11 of the best national parks to visit during winter
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Ken Burns was one of the many who’ve said it: The National Parks were America’s best idea. And it seems like the rest of the U.S. populace would agree. In 2018, 318 million visitors toured the parks, making it the third-busiest year on record, topped only by 2016 and 2017. Visitation numbers in 2016 and 2017 surpassed 2015’s record-breaking numbers by 23.7 million visits. Of course, this is great for the National Park Service’s (NPS) budget, but not so great for the serenity many travelers seek when they visit a national park.
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Whether you want to avoid the summer masses or you simply can’t wait any longer to plan a vacation, here are 11 of the best national parks to visit during winter.
1. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
In July of 2019, almost 402,000 people visited Bryce Canyon. But in March, there were less than 76,000 folks tramping around. That’s a big difference for those who’d prefer to commune with nature versus a bunch of tourists. While the weather in March ranges from a chilly 18 to 44 degrees, the cold temperatures and high elevation offer winter visitors a fun opportunity: cross-country skiing. Outdoor enthusiasts can lay their own tracks or glide up groomed trails to check out the snow-capped hoodoos.
2. Everglades National Park, Florida
On the flip side of weather and popularity, Everglades National Park is busiest in the winter months. But it’s hotter than Hades when the wet season hits — and the ubiquitous mosquitos are the size of golf balls. Head over to the Gulf Coast side of the park to canoe through extraordinary coastal mangroves, sawgrass marshes and pine flatwoods. There’s a world-renowned variety of migrating birds, manatees and the only place on the planet where both gators and crocodiles coexist.
3. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
This national park comprises seven islands and lies about 70 miles off the coast of Key West. It’s accessible only by seaplane or ferry, which deters crowds. It’s loved by divers and snorkelers for its crystal clear waters and thriving coral reefs. And history buffs enjoy guided tours of Fort Jefferson — a massive, unfinished 19th-century fort that was built to protect one of the most important deep-water anchorages in North America.
4. Yosemite National Park, California
Yosemite was one of the first tracts of land to receive the National Park denomination, and is considered one of the most majestic places in the country. Last year, more than 4 million people made the pilgrimage to the home of the Half Dome and El Capitan — two iconic monoliths made (even more famous) by the popularization of rock climbing. While most visitors come to stroll around the valley or hike the arduous Mist Trail in the warmer months, the park offers just as many outdoor activities during winter, with snow sports ranging from downhill and cross-country skiing to tubing, sledding and ice skating.
5. Joshua Tree National Park, California
Home to the convergence of the Mojave and Colorado deserts, Joshua Tree has a captivating assortment of flora and fauna, the most famous of which is its Seussian namesake yucca. It’s a favorite among hikers, horseback riders, birders and rock climbers, who scale the cracks of giant monzogranite slabs. October through May — when daytime temperatures are in the 60s and 70s — is the best time to go.
6. Channel Islands National Park, California
Kind of like North America’s version of the Galápagos, the five islands that make up this park have been isolated for thousands of years, creating isolated species (like the island fox, island deer mouse and Channel Island spotted skunk), found nowhere else on earth. While it can get cold from December through March, it’s also the best time of year to watch migrating gray whales along with resident seals, sea lions, dolphins and the occasional pod of orcas.
7. Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico
Carlsbad Caverns’ infamous bats fly south to warmer climes when the temperatures start to drop, so don’t expect to watch the nightly Bat Flight until Memorial Day. But the network of 119 caves that gave this park its moniker maintains an internal temperature of 56 degrees throughout the year. Stroll around the Big Room — the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America — and admire the stalactites, lily pads and cave pools without hundreds of bumbling tourists snapping selfies at every bend.
8. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
There’s a reason the Grand Canyon is one of the most visited national parks in the nation: It’s one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World due to its awe-inspiring scale and size. The summer crowds and corresponding traffic, however, can put a damper on the wonderment. For those who aren’t trying to schlep down the canyon walls, winter is the ideal time of year to admire the layers of red rock capped with white snow from the popular Bright Angel Trail.
9. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
The Colorado Rockies are America’s most popular winter playground. So, their designated national park is an obvious pick for a cold season trip. Visitors snowshoe, cross-country ski and sled through the pristine wilderness that serves as a backdrop for those idyllic Coors Brewing Company ads.
10. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
If you’ve visited Yellowstone during the summer, you were likely met with herds of tourists (irresponsibly) stopping to take selfies with bison, and had your view of Old Faithful impeded by hundreds of selfie sticks. But in the winter, visitors are rewarded with a different kind of experience. Steam from erupting geysers and hot springs creates an impressive contrast to the snow-covered backdrop, and wolves and bighorn sheep make an appearance. And skiers enjoy a serene experience that can’t be found at any ski resort on Earth.
11. Glacier National Park, Montana
Thanks to social media and the popularity of adventure travel, may of us are convinced we have to catch a flight to Iceland or Alaska for a chance to see the northern lights. But simply head to Glacier National Park — a designated dark sky park — during the winter, and you’ll have a solid shot of witnessing the celestial phenomenon. Lake MacDonald, which stretches 10 miles to the north, is surrounded by high peaks and offers an unobstructed view of the sky.
Additional reporting by Josh Laskin.
Featured Image by Aubrey Stoll// Getty Images.
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