America’s 20 prettiest national parks in winter

December 23, 2013

Winter may not be your chosen season for visiting the national parks, but that policy deserves reviewing.

Sure, dropping temperatures and snowy landscapes mean you’ll need to prepare differently for a park visit, but the pay off is well worth the time.

Winter gives a totally different perspective of park life. Once-crowded trails turn into tranquil getaways. Quiet winter wonderlands showcase nature’s calm beauty.

If you’re looking for a chance to break free from cabin fever, consider visiting one of our wonderful national parks in winter. Or, just sit back and enjoy the photos below, and see for yourself how our national parks transform during the coldest months.

Photo: Winter in Yosemite photo by Randy Le’Moine Photography, flickr

1. Arches National Park, Utah

Arches has some of America’s most breathtaking scenes. In winter, white snow contrasts with the red rocks and blue skies to create some stunning sights. While daytime temperatures can rise above 100 degrees in summer here, expect freezing temperatures in winter. Even scant snowfall can make trails and roads impassable, so be sure to plan ahead if you intend to visit this national park in winter.

Adopt Arches and your honoree will receive a gift membership to The Wilderness Society.

photo credit: flickr, Arches NPS (Jacob W. Frank)

2. Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

Mount Rainier National Park has all the snow you could ask for in a winter landscape. The area known as Paradise receives an average of 54 feet of snow every year and held the world record for annual snowfall at 93.5 feet in the 1970s. In winter, Mount Rainier also has all the recreation you could ask for: sledding, sliding, skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, climbing and camping. Despite lingering budget cuts, they will actually be open seven days a week this season, which is good news for snow lovers. Earlier this year, wilderness volunteer vacationers worked to restore the beloved Mount Rainer park.

Adopt Mount Rainier and help preserve its beauty for future generations.

photo: descending to Ingraham Flats camp from Mt. Rainier summit. credit: flickr, Palojono.

3. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

While it may be hard to imagine, Bryce Canyon’s earthly spires are even more spectacular when icy. Bryce Canyon National Park also has ideal stargazing skies, and the cold, dry air makes them all the more amazing. Saturday astronomy programs  and full moon snowshoe adventures are just a couple of the several incredible programs offered here during the winter season. The annual Winter Festival is held on President’s Day weekend. There are many dangers here in this season, however, so if you do visit, be sure to follow park regulations and get up-to-date weather information at the visitors center before venturing out. Boots are mandatory and traction devices are highly recommended for trail hikers, and backcountry permits are issued to only the most prepared and experienced.

photo credit: flickr, Raj Hanchanahal Photography

4. Yosemite National Park, California

Classic places like Yosemite National Park never fail to amaze, even after this year’s wildfire. In winter, snowy peaks, foggy slopes, icy waterfalls and frozen streams beacon to visitors who will find beauty as well as fun. Some roads close in winter, but those that access Wawona and Yosemite Valley are cleared. That’s where visitors can ice skate in the outdoor rink, which a controversial plan proposes to close. The Glacier Point/Badger Pass Road is also plowed so that skiers and snowboarders can reach the popular Badger Pass ski area. Trails are open for snowshoers, and the Merced River has year-round fishing. With so many gifts offered by this breathtaking landscape, you might consider giving back this year through adoption.

Adopt Yosemite today!

photo credit: flickr, puliarf

5. Denali National Park, Alaska

One would expect snow to be status quo at the northern latitudes where Denali‘s mountains rise from the earth. Snow may begin in August, with winter setting in by October. Denali receives less than five hours of true daylight by the time the winter solstice arrives, but there are some notable advantages to visiting this harsh, remote landscape during its coldest months. Its wild winters provide even more tranquil solitude, and if you are lucky you may get a glimpse of the breathtaking aurora borealis. You can also see some expert snow sculptures and ice carvings during February’s week-long Winterfest. The winter visitor center remains open daily, offering ranger-led snowshoe walks, skiing and dog sledding. With temperatures dropping as low as -40°F, those who are truly bold may even brave the backcountry.

photo credit: flickr, Denali NPS (Jacob W. Frank)

6. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Although the Grand Canyon is a southernly park, its ridges are still blessed with delightful snow in winter. Fog is typical in the early morning hours but afternoons are sunny. The canyon’s north rim closes to visitors in fall, but the south rim is open year-round and is likely to be far less crowded for visitors during this season. Those who do come can take a cell phone audio tour, use a GPS device for virtual caching and catch the annual Celebration of Art exhibition, which this year runs until January 14, 2014.

Help protect the grandeur of the Grand Canyon by adopting it today.

photo credit: flickr, Grand Canyon NPS

7. Yellowstone National Park, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming

Winter celebrations should include the beginning of America’s National Park System upon the protection of this park in March 1872. In winter, Yellowstone’s iconic landscapes are inhabited by a plethora of wildlife such as bison, elk, moose and wolves. Its geysers appear even more dramatic in the cool air. Not surprisingly, Yellowstone National Park remains popular for visitors year-round, as evidenced by the numerous recreation offerings in winter including tours by snow-coach, skis and snowshoes. If you want to celebrate all that Yellowstone stands for, give the gift of adopting it.

