National Parks in winter? With adventure and wildlife in stunning winter landscapes, here are 10 must-visit National Parks for winter trips across the country.
Imagine having a national park virtually all to yourself. Visitation to national parks dips across the board during winter, so it’s almost possible in this season. You’re alone. Or so you think, until you spot an elk in the snowy distance at Rocky Mountain, or catch a brook trout in Great Smoky. In winter, you can often experience the wilderness, the landscape, and satisfy your yearning for adventure with a little more solitude and fewer distractions.
In this guide, we’ve gathered top winter activities at 10 national parks. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are common themes, but there’s also ice fishing in Acadia, stargazing in Bryce Canyon, contra dancing at Cuyahoga, sledding in Great Sand Dunes, and enjoying a Renaissance-themed holiday dinner at Yosemite.
A common challenge with winter travel is just getting there, so we’ve also included general information about facility and road closures, but weather forecasts and conditions change regularly, so always be prepared. And most of all, enjoy. These aren’t parks to get away from the season. These are places to be immersed in all the joy that winter offers. These are winter wonderlands. winter wonderlands
Acadia Acadia National Park Maine
While inland Maine is known for long, hard winters, temperatures on the coast are generally milder, making Acadia National Park a great destination for those looking for a little reprieve without traveling far. But don’t get us wrong, there’s still snow here in winter — and plenty of opportunity to get out and play after the fall leaf-peeping crowds have subsided.
Many facilities are closed in winter but you can still access the Winter Visitor Center at park headquarters, as well as popular sites along Ocean Drive and at Jordan Pond. Blackwoods Campground remains open, but as walk-in/packout camping by permit only. Nearby Bar Harbor may be your better bet for comfortable lodging, and you’ll find equipment rentals there as well.
While hiking trails can get icy in winter, and unpaved park roads are open to snowmobiles, Acadia has 40 miles of carriage trails (originally built by John D. Rockefeller) perfect for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Pick up a carriage trail map and head out from the visitor center. The trails also reach ponds and lakes that may be suitable for ice fishing; Eagle Lake is one great spot, but ask at the visitor center for the best current options.
Top Winter Activities
Ice fishing, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, scenic driving, photography
The drive from Boston to Acadia takes about 4.5 hours, or you may find a temptingly low-priced flight from Boston to Bangor, Maine, an hour from the park. Find the Winter Visitor Center 3 miles west of Bar Harbor. For an oceanview drive, access a plowed section of Park Loop Road just one mile south of Bar Harbor; stay in the right lane, as snowmobiles will be using the unplowed left lane.
Bryce Canyon National Park Utah
The Bryce Canyon Winter Festival, held each year in February over Presidents’ Day weekend, offers immersion in everything that winter offers here, including snow-covered hoodoos and incredible views. A focus on the sky, though, really differentiates this winter wonderland experience from all others. Bryce Canyon embraces astronomy as a major part of its interpretive experience, so you can expect ranger-led night programs to come with a telescope. Plan in advance; you’ll need reservations for many Winter Festival events.
November through March, ranger-led full moon snowshoe hikes are a real treat, snowshoes and poles provided. Snowshoeing is allowed throughout the park and most hiking trails remain open during winter — just be sure to wear waterproof boots or snow boots with good traction. And check for possible trail closures as rock falls do occur during this season.
Where to stay?
While Sunset Campground closes for winter, North Campground maintains at least one loop of campsites open year-round. Staying at the popular Ruby’s Inn, just outside the north entrance to the park, may be a better option for many travelers. The inn, complete with hotel, RV park, and campground, actively participates in the Winter Festival with activities of its own ranging from yoga and art classes to ski archery competitions.
Top Winter Activities
Stargazing and astronomy lessons, snowshoeing, winter hiking and backpacking, cross-country skiing
The north entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park is about 270 miles south of Salt Lake City and northeast of Las Vegas. Many park travelers like to combine a trip here with a visit to Zion National Park, 130 miles to the southwest; this is a great option in summer and fall, but be sure to check the latest road conditions and closures first in winter months.
