As shorter days and cooler temperatures descend on North America, it’s time to look for the next great outdoor adventure. We encourage visiting a National Park Service site at any time of the year, but winter is a unique time to explore. Smaller crowds at some of the more popular parks are just one of the benefits.
November to March provide some of the most beautiful, peaceful, and picturesque landscapes, and parks that can be relatively inhospitable during the height of summer become havens during the cold months. Here are the best national parks to visit this winter.
Usually, this desert monument turned National Park is almost too hot to enjoy during the summer months. But during the winter, daytime temperatures hover in the upper 60s making it the perfect season for exploring. Joshua Tree is named for a unique, tentacle-like tree that blankets the desert floor, filling in gaps between amazing rock formations.
Warm days and cool nights make winter an ideal time to visit Saguaro. The park has two areas separated by the city of Tucson. The Rincon Mountain District (East) has a lovely loop drive that offers numerous photo ops. There’s also a visitor’s center, gift shop, and miles of hiking trails. The Tucson Mountain District (West) also has a scenic loop drive and many hiking trails, including some with petroglyphs at Signal Mountain.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Big Bend National Park is named after a stretch of 118 miles of Rio Grande River, part of which forms a large bend in the river. Big Bend offers a variety of activities for the outdoor enthusiasts, including backpacking, river trips, horseback riding, mountain biking, and camping. The park is home to more than 1,200 species of plants, more than 450 species of birds, 75 species of mammals, and 56 species of reptiles.
Only a fraction of the park’s 5 million annual visitors come during the winter months. At over 277-miles long and up to a mile deep, this natural wonder was created over millions of years as the Colorado River wound its way through the canyon. While temperatures can hover in the 30s and 40s along the rim, milder temps can be found along the river at the bottom of the canyon. The South Rim is open year-round and winter is an ideal time to enjoy the park’s trails and avoid the crowds that dominate the park during the summer.
Congaree National Park preserves the largest remnant of old-growth floodplain forest remaining on the continent. In addition to being a designated Wilderness Area, an International Biosphere Reserve, a Globally Important Bird Area, and a National Natural Landmark, Congaree is home to a exhibit area within the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, a 2.4 mile boardwalk loop trail, and canoe paddling trails.
The hiking in Zion National Park is world famous. Hikers of all abilities will find trails that lead to sweeping vistas, clear pools, natural arches, and narrow canyons. Zion Canyon Scenic Drive follows the North Fork of the Virgin River upstream through some of Zion’s most outstanding scenery. This road is closed to vehicle traffic from April to October, but regularly scheduled shuttle busses provide a great way to relax and enjoy the scenery or stop to take a hike.
Formed by volcanoes 23 million years ago, Pinnacles National Park is located in central California near the Salinas Valley. The park covers more than 26,000 acres and hosted 230,000 visitors in 2017. By comparison, its neighbor Yosemite National Park welcomed more than four million visitors.
28 species of cactus can be found in the park including the namesake organ pipe. Unlike the stately saguaro that rises in a single trunk, the organ pipe is a furious clutter of segments shooting up from the base, a cactus forever in celebratory mode—throwing its arms in the air like it just doesn’t care. A striking resemblance to the pipes of a church organ prompted its moniker.
There is a peculiar pleasure in riding out into the unknown—a pleasure which no second journey on the same trail ever affords.