One of the best-kept secrets about America’s national parks is many are even better in winter. Whether you want to feel the satisfying crunch of snow under your boots or escape those chilly temps for a desert ramble, one thing’s for sure: You’ll be able to do so without the crowds that summer brings. Once-crowded trails turn into tranquil getaways. Quiet winter wonderlands showcase nature’s calm beauty.
And no matter how great the other seasons are for a visit, a visit to your favorite fall foliage or spring wildflower destination is completely different in the depths of winter. Lack of foliage can bring long views.
Below, find the best national parks to visit in winter from the red hoodoos of Bryce Canyon to the stunning desertscape of Saguaro. Be sure to pack a few extra layers and remember to always double-check trail and road conditions before heading out.
1. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Although the Grand Canyon is a southern park, its ridges are still blessed with snow in winter. Fog is typical in the early morning hours but afternoons are sunny. The canyon’s North Rim is closed to visitors but the South Rim is open year-round and is less crowded during this season.
Visitors can take a cell phone audio tour or use a GPS device for the park’s EarthCache program. EarthCaches are a type of geocache that provide participants with a learning experience in geosciences. By participating in the program, you will embark on an exploration of the unique geologic story that provides insights into the Grand Canyon.
>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park
2. Joshua Tree National Park, California
With the average temps exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer, outdoor enthusiasts who love national parks but hate the heat will love the cooler climate of Joshua Tree during the winter. Temperatures can reach 60 degrees making it the opportune time to visit the otherwise-sweltering Joshua Tree. Just be aware that while daytime temps here are generally mild in the winter, nighttime temps in the desert can drop below freezing.
The park is a mecca for world-class rock climbers but it also offers scenic drives and family-friendly hiking trails that any visitor can enjoy. After perusing the Cholla Cactus Garden and scrambling up the enormous, monzogranite boulders along Arch Rock Nature Trail, settle in for some epic stargazing at one of the 500 campsites in Joshua Tree National Park.
Plan your visit here during the cooler months for comfortable hiking temps and incredible stargazing without the huge crowds.
>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Joshua Tree National Park
3. 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.
>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Carlsbad Caverns National Park
4. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
While it may be hard to imagine, Bryce Canyon’s earthly spires are even more spectacular when dusted in snow. Bryce Canyon National Park also has ideal stargazing skies and the cold, dry air makes them all the more amazing. Saturday astronomy programs and full moon snowshoe adventures are a couple of the several incredible programs offered here during the winter season. Don your microspikes or snowshoes (available for rent at Ruby’s Inn) and travel between the two points on the Rim Trail then warm up on a views-for-days drive to Rainbow Point—elevation 9,115 feet.
Since the Park is situated at 8,000-9,000 feet, some of the roads and trails are closed due to snow and ice but there are still plenty of things to do especially if you time your visit with the Bryce Canyon Winter Festival (February 18-20, 2023). Just be sure to pack warm clothes and be prepared for winter conditions.
>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Bryce Canyon National Park
5. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Make winter plans to visit a warmer locale in Arizona’s Petrified National Park where park-goers can see the Painted Desert, drive past Blue Mesa, and see the Crystal Forest up close. The weather may be cold in winter but snow is rare. Don’t forget those warm layers for when temps drop at night.
>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Petrified Forest National Park
6. 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. America’s most visited park still gets attention after all its gorgeous leaves have dropped. The barren trees become fortresses of ice and snow—a true winter wonderland. Be aware that the main roads should remain clear but secondary ones may be closed. At night, stargaze by the fire at Cades Cove Campground.
Many people use Clingmans Dome Road (closed to vehicles December 1-March 31) for walking and cross-country skiing. The road starts 0.1 mile south of Newfound Gap.
7. Zion National Park, Utah
Zion’s famous sandstone walls are often eclipsed by tourist throngs from spring through fall with 4.5 million people rushing into the 15-mile-long canyon each year. But with a light dusting of snow, the rust-colored cliffs visible from the Pa’rus Trail take on a magical quality and oft-crowded spots like Canyon Overlook are generally mob-free. Zion’s main road is normally closed to vehicles and serviced by a shuttle but in January, February, and parts of December you can drive your car through Zion Canyon.
Temperatures are generally mild during the day which makes for lovely hiking. Best of all? Winter travelers can savor slow mornings, sipping coffee in a cozy western cabin at centrally located Zion Lodge. And Watchman Campground remains open all winter.
>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Zion National Park
8. Big Bend National Park, Texas
One of America’s hottest parks (at least in terms of temperature), Big Bend is perfect for a winter visit. You can enjoy hikes into the Chisos Mountains, paddles along the Rio Grande, and some of the best star-gazing conditions in the U.S. While Big Bend’s high season is in winter—from October to April—this park is remote and doesn’t see a huge number of visitors, so you’ll still find plenty of solitude.
