National Parks, those majestic portions of land, preserved and protected to retain the natural values of the land and preserve the wildlife that calls it home. When an area is deemed a national park, you know you’ll find wild areas that retain their natural beauty.
While some may say that all national parks, because of their very existence, are bucket-list destinations, here are three especially awe-inspiring ones to visit this winter -- starting with the first national park and ending with the most recent addition.
1. Yellowstone National Park
Designated as the world’s first national park on March 1, 1872, Yellowstone National Park consists of 1,221,773 acres of public land that straddle the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. When President Grant signed the bill into law, he designated the region as a public “pleasuring ground,” allocated to preserve its natural wonders.
The area is particularly a winter wonderland, ideal to explore during the winter months.
Best Things To See Or Do In Yellowstone National Park
Already a magical destination, Yellowstone National Park is even more majestic in the winter months. The chill of the air mixed with the exhilaration that comes from snowshoeing in the winter -- plus smaller winter crowds -- makes Yellowstone National Park a bucket-list winter destination.
With snow for spending the day snowshoeing, skiing, or riding a snowmobile or snowcoach, and steam coming off the hot springs, it’s truly a spectacular sensory experience. As there’s restricted vehicle access in the winter, you will need to access Old Faithful and other popular destinations by guided or non-commercially guided snowmobile or snowcoach. Roads reopen to automobiles in mid-April, but it’s worth the extra effort to see Yellowstone National Park and it’s steaming geyser basins in the winter months.
The winter months are cold, averaging from zero to 20 degrees during the day, often dipping to sub-zero temperatures at night, so keep the frigid temps in mind when packing for the adventure.
Interest piqued? Here’s why this winter is a great time to try snowshoeing.
Learn The History Of The Park
The history of the area isn’t limited to its famous geysers. There’s historic architecture such as the Old Faithful Inn and the buildings in Mammoth Hot Springs, plus stories about explorers and connivers, Native American history, and much more.
Pro Tip: Before you enter the park, visit the Draper Natural Science Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, where the museum showcases the ecosystem of Greater Yellowstone. With five museums in one, you’ll learn the history of the area before you set off to explore the park.
Discover Nature’s Beauty And Geothermal Features
Yellowstone National Park became the first national park because of its many dimensions, including geothermal features as well as natural beauty. There’s nothing like seeing the varying degrees of thermal features from ongoing volcanic activity to the scenic canyons, cliffs, and ridges, especially in winter. Visit Old Faithful, for sure, but also take in the dense collection of geysers at Upper Geyser Basin.
There is an abundance of wildlife to be seen in its natural habitat. Some possibilities include bison, elk, deer, pronghorn, eagles, wolves, herons, fox, coyotes, and many more species in the wild. The park’s Lamar Valley, located in the northern region, is called America’s Serengeti because of the great density of wildlife.
Pro Tip: The National Parks Service warns that wild animals, especially females with young, are unpredictable and dangerous and reminds visitors to keep a safe distance. People are injured each year from not keeping a safe distance from wildlife. Bring binoculars to view wildlife from a distance and read up on our expert tips for safely viewing wildlife in national parks.
Classic Western Experiences In Buffalo Bill Cody’s Cody, Wyoming
This year the town of Cody, named after its founder, Buffalo Bill Cody, celebrates 125 years. Cody is part of Cody Yellowstone, which in addition to Cody, includes the towns of Powell and Meeteetse as well as the valley east of Yellowstone National Park.
One of the gateways to the park, Cody provides access to two of the park’s five entrances.
Take part in Western experiences at the Cody Nite Rodeo, a dude ranch experience with trail rides and roping lessons, plus chuckwagon dinners.
Where To Stay In Yellowstone National Park
All but two in-park lodging options close for the winter. If you visit between May and October, you might be lucky enough to stay at Old Faithful Inn, built in 1903-1904, and considered the largest log structure in the world. Note that Old Faithful Inn has the most requested lodging in the park.
For a winter stay, Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins is also open. Built in 1936, the hotel is located at the North entrance to the park by the former Fort Yellowstone buildings. Renovated in 2019, you’ll find luxury accommodations in the rustic park.
Pro Tip: To see more of this wilderness territory, consider taking a guided tour of Yellowstone. With so many dimensions, it’s hard to know where to start, and a knowledgeable guide can help you better see and understand the park. An interesting winter tour is the Winter Wolf Discovery Package.
2. Saguaro National Park
If escaping the winter cold and snow is your ideal bucket-list vacation, then you’ll want to head to the 92,000-acre Saguaro National Park near Tuscan, Arizona. The saguaro is the nation’s largest cacti and it’s protected by the Saguaro National Park where you can view the enormous cacti in its desert setting.
