TPG’s favorite national parks: A month-by-month guide
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Editor’s note: In celebration of National Park Week, which runs from April 16-24, The Points Guy is publishing a series of articles focusing on the beauty and diversity of America’s national parks. We will share personal stories from the TPG team, as well as news and tips that will help you get the most out of your next national park visit. The following story is part of this series.
America’s beloved national parks have never been more popular. With 63 national parks offering a spectacular diversity of landscapes and recreational activities, deciding which park to visit (and when) requires careful consideration.
Whether it’s wildlife viewing, wilderness hiking or seeing spring wildflowers, each traveler’s priorities differ greatly — and timing is everything. If you are a seasoned rock climber or an aspiring fly fisher, you’ll want to visit the Tetons in June. Meanwhile, those who crave a winter beach escape can head to national parks in Hawaii or Florida to soak up some sun on the sand when they’re not admiring volcanoes or wetlands.
To help you narrow down your options, TPG has curated a selection of national parks (one for each month of the year) based on factors like accessibility, visitor numbers, seasonal considerations, active pursuits available and places to stay. See which ones are our favorites — and when you should visit.
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January: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park — Hawaii
A land of fire and ice, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is home to two of the Big Island’s active volcanoes: lava-spewing Kilauea and the (often) snowcapped Mauna Loa, which has been ominously swelling since it last erupted in 1984. Kilauea is the youngest and most active shield volcano on Earth and has been “quietly” (as volcanologists say) oozing red lava down its flanks since 1983. Set against star-studded skies, it’s a spectacular sight.
In January, Hawaii boasts balmy tropical temperatures (around 76 degrees), more palatable visitor numbers and slightly lower hotel rates that will certainly help shake off the winter blues.
You can drive through the park in a few hours, but exploring on foot allows you to get an up-close view of the park’s weird and wacky features, such as the fuming sulphuric pit of Halemaumau Crater and the world’s longest lava tube, Kazumura. Hiking trails throughout the park will lead you through teeming rainforests, lava deserts, high-mountain meadows and coastal plains.
Where to stay
Hawaii has been one of the pandemic’s most popular destinations, making it hard to find standard room rewards. Fortunately, there are some less expensive Hilton awards in Hawaii. On the Big Island, rooms at the Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo – a DoubleTree by Hilton can be booked for as little as 50,000 Hilton Honors points (or a minimum of $215). Hilo is less than an hour from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, so it’s a perfect base for exploring.
February: Everglades National Park — Florida
An ecological treasure, the Everglades is the U.S.’s largest subtropical wetlands, occupying more than 1.5 million acres. With dry weather, less humidity and more bearable temperatures, February offers the most comfortable conditions for exploring. Your chances of seeing wildlife are also much greater this time of year, as animals congregate around rapidly diminishing water holes.
The Gumbo Limbo Trail meanders through an ecosystem scattered with legions of gumbo-limbo trees, elegant stands of royal palms and ornate sprees of orchids. But if you are looking for sheer density of wildlife, hit the Anhinga Trail, where you’re guaranteed to see the park’s brooding cast of characters — alligators, turtles, otters, herons and exotic birds — all seemingly oblivious to human presence.
If you are short on time, a drive along the 15-mile-long Shark Valley Loop Road provides a worthy snapshot of Florida’s jungle-encroached landscapes.
Where to stay
You can have a luxury stay on points and still be within driving distance of Everglades National Park by booking a room at the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort, which has well-appointed rooms, 12 restaurants, three swimming pools, a spa and a fitness center. A Marriott Bonvoy property, reward nights here range between 70,000 and 100,000 points per night. If you pay with cash, expect to spend at least $693 per night in February. Additionally, there’s Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo, a Curio Collection property by Hilton that opened in 2021. It features 14 acres of waterfront, two waterfall pools and a private beach, among other highlights. Standard rooms, which start at $734 per night, are available for as few as 51,000 Honors points per night but can rise significantly during the peak winter season.
