BY Caitlin Morton—If there’s one thing the past two years of travel restrictions have taught us, it’s to appreciate all the wonderful destinations right here in the United States. The parks are a force to be reckoned with—visitor records were smashed in 2020—and they’re not going anywhere just because the temperatures are dropping.
While most parks tend to draw families in the summer and foliage peepers in the fall, they are also ideal spots for adventurous winter trips. Not only are the crowds exponentially smaller, but the lens of winter allows you to see places like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone in an entirely new light: think snow-covered rock formations, rare wildlife, and flashes of the Northern Lights. So whether you’re hoping to stargaze in California or dogsled in Alaska (or even snorkel in the Caribbean), these nine national parks are actually—dare we say it?—better in the winter.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
The country’s oldest national park is also one of its most popular, 3.8 million visitors in 2020. Those numbers make it seem like crowds are part of the deal, but that’s only true for those who aren’t in on the secret: Yellowstone is actually best experienced in winter. Not only is there a stark decrease in crowds, but the park takes on a meditative, almost otherworldly atmosphere from December through March. The fumaroles fill the air with billowing steam, while the prismatic colors of thermal pools jump out from the surrounding white landscapes. (Bonus: You actually get to see Old Faithful—something that’s not always guaranteed when you’re blocked by a dozen selfie-takers in the summer.)
Yellowstone’s wildlife is also spectacular during this time: think bison, wolves, bald eagles, moose, and playful red foxes. Book a guided snowcoach tour to get a ranger’s perspective on the park and its inhabitants. Then set up camp in Old Faithful Snow Lodge, where cookies and hot cider are served in the lobby every afternoon.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Visiting Joshua Tree National Park is almost like stepping onto a foreign planet, with its giant red rocks and idiosyncratic trees. That mystical atmosphere only increases in the winter. You’ll feel extra isolated (in a good way) as you spend hours hiking the Panorama Loop or Maze Loop—lengthy trails that most people don’t even attempt to finish during the 100-degree days of summer.
But the real magic of J-Tree comes at night. The park was recognized as an International Dark Sky Park in 2017, which means it has virtually zero light pollution and affords some of the country’s best views of our galaxy. You can certainly try camping out for the night, but temperatures do dip below freezing once the sun goes down. You’re better off booking a quirky Airbnb within the park’s borders, like a dome house or self-proclaimed “stargazing oasis.”
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
The Grand Canyon is one of those ultra-famous tourist attractions that actually live up to the hype. You’ll run into other travelers no matter when you visit, but winter welcomes a significantly lower number of visitors compared to summer crowds. That means you can take in unobstructed views of the South Rim (the North Rim is only open from May to October), and get to see the rare beauty of the Grand Canyon dusted with snow.
The National Park Service recommends hiking the Bright Angel Trail—as long as you don’t mind some snow and solitude. This is also your best chance to see the canyon’s wintertime wildlife, including mule deer, elk, and bald eagles.
Everglades National Park, Florida
If you’ve ever visited Florida in the summer, you’re well aware of the state’s famously stifling humidity. The weather conditions only get more brutal as you approach the swampy Everglades, but don’t write off the national park entirely. From November through April, the Everglades are downright delightful, with temperatures hovering in the 50s-70s.
The relatively dry and cool conditions are also ideal on the wildlife front. First of all, the regular swarms of mosquitoes become nonexistent. But the lower water levels also drastically increase your chances of spotting some alligators, which is why most people visit the park. Winter is high season for the Everglades, meaning you might have to deal with a few crowds—but honestly, we’d rather dodge a fellow tourist than a mosquito any day.
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. The National Park Service also offers winter astronomy programs and full moon hikes (weather permitting), letting visitors take in the splendor of the unfiltered night sky.
Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Voyageurs is one of the least-visited national parks in the country, meaning only a limited number of lucky people know how magical this place truly is. While the summer months draw small crowds looking for kayaking and fishing (the park is over 40 percent water), wintertime visitors come mainly for one thing: the Northern Lights. Northern Minnesota is one of the few places in the contiguous United States where you can see the polar lights, and the views from Voyageurs are particularly spectacular. You can drive up to the park’s borders to try to catch a glimpse, or rent a houseboat deeper in the park for a more pollution-free viewing experience.
Even if you miss out on spotting the Northern Lights (they are famously finicky, after all), nighttime visitors will still be rewarded with some of the best stargazing in the entire country. Voyageurs received its International Dark Sky Park certification in the fall of 2020, and you can get panoramic views of the stars from pretty much anywhere in the park.
Denali National Park, Alaska
Denali National Park might not seem like the most obvious choice for a winter sojourn: Temperatures can drop down to -40°F, and the park only receives five hours of sunlight after mid-December. But these factors only make a trip like this more magical. While snow and glaciers are year-round features at Denali, there’s something eerily beautiful about watching the sunset at 3 p.m. and snowshoeing through the wilderness with no one else around. And given the park’s northern location, your chances of spotting the Northern Lights are better here than in almost any other national park.
For what it’s worth, the National Park Service really wants you to visit in the winter. Every February, the NPS organizes Denali Winterfest, a weekend-long celebration backed by the communities surrounding the park. This season’s festival will take place on February 25-27, 2022, and you can expect activities like dog sled rides, snow sculpting competitions, hockey games, and s’mores around the campfire.
Acadia National Park, Maine
Acadia is one of the top-10 most visited national parks in the country, but it transforms into a wild, rugged, and wonderfully uncrowded paradise in the winter. There’s nothing quite like standing before the ragged Atlantic coastline with no other person in sight—only lighthouses and snow-shrouded evergreen trees. This experience doesn’t even require you to brave the cold for too long, since you can drive up to most scenic overlooks along Ocean Drive and Jordan Pond Road.
If you do want to brave the cold, however, there are plenty of options for you. The park contains 45 miles of car-free roads, specifically designed for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. And Acadia is one of the few national parks that allow snowmobiling on its unplowed roads. Ice fishing, dog-sledding, and snowy owls sightings are just a few more seasonal perks.
Virgin Islands National Park, St. John
Surprise! Not all wintertime national park trips need to involve snow. Located on the island of St. John (about 11 miles east of Puerto Rico), Virgin Islands National Park is most famous for its stunning white-sand beaches. But don’t limit yourself to the shoreline: Hike inland to visit old sugar plantations, or venture out to the water to snorkel among sea turtles and manta rays. (Over 40 percent of Virgin Islands National Park is technically underwater, so you can find a swimming spot suited to your specific level of expertise.)
Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with choosing to lounge on the beach. If you can only pick one sandy spot, make it Trunk Bay—not only is it one of the most beautiful beaches in the entire world, but it also has chairs and snorkel gear available to rent. It even has a snack bar and bathrooms with showers available, so you really can spend the entire day here if you so choose.