The best national parks to visit when it’s cold
America’s national parks have always been one of the best family vacation ideas, and with their kid-friendly campgrounds, historic lodges and low-admission prices, it’s easy to see why. But while the most popular national parks are often packed during the summer, they’re often overlooked in the wintertime. In fact, some of the best national parks to visit in winter see crowds that are up to 90% lighter in the winter months.
Many of America’s top national parks are located in deserts and tropical locations, too. In winter, these typically inhospitable places (I’m looking at you, Death Valley) offer more pleasant temperatures. So, from snowy mountain peaks to warm sandy oases, here are the best national parks to visit in winter.
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1. Acadia National Park, Maine
The first light of the new year in the U.S. shines on Acadia National Park’s Cadillac Mountain and the neighboring family vacation spot of Bar Harbor has plenty of kid-friendly New Year’s Eve activities and fireworks to keep the whole family feeling festive.
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Acadia National Park stays open all-year-round and in the winter its miles of carriage roads are groomed for cross country skiers, snowshoers and hikers. Staying nice and warm in your car is a good option, too, because traffic drops substantially in the colder months and the popular Park Loop Road near the ocean remains open for scenic drives.
2. Arches National Park, Utah
One of Utah’s famed Mighty 5 national parks, Arches National Park boasts crazy-high numbers of visitors during the summer months, when long lines cause long waits at popular formations like Delicate Arch. But because many Utah visitors opt to visit ski destinations when the snows arrive, winter is a great time to visit Arches National Park without the crowds – or scorching temperatures.
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White snow contrasting with red rocks against a blue sky makes for fantastic sights (not to mention photographs). Most of the hiking trails remain open all year, but be prepared for slippery conditions after a snowfall. If you don’t want to leave your car, there are scenic winter drives through the Windows Section of the park to the Delicate Arch viewpoint.
3. Big Bend National Park, Texas
The winter months are full of sunny days with milder temperatures at Big Bend, making it one of the top national parks to visit in winter – and often a more enjoyable experience than during the blazing summer heat.
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The park sits on a curve (i.e., Big Bend) of the Rio Grande that cuts high-walled canyons throughout the region. Families can enjoy the scenic Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive through the Chisos mountain range and there are plenty of hiking opportunities such as the Santa Elena Canyon Trail. And since it’s winter, why not warm up by taking a dip in a natural hot spring? There’s a half-mile hike to a 105-degree natural pool adjacent to the Rio Grande.
4. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
The hoodoo-spired landscape of Bryce Canyon National Park adds another dimension entirely when snow falls on its peaks. The red rock amphitheater remains open year-round and families can head to popular lookouts such as Inspiration Point and Sunset Point or hike favorite routes including the Navajo Loop and Queen’s Garden trails.
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Other winter fun includes the annual Bryce Canyon Winter Festival with ski and snowshoeing clinics, photography classes, kids’ activities like fossil talks and painting and family concerts.
5. Death Valley National Park, California
Death Valley? You may associate this national park with extreme heat, but the average high temperature at Death Valley National Park in January is just 68 degrees Fahrenheit and it’s 75 degrees in February. Visiting in winter is a great time to enjoy the park’s stunning landscapes, star-filled skies and endless outdoor activities—including the lowest elevation golf course on the planet.
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While most national parks experience their lowest crowds in the winter, Death Valley has its peak visitation at this time of year. But families can still find plenty of space to spread out between Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well as after the new year through late February. Take advantage of the lower temperatures for hikes as well as nighttime stargazing.
6. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Located on a remote tropical island 70 miles west of Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park takes some effort to get to—it’s only accessible by boat or seaplane—but it’s definitely worth the extra miles to get there.
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The 100-square-mile park boundaries enclose a number of small coral reef islands. Swimming, snorkeling, diving and boating in the clear blue water are all popular activities in the park. On land, families can explore the historic 19th century Fort Jefferson, located on Garden Key and built to support ships patrolling the Gulf of Mexico in the mid- to late-1800s. There are multiple lighthouses on the islands, including Garden Key Light (also called Tortugas Harbor Light) and Loggerhead Lighthouse on nearby Loggerhead Key.
7. Everglades National Park, Florida
The Sunshine State is home to not one but two of the best national parks to visit in winter because winter is the dry season for Florida’s Everglades National Park. With high temperatures in the 70s and evening lows in the 50s, the colder months are a great time to explore this tropical national park.