March: Joshua Tree National Park — California
Joshua Tree National Park is so much more than its picture-perfect yucca trees. The prime example of a North American desert landscape, this intricate ecosystem harbors a mesmerizing array of flora, as well as sculpted rock formations and evocative remnants (think: Native American artifacts, abandoned homesteads and rusted relics) that stand testament to 5,000 years of human history.
Rock climbers flock here to scale thousands of colossal boulders, while awestruck stargazers enjoy the silence and solitude of one of the nation’s designated Dark Sky Parks.
March brings an almost psychedelic look to the park, as massive white blossoms cover vast stands of spiny yucca trees and desert sands strewn with cactuses put on their colorful show. Average daytime temperatures in the low 70s allow for pleasant conditions for hiking and rock climbing.
Where to stay
You’ll find the most luxurious accommodations near Palm Springs. The stately JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa in Palm Desert is a destination unto itself, offering nine food and beverage outlets, three pools, two championship golf courses and 20 tennis courts. A Marriott Bonvoy property, rooms here start at $675 or 120,000 Bonvoy points per night for a stay in mid-March. A more budget-friendly option is the SureStay Plus by Best Western in Twentynine Palms.
April: Yellowstone National Park — Montana, Wyoming and Idaho
One of Earth’s most dynamic places, Yellowstone‘s bubblings and boilings are well documented. Designated a national park in 1872, this cherished protected area is home to more than half of the world’s hydrothermal features — at least 10,000 percolating geysers and steaming hot springs, as well as mud pots, fumaroles and travertine terraces.
A spring visit brings many benefits. Fewer visitors engulf iconic sights like Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs and Grand Prismatic Spring, and the charismatic wildlife in the Lamar Valley is easier to spot while making your way through the “Serengeti of North America.” At this time, you can witness grizzlies awakening from their slumber, bison roaming through the valleys, flocks of migrating birds and wolves playing outside their dens.
Ideally, you’ll want to plan your visit for mid-April when the main entrances and park roads start to reopen. Only the north entrance is open year-round. The western gate — the best access point for the park’s geothermal wonders — opens (conditions permitting) the third Friday in April. Other park roads typically open at various intervals starting April 19.
Where to stay
All the major brands have outposts close to Yellowstone. For example, IHG offers a Holiday Inn about a half-hour northwest of the park in West Yellowstone, Montana, and there’s a Four Seasons a little more than an hour away from the south entrance in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Given Yellowstone’s sheer scale, it’s much more convenient to stay in the park itself. Park concessionaire Xanterra Travel Collection offers a wide variety of in-park lodging options, from the elegant Lake Yellowstone Hotel & Cabins (from $289 per night) to the woodsy, centrally located Canyon Lodge & Cabins (from $269 per night).
May: Great Smoky Mountains National Park — Tennessee and North Carolina
America’s most-visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a bastion of biodiversity. Ancient hemlocks, old-growth forests, cascading waterfalls and blue-hued peaks are swirled with the mist that gives the park its name. Populated with bobcats, bears, falcons and 31 species of salamanders (the densest population on the planet), the wildlife inventory is mind-boggling.
Wildflowers, synchronous fireflies and fewer parkgoers are the key reasons to plan a May visit. The Cove Hardwoods Trail, a short option ideal for beginners, is spectacular from March through June, giving hikers a front-row view of wildflowers set against a soaring backdrop of mountains and wilderness as far as the eye can see.
From the end of April to early May, tens of thousands of fireflies put on their annual natural light show. More than 20 species of lightning bugs inhabit the Great Smoky Mountains, creating a bioluminescent glow you have to see to believe. The spectacle is popular, so you’ll need to plan ahead and put your name in the national park’s lottery; dates for this year’s events will be announced on April 26.
