You don’t have to wait until summer vacation for your National Park getaway. If you start planning a winter trip to the right one now you’ll be packing your bathing suit, not your hat and gloves. Indeed, some locations can be too hot to visit in the summer months—so now is the perfect time to go. Tip: Plan far ahead for Spring Break; mid-March is a busy time at these parks, especially at Big Bend, where campsites should be reserved up to a year ahead.
Go beyond the classic Western parks for an exciting and relaxing trip to a warm-weather park this winter. Here are five of our favorite choices:
Everglades National Park
Location: Southern Florida
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Known for: This immense subtropical wilderness is impossible to miss on a state map—Naples, Miami, and the Florida Keys are all close by. While you can explore on a hike or bike ride, the best way to see the wetlands is on a canoe trip or airboat ride. Over 350 species of birds, including snowy egrets, ospreys, and great blue herons, attract birders; alligators are another big draw.
Why to Go Now: Mild and dry winters attract the most visitors: facilities have extended hours and more tours are offered. Summer is the wet season.
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Biscayne National Park
Location: Southern Florida
Known for: Between Miami and the Florida Keys, this national park is perfect for getting wet—perhaps you’d like a swim, snorkel, or scuba dive? In fact, 95% of its 172,000 acres are underwater, including many coral reefs. Above the surface, you can canoe through mangroves or rent a private boat to stay at island campgrounds on Boca Chita or Eliot Key.
Why to Go Now: Concessionaires run the most boat trips during January to April during the mild winters. Fall is hurricane season and summers are warmer with regular afternoon rain.
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Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Location: Big Island, Hawaii
Known for: Nothing compares to seeing hot lava spilling into the sea, steaming and enlarging an island. At this active volcano, the current eruption started in 1983. You may be able to see some lava flows along Chain of Craters road, but red-hot, newly formed coast is best seen from a helicopter ride. Combined with the summit’s lunar landscape, you have an unforgettable geology lesson.
Why to Go Now: Winter in Hawaii is the high season for good reason: December and January average afternoon tempertures are between 75°F-80°F.
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Big Bend National Park
Location: Southern Texas
Known for: In just one day, you can walk the Chihuahua Desert, raft the Rio Grande, and hike the Chisos Mountains. The varied terrain of this 800,000-acre park means a wide range of wildlife, from mountain lions and bears to unique bird species. Outdoor enthusiasts can soak in natural hot springs after a day of adventure and ponder the beautiful landscape, which inspired the first Westerns.
Why to Go Now: Warm winters are the busiest time of the year. In fact, it’s too hot for most in summer anyway; August and September get the fewest visitors.
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Joshua Tree National Park
Location: Southern California
Known for: Less than 30 miles from the center of Palm Springs, this arid wilderness starkly contrasts with the neighboring resort area. The harsh environments of the Colorado and Mojave deserts are home to cacti, other succulents, and the namesake tree (actually a giant member of the lily family). Escape here to walk a nature trail, hike the backcountry, rock-climb, or just enjoy the expansive desert views.
Why to Go Now: Fall and spring are the most popular seasons, especially when the wildflower blooms (typically March and April). Mild winters are also a good time to visit; summer temperatures can be scorching.
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Photo credit: (1) Everglades National Park, courtesy of istock / John Anderson (2) Big Bend courtesy of fletchrider, Fodors.com member