If you want to visit a National Park in the winter, you are looking for only one of two things. One, you want to get away from cold weather and explore a park that’s in a warm climate.
Or two, you’re a hardcore camper and explorer who wants to see a park’s natural beauty during the wintertime. Make sure you pack a pair of heated gloves and other winter gear, in addition to winter sleeping bags if you plan on camping.
Either way, picking a must-attend National Park for the wintertime can be a little tricky since there are so many great choices.
We’ve done the research and came up with a list that serves the best of both worlds. Some of these parks will require bringing the appropriate winter gear, while others will encourage you to simply bring a swimsuit!
1. Arches National Park, UT
If you’re looking for solitude and beauty, Arches National Park in Utah should be on your winter vacation bucket list.
The top reason to head to Utah and this park in the winter is the low crowds, but also the relatively mild temperatures. Expect a range between 44 and 52ºF, which really isn’t too bad. If you’re dressed for the weather, it can be quite enjoyable.
Arches National Park is known for its hiking. Because of this, we recommend bringing a pair of YakTrax, or similar type of grip to put on your hiking boots. Park rangers aren’t clearing off snow or ice and some trails can get pretty technical. You’ll want that extra grip.
We recommend doing the Devil’s Garden hike, which takes you to seven arches and a sandstone tower. When you reach Landscape Arch, the trail does become more challenging, so be smart about tackling it, especially if there’s fresh snow on the trail.
2. Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA
While vehicle access is limited in the winter, Lassen Volcanic National Park, located in Northern California, is still a great site to take in some winter recreation.
If you’re going to visit in the winter, you must take a ranger-led snowshoe hike or go cross country skiing. The best routes can be accessed near the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center, which remains open to the public during the winter.
For beginners, we recommend taking the McGowan Ski Trail to Nanny Creek, especially if you have a dog you want to bring. Everywhere else in the park, dogs aren’t allowed. But this trail is the exception, and off-leash is allowed, too.
For a quicker adventure, the Manzanita Lake Snowshoe Loop is a 1.5-mile loop trail that takes about an hour, making it the perfect skiing or snowshoeing trip for families.
3. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, AK
For thrill seekers, head to Alaska and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. As you can imagine, it’s cold in the winter and there’s a strong chance it’s going to snow often. But if you’re prepared with the right winter gear, this can be an incredible outdoor adventure.
In the winter, this National Park becomes a snowmobilers paradise (although in Alaska, they’re called snowmachines!). They’re allowed on public land inside the park as long as there’s adequate snow cover, which won’t be a problem in the winter.
As long as you’re dressed for the conditions, winter hikes are also quite enjoyable and offer some beautiful scenery along the way. A heated jacket can be quite helpful on extra-cold days.
We recommend snowshoeing some of the easier trails that were made by Alaska Natives a few centuries ago.
4. Big Bend National Park, TX
If you’re not a fan of cold weather, then head to Texas and Big Bend National Park for mild temperatures and plenty of outdoor recreation.
Temperatures average in the 70s, but can dip into the 40s at night, so dress appropriately if you’re camping here.
One of the most unique parts of Big Bend is that it’s located on the Mexican border. We recommend canoeing into Boquillas Canyon. Taking a rowboat into Mexico once you’ve reached the canyon is possible, but the port of entry is closed in the winter.
Our other recommendation is exploring Chisos Basin, which is a great basecamp to take in great hiking opportunities. If you like climbs, you need to do the Emory Peak trail, which takes you to the highest point in the park. Remember, temperatures will be cooler up top.
5. Biscayne, Everglades & Dry Tortugas National Park, FL
Head to Florida and these three National Parks for a warm-weather getaway during the winter months.
While not as busy as spring time, Biscayne, Everglades and Dry Tortugas are still quite popular in the winter, especially with northerners looking to find some reprieve from cold weather. It’s also an opportunity to take in three National Parks during one visit.
- Biscayne is known for its fishing and sailing. You can rent a boat or take a ranger-led fishing tour. The park is open to primitive camping on one of the islands, like Boca Chita Key.
