We often hear about visiting national parks in the summer, but there are a number of beautiful parks that are even better in the winter. Well, bundle up! Retired park rangers Rebecca Harriett, Marilyn Irwin, and Greg Jackson shared their favorite national parks to visit in winter with TravelAwaits.
1. Acadia National Park
It’s called the crown jewel of the North Atlantic coast. Acadia National Park is home to Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the eastern seaboard; the views of Bar Harbor and Frenchman’s Bay are stunning. In the summer, you can also sink your toes into the sand at Sand Beach.
A fun summer activity in Acadia National Park is taking horse-drawn carriages along 57 miles of carriage roads, but Irwin says in winter, the roads become excellent snowshoeing trails. Hiking trails are accessible with traction footwear and trekking poles. Snowmobiles can be used on unplowed fire roads, the Park Loop Road, and the road up Cadillac Mountain — a wonderful place to view the sunrise.
Part of the park becomes inaccessible in winter, but you can take scenic drives along the rugged coastline with waves crashing against rocks, weather permitting. You can enjoy ice fishing in several of the lakes, and if you’re a birder, winter is a good time to look for many bird species because the trees are bare of leaves.
2. Black Canyon Of The Gunnison National Park
Known as the Grand Canyon of Colorado, Black Canyon of the Gunnison is located in western Colorado, near Montrose, Crawford, and Gunnison. This national park is about a 5-hour drive from Denver. The Gunnison River follows along the bed of the Black Canyon, which gets its name from its high walls that do not allow much sunlight to illuminate them.
Winter is an excellent time for visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison, says Irwin. Backcountry camping, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing are fun ways to experience the park. Hiking trails and several nature trails are accessible with winter footwear and trekking poles. Some trails bring you very close to steep drop-offs into the canyon, so caution is necessary. Because Black Canyon is away from urban areas, you can observe a brilliant night sky.
3. Yellowstone National Park
Wyoming, Montana, Idaho
Yellowstone and all of its glory was the country’s first national park, established in 1872. This amazing park contains 60 percent of the world’s geysers and hot springs, including the most famous, Old Faithful. The national park service has an estimated geyser eruption resource. You can also hike Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon.
While Harriett usually tries to stay away from parks, or anywhere for that matter, when the temperatures drop below freezing, she makes an exception for Yellowstone.
Visiting Yellowstone at any time takes careful and early planning; winter is especially no exception. Because of the logistics of traveling in Yellowstone during the winter, Harriett went on a small group tour where lodging and transportation were part of the package. While they didn’t see as much of the park as I did during a summer visit, winter in Yellowstone is unquestionably magical. Seeing wolves run through the snow on an early-morning wildlife walk or listening to them howl on a cold, dark night is beautifully haunting. Cross-country skiing around a geyser basin on a clear blue sunny day when the air is so crisp that it sparkles is enchanting. For Harriett, toasting the New Year with newfound friends as Old Faithful erupted under a starry sky was indescribable. She’s ready to go back!
4. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a hidden gem in Ohio, near Cleveland and Akron. This is the only national park in Ohio and one of seven in the Midwest. The 33,000-acre park protects the rural landscape along the Cuyahoga River, and more than 2.2 million people visit each year. A unique way to see the park is on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.
Greg Jackson notes that winter activities at Cuyahoga Valley National Park can be hit-and-miss, depending on the weather. If it’s a good snow year, you can enjoy cross-country skiing. There are two downhill ski areas that make snow Brandywine and Boston Mills. You can also enjoy tubing. The areas are available as long as the winter is cold enough to make snow. If there are at least 4 inches of snow on the ground, you can borrow snowshoes at the Mills Visitor Center.
You can also do a little ice fishing in the park — just be responsible on the ice. Large-mouth bass, crappie, and bluegill are a few of the big catches. The park encourages catch-and-release fishing.
The hiking trails remain open in the winter, and some of the animals are very active.
5. Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park is about a 2-hour drive from Denver and features 76 mountains and 400 square miles. It is open all year round, easily accessible via airport and highway, and winter is often a great time to visit. While some of the summer highlights are closed, you can enjoy the park in its winter splendor while snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. A great place to start is the Estes Park Visitor’s Center, just outside the national park.
Irwin spent her career as a ranger at this park. In winter, she says hiking trails in the park become cross-country ski and snowshoeing trails. As with other parks in the winter, to navigate most trails, you need stabilizing devices that can be attached to hiking boots and trekking poles for balance. For lovers of cold weather and snow, backcountry camping is a great way to experience Rocky’s wilderness. Herds of elk can be seen in the meadows and bighorn sheep are often spotted near park roads.
Note: Much of Trail Ridge Road, the highest, longest continuously paved highway in North America, is not accessible by vehicle in winter because of large amounts of snow.
6. Cedar Breaks National Monument
Cedar Breaks National Monument is in southwest Utah. The grand staircase in the park sits at 10,000 feet and looks into a half-mile-deep geological amphitheater. It’s also often referred to as a miniature Bryce Canyon. The bristlecone pine, one of the oldest trees in the world, grows in this beautiful park.
Jackson recommends this park because of its easy access in the winter. It’s a particularly great place to snowmobile with a guide. You can also join a snowshoeing tour — it’s a good way to try it in a group.
This part of Utah can be a little finicky when it comes to the winter weather. The storms hit hard but then clear quickly, and you can enjoy perfectly sunny days.
7. Olympic National Park
This diverse park covers more than 1 million acres in the state of Washington. You will see snow-capped mountains, old-growth temperate rainforests, and over 70 miles of wild coastline. The park is home to a wide variety of animals, including whales and dolphins offshore and cougars and bears on land.
Olympic National Park’s mountains are breathtaking in the summer but off limits in the winter, with one exception: the ski area at Hurricane Ridge. Jackson says this is not your typical downhill skiing or snowboarding adventure. Essentially, you have two rope tows, a Poma lift, and a tubing park. It’s really about the experience of skiing at 5,000 feet in the Olympic Mountains.
You can also cross-country ski on closed roads for the novice or the backcountry for the most advanced. Another option is taking a ranger-led snowshoe walk.
Pro Tip: Winters there are wet, but not necessarily cold and snowy; however, if you’re driving up there, you’re going to need chains on your tires because there is not a commercial shuttle. The road crews are well experienced, and the road is well traveled.
For more from our experts, read: