National Parks at Their Absolute Best in Winter

All the wonder, none of the crowds

America’s national parks were established as places where we can experience its awesome power, often in isolation. Tell that to the summer crowds clogging the trails of Zion or the campfire troubadours whose open mic-caliber guitar playing echoes off of Joshua Tree’s trippy crags until dawn.

The national parks remain America’s Best Idea and something we all can—and should—enjoy, screaming kids at Old Faithful included. But winter can be the best time to go for those who wish to experience the parks with the same sense of solitude as a pronghorn. The trails are clear of obstacles. Campsites might not require a reservation. And, unlike peak season, you’ll feel like you have everything to yourself. These are the parks that are at their absolute best in the winter.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Spoiler alert: You’re going to see four of Utah’s Mighty Five on this list. And to clarify, I’d include Capitol Reef if I had the space. Even with next-door neighbor Arches showing off Grade A sights when temperatures dip each year, Canyonlands stands out as a banger.

The largest yet least-visited national park in the state, Canyonlands’ snow-dusted spires, arches, mesa tops, and sandstone cliffs are made all the better by the fact that crowds clear out almost completely come winter turning this into a place of spectacular, sweeping solitude. (Just be sure to check for road closures before you head out.)

2. Zion National Park, Utah

In the summertime, Zion is basically Disneyland. It’s crowded. It’s hot. You’re standing in two-hour lines to be able to do the one thing you most want to do that day and they’re often out of turkey legs.

End this madness and go in the wintertime. Just 13 percent of Zion’s visitors, journey to the park between November and March, and a wintertime desert is one of nature’s most glorious settings. Even better, once you’ve had your fill of the park and its legendary trails, you’ll be able to explore all the surrounding (and vastly overlooked) state parks unencumbered.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

When it comes to winter wonderlands few national parks come close to the beauty of Bryce Canyon in the snow. The canyon’s red hoodoos and evergreen trees pop under the smattering of white and the majestic sunrises and sunsets cover the landscapes in ethereal light. For the best views, take the two-mile hike from the visitor center to Bryce Point which ends at the Bryce Amphitheater. This is the most famous overlook in the entire park—the perfect place to snap some photos.

Winter sports enthusiasts should especially plan a trip to Bryce Canyon. The park has many daily activities like ranger-led snowshoe hikes, cross-country skiing, and backpacking. National Park Service (NPS) also offers winter astronomy programs and full moon hikes (weather permitting) letting visitors take in the splendor of the unfiltered night sky.

4. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Often overlooked and under-visited despite its proximity to bustling Tucson, Saguaro’s expanses of cartoonishly contorted cacti and relatively easy hikes are best explored during the winter. In the off-season, the already thin crowds dissipate and you’re free to cavort with owls and gaze at petroglyphs with little interruption and minus the oppressive heat.

Even better, the campsites—a relatively hot commodity numbering a scant 20—are easier to bag allowing you to spend the night under the stars with only coyotes (and maybe roadrunners, given the landscape) as your company.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Less than 1 million people drop by South Dakota’s most gorgeous landscape annually and come winter the place is virtually deserted (December sees a scant 8,400 people while February tops out at 13,400). What a stunning time to go full Dr. Manhattan and have 244,000 acres of Mars virtually to yourself, give or take a few bison.

Snag a campsite under a blanket of stars if you’re hardy or a cozy cabin (and maybe some donuts and buffalo burgers) in nearby Wall (think, Wall Drug). Then strap on snowshoes or skis and get ready to truly know what it’s like to be tiny and gloriously alone in the wild.

6. Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park is an International Dark Sky Park and winter is arguably the best time to see stars. Clear nights mean great views of celestial phenomena; however, they can also bring freezing temperatures to the desert so don’t let the southwest Texas location fool you into thinking it’s always hot.

Cool days are conducive to ticking off some of the more challenging hikes like the 6.5-mile Mariscal Canyon Rim Trail which can be dangerous to attempt in the warmer months.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon is an awe-inspiring sight on its own. Now imagine seeing the fiery sandstone and surrounding evergreen trees with a layer of fresh snow. The winter scenery at this Natural Wonder of the World is absolutely magical.