- Everglades is a swamp in the summertime, with temperatures consistently hitting 90-degrees, which is why it’s so popular in the winter when things cool down a bit and humidity drops. Still, you may want to bring body wipes and a fan in case temperatures rise and you start sweating more. Everglades is a birdwatcher’s paradise, so bring a pair of binoculars with you.
- Dry Tortugas is made up of seven small islands. We recommend bringing a wetsuit and snorkeling gear (or renting) to explore the underwater world packed with coral, manatees, and turtles. Also make sure to tour historic Fort Jefferson, which was used during the Civil War.
6. Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Rocky Mountain National Park is a great year-round destination, but you can have extra fun in the winter. Here are five activities we recommend :
- Sled at Hidden Valley. Tubes are available to rent and there is a warming hut for when the fingers and toes get too cold.
- Cross-country ski almost anywhere you want. With the right pair of Nordic skis, you can create your own trails. We recommend heading to Devil’s Thumb Ranch.
- Snowshoe Bear Lake Loop for some of the most beautiful winter scenery.
- A ranger-led snowshoe tour is a great way to learn about the park and get some exercise in.
- Try your hand at ice climbing. The Colorado Mountain School offers excursions for first time climbers.
We always recommend checking avalanche conditions before doing any winter activity in the park.
7. White Sands National Park, NM
As one of the newest National Parks in the system, White Sands National Park, located in New Mexico, is as much in the winter as it is in the summer.
For starters, those sparkling white dunes actually look like a snowy winter wonderland. Thankfully, you don’t have to worry about freezing-cold temperatures.
You’re going to spend your first day just taking in the incredible gypsum drifts of White Sands. These dunes appear to roll forever. In fact, the dunes take up 275 square miles in the park.
Naturally, sand hiking is going to be your first big activity. If you’ve never done this before, get ready. It’s way more difficult. Additionally, it’s easy to get turned around when it’s all white out. The Parks Service has put out plenty of trail markers to make your excursion safe, though.
Start with the Interduen Trail, which is a half-mile boardwalk. It’s only 20 minutes long, but it’s a good appetizer for some of the more moderate trails. There is the Backcountry Camping Trail, where you can bring your gear with you and spend a night in the sand.
8.Virgin Islands National Park, VI
Goodbye cold, hello sugar-sand beaches! Virgin Islands National Park is an incredible National Park to explore in the winter, but it is logistically challenging to reach. You need to fly into St. Thomas, and then take a ferry to Cruz Bay in St. John.
There is typically some camping allowed in the park, but it is closed occasionally, especially after major hurricanes. Most people make a day trip out of it and stay at a rental in St. Thomas.
You’ll want to go to Maho Bay, which offers crystal clear water and plenty of opportunities to see wildlife, like sea turtles. There used to be rows of palm trees, but Hurricane Maria in 2017 wiped most of them out. Still, visitors flock here to rent kayaks and swim with sea turtles.
9. Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
No crowds and incredible landscapes. Experienced park-goers know that the Grand Canyon is actually best to visit in the winter because hardly anyone is there to get in your way. The silence of this national treasure is also something you can take in during the summer.
There are a couple of cons. The weather is obviously colder, but that can be remedied by dressing warmly. The other is that the North Rim is closed during the winter.
Still, it’s totally worth witnessing a light layer of snow cover the canyon and feeling like you have the place to yourself if you visit the Grand Canyon in the winter.
10. Saguaro National Park, AZ
Winter is actually the best time to visit Saguaro National Park, as temperatures average about 65 degrees, making it the ideal weather for hiking in the Arizona desert.
Get a lay of the land by driving the six-mile Bajada Loop. Along the way, stop at the Desert Discovery Nature Trail, which is an easy half-mile loop where you can learn about the ecosystem and wildlife in the area.
For more experienced hikers, make sure to hike Wasson Peak. This 8-mile round trip hike offers stunning views from the top, but you need to work for it. There’s 1,800 feet of elevation gain. Make sure to stay hydrated!
Andrew Dodson is an avid camper who enjoys the great outdoors with his wife and two-year-old son. He resides in Colorado, where you can often find him enjoying hikes with a toddler strapped to his back and mini goldendoodle Percy nearby.