Where to stay
There are plenty of affordable hotels in the park and several nearby towns, including Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The Courtyard Pigeon Forge has spacious, comfortable rooms and plenty of amenities, including a large pool and a lazy river, all for 60,000 Bonvoy points or $166 per night. And in Gatlinburg, there’s the Hilton Garden Inn Gatlinburg, which is just 2 miles from the park entrance and offers rooms starting at $209 or 50,000 Honors points.
You can also stick to a tighter budget by renting a log cabin or staying inside the park at a place like the rustic LeConte Lodge, which requires a hike to reach and holds the distinction of being the highest guest lodge in the eastern U.S. at 6,400 feet. If you’d rather splurge, check out award-winning Blackberry Farm, which combines Southern hospitality with impeccable amenities and cuisine. Rooms for two start at $1,095; rates include all meals and nonalcoholic beverages.
June: Grand Teton National Park — Wyoming
Since they were first inhabited by the Lakota people, the Tetons have instilled awe and wonder. This relatively young range, which is 13 million years old and extends 40-plus miles, is utterly breathtaking.
Every season here has its merits, but early summer offers that crowd-pleasing balance of outdoor recreation, spectacular scenery and prolific wildlife, including bears, moose, pronghorn and elk. In June, you can float on and fish in the Snake River, kayak or sail on Jackson Lake, hike backcountry trails to forested alpine lakes and horseback ride at a dude ranch, among other activities.
Because of the Tetons’ ties to 19th-century climbers William Owen and Franklin Spalding, the park is also a world-class destination for mountaineering. June and July offer the best conditions for alpine climbers, so be sure to save time for the aptly named Owen-Spalding Route, which typically takes two or three days to complete.
Where to stay
A relative newcomer to the area, the SpringHill Suites in downtown Jackson Hole has spacious, well-appointed rooms and public spaces. Rates for standard rooms start at 40,000 Bonvoy points or $166 per night. For a luxurious dude ranch experience, reserve a log cabin at Lost Creek Ranch & Spa, which offers dramatic views and an array of outdoorsy activities. Rates in early June start at $6,700 per cabin per week and include all meals and activities.
July: Olympic National Park — Washington
One of the least explored regions in the U.S., Olympic National Park boasts rugged coasts, glaciated peaks and emerald-green rainforests. The weather is at its best during summer, with temperatures that rarely exceed 80 degrees and a diminished chance of rain.
Despite July being the park’s most popular time to visit, hikers have scale in their favor. There are more than 900 miles of trails for visitors to traverse. Check out the temperate rainforests of Hoh and Quinault, a few of the dazzling sapphire lakes and the wild coastline.
A can’t-miss activity here is the drive up to Hurricane Ridge, where you can take in sublime mountain vistas. Stroll the paved, 1.6-mile Hurricane Hill trail for 360-degree views of the Olympic Mountains and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Keep in mind, though, that this part of the park tends to get busy during summer, so you’ll want to arrive by 10 a.m. for a better chance of snagging a parking spot.
Where to stay
Kalaloch Lodge in Forks provides swift access to Olympic National Park’s beautiful coast and enchanting forests; room rates start at $205 per night. Additionally, you can bed down in a rustic room at historic Lake Quinault Lodge, which sits at the park’s southwest side, for $145 per night. Or, there’s the no-frills Super 8 by Wyndham Port Angeles at Olympic National Park, an affordable option close to the park that offers rooms for as little as 15,000 Wyndham Rewards points or $111 per night.
August: Glacier National Park — Montana
Tucked into the northwest corner of Montana, Glacier National Park is famous for its sculpted glaciers, crystalline alpine lakes, majestic forests and abundant wildlife (think: grizzlies, black bears, moose, elk, deer and gray wolves) that populate its woods.
