Photo: NPS / Neal Herbert

10 Reasons to Visit a National Park in the Winter

From unmatched solitude to witnessing the Aurora Borealis, the off-season in the parks can be pure magic.

Every season offers something special at our country’s national parks. But winter often gets overlooked, even at parks that are best visited during the colder months. Here are 10 great reasons to make winter travel plans.

1. They’re Less Crowded

Here’s some convincing math: Yosemite National Park sees five-and-a-half times as many visitors in the month of August as it does the month of January. Besides the solitude (and much easier reservations), you also get to see the park through winter’s magical snowscape, while cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and even ice skating beneath Half Dome and El Capitan. Other iconic parks that empty out in winter: Great Smoky, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Arches. 

2. It’s Cooler

Summer temperatures in California’s Joshua Tree often top the triple digits, but they linger in the 60s from December through February, making south-facing walls ideal for winter rock climbing. Death Valley National Park also cools down to the 60s, while Florida’s Everglades drops into the 70s. Big Bend National Park in Texas and Saguaro National Park in Arizona also cool down, creating ideal hiking and biking conditions in their lower elevations.

3. It’s Warmer

If you live in a cold climate and are looking for a warm-weather escape, winter is prime time at the southernmost parks. At Florida’s Biscayne, Everglades, and Dry Tortuga National Parks you can enjoy watersports like swimming, paddling, and snorkeling.

4. See Wildlife

In Wyoming’s Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, the best time to spot gray wolves, coyotes, and bighorn sheep is in the winter months. Bison, moose, and elk can also be seen. In Florida’s Everglades and Biscayne National Parks, West Indian Manatee (sea cow) tend to gather in the warm waters during winter. 

5. Track Animals

Where there’s snow on the ground, you can get a deeper sense of what animals are up to by tracking their footprints. Paw prints, claw prints, and hoof prints are easy to spot and follow in the snow. Do some research before you go to learn about animal activity in the park and help guide your tracking.

Photo: NPS

6. Experience Winter-Only Activities

Snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, sledding, and even snowboarding and alpine skiing can be done in certain national parks in the winter. Mt. Rainier National Park boasts the Paradise Snow Play Area for snowboarding and tubing. Yosemite’s Badger Pass ski area has skiing and snowboarding, as does Washington’s Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. And other parks, like Maine’s Acadia National Park, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, and California’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park have great terrain for cross-country or backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding. Bonus: Many park concessionaires rent equipment.

7. See Winter Contrasts

National parks in the Southwest, with striking red rock terrain, look amazing with the white on red contrast. Utah’s Arches, Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Arizona’s Grand Canyon become absolutely stunning under a dusting of snow.

8. Enjoy Winter Festivals

Alaska’s Denali National Park hosts Winterfest in February, with guided ski and snowshoe tours, cross-country ski and dog sled races, snow block sculpture contests, and more. Utah’s Bryce Canyon also hosts a winter festival. Activities include fat biking, kids snow boot races, and geology talks. 

9. See the Northern Lights

In the northernmost parts of the country, you can witness the Aurora Borealis. The fleeting light show occurs when electrically charged particles released from the sun collide with the Earth’s atmospheric gasses, causing a colorful glow. The variety of greens, reds, blues, and purples are determined by which molecules hover at which altitudes. In the Lower 48, chase the spectacle at Minnesota’s Voyageurs or Montana’s Glacier National Parks. In Alaska, head to Wrangell-St. Elias and Denali National Parks.

10.  Use Your New Gear

Did you get outfitted with a new puffer, warm gloves, or winter boots over the holidays? Maybe snowshoes? Gear is all about having experiences—so go have them.   

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.