Visiting the South Rim in the off-season means popular hikes like the Bright Angel Trail are blissfully quiet and much more comfortable than in the summer, thanks to cool temperatures. Grand Canyon National Park’s free shuttles run fewer routes in the winter but there are still plenty that stop at the different trailheads and Grand Canyon Village viewpoints.

8. Joshua Tree National Park, California

This boulder- and bush-dotted park straddling the Colorado and Mojave deserts is a serene winter escape from bustling Los Angeles (130 miles away) and Las Vegas (217 miles away).

Winter in Joshua Tree National Park is a mecca for rock climbers who take advantage of bouldering while the granite is cool. Keep this in mind when you’re trying to snag one of the first-come, first-served campsites.

If you’re able to spend the night in the park, you’ll get access to some of the best stargazing the West Coast has to offer.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California

Time slows to a primeval pace in the sequoia groves that make up Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks where arboreal giants have watched the seasons come and go for more than 2,000 years. In the winter, hike along quiet, snowy trails to the General Sherman Tree among the world’s largest living icons at a height of 275 feet.

These parks are also great for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. On free, ranger-led snowshoe walks, shoes are even provided. For something less strenuous, try driving through the wintry landscape though be aware that tire chains are often required during this time of year.

10. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

The famous, striking limestone formations at Carlsbad Caverns have often been compared to floating underground jellyfish or alcoves full of goblins and fairies—however you interpret them, they’re otherworldly.

The best part about visiting this New Mexico locale in the winter months (apart from bypassing the crowds) is that the cave stays a balmy 56 degrees Fahrenheit, rain or shine. Ranger-led tours are available year-round or visitors can opt to check out the Natural Entrance and Big Room Trails on their own.

For those looking to check yet another winter-friendly park off their list while in the area, the nearby Guadalupe Mountains feel like an island in the Chihuahuan Desert with vista-rich hiking trails you won’t want to miss.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Getting out in nature during an East Coast winter doesn’t have to mean shivering in a snowstorm for hours on end. At Great Smoky Mountains National Park roughly half the season’s days boast a high temperature in the 50s—perfect for hiking the park’s more than 800 miles of trails.

Start the day by taking in the views at Newfound Gap, nestled on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina then hike to craggy Alum Cave or explore the old-timey wooden structures at Cades Cove. At night, stargaze by the fire at Cades Cove Campground or retreat to an RV park in nearby Sevierville.

12. Arches National Park, Utah

Arches has some of America’s most breathtaking scenes. In winter, white snow contrasts with the red rocks and blue skies to create some stunning sights. While daytime temperatures can rise above 100 degrees in summer expect freezing temperatures in winter. Even scant snowfall can make trails and roads impassable so be sure to plan if you intend to visit this national park in winter.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Winter stretches itself from October through June at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Clear lakes become icy, volcanoes become topped with heavy snow, and steam vents become especially smoky.

For those seeking fun as well as beauty, winter activities are at their peak here with sledding hills that offer mountain views, snowshoeing for beginners and experts, and backcountry skiing that can’t be beaten.

14. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Make winter plans to visit a warmer locale in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park where park-goers can see the Painted Desert, drive past Blue Mesa, and see the Crystal Forest up close. I drove through here a few years ago on a whim, and it was one of the most unique National Parks I’ve ever been to.

The weather may be cooler in winter, but snow is rare. But don’t forget those warm layers for when temps drop at night!

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Open year-round to outdoor enthusiasts, White Sands National Park in New Mexico is one of the best National Parks to visit in the winter for many reasons. For one, since it’s a less-visited park in general, you’re likely to see very few people and can sled down the dunes all by yourself! 

Plus, as soon as you hike a little ways into the dunes, you’re very unlikely to encounter other hikers. New Mexico does get chilly in winter, but it rarely sees a lot of snow this far south.

By the way, I have a series of posts on exploring national parks in winter:

Worth Pondering…

A national park is not a playground; it’s a sanctuary for nature and for humans who will accept nature on nature’s own terms.

—Michael Frome