We’re going to let you in on a little secret—winter in the national parks is an incredibly underrated experience. Oh sure, summers have longer days and warmer weather, but in many cases winter offers smaller crowds and a more calm and intimate experience. We’ve combed through the reviews from cold weather adventurers to highlight a few of our favorite national parks to visit in winter.
Winter comes to Bryce in full force. The main visitors center sits at 7900′ and though much of the scenic drive closes, the canyon turns into a surreal scene with dramatic red and orange spires. Snowshoeing amongst the striped hoodoos is surreal. Yelper Kris B reports, “After hiking Bryce in the winter time, I don’t think I can come in any other season! Something about the snow capped hoodoos and the snow packed trails adds that much more to this national park. Not to mention no crowds and a true sense of solitude.”
“Most tourists visit here during the spring, summer, and fall but yes, it is open during the winter,” explains Mosiah L. Erin H explains what you might find on your offseason visit: “The whole place was a winter wonderland. I didn’t think that Yellowstone could get better, but it did. Snowy bison, snowy mountains, and snowy rivers! Oh, I just can’t stop! And all the roads are cleared for drivers!”
With roads closed to private vehicles, you can book a snowmobile tour or a motorized snowcoach to get into the park, or you can go old school with cross-country skiing to get around. Don’t overlook the local businesses offering a sleigh ride, either.
If your idea of winter is beaches and breezes, then Biscayne is probably one of your best bets. Some 95% of this park is underwaters, so pack your snorkeling gear. While COVID has affected some of the boating regulations, there’s still plenty to do in that warm weather. Plus, Duane S has a hot tip for winter visitors: “In the canal just outside the park entrance there are manatees that congregate in the wintertime. Just park your car and walk north until you see a manatee or you come to the lock.”
“Winter is a great time to see this region, as the air is clear, the views are spectacular, and the big heat is gone,” reports Christopher C. He continues, “Remember that there are places in the Park that will see winter temperatures far below freezing, so make sure that you have warm clothing at hand. Also, the Valley region is very dry but there are places, especially on the west side in the high country, that get some snow on the road.”
If you’re going to lean into the cold, lean all the way north. Canada has a tremendous national park system, and Banff is pretty much the poster child for parks in winter months. Yes, you’ll have company as the whole area buzzes with skiers and visitors to the park (and nearby Jasper and Glacier NPs as well) but you’ll have loads of skiing, ice climbing, ski touring, and even ice skating on the lakes, right at your fingertips. According to Benedict A, “It took me several days to figure out how to describe Banff. Words such as amazing, beautiful, serene, awestruck, winter wonderland readily come to mind, but doesn’t fully describe Banff.”
Look, going to Hawaii in winter is not exactly a new idea. And even this popular park inspires loads of visitors who drive to the top of the famed crater and crowd in for sunrise shots. But trust the Yelpers who recommend the other portion of the park—the Kīpahulu District. This is much lower in elevation and has some unique hikes, like the Ohe’o Gulch. Misha T recs, “Don’t miss the Kīpahulu side and the Pipiwai trail! It’s closer to Hana (coming from the eastern side) and is a sweet hike that ends in one of the nicest waterfalls I’ve seen.”
Many national parks have been affected by COVID-19, and certain services, facilities, and amenities may be altered. Always check official park updates before planning any trip.