For a first-time visitor, summer is the ideal season to experience this vast preserve in all its glory. It offers the best weather, access to the park’s signature experiences and lots of daylight for exploration. August, specifically, is the perfect time for hiking the park’s 700 miles of trails, rafting its Class II and III rapids and fly-fishing at the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. The visitor centers and famed Going-to-the-Sun Road will undoubtedly be busy, but once you hit the trails, you’ll find some solitude.
Glacier National Park straddles the Continental Divide, so it’s important to check the weather and conditions before you visit. Pack plenty of layers, even in summer, so you’re adequately prepared as you change elevations.
Where to stay
There are a few luxury hotels near Glacier National Park, including The Firebrand Hotel in Whitefish, which offers rooms starting at $549 a night. Marriott cardholders can redeem their annual 35,000-point certificate to stay at the TownePlace Suites Whitefish Kalispell or the SpringHill Suites Kalispell. There are three Hilton properties in Kalispell — a Hilton Garden Inn, a Hampton Inn and a Homewood Suites — as well as a Hampton Inn in Whitefish. Standard rooms at all four hotels start at $105 a night or cost between 50,000 and 60,000 points per night.
September: Rocky Mountain National Park — Colorado
The third-most-visited national park, Rocky Mountain National Park attracted more than 4.4 million people in 2021, according to the National Park Service. While you can visit any time of year, the fall foliage makes September a magical time to come. At lower elevations, aspens glimmering in orange, red and yellow hues can be seen alongside wildflowers on the southern slopes through September. Popular leaf-peeping hikes include the path to Twin Sisters Peak and the short Bear Lake Loop.
Fall in the Rockies also presents opportunities to experience the elk rut, when hundreds of bulls unleash their high-pitched bugle sound across Estes Park to attract cows.
Don’t forget to drive the scenic Trail Ridge Road, too. At more than 12,000 feet, this thoroughfare is the highest paved highway in America and offers rare access to high terrain landscapes. September is the last full month the road is open before it closes annually from mid-October to Memorial Day.
Where to stay
In Estes Park, the Ridgeline Hotel-Estes Park, Ascend Hotel Collection is often available for between 12,000 and 25,000 Choice Privileges points or $150 per night. Film buffs may prefer to stay at the historic Stanley Hotel, which served as the inspiration for the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining.” Rates here start at $319 per night.
Within the park, your best bet is to camp. Campsites cost around $30 per night, but you need to plan ahead, as reservations fill up fast once they open six months in advance.
October: Zion National Park — Utah
One of the nation’s most popular national parks, Zion has it all — awe-inspiring landscapes, epic hiking and bike trails, fascinating wildlife, a cool gateway town and a terrific range of hotel options.
Incredible views and ascents are available everywhere you turn. In addition to the winding canyon of sandstone buttresses, sheer red-rock cliffs and slot canyons interspersed with lush evergreen forests, you’ll find kaleidoscopic wildflowers and mystical hanging gardens that seem plucked straight from a child’s picture book. Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (accessible only by shuttle bus from March through October) provides a glorious glimpse of the park’s red rocks and easy access to several visitor-approved trailheads.
Utah’s national parks are busy year-round, but October provides optimal conditions for outdoor pursuits and thinned crowds. Still, if you plan on hiking the Narrows, make sure you check the NPS website to ensure it’s open during your visit. It’s also advisable to rent a dry suit from Zion Adventures for the canyoneering experience.
Where to stay
Located just 1 mile from the park’s entrance, the SpringHill Suites Springdale Zion National Park is one of the brand’s finest iterations. The property offers modern, well-equipped suites that are both large and comfortable, plus complimentary breakfast every day and an outdoor pool with phenomenal views of Zion National Park. Since this Marriott outpost participates in the Marriott Bonvoy program, you can expect to spend 40,000 to 60,000 Bonvoy points per night for a standard room booked with points or use a 50,000-point Marriott certificate for a lower-rate stay. You can also pay cash; rates generally start at $275 a night.
Another option is the luxe tents provided at Under Canvas’ glamping site in nearby Virgin.
