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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

Carriage Road at Acadia National Park

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

Delicate Arch at Arches National Park

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

Chisos snow at Big Bend National Park

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

Bryce Canyon National Park

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

Visitors walk along sand dunes at sunset inside Death Valley National Park in June 17, 2021 in Inyo County, 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

Dry Tortugas National Park

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

Everglades National Park

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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