Glacier National Park Montana
While winter weather causes many planned closings in Glacier (and many unplanned ones, too), the park service maintains 10 miles of Going-to-the- Sun Road, from park headquarters in West Glacier to Lake McDonald Lodge, throughout the season. This gives hearty visitors a chance to see some of the iconic mountain views for which Glacier is known.
Consult ski/snowshoe trail maps to find your favorite route. One option for beginners is to park at Lake McDonald Lodge (closed in winter) and continue traveling Going-to-the-Sun on foot to Avalanche Picnic Area. You can also make camp at Agpar Picnic Area (free in winter) at the West Glacier entrance and explore various trails around Lake McDonald in this more populated area.
For those less sure-footed on snow, ranger-led snowshoe walks also leave from the Agpar Visitor Center (where you can rent snowshoes) every Saturday and Sunday from January through March; this way, you’ll get instruction on local flora and fauna as well as on how to snowshoe.
On the eastern side of the park, St. Mary Campground stays open year-round (primitive, but free, in winter). From here, you can explore several trail loops near St. Mary Lake. You may also be able to find non-camping lodging in the town of St. Mary.
Top Winter Activities
Cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, photography
In the northwest corner of Montana on the border with Canada, this park is very remote, especially in winter. The west entrance is 30 miles from Kalispell, 150 from Missoula; the east entrance is close to Browning and about 125 miles from Great Falls. Rather than driving, consider riding the rails; Amtrak services both the east and west entrances, reservations required.
Grand Canyon National Park Arizona
While the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is closed in winter (actually from October 15 to May 15 each year), the South Rim stays open year-round. And as if the Grand Canyon weren’t dramatic enough in other seasons, winter brings a new sense of the spectacular, as the canyon’s intense earthy colors contrast brilliantly with fresh white snow.
Whether you’re looking for a physical challenge or a chance to slow down and rest, winter allows visitors a chance to enjoy this park without the hustle and bustle — and let’s just be honest, the sizable crowds — of other seasons. You can also take advantage of lower winter rates at the various lodges on the South Rim and have a better chance of getting a campsite.
Hikers will embrace the opportunity to experience the popular Bright Angel Trail and Phantom Ranch or Bright Angel Campground during the lessbusy season; just be prepared for icy trail conditions and quickly changing winter weather. Others may prefer to stay above the rim to explore the rich cultural history available at spots like El Tovar Historic Hotel, Hopi House, and the Yavapai Museum of Geology. There, in addition to learning about the canyon’s deep secrets, you can get an incredible panoramic view of the winter landscape from inside a warm and cozy building.
Top Winter Activities
Photography, hiking, train rides, historic tours, camping
For a really fun and historically accurate way to get around, take the train. The Grand Canyon Railway, a mainstay since 1901, travels 130 miles round trip daily between the South Rim and Williams, Arizona, a town 30 miles west of Flagstaff. On the 2-hour, 15-minute train ride, sit back and soak in the landscape just as early guests to the national park did. Otherwise, the South Rim is about a 4-hour drive (230 miles) north from Phoenix.
Grand Teton National Park Wyoming
Just south of Yellowstone is a smaller, but no less magnificent, national park that preserves some of the most majestic mountains in the country. While most amenities and services at Grand Teton shut down for the winter season, the park remains open for exploration, and lodging is available in nearby Jackson, Wyoming.
The inner Grand Teton Road is closed to motorized traffic in winter from Taggart Lake Trailhead for 15 miles north to Signal Mountain Lodge. While this limits access to many of the park’s favorite sites and trailheads, it gives cross-country skiers and snowshoers a near-private tour. Many other trails throughout the park offer similar opportunities; check a ski/snowshoe trail map to plan your excursion.
Less experienced winter adventurers can try their hand (or, well, feet) with a ranger-guided snowshoe walk, leaving from the Taggart Lake Trailhead when weather conditions permit from December to March. A ranger naturalist will help you get comfortable walking in snowshoes and explain what’s going on beneath the snowy surface as plants and animals within the park continue to survive and thrive. Call ahead to reserve your spot.
