CREDO Tip: The Seven Great National Parks to Visit in Winter
Winter is one of the best times to visit our nation’s beautiful national parks. Imagine standing in snow-blanketed Cooks Meadow with the iconic Half Dome in the background or standing next to Old Faithful Geyser with no one else around…
During the winter, the parks’ beauty is nearly unmatched. Leaves fall, leaving behind sculptures made of tree trunk; waterfalls crystallize; snowflakes drift in the wind and Earth’s natural wonders become a place of solitude and reflection.
There are 61 national parks spanning from Hawaii to Maine. Here are seven great ones to visit in winter:
1. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Located less than two hours away from Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon is often overlooked. But during the winter, the rich landscape of hoodoos creates a picturesque view, unlike any other place in the world. Imagine massive red, orange, and purple rock carved out by nature to look like ancient cities. Now blanket that scene in the snow, and it becomes a winter wonderland.
The parks shuttle service closes during the winter, but roads to popular lookouts including Inspiration Point, Sunset Point, Sunrise Point, and Bryce Point get plowed after every snowstorm. If you’re looking to venture into areas of higher elevation, you’ll want to check with park services about road closures.
The serviced roads with designated parking areas make Bryce Canyon one of the most accessible national parks to visit in the winter. For those looking for more adventure, hiking (with mountaineering crampons) and snowshoeing are available.
Pro-tip: Bryce Canyon National Park and Ruby’s Inn host an annual Winter Festival, which typically occurs over President’s Day weekend. During the event, there are activities for the whole family including crafts, snowshoe tours, photography workshops, and more.
Bryce Canyon National Park Visitor Center. UT-63, Bryce Canyon City, UT 84764. Plan your trip.
2. Denali National Park, Alaska
Given how far north this park is, temperatures are frigid, dropping to as low as -40°F, and during the fall, daylight shrinks to a mere five hours a day. That makes this park a prime location for stargazing and witnessing the mysterious Aurora Borealis.
If serenity is what you seek, Denali National Park is one of the best places to visit during winter. Plus, fewer crowds doesn’t mean fewer available activities. Popular winter activities in Denali National Park include skiing, biking, and snowshoeing.
Pro Tip: If you have your sights set on seeing the Aurora Borealis, download the My Aurora Forecast and Alert app for your iPhone or Android.
Denali National Park and Preserve. Parks Hwy, Denali National Park and Preserve, AK. Plan your trip.
3. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
During the winter, Shenandoah National Park is a hiker’s paradise. While the roads are generally closed from late November to March, the park is open year-round. For those willing to hike in strenuous, freezing conditions, the majestic sights of Shenandoah are well worth the effort. Frozen waterfalls, sparkling ice crystals, naked trees void of their leaves, and animal tracks in the powdered snow all reveal signs of life and nature’s natural progression amid the quiet and serene vistas.
Here are a few short hikes to consider: Stoney Man (1.6 miles RT), Frazier Discovery Trail (1.3-mile loop), and Dark Hollow Falls (1.4 miles RT).
Pro tip: In the winter, Byrd Visitor Center switches to weekend-only operational hours and only when the Skyline Drive itself is open. So plan accordingly.
Shenandoah National Park. 3655 U.S. Highway 211 East, Luray, VA 22835. Plan your visit.
4. Big Bend National Park, Texas
Whether you have one day, three days, or a week to explore Big Bend National Park, there is plenty to do and see. Located in Southwest Texas with portions of the park crossing into Mexico, Big Bend National Park is filled with huge limestone mountains cut by winding rivers.
Activities at Big Bend are abundant and include ziplining, bird watching, river tours, fishing, horseback riding, stargazing, scenic drives, hiking, and a fossil discovery exhibit with records dating as far back as 130 million years ago.
Pro tip: To help you navigate the vast expanse of land at Big Bend, download the Just Ahead app, which is available for both iPhone and Android users.
Big Bend National Park, TX 79834-0129. Plan your visit.
5. Yosemite National Park, California
Yosemite became a protected National Park back in 1864. With 1,200 square miles, it’s home to iconic landmarks like Half Dome, El Capitan, and the Ansel Adams Gallery and Photography center. Because of this, over 4 million people pass through Yosemite each year, and 75% of those visits happen during the busy Summer months.
Not only will you encounter fewer crowds by visiting in the winter, but you’ll feel like you’re visiting a completely different park. Here, you get the calm, reflective winter white colors on the ground, contrasted with bright oranges and reds cast upon the mountains during sunset and sunrise.
During the winter, bundle up and enjoy Yosemite’s winter activities which include: skiing or snowshoeing, snow tubing or sledding, stargazing, ice skating, and photo walks.
Pro tip: Plan ahead. There is limited cell service in the park. If you have a large party, walkie talkies are a good idea.
Yosemite Visitor Center. 9035 Village Dr., Yosemite Valley, CA 95389. Plan your visit.
6. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina
If you love the holiday season, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park should be on your list of must-see National Parks. Just north of the park in Pigeon Forge, you’ll find the Winterfest Lights. This driving tour through town, either on your own or via a trolley, takes you to various gigantic light displays including the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel, an array of fairytale characters, and Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas event.
Inside the park, the lights dim, the world quiets and you can enjoy crowd-free hikes, wildlife spotting, spectacular waterfall displays, skiing and snowboarding, and historic buildings to visit.
Pro tip: The city of Hot Springs, which is east of the park and along the Appalachian Trail, is a must stop. For hundreds of years, people have come to soak in the natural mineral hot tubs, and after a long hike, there’s nothing better than a relaxing soak. Spaces are limited, so be sure to book in advance.
Great Smoky Mountains Visitor Center. 686 Cades Cove Loop Road, Townsend, TN 37882. Plan your visit.
7. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and Montana
When you visit Yellowstone in the winter, it’s an entirely different experience. Because of inclement weather, most of the roads are shut down, but this means you get to explore the park on more adventurous vehicles: the snowmobile or snow coach.
With an icy breeze and fresh snow-powdered air all around, a ride to the iconic Old Faithful geyser or to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone on a snowmobile or snow coach feels more like an exploration rather than the typical expedition.
Apart from snowmobiling, visitors can also: hike, ski or snowshoe, animal watch, see live grizzly bears and wolves at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, take a dip in the boiling river, or join a winter photography safari.
Pro tip: Once you enter the park, cell service is limited, so be sure and download the NPS Yellowstone App, which is available for both iPhone and Androids.
Yellowstone Visitors Center. View Avenue, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190. Plan your visit.
National Parks during the winter offer solitude, but venturing out during inclement weather is not without its dangers. Before you go, be sure to visit the park’s website to get up to date information about road closures and other warnings.
What gear you’ll need will depend on the activities you choose to participate in. The NPA has an essential guide to winter clothing and equipment for your reference. But, if you plan to hike check out the National Park Foundation’s hiking guide before venturing into the National Parks during the Winter. And for anyone interested in snowshoeing, check out REI’s guide for beginners.
Pick your park, check out the sites, gather your gear, and experience the National Parks in a way you’ve never experienced them before.