The holiday season is a special time for the National Park Service. Many parks across the U.S. and Canada offer unique holiday programs and events that simply can’t be experienced at any other time of year. Chances are, there’s something exciting happening in a park near you!
Whether you’re seeking family-friendly entertainment and a visit from Santa, rousing celebrations featuring time-honored traditions, or a tranquil getaway that allows you to further immerse yourself in the beauty of nature, these national parks make the perfect destination for your holiday getaway.
1. Hop aboard the Polar Express to Grand Canyon National Park
Fans of the man in the red suit can ride the rails for a different Santa-themed adventure taking visitors from Williams, Arizona to Grand Canyon National Park. Kids and kids-at-heart will flip for the Grand Canyon Railway’s Polar Express which runs from mid-November through the end of the year. Travelers will have the honor of mingling with Santa and his reindeer before heading back to Williams with a keepsake present in hand. It’s a popular journey that fills up fast, so making reservations for this experience is a must.
The park’s El Tovar Hotel which first opened in 1905 also gets in on the festivities with a massive tree, Santa hat-adorned taxidermy, and extravagant holiday wreaths spilling out of the century-old lobby. Don’t expect to leave without a full stomach. They’re always famous for their French onion soup but they also have specialty offerings like turkey that are unique to the holidays. The hotel also hosts a New Year’s Eve dinner each year (reservations required).
2. Savor a traditional holiday atmosphere at Banff National Park
Canada is known for its long winters and the short summer season means heavy crowds in Banff National Park during warm weather. But a visit during the snowy season offers a Narnia-like wonderland with fewer tourists.
From carols to candles, cookies, and cocoa, the holiday season is full of robust rituals passed on from generation to generation. And at Alberta’s Banff National Park you can honor treasured traditions in an awe-inspiring snow-covered setting.
Events held throughout the season include European-style Christmas markets filled with handcrafted wares and delicious treats, a delectable hot chocolate trail through Banff and Lake Louise, and a live Christmas story told through illuminated puppets, dazzling sculptures, and clever sound effects at the park’s Cascade of Time Garden.
Come January you can enjoy the Ice Magic International Ice Carving Competition at frozen Lake Louise. Here, delicate and beautiful ice sculptures take shape as they’re carefully carved by skilled artists. Grab a drink from the onsite ice bar then stroll through a literal ice castle as you view the creations.
3. A Smoky Mountain Christmas
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most popular of all the national parks in the United States. And if you’re looking for unspoiled natural beauty, it’s arguably the best place to visit in the Smoky Mountains.
But during the holiday season, the best things to do in the Smoky Mountains involve getting into the mountain towns and soaking in a different type of scenery. Some of the best views in the Smoky Mountains in winter aren’t of nature at all but of the Christmas cheer that seems to abound throughout the region. Christmas in the Smoky Mountains involves small-town parades, Christmas trains, Christmas lights, holiday craft markets, snow skiing and tubing, and a big heaping serving of music and theater.
Whether you choose to visit North Carolina, Tennessee, or both, a Smoky Mountain Christmas offers plenty of opportunities to get festive. Christmas in Gatlinburg gets magical at SkyLift Park with its beloved Lights over Gatlinburg event running from mid-November to the end of January. The entire park is bedecked with lights and trees including a 30-foot, multi-colored Christmas tree and a 300-foot tunnel of Christmas lights.
Christmas in Pigeon Forge is all about the Winterfest Celebration which fills the town with Christmas light displays, holiday parades, trolley tours, and Christmas shows. The Winterfest Celebration spans several popular places to visit in the Smoky Mountains including Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville.
4. Seek out songbirds at Zion National Park (and beyond)
Each December, natural areas throughout the country take part in the longest-running citizen science survey in the world during the Christmas Bird Count. This century-old, far-reaching effort allows bird watchers and avian enthusiasts to join in the efforts to identify, count, and record the bird population as part of what’s considered to be the most significant citizen-based conservation effort.
The events at Zion and Bryce Canyon allow participants to join with family and friends to conduct their count throughout a designated zone within the park. Those who can’t make it to Utah for this endeavor can locate a Christmas Bird Count event at nearby national and state parks throughout the holiday season by visiting the National Audubon Society’s website.
5. Attend an epic winter festival in Bryce Canyon National Park
The iconic red rock spires that fill the landscape in Bryce Canyon National Park look even more ethereal when coated with a dusting of white snow. Visitors can delight in full-moon snowshoe adventures and Saturday astronomy programs at this certified Dark Sky Park.
So, beloved, is this stunning destination come wintertime that it plays host to a kid-friendly Winter Festival each President’s Day weekend. Here you can attend a variety of themed events including cross-country ski tours, archery clinics, morning yoga, crafts and cookie decorating for kids, and more.
6. Go warmish weather sledding through White Sands National Park
If the thought of braving below-freezing temps for some winter fun frightens you, consider a getaway to White Sands National Park. With daytime highs hovering in the 50- to 60-degree Fahrenheit range, New Mexico winters offer a more palatable climate for sledding and creating snow angels—minus the snow. Glistening white sand tricks the eye into believing that the scenery is a true winter wonderland and the park’s hills are so popular for sliding down that plastic snow saucers can be purchased or rented at the White Sands visitor center.
7. Carlsbad Caverns National Park brings back history-inspired Rock of Ages tour
For six nights in December, Carlsbad Caverns National Park offers visitors an opportunity to experience special guided tours with staff in historical costumes. The tour times are 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Dec. 2-3, 9-10, and 16-17. The cost is $55 per person and reservations are required.
The tradition, brought back in 2000, gives visitors a chance to meet some of the men and women, so to speak, who helped weave the fabric of the national park. Park staff dressed in historical costumes guide visitors on a lantern-lit tour of the front half of the Big Room at the caverns.
The tour will feature a re-creation of the historic Rock of Ages Ceremony which was regularly conducted in the Big Room during the 1930s and ’40s. During this portion of the tour, visitors will experience a blackout, being immersed in total darkness as a mysterious voice fills the cavern, singing the hymn Rock of Ages.
Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.
—Norman Vincent Peale