Top Winter Activities:
Cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, photography, wildlife viewing, limited snowmobiling (similar to Yellowstone)
Snow plows keep the outer park road (Highway 26/89/191), heading north from Jackson, Wyoming, clear through winter; use this road to skirt along the eastern section of the park and north along Jackson Lake and the Snake River and to the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway toward Yellowstone. Jackson is approximately 550 miles north of Denver and 300 miles north of Salt Lake City. In Jackson, stop in the Jackson Hole and Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center, open year-round (except for Christmas and Thanksgiving).
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Tennessee and North Carolina
Winter is a great time to stop by one of America’s most-visited parks, as this is the least busy season. Even when higher elevations at Great Smoky are covered in snow and roads through mountain passes close, many trails and roads in the foothills are accessible.
Cades Cove and Smokemont campgrounds remain open year-round, firstcome, first-served; backcountry sites and shelters, including those along the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (also part of the National Park System), are available by reservation with a permit. Hikers, including backpackers, should plan carefully; check road closures and make sure you can access desired trailheads. Remember that trails covered in fallen leaves may be slick, and ice can form quickly.
Even in winter, the fish are still biting in Great Smoky, and the park enjoys a year-round fishing season (state license required). Try popular trout fishing streams at lower elevations, especially when the water is above 45 degrees, to catch rainbows, browns, and the prized brook trout.
Anyone who visits this park leaves wanting more. To truly immerse yourself in the Smokies experience, sign up for a workshop, ranging from winter photography to lichen identification, through the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, which operates year-round. Tremont is a self-contained campus within the park, with a dorm, dining hall, library and more.
Top Winter Activities
Hiking, camping, fly fishing, touring historic sites, outdoor education
Great Smoky Mountains has three park entrances: Gatlinburg and Townsend in Tennessee, and Cherokee in North Carolina. Knoxville, about an hour away from the Tennessee entrances, has the closest airport. The park is about a 4-hour drive from Atlanta. Tremont is closest to the park entrance near Townsend.
Olympic National Park Washington
With distinct zones — mountains, forests, coast — Olympic is like three parks in one, and all are accessible in winter (with a little extra prep, of course). For true winter sports, Hurricane Ridge is the favorite. This mountainous area receives plenty of snow for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. For an all-ages excursion, schedule a snowshoe walk with a ranger, available mid-December through March with park-provided gear. It’s a great way for inexperienced snowshoers to experience the snow. Avalanches can occur in the Olympic Mountains, so be sure to heed all signs and warnings about avalanche-prone areas.
If you’d rather escape the snow than embrace it, head for the coast instead. While temperatures will still be cold, snow melts quickly here. Check tide schedules and plan a walk at low tide. Campgrounds at Mora Rialto Beach, Ozette Lake, and Kalaloch are open year-round; during some parts of the year, the popular Kalaloch campground requires reservations, but in winter, it’s first-come, first-served, or you can stay at the lovely Kalaloch Lodge with a prime view of the Pacific Ocean.
Olympic’s forests always feel otherworldly, like a trip back in time, and in late winter after a snow melt, this effect is heightened. A hike in the Hoh or Quinault rainforests awakens the senses in preparation for spring. The Hoh campground is open year-round, and you can also find lodging in nearby Forks.
Top Winter Activities
Snowshoeing, cross-country and downhill skiing, snowboarding, tubing, beachcombing, hiking, camping, lodging
Traveling from Olympia, Highway 101 circles the park, providing access to all areas and entry points. You’ll find Hurricane Ridge 17 miles south of Port Angeles in the north, complete with a warm and cozy visitor center and rental shop for winter gear. Coastal destinations are on the west side and forests on the south to southwest.
Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado
Rocky Mountain is a tale of two parks: the east side and the west side. In winter, the east side may have less snow at lower points, but at higher elevations, it’s an arctic scene often with blizzard conditions. The west side receives more snow, but it’s generally calm and clear. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are possible on either side, or you can try sledding in the one spot allowed inside the park: Hidden Valley, a former ski area on the east side near Estes Park. Find equipment either in Estes Park or Grand Lake.