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The tenacious mosquitos that are ubiquitous in the summer months are gone (as is the heat and humidity) and there are plenty of birds and wildlife on display. Migrating birds from northern climates make their way to the Everglades and alligators haul themselves out of the water to warm in the sun. Two-hour tours are available with Shark Valley Tram Tours (an official National Park partner), where naturalists take families deep into the Everglades ecosystem.
8. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
The North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park closes between December and mid-May, but winter at the South Rim is magical and offers a different perspective on this spectacular U.S. tourist attraction. Visiting in the colder months, families can fully appreciate the park’s mild winter temperatures, smaller crowds and even one of America’s best historic train rides.
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The winter sun is lower in the sky, meaning it doesn’t set directly over the Grand Canyon but instead cloaks the rocky peaks and crevasses in lovely purple, pink and orange hues. And the nights sparkle in this certified Dark Sky Park where you can see the Milky Way with your naked eye. Winter sunrises can be equally spectacular. In-the-know photographers appreciate this time of year for the clarity of the light, especially just after a snowstorm. Because of clear skies, the visibility is highest in this season, too.
9. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
The summer crowds are gone and a blanket of snow covers the mountains when winter comes to Grand Teton National Park and there’s no better backdrop for activities like cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, snow coaches and dogsled tours than Grand Teton. Mushers hook sleds to teams of Alaskan Huskies for rides through the mountains, families can also take horse-drawn sleigh rides through the National Elk Refuge to get an up-close look at the herd and there are ample opportunities to snowshoe with a park ranger on an interpretive hike.
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Those looking for a kid-friendly activity that’s more protected from the elements can opt for a snow coach safari. And there are plenty of family adventures that offer day-long tours with local guides, kid-focused programming, activity packets and plenty of opportunities for wildlife observation, too.
10. Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana
Who wouldn’t want to go to a sandy beach with miles of dunes in the middle of winter? Indiana Dunes National Park hugs 15 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and while the park is best known for its summer beach activities on the lake, it makes a great place to visit in the winter too.
When the sunbathing and swimming crowds disappear, families have plenty of space for hiking, cross country skiing, snowshoeing and sledding down snow-covered dunes. There are also dramatic shelf ice formations that gather along the Lake Michigan shoreline, giving a surreal arctic quality to the landscape. With the sun dipping early in the evening, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to catch a picturesque sunset along the Indiana Dunes lakeshore.
11. Saguaro National Park, Arizona
Stately cacti stretch their arms to the sky in Arizona’s Saguaro National Park. And like other desert parks, Saguaro is one of the top national parks to visit in winter because the season brings cooler temperatures (highs in the mid-60s, nighttime lows in the 40s) and even a chance of snow.
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There are plenty of options for hiking and biking throughout this unique desert ecosystem, including a trail that leads to a hill with nearly 200 petroglyphs created by indigenous people 500 to 1,000 years ago.
12. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Not many places can match the beauty of Yellowstone in winter and that’s why they call it a wonderland. Yes, temperatures plummet, but so do visitation levels – and in an age of social distancing, that makes winter an even better time to visit.
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Some of the best wildlife (and geyser-viewing) opportunities come during the height of winter, too. Bison also roam the landscape with frozen, crusty manes, while large herds of elk gather in the lower elevations and are an important food source for wolves, mountain lions and bears. Winter visits to Yellowstone’s interior are available via snowmobiles or 4×4 snow coaches driven by national park guides.
13. Zion National Park, Utah
Named for the Hebrew word meaning “refuge,” Utah’s Zion National Park in Utah isn’t just one of the top national parks to visit in winter – it’s also one of the most beautiful places on earth. While the park’s apricot-colored canyon walls and endless views draw hordes of tourists in the warmer months, visitor numbers drop along with the temperatures when winter rolls around.
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Weather conditions vary this time of year, but there are frequent sunshine-filled days with moderate temperatures throughout the winter. And though December through March see the highest level of precipitation at Zion, snow doesn’t last long on the valley floor as temperatures rise to daytime highs of 50 to 60 degrees. Ice and snow remain on the peaks and higher elevations, however, making some hikes more challenging.
FamilyVacationist.com covers family vacation ideas; family travel destinations; all-inclusive resorts; and must-have travel accessories for families of all shapes, sizes and orientations. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.