A natural wonder (especially in the mostly-flat Lone Star State), this park is named after a massive bend in the Rio Grande River that separates Texas from Mexico—and the far-flung locale has enough scenic diversity for a week-long journey or more.
Stay at the Chisos Mountains Lodge and marvel at high-elevation vistas of the craggy Window Formation as you hike through madrone trees and fragrant junipers. Then, soak your tired bones in the park’s historic hot springs, ideally as the sunset turns the famous Santa Elena Canyon into a hundred shades of amber.
>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Big Bend National Park
9. Saguaro National Park, Arizona
Enjoy the stunning desert landscape of Saguaro National Park at Tucson where visitors can experience the beauty of the largest cactus in the United States—the giant Saguaro cacti which can grow to be more than 45 feet tall and age over 200 years. Winter is the perfect time to visit Saguaro because the temperatures are mild with an average high of 65 degrees and the light gives the desert a golden glow—this is one of the warmest national parks to visit in winter. There are a variety of hiking options within the park.
>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Saguaro National Park
10. Arches National Park, Utah
Arches National Park 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 often rise above 90 degrees in summer expect freezing temperatures in winter. Even scant snowfall can make trails and off-roads impassable so be sure to plan ahead. Stop at the Arches Visitor Center to check the conditions and get an orientation so you’re prepared for winter conditions.
For winter camping and hiking, the Devils Garden Campground is open year-round with 51 sites available on a first-come, first-served basis between November 1 and February 28 including restrooms and drinking water at the campground.
>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Arches National Park
11. 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, it’s a less-visited park in general so you’re likely to see very few people so you can sled down the dunes all by yourself. Plus, as soon as you hike a little ways into the dunes, you’re unlikely to encounter other hikers. New Mexico does get chilly in winter, but it rarely sees a lot of snow this far south.
>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to White Sands National Park
12. Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Explore the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeast at Congaree National Park. South Carolina’s summers are hot and humid and the riverside habitat that makes up Congaree National Park is a favorite spot for mosquitoes. Visit in the cooler months, generally November to April, for mild temperatures and minimal mosquito levels. This is an ideal season to paddle, hike, or fish at the park.
Flooding is most frequent at this time of the year and can happen with little or no warning. It does not have to rain at Congaree for flooding to take place. Laying in a watershed the size of the state of Maryland, any significant rain in the upstate of South Carolina can cause a rise in water levels. Check the river gauges and the weather before you go.
>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Congaree National Park
13. Pinnacles National Park, California
A relatively small park, Pinnacles still packs a punch—especially in the winter. The landscape features shaded, oak woodlands and exposed chaparral. There are canyon bottoms and talus caves you hike inside leaving the other side at the foot of tall rock spires.
You’ll find 15 different hiking options in the park. To check out the caves start at Chapparal (West Pinnacles) and take either the Balconies Cliffs-Cave Loop (easy), the Juniper Canyon Loop (hard) or the High Peaks to Balconies Cave Loop (hard).
You can have an excellent time at Pinnacles any time of year though winter is one of the best times to visit. From late spring to mid-autumn this region can be very hot making longer hikes difficult. The temperatures are much more pleasant in late autumn through winter and early spring.
>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Pinnacles National Park
14. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Winter stretches itself from October through June at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Clear lakes become icy and 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 with sledding hills that offer mountain views, snowshoeing for beginners and experts, and backcountry skiing that can’t be beat.
More than half of the year Lassen is blanketed in snow. Although the park highway closes to through traffic during the winter months, the Southwest and Manzanita Lake areas remain accessible year-round. Visit the park’s year-round Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center and enjoy the steep slopes in the Southwest Area or explore the gentler terrain in the Manzanita Lake area.
The old Lassen Ski Area located above the present-day Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center closed in 1994. The area is still used by backcountry skier and snowboarders.
>> Read Next: The Ultimate Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park
15. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California
Is there a more sublime snow experience than skiing or snowshoeing through the giant trees found in these two parks? Trails can be found in both the Giant Forest of Sequoia and Grant Grove in Kings Canyon.
According to park staff, many trails are suitable for snowshoeing when there’s adequate snow. You can rent snowshoes or bring your own. Purchase a map of ski trails at any visitor center and look for reflective markers on trees that show popular paths. When snowshoeing, stay clear of ski tracks. Check the park newspaper’s winter safety tips.
Rangers lead snowshoe hikes when conditions allow. The park provides the snowshoes; you bring warm layered clothing, waterproof boots, gloves, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, water, and a snack. The walks are moderately strenuous. Waterproof shoes are required. Walks last 1.5-2 hours and range from 1.5-2 miles in length.
Always maintain a kind of summer, even in the middle of winter.
—Henry David Thoreau