Opportunities to see wildlife, especially large mammals, peak during the winter season, when human traffic slows and elk, moose, deer, and sheep come out in search of food and water. You’re likely to spot moose along the Colorado River on the west side and the elusive bighorn sheep along the Fall River on the east side. As you drive, look for elk and mule deer in meadow areas.
Top Winter Activities:
Sledding, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, wildlife watching
While the middle, highest-elevation portion of Trail Ridge Road closes in winter, making it difficult to travel from one side of the park to the other, you can still enter the west side from near Grand Lake and the east side from Estes Park. Both towns offer plenty of amenities — restaurants, lodging, equipment rentals — and can serve as outposts for the park. The only park campground open year-round is Moraine Park on the east side; you may find a spot on limited loops, first-come, first-served. Both Grand Lake and Estes Park are about 2 hours from Denver; check the latest road conditions to plan your route.
Yosemite National Park California
During the winter holidays, Yosemite Valley transforms into a wonderland of revelry and pageantry steeped in traditions nearly a century old. Since 1927, the annual Bracebridge Dinner at the Ahwahnee Lodge has been celebrated with a Renaissance inspired seven-course dinner and four hour pageant of carols and Medieval entertainment. More than 100 players act in the extravaganza from mid- December to Christmas Day.
Plan far ahead to get a seat at the Bracebridge table. While it costs $400 and up (per person), it‘s an experience of a lifetime. In nearby Curry Village, a more economical lodging option, the whole family can also enjoy ice-skating from mid-November through March, a winter tradition since the 1930s, and tour the Ahwahnee to revel in the Christmas decor.
Like many parks, Yosemite offer opportunities for athletes to test their winter skills on skis, snowboards, and snowshoes. In fact, Yosemite also has one of the few downhill ski areas within a national park; Badger Pass, open mid-December through March, is the oldest ski area in California. While many higher-elevation trails are inaccessible due to snow cover and closed roads, you can hike many trails in Yosemite Valley. Check at the Valley Visitor Center for current trail conditions.
Top Winter Activities:
Lodging, fine dining, holiday dinner theater, ice-skating, downhill skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking
Yosemite National Park is a short drive from many major cities: roughly 4 hours from San Francisco or Sacramento, 6 from Los Angeles, 8 from Las Vegas or San Diego. While the trip southwest from Reno/Lake Tahoe usually takes 5 hours, road conditions in winter make it an 8-hour journey.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park Ohio
Nature may slow down in winter, but this park keeps hopping, giving local residents and visitors alike a reason to get out of the house and commune with plants, animals, and fellow humans. Robust cultural programming here includes educational speakers, regular concerts, contra dances, and art workshops throughout the season.
If you’d still rather bundle up and be outdoors, head to the Kendall Lake Shelter’s Winter Sports Center to learn a sport like snowshoeing or cross-country skiing with certified instructors. Hiking trails are also open throughout the park; just be prepared to hike in a little snow. You can also join a ranger-led walk, including full moon hikes and off-trail adventures.
Hospitality reigns here, especially at two lodging options open year-round: Inn at Brandywine Falls and Stanford House. Make reservations in advance to stay at one of these historic homes; rooms are quaint and cozy, but few.
Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad The railroad operates through the winter and offers special rides you won’t want to miss, like the beer-tasting and wine-tasting trains, dinner trains, and a holiday season journey to the “North Pole.” Board trains from either the Akron Northside Station or the Rockside Station to the south. Check the train schedule for the latest info; reservations required in advance for most specialty rides.
Top Winter Activities
Train rides, bird watching, hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, sledding, lodging, nature lecture series, music and art series
This park runs along the Cuyahoga River Valley between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio (about a half hour from each), and it’s an easy escape from many other eastern cities: Columbus, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Chicago.
Source: This story was printed in National Parks Travel Ideas.
About the Author: Kelly Smith Trimble writes about the outdoors from her home in Knoxville, Tennessee, near the Great Smoky Mountains. She’s been snowshoeing in Lassen Volcanic and hiked across glaciers in Rocky Mountain and Glacier, but she’s never been ice fishing.