November: Big Bend National Park — Texas
Covering a 1,200-mile swath of West Texas, Big Bend National Park comprises craggy deserts, serrated mountains and austere plains that harken back to the classic 1960s westerns that were filmed there. Add to that an unnerving inventory of creatures (including black widows, scorpions and Mojave rattlesnakes) and it’s apparent Big Bend is not your average walk in the park.
By far the best time to visit is during winter, when milder weather presents ample opportunities for four-wheel drives and stargazing. You can also punctuate active days with visits to off-the-beaten-path attractions, including abandoned mines, ghost towns, relics of an early 20th-century hot spring resort and mysterious graves.
Hiking in the Chisos Mountains is excellent, but you’ll need to plan well in advance, as the area is one of the wildest and most isolated parts of the U.S. Fitness buffs won’t want to miss the 14 1/2-mile South Rim hike, as it boasts majestic views of mountain peaks that stretch all the way to Mexico. If you’re looking for an easier (but equally scenic) option, trek the 4.8-mile Lost Mine Trail.
Where to stay
Plan far in advance to stay at Chisos Mountains Lodge, the only traditional accommodation option inside the park. Most rooms, which start at $217 per night, come with two beds, and you’ll have access to a restaurant and a convenience store (the only one available within 50 miles of the park). Campgrounds are also available by reservation for $16 per night. Since temperatures rarely drop below the 40s in winter, you can comfortably camp in a recreational vehicle or tent.
December: Yosemite National Park — California
Towering monoliths, ancient sequoias and plunging waterfalls are just a few of Yosemite National Park’s emblematic images. One of the nation’s crown jewels, this California treasure has been leaving visitors awestruck since it became a national park in 1880. What makes Yosemite so appealing (and crowded) is that its signature features are easily accessible and available pretty much year-round.
Even if you’ve never visited, the names of Yosemite’s legendary icons will be familiar. You can check out the granite monoliths of Half Dome and El Capitan, admire the 650-foot Bridalveil waterfall (famously immortalized by photographer Ansel Adams) and hike to North America’s tallest waterfall, Yosemite Falls.
Yosemite’s seasonal landscapes are arguably at their prime in winter, too, as the snow-covered mountains of Badger Pass set the stage for downhill and cross-country skiing, as well as tubing, sledding, snowshoeing, ice skating and snowmobiling. Although Tioga Road closes annually from November to late May or early June (depending on the conditions), the park otherwise remains accessible to vehicular traffic during the colder months.
Where to stay
Yosemite Valley offers two hotels: The Ahwahnee and Yosemite Valley Lodge. The Ahwahnee is the grand dame and charges accordingly, with rooms starting at $500 per night. Meanwhile, location is the main draw of the Yosemite Valley Lodge, which sits within walking distance of Yosemite Falls and offers basic, traditional rooms from $450 per night.
In Mariposa, around 35 miles northeast of the park, you’ll find the more reasonably priced Quality Inn Yosemite Valley Gateway, a Choice Hotels-affiliated property that starts at $85 or 16,000 Choice Privileges points per night for a standard room. Oakhurst’s Best Western Plus Yosemite Gateway Inn is another affordable option, offering spacious, nature-inspired rooms just 15 miles away from Yosemite’s south entrance for a minimum of $120 or 20,000 Best Western Rewards points per night.
Hailed by many as America’s “best idea,” national parks preserve the nation’s soul-stirring landscapes, endemic wildlife and cultural treasures. Their unique features, startling beauty and wild recesses have a transformative effect on those who visit — regardless of the season.
Weather, accessibility and personal interests all play a part in determining the best time to check out a park. However, travelers who may only see a park once will want to be extra strategic about when they visit so they get to experience the signature attractions in one fell swoop. After all, witnessing a seasonal event, such as blooming wildflowers or dazzling fireflies, can make a visit even more powerful.
Featured photo by Peter Amend/Getty Images.
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