Best Things To See Or Do In Saguaro National Park
Perfect weather for those wishing to get away from chilly winter weather, day temps in the cooler season average 65 degrees, falling to an average of 45 degrees at night. Bring a light jacket and pack your hiking boots.
Hike The Desert Trails
You’ll find several trails on which to explore. One of the easiest is the one-mile Freeman Homestead Trail that includes interpretive signs teaching about history and plant life as you walk. For a more strenuous hike -- but worth the effort for the views -- take the Sendero Esperanza Trail to the Ridge that climbs to the high point of the park at 4,687 feet for panoramic scenery of the valley.
Visit The Cactus Gardens
Both visitors centers have cactus gardens where you can see the plants up close, take photos, listen to ranger-led talks in the gardens, and view the iconic saguaro.
Go Backcountry Camping
There aren’t any accommodations for vehicle or RV camping, but with a permit, you can backpack in for backcountry camping.
Where To Stay In Saguaro National Park
If backcountry camping isn’t your style, stay nearby at the Tanque Verde Ranch. With indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts, pickleball, sand volleyball, and basketball courts, there’s lots to do when you’re not exploring the park. Located on 645 acres, the ranch offers all-inclusive getaways that include meals, horseback riding, mountain biking, fishing, guided hikes, yoga, and more.
Editor’s Note: See why Tanque Verde Ranch made our lists of 7 Fantastic Dude Ranches Perfect For A Winter Getaway and Eating Local In Tucson: 7 Best Foods And Drinks To Experience.
3. New River Gorge National Park And Preserve
The country’s newest national park, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is located in southeastern West Virginia amid areas already notorious for rock climbing and white-water adventures. As part of the omnibus package passed by Congress, this adventure-filled area is now a protected national park. Located 58 miles from Charleston, the park encompasses 70,000 acres along the New River and is ideal for hiking, backcountry expeditions, river rafting, and spotting wildlife. The gorge is the largest in the Appalachian Mountains.
Best Things To See Or Do In New River Gorge National Park
Although the weather still reaches winter temperatures of near 40 during the day and dips into the 20s at night, the often-dry sunny weather leaves plenty of opportunities for snow activities and also mountain biking and hiking.
Walk Across The New River Gorge Bridge Walk
The bridge is a popular shot in photos, and I’ve taken many myself as the train crawled through West Virginia. It’s one thing to take a photo from afar -- another to walk across and view the gorge from above.
There’s a guided tour during which you can walk the catwalk that’s located 25 feet below the bridge. A 2- to 3-hour tour will include a shuttle ride to the Canyon Rim Visitor’s Center where you’ll walk along a path to the bridge’s catwalk entrance. You’re entombed in this massive metal structure. The catwalk is two feet wide and contains railing, but there’s no fear of falling as you’ll also be securely fastened to a safety cable.
You’ll walk the 3,030 feet of bridge at a leisurely pace, stopping often to take photos and learn from your guide about the history of the bridge, the gorge, and the national park.
Rafting On The New River
Since the 1970s, the area has been established as a premium river rafting destination. Adventures on the Gorge offers guided rafting expeditions for every interest and skill level.
Beginner rafters will want to stick to the upper part where the water is calmer. Upper New River Rafting is a family favorite (and kids raft free) with its gentle rapids and spectacular views of the New River Gorge.
A Variety Of Outdoor Activities
With a 12.8-mile system of mountain bike trails and more than 1,500 climbing routes, your limits are determined only by skill and courage. In addition, there are ziplines, hiking, horseback riding, fly fishing, and kayaking options.
Pro Tip: An easy trail is the Endless Wall Trail at 4.4 miles.
Where To Stay In New River Gorge National Park
While the only options in the park are primitive camping, Adventures on the Gorge is located on the rim of the canyon that overlooks the New River, with the National Park Service visitor center just two miles away. Camp in the woods or sleep in one of the cabins. There are even four-bedroom luxury cabins with kitchens, private hot tubs, and all the niceties.
Friend and PR professional Mona Mesereau says of her experience, “I’ve been working in and around national parks for almost three decades, and this is one of them that has really gotten under my skin. One of my favorite things to do is watch the sunset over the gorge -- there’s a seating area at the resort where guests line up to do just that, sipping on drinks while watching the sun go down. The first time I did this, I noticed how quiet the chatting guests became as the sun went down. You could hear the birds and wind rushing through the hemlock forest. I remember feeling like I was the only person in the world even though I was surrounded by other visitors.” That, in itself, may be part of the biggest draw of national parks.