on the Ocean Path. Here, you can explore the shore’s tidal pools and bask in expansive views of the Atlantic Ocean. The most defining feature along the way? The 110-foot Otter Cliff—a gorgeous overlook and popular spot for rock climbers in the summer.
WHERE: Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
A popular detour among Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers, the Rim Trail traces the southwestern edge of Crater Lake to Rim Village. Circling the caldera counter-clockwise, you’ll get stunning views of Wizard Island, white-blanketed evergreens, and bright blue water below. The lake itself is the result of the collapse of 12,000-foot Mount Mazama, which caused a volcanic depression in the earth that formed almost a perfect circle. Access for the Rim Trail is very easy from any of the parking areas along the southwestern rim, and snowshoes are highly recommended during the winter months.
Oak Flat Loop Trail
WHERE: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado
The Oak Flat Loop Trail in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park provides unobstructed vistas into the deep canyon below. Even better, it traverses just below the rim without descending too much and is one of the few trails in the park that remains accessible all year long. The 2-mile round-trip hike starts at the South Rim Visitor Center. Beyond this point, South Rim Road isn’t plowed, so you can tack on an additional six miles (one way) via snowshoe or ski if you’re feeling overly ambitious. Either way, look forward to dark canyon walls blanketed in bright white.
WHERE: Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
There are five dunes over 700 feet tall in Great Sand Dunes National Park, and Star Dune is the highest—both in the park and in North America—at 750 feet. Since you’re trekking through sand the entire way, mileage is a little hard to pin down and trails are nonexistent, but the National Park Service advertises that round-trip hiking time is around five hours. While that might sound like a full-day hike, the good news is that Star Dune is one of the closest dunes to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which appear most impressive and imposing in winter.
Brandywine Gorge Trail
WHERE: Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
Perfect for families, the hike to Brandywine Falls in Cuyahoga Valley National Park is short and sweet. In winter, the water turns to ice, rewarding visitors with a 65-foot crystalline ribbon cascading from the rocks above. To see the falls, take the 1.5-mile Brandywine Gorge Trail loop. It’s a combination of boardwalk and steps and won’t require any technical expertise or gear other than a camera to capture the magnificent ice and snow.
Hoh River Trail
WHERE: Olympic National Park, Washington
The Hoh River Trail in Olympic National Park is the only rainforest hike on this list, but it’s no slouch. The moss-hung Hoh gets an impressive 12 feet of rain on average annually (for comparison, notoriously rainy Seattle gets around three feet), making it a lush, dense escape within the park. This is especially true during winter, which is its wet season. The Hoh River Trail is the rainforest’s major hiking trail, winding 17.4 miles to Glacier Meadows on the banks of Mount Olympus. Keep in mind that during winter, terrain can be avalanche-prone—the park notes terrain above Elk Lake is especially dangerous. Mountaineering gear, avalanche safety knowledge, and training are all recommended. If that sounds too daunting, try the Hall of Mosses Trail (0.8 miles) or Spruce Nature Trail (1.2 miles) that wind into the rainforest from the Visitor Center.
Marble Falls Trail
WHERE: Sequoia National Park, California
While you won’t get to see any towering sequoias on the Marble Falls Trail, cascading falls in the foreground with a snow-covered mountainous backdrop is arguably just as stunning. While much of Sequoia National Park is inaccessible to most vehicles in winter, the Marble Falls trail remains open for hikers to enjoy the moderate 8-mile out-and-back to the waterfall. Starting from Potwisha Campground, the trail rises steadily the entire way to the falls, gaining around 2,400 feet total. At four miles, reach Marble Falls as swollen waves of snowmelt cascade into an aqua green pool below.
Little Bridge Canyon
WHERE: Death Valley National Park, California
Unlike all the other parks on this list, Death Valley National Park sees its peak season in winter from November through March. Even during shoulder seasons, the temperature in Death Valley can rise well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. And in winter, the park offers the best vistas of the high peaks, which are usually blanketed in snow through springtime. One of the best ways to see them is via the route to Little Bridge Canyon. While it might take some serious route-finding, the park service includes detailed descriptions (and pictures) to help hikers find their way. We recommend the Direct Approach, which leads to vibrant red and yellow Little Bridge Canyon via a 7-mile out-and-back. The colorful walls and unique shapes are mostly mineral deposits of iron oxide, and the trail ends at an impressive archway.
WHERE: Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Winters are cold in Badlands National Park (the high is around 32 degrees Fahrenheit), but that just means you’ll get the quirky rock formations all to yourself. The Castle Trail is the longest in the park and starts at the Door and Window parking area. From here, it’s a 5-mile one-way journey to the Fossil Exhibit Trail. The loop is relatively level and you’ll get up close to many spires, buttes, and other badlands formations. Keep in mind the trail is very exposed the entire way, so dress and plan accordingly.