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The Ten Best National Parks in Winter

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Finding the best national parks in the winter is all about what you’re looking for in the trip. While most national parks visitor centers are closed on Christmas Day, that doesn’t mean they aren’t a great Christmas vacation destination. Many of the best national parks for winter are also seeing far smaller crowds, making this time of year a wonderful time to take a national park vacation. The winter months also frequently bring big changes to the parks, so it’s important to be mindful of these changes when planning a trip to a national park during the winter. No matter what your goal is, you’ll find a park to visit on this comprehensive list of the best national parks to see in the winter.

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10. Voyageurs National Park

Voyageurs National Park cracks the top ten of this list because it’s a outdoors winter wonderland. Considered by the National Park Service to be a “water-based” park, the lakes in Voyageurs freeze over during the winter. This completely transforms the park and gives access you otherwise might not have. The lakes gain ice roads for cars, as well as groomed paths for snowmachines. Camping is open across most of the park as well, so long as you are prepared for the deep cold you’ll encounter. Trails are also groomed for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing as well.

The aurora borealis is simply stunning at Voyageurs. Photo courtesy of NPS.

Another major highlight of visiting the park in the winter are the clearer skies. Voyageurs is a prime location for stargazing throughout the year, but winter presents the best weather. You’ll also have a fantastic opportunity to see the aurora borealis. It’s one of the few national parks where this phenomena is regularly seen during the year, and with longer nights in the winter its more likely to see it.

Visitors to Voyageurs should be aware that the park is remote. It lies along the US-Canada border just outside International Falls, MN. If you’re making the trip to Voyageurs, you can extend your time in Minnesota by spending a few days along the Mississippi River too! Though it might be harder to reach, it’s beauty in winter still means you should make a visit.

9. Denali National Park & Preserve

North America’s grandest mountain is preserved and protected in Denali National Park & Preserve. Winter takes on a different meaning in Alaska. Much of the park closes by late September and doesn’t reopen until mid-May. With this in mind, it means you can enjoy the ninth park on this list of national parks to see in the winter for quite a while. It also means visiting in the winter will be an entirely different experience to visiting in the summer.

Denali is an imposing sight in the winter. Photo courtesy of NPS.

If you’re visiting Denali in the winter, you’ll need to come prepared for exploring on your own. The bus services stop by mid-September. The road into the park is only open as far as the Murie Science and Learning Center. From here you’ll be able to hike or ski the day-use trails. One of the more unique ways to explore is by dog sled. It’s definitely a very Alaska experience to sled through such a stunning landscape. With the backcountry wide open for exploration, it’s possible to find real isolation if that’s what you’re after.

While remote for most of the country, Denali is actually one of the more accessible national parks in Alaska. It lies just off the major road that runs between Anchorage and Fairbanks. Interestingly, unlike many national parks in winter, most of the lodging in the area remains open. This makes visiting Denali much easier for the casual adventurer, or even the whole family!

8. Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Ohio’s treasured Cuyahoga Valley makes it on this list thanks to a variety of factors that make it excellent to visit in the winter. One of the biggest factors is the sheer accessibility of the park. It’s easy to get to, and once here it’s extremely easy to explore all that the park has to offer. It is also not perpetually locked in snow, unlike some of its fellow parks on this list.

The Cuyahoga Scenic Railroad is a great way to see the park. Photo courtesy of NPS.

The shining attraction of Cuyahoga National Park in the winter is the North Pole Adventure. This trip with Santa to the North Pole runs on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. Through November and December, kids can meet Santa and enjoy some Christmas fun on the train. It’s a fantastic way to see parts of the park, while making memories for the entire family.

Beyond skirting through the park on the scenic train, you can also partake in a number of other winter activities. All of the park’s trails remain open throughout the winter. One of the more iconic winter hikes is Ledges Trail, which often forms beautiful icicles along the way. When the snow is deep enough, snowshoe rentals are also provided by the park. Families can also partake in sledding or cross country skiing in the park. Cuyahoga is a great winter destination for the whole family.

7. Mount Rainier National Park

The imposing Mount Rainier stands watch over distant Tacoma and Seattle. Being conveniently located to a major US city makes Mount Rainier National Park an ideal national park to vacation at in the winter months. The park also provides a wide range of activities for visitors, locking in it’s status as a winter wonderland.

Mount Rainier is beautiful any time of year, but especially in winter. Photo courtesy of NPS.

The area around Longmire is open and accessible year round. The Trail of Shadows is a fairly easy hike, no matter the weather, and passes by a number of mineral springs. These aren’t hot by any means, but warm enough to ward off snow and ice. You can also book a stay at the National Park Inn. Located directly in Longmire, it’s a great way to maximize your time at the park.

On the weekends, you can also head deeper into the park depending on weather. Paradise is the closest location to Mount Rainier in the park and offers some amazing views. It is also the only part of the park which offers sledding for the kids. Additionally, you can hit the slopes for skiing or snowboarding, follow the trails with cross-country skiing, or even up the adventure with some winter camping. It’s a fantastic way to get your fill of winter activities, without having to leave the creature comforts behind.

