Traveling to national parks may be more closely associated with the summertime, but many parks are just as accessible (and enjoyable) after the snow begins to fall. This winter, get the most out of yourannual National Park Pass and check out one (or more) of these federally protected winter wonderlands.
Channel Islands, Calif.
A coastal getaway anytime between December and March might sound chilly, but wildlife experts say that’s the best time to visit the five islands (Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Santa Rosa) that comprise Channel Islands National Park. This three-month window period is migration season for scores of gray whales, which can be easily spotted from the shore. The park is also known as a haven for water sports, from kayaking and sailing to deep-sea fishing.
Crater Lake, Ore.
Oregon’s only national park sits roughly 7,500 feet above sea level. As a result, the area receives an average annual snowfall of 533 inches. Winter visitors can enjoy the park’s vast network of trails designated for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. Most of the amenities (including the fabled Crater Lake Lodge) are closed for the winter, but visitors can still visit the park’s gift shop and café for a souvenir and mug of hot chocolate, respectively, after a day of fun in the snow.
According to Carol Pucci of The Seattle Times, Glacier N.P. provides an “ideal winter getaway”. Numerous cabins are available for winter rental (many of which have discounted rates outside the summer season), while lodges, eateries and other park fixtures remain open year-round. Some of Glacier’s most popular winter activities include bike rides along the Flathead River, snowshoe excursions to Lake McDonald and ski trips to the breathtaking waterfalls that comprise Sacred Dancing Cascade.
Rocky Mountain, Colo.
Not surprisingly, this elevated park boasts a large number of premium winter hikes. One of the easier trails, Upper Beaver Meadows, involves a 1.5-mile stretch that provides prime elk-spotting opportunities. The park’s most strenuous hike, Deer Mountain, entails an elevation gain that exceeds 1,000 feet – and rewards those who summit with stunning views of the Continental Divide. The park is also home to numerous cross-country skiing routes, though most are classified intermediate or higher. Snowmobiling is also allowed near the North Supply Access Trail. But the real treat of this park, many kids say, is the epic sledding found in the Hidden Valley area.
Situated in icy northern Minnesota just a few clicks from the Canadian border, Voyageurs N.P. receives roughly 177,184 annual visitors (Yellowstone, by comparison, receives more than 3.3 million). The result is a winter wonderland of skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling trails that are relatively crowd-free. But the other draw to this park is Rainy Lake Ice Road, a seven-mile stretch of frozen water that is accessible to vehicles weighing less than 7,000 pounds (with the exception of snowmobiles, which are prohibited for safety reasons).
During the winter season, America’s largest national park is also one of the busiest. In addition to a vast network of ski, snowshoe and snowmobile routes accessible to the public, the park also provides several ranger-led programs for visitors. This year’s line-up includes a guided snowshoeing trek to Mammoth Hot Springs, wildlife ecology seminar and geyser-viewing tours at noon and in the evenings. All programs are free (though ski or snowshoe rental fees may apply).
At Yosemite, there is an activity to suit every type of winter recreator. The park is filled with snowy flatland trails that are ideal for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, while the Badger Pass downhill course may appeal to snowboarders and alpine skiers (as well as snow-tubers). Backcountry ski and snowshoe tours are offered; these include an overnight stay in one of the park’s furnished huts. Yosemite also features an ice skating rink that sits below two of the park’s most prominent landmarks, Half Dome and Glacier Point.
The dry flatlands of Zion experience a relatively light dusting of snow every year, making it the ideal location to seek refuge from the winter weather. Most of the trails remain open year-round, and the park has become a haven for wintertime photographers. And since the Canyon Shuttle service is suspended from November to March, private vehicle are allowed to drive through the canyon.
This list is certainly not exhaustive. Tell us about your experiences at these (or other) U.S. National Parks during the winter months.