It’s virtually impossible to rank the properties in the United States National Park System — that’s an incredibly subjective topic. With 423 national parks that span more than 84 million acres, each park is unique in its own way, offering unique sights, amenities, and experiences. Personally, showing off my inherent bias as a native St. Louisan, it’s easy for me to name my favorite — it’s the Gateway Arch National Park. This park features, you guessed it, the Gateway Arch.
There’s plenty to do other than go up the Gateway Arch in the park, including exploring walking trails, watching a history video, or visiting the Old Courthouse (subject to reopening after restoration), and you can’t beat the view from the top if you do go up to the top of the arch.
We asked a pair of retired park rangers, Phil Selleck and Marilyn Irwin, to give their thoughts on what they consider their favorite park and favorite sight within that park. Yes, you can definitely visit many national parks in the winter and have an amazing time.
1. Mexican Freetail Bats
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Located in Carlsbad, New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns National Park contains 113 underground caves including Lechuguilla Cave, the deepest and fourth longest limestone cave in the United States at 1,567 feet. Irwin suggests that you can visit the park any time of year, but notes that summer offers the greatest variety of activities.
She said that reservations are required and must be made before heading to the park, but well worth what she described as an emotional experience. “The cave is exciting with its many intricate formations of stalactites and stalagmites,” she said. “Visiting the underground features with a ranger is informative and an adventure, but exploring the cave’s interior is only a preamble to the real show. Do not overlook the evening entertainment at dusk as around 400,000 Mexican freetail bats exit the cave to begin their nightly quest for millions of flying insects. Visiting the caverns is not the main reason I go to Carlsbad Caverns. Seeing the bats exit the caves in the evening is a favorite part of my time there.”
She noted that you will want to stay until dusk and sit quietly in the outdoor amphitheater to see the bats emerge from the cave. This is a sight best experienced in the summer.
2. The Carriage Trails
Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park, the first park east of the Mississippi River, offers hiking, biking, camping, lakes, and more. Made up of a cluster of islands along the coast of Maine, Acadia National Park has more than 130 miles of hiking trails and 45 miles of carriage roads that can be traveled by bike. Irwin recommends taking a ride on what she describes as “roads of broken-stone paving” that were made especially for horse-drawn vehicles. Automobiles are not allowed on carriage roads.
3. Jordan Pond And Jordan Pond House
Acadia National Park
She also said visitors can’t skip the Jordan Pond and Jordan Pond House, established in 1893 and famous for its tea and popovers. Due to the popularity of the Jordan Pond House, Irwin recommends you check the hours and consider arriving before 11 a.m. or after 4 p.m. He offered a tasty tip — “Just don’t miss the yummy popovers!” This journey is also best taken in the summer months.
4. Ute Trail
Rocky Mountain National Park
Established in 1915, Rocky Mountain National Park offers mountain climbing, hiking, camping, fishing, breathtaking views, mountain lakes, and so much more. With elevations ranging from 8,000 feet to 14,529 feet, the park is open year-round, hosts over four million annual visitors, and has different views and points of interest throughout the year. Irwin recommends taking a moment to view the canyon and hiking the Ute Trail along Trail Ridge Road.
“My favorite thing to do is to take a thermos of coffee and a sweet treat, find a soft rock along the trail, and enjoy my snack while gazing into the canyon far below,” she said. “For me, a summer when I do not experience the Ute Trail is not complete.”
Pro Tip: Trail Ridge Road is closed to through traffic during the winter. It typically opens the last week in May.
5. Anacapa Island
Channel Islands National Park
Channel Islands National Park is made up of three islands named East, Middle, and West Anacapa Islands that are almost five miles long and have a total land area of about 700 acres. Used by thousands of birds as a nesting area, the rocky shores of Anacapa are a popular resting and breeding area for California sea lions and harbor seals. Selleck said you must see Anacapa Island and seize the chance to take a hike.
“The island is a treat when seabirds are nesting or wintering,” he said. “However, be ready for the smell of guano wherever you go. The island is small, so it is easy to hike around it up top for great ocean views, close-ups of sea and shorebirds, cliffside views down to sea lions basking on the beach, and the kelp beds around the island. As you approach or leave the island, there is a great stone arch that tells you it is Anacapa.”
6. View From The Top
Washington Monument At The National Mall
As the centerpiece of The National Mall, the Washington Monument offers spectacular views of the Lincoln Memorial, The White House, and the United States Capitol Building. It is the tallest structure in Washington, D.C., completed in 1894. Selleck recommends that you visit The National Mall and head to the top of the Washington Monument.
“You can’t miss the view from the top,” he said. “It is a wonderful panoramic view of one of the most historic cities in the world. You’ll get a dramatic view of L’Enfant’s design for the city and how some of the most famous and historic buildings are connected by that design. A sunny morning or late afternoon, when the light is softer, is a great time to see it. You’ll be one of a small percentage of visitors to Washington, D.C. who will be privileged to see it.”
7. Kachina, Owachomo, And Sipapu Natural Bridges
Natural Bridges National Monument
Natural Bridges National Monument sits 6,500 feet above sea level, is home to a variety of plants and animals, and is the oldest National Park Service site in the state of Utah. Offering the chance to explore three natural bridges, Kachina, Owachomo, and Sipapu Natural Bridges National Monument was formed where streams eroded the canyon walls. The monument was established in 1908. Selleck describes the monument as a great out-of-the-way find.
“Bridges are different from arches in their formation; carved over streams that have eroded them as opposed to arches, which are formed by seeping water and frost,” he said. “So, you have beautiful bridges over a stream bed, which change in appearance according to time of day, time of year, and viewpoint. The arch is off the beaten path, so there is more opportunity for an uncrowded, quiet tour of a unique landscape.”
There are a couple of things our experts noted or that are recommended in general when it comes to visiting national parks.
- Check out all of the passes available to you, each of which has its benefits.
- Download the NPS app for your smartphone. This app gives you access to over 400 national parks right at your fingertips and comes with lots of great features to enhance your experience.
- Check calendars, websites, hours, closures, and anything else noted online about your park of choice before you visit.
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