As an added bonus, on the northwestern side of the park you’ll find Carbon River. During much of the winter, this rainforest area remains snow free. This provides a great opportunity to see a different side of Mount Rainier National Park, since the crowds will be smaller and likely all playing in the snow just off its slopes.

6. Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

While this pair of parks doesn’t rank as highly here as it does on my list of best summer national parks, they are still some of the best parks in the country hands down. I initially only included Sequoia of the pair. This is because Kings Canyon proper is closed for the entire winter. However, the General Grant Grove is open year-round, which means technically KCNP is as well. So, both parks make the cut!

Visiting the General Grant tree is a great way to spend Christmas! Photo courtesy of NPS.

One of the best parts of visiting these parks in the winter are the ranger tours. As both parks are fully staffed during the chilly months of the year, rangers use this opportunity to create unique experiences. The ranger-led snowshoe walks are a fantastic example of this. While considered a moderate hike, these walks are highly educational and great for families with older kids or teens. For younger kids (and those young at heart) the park also has three large snowplay areas, where everyone can run around and play till they can’t anymore.

I’d be remiss to not mention another reason why Sequoia & Kings Canyon make this list. The giant sequoia trees are a draw to the park year round. Yet, they take on another level of beauty when surrounded by snow and the quiet world. The General Grant tree has even been designated the Nation’s Christmas Tree. This also means that it is one of the few parks with a visitors center open on Christmas. If you’re looking for a fantastic and beautiful park to spend Christmas Day at, these two are hard to pass up.

5. Arches National Park

While Arches National Park might be one of the most popular national parks to visit in the summer, the extreme heat can often be a barrier to exploration. The brightly colored red rock landscape is totally transformed when blanketed with snow. The change in weather means visitors need to be prepared for below freezing temperatures, especially if camping within the park.

Arches takes on a whole new look in the snow. Photo courtesy of NPS.

Trails across the park remain open and usable year-round. However, it’s good to be cautious when hiking. Awareness of snow or ice build up is key, since many trails cross open rock (like the hike to Delicate Arch) meaning they can be much more difficult than they appear. With all that in mind, these hikes can lead to spectacular scenery unlike anything else you’ll see on this list.

One major plus to visiting Arches in the winter is the reduced crowds. As one of the most popular parks normally, the winter months bring reduced crowds. You’ll have far better access to trails, especially popular hikes like Delicate Arch or Devils Garden. Activities like stargazing are also a better experience thanks to fewer people to create light pollution. The parks are not only less crowded, but it also becomes cheaper to stay in nearby Moab as well. Arches is still an awesome destination year-round, but its definitely one of the best national parks in winter.

4. Yellowstone National Park

The world’s oldest national park is also one of the best national parks in winter. While much of the park closes up as winter descends, it’s also the ideal time to explore for those well versed on skis. It’s natural beauty isn’t hindered in any way by the deep snow either. For those willing to brave the cold, winter might even be the best time to visit Yellowstone.

The wilds of Yellowstone are accessible through skis and snowmobiles. Photo courtesy of NPS.

Nearly the entire park is open to skiing during the winter. Trails are groomed and tracked across the park. Those around Mammoth Hot Springs are the easiest to access for day trips. If you’ve snagged a spot at Old Faithful Snow Lodge, then an entirely new part of the park opens up for you. Many of these trails are also open to snowshoeing, but might be very difficult to navigate.

One of the best ways to explore the park in the winter is on a snowmobile. There are a number of companies which provide guided tours throughout the park. These provide an easy way to see much of the park, without the need to be a skiing expert. Much of the wildlife in the park still roams it’s snowy fields, meaning you can still see the famous bison. As an added bonus, your crowds will be far lower than any other time of year. It’s one of the most overcrowded parks, this makes winter a great time to avoid those crowds and gain a unique view of Yellowstone.

When I initially set out to make this list, Yellowstone was a tough choice in where to place it. Ultimately, I settled on the #4 slot due to some additional closures the park has for the 2022-2023 season, namely Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. I’ll revisit it’s spot next year, so stay tuned to see if it moves up the list!

3. Bryce Canyon National Park

Utah manages to sneak two parks on this list, and for good reason. The Mighty Five are all wonderful national parks to see in winter, but I couldn’t put them all on here. Bryce Canyon National Park makes the cut because when the crowd sizes dip, it just makes the incredible beauty on offer a more solitary experience.

The hoodoos become otherworldly when draped in snow. Photo courtesy of NPS.

The natural hoodoo formations found at Bryce Canyon are truly unique among America’s national parks. They are awe-inspiring normally, but much like Arches, when given that dusting of snow they take on an other worldly look. Like many other parks on this list, hiking and cross-country skiing are prime activities one the snow has fallen. Snowfall at Bryce Canyon isn’t usually frequent, meaning the park will oscillate between snow cover periods throughout the winter. It is also possible for much of the season to drive the entire scenic park road, making the park highly accessible.

The rangers in the park also continue to provide a number of activities through the season. The best of these are the astronomy programs and full moon hikes. Both of these night time activities give the park a whole different feel. It’s great that visitors are able to experience these year round, and especially in the unique silence that winter brings.

Bryce Canyon and the surrounding communities also have a number of winter traditions that involve the park. The Christmas Bird Count, held in mid-December, is the longest running citizen science survey in the world. Volunteers gather across the park and wider area to make a survey of the winter birds that make it their homes. You can also visit in February for the Bryce Canyon Winter Festival. This is organized by the excellent people at Ruby’s Inn and is a great way to spend time in and around the park.

2. Everglades National Park

Not every one of the national parks on this winter list needed to feature snow. In fact, one of the best parks to see in the chilly months is Everglades National Park. Located in beautiful South Florida, this park gives those seeking to escape the snow a chance to experience “old Florida” in a way.

The vast wetlands of the Everglades are an entirely different way to experience winter. Photo courtesy of NPS.

Everglades National Park sees its highest visitation numbers during the winter months. Yet, it’s important to put those numbers in context. Even at it’s busiest, Everglades is still far below the numbers seen at Yosemite or Great Smoky Mountains this time of year. The weather is the biggest factor in bringing people to the park in the winter. You’ll still find plenty of camping available inside the park, as well as options for hotels just outside its gates.

Once you’re inside the park, be prepared to spend some time on the water. The best way to see the Everglades is by canoe, kayak, or boat. Guided tours of the park are available, but not necessary. If you’ve got your own canoe or kayak, there are abundant “water trails” you can explore across the park. The Everglades are also open for backcountry camping. Those looking for isolation with mother nature can canoe to a backcountry spot, setup camp, and enjoy the deep dark night skies.

The Everglades are a truly unique park in America’s collection. Whether you live in Florida or are just visiting, the park provides experiences that are hard to find elsewhere. The cooler winter months are the best time to explore and avoid the heat, humidity, and bugs that make other times of the year far less pleasant. So come on down to my home state and watch out for the alligators!

1. Olympic National Park

The absolutely fantastic Olympic National Park makes a return appearance on my seasonal national park listings. It’s not only the #1 national park to visit in the summer, but also #1 for national parks to visit in the winter. The sheer variety of activities you’ll be able to experience on a visit to Olympic makes it a must have on this list, and a must visit for every national park enthusiast.

The Olympic Mountains from Hurricane Ridge are awe-inspiring. Photo courtesy of NPS.

Hurricane Ridge is the primary location for winter activities. At over a mile above sea-level, the ridge experiences weather unlike most other areas of the park. It is plunged into deep snow for the entire winter period until mid-March. This makes it ideal for busting out the skis and snowshoes. Many of the hikes are still able to be used. Hurricane Ridge also features a large ski area. Open to skiers, snowboarders, and tubers, it’s one of the few downhill ski/snowboard areas in a national park. When visiting this part of the park, make sure you’re aware of the conditions before heading up.

Olympic isn’t just about the snow during the winter months. The lower elevations are encompassed by dense rainforest. During the winter rainy season, the Quinault and Hoh rainforests come alive in verdant colors. Hiking and camping is possible in these areas, so long as you’re comfortable getting wet! The coastal areas of the park are also quite a sight to behold. Winter storms often batter the coast. For those brave enough to venture along them, you could photograph some impressive waves and storm conditions.

For me, the sheer variety found at Olympic National Park makes it one of America’s best. Yet, in the winter that variety jumps up a notch. It’s hard to deny Olympic it’s rightful spot at the top of the winter national parks list.

Other National Park Services Locations to See in Winter

“Proper” national parks aren’t the only units in the National Park Service which are worth a trip in the winter. There is such a wide variety of parks inside of the National Park System, that you’re bound to find some winter magic near you. I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight a few parks which are great to visit during the winter months but don’t have that “official” national park designation.

History plays a big part in getting a location designated as part of the park system. Valley Forge National Historic Park might be one of the best known sites of the American Revolution. As Washington’s winter camp of 1777-78, the stories told here are known by many. It’s a great place to learn about the troubles faced here that nearly led to the destruction of the Continental Army.

Golden Spike National Historic Park in Utah is hosts a winter celebration each year. The Winter Steam Fest celebrates the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Its a fun way to spend time with the family after the Christmas holiday is over. Another great way to spend the holiday is by visiting the White House and the National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C.

If you’re searching for a more natural way to spend the winter, consider checking out Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. The Ice Caves along the shores of Lake Superior are simply stunning. They typically are accessible once the lake begins to freeze and are a really unique winter feature. As with many places on this list, just be prepared for the cold!

Final Thoughts on Visiting National Parks in Winter

National parks are a great option for winter vacations. Across this entire list you’ll find a number of ways to spend time with the family, connect with the great outdoors, and frolic in the snow. In almost every case, crowds are smaller through these months than any other time of the year. Even with limited services in many parks, they are still just as enjoyable to spend time in. I’ll also be the first to say these aren’t the only great parks in the winter. Take the chance to explore all that our national parks have to offer in the NPS app, and make plans for your winter vacation now!

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