Adopt Yosemite today!

photo credit: flickr, exquisitur

8. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

With the highest elevations in the country, Colorado is well-known for being a winter destination, and Rocky Mountain National Park is no exception. With numerous peaks to explore, backcountry skiers can cut through the incomparable continental divide. Other recreation opportunities include snowshoeing, sledding and hiking. Rocky Mountain National Park has faced its share of challenges this year. Colorado’s historic flooding damaged some trails and washed out entrance routes to the park in September. Then in October, the government shutdown shuttered the park for 16 days, taking a way a big slice of the park’s income. So a visit would surely be greatly appreciated.

photo credit: Longs Peak. credit: flickr, Dusty J

9. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Winter stretches itself from October through June at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Clear lakes become icy, volcanoes become topped with heavy snow and steam vents become especially smoky. For those seeking fun as well as beauty, winter activities are at their peak here, with sledding hills that offer mountain views, snowshoeing for beginners and experts and backcountry skiing that can’t be beat.

photo credit: National Park Service

10. Zion National Park, Utah

Similar to Arches and Bryce, this Utah destination’s red rock canyons sparkle when it snows. Zion National Park’s majestic rocks appear all the more dramatic when cloaked in white. Winters in Zion are relatively warm, reaching 50-60°F during the day, but very wet – nearly half of its annual precipitation falls between December and March. If you intend to visit, be aware that trails may close due to snow and ice.

photo credit: flickr, guneyc

11. Acadia National Park, Maine

Acadia National Park’s waves wildly crash at the shores while its wild creatures venture from their homes in winter. If you’re looking for a place to have all to yourself this season, then consider the prime backcountry ski slopes here. Visitors can also take advantage of ice fishing, snowshoeing, scenic drives and dog sledding. If you leave feeling generous, you can adopt the neighboring Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which is awaiting wilderness protection.

12. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

America’s most visited park still gets attention after all its gorgeous leaves have dropped. The barren trees become fortresses of ice and snow – a true winter wonderland. If you visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park, be aware that the main roads should remain clear, but secondary ones may be closed. Bears will be in hibernation, but you are more likely to catch a glimpse of wildlife once the foliage has vanished. This is another great place to take a quick jaunt on the Appalachian Trail as well.

photo credit: flickr, ErnestDuffoo

13. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Snow covers Grand Teton National Park’s classically beautiful landscape from November to May. Its long winters can be bitterly cold (the coldest temperature ever recorded here was -63°F). Most visitors travel by ski or snowshoe because roads aren’t as accessible. Planning ahead is crucial if you do vacation here in winter. Even this quintessential park could be opened to drilling in the near future, which is why we keep working to protect such special places, even after they’ve been made into public parks.

photo credit: flickr, jeffgunn

14. Glacier National Park, Montana

With a name like Glacier National Park, you would expect to see some icy wonders here. This national park gets its name the massive glaciers which shaped the land here ten thousand years ago. This distinct place allows scientists to studying those ancient processes as well as the impacts melting glaciers will have on our national parks. If you want to see it in person during winter, you will have to ski or snowshoe in, making it an excellent winter getaway. Weather can be very unpredictable, so visitors must come prepared for potential dangers. Speaking of dangers, we are working to advance legislation that would prevent future development just outside its park boundaries.

photo credit: flickr, Glacier NPS (David Restivo)

15. Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Winter defines Crater Lake National Park. High elevations and proximity to the Pacific Ocean create conditions for Crater Lake to receive over 44 feet of snow every year on average. Without this precipitation, the lake itself wouldn’t exist. If you desire to discover this snowy wilderness, it’s best not to drive, but it is a wonderful place for skiing and snowshoeingRanger-led interpretive hikes are offered every weekend.

photo credit: flickr, dlebech

16. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Shenandoah National Park’s diverse elevations means it can receive rain, snow and ice in one day. Leafless trees and spacious skies create wide-open mountain vistas. If you want to go for a hike, hop onto the legendary Appalachian Trail for a stretch, but be aware that park facilities are closed.

photo credit: National Park Service

17. Olympic National Park, Washington

Olympic National Park has many diverse landscapes, all of which come alive in the wet season of winter. Drippy rain forests burst with rich greens, ocean beaches are dramatically plummeted by stormy waves and grandiose mountains tower with snowy peaks. Avalanches make visiting its peaks in winter fairly risky, although lower elevations remain relatively mild if you care to witness the splendor in person.

photo credit: flickr, PJ Peterson

18. Joshua Tree National Park, California

Evergreen trees receive special attention this time of year, and the joshua tree should be no exception. While snow isn’t likely at the Joshua Tree National Park’s lower elevations, its perfect stargazing skies reign supreme all year long. Winter temperatures can reach 60°F, making it the opportune time to visit the otherwise-sweltering Joshua Tree. We are working to support legislation that would expand this park, connecting it to other protected areas.

photo credit: flickr, JBYoder

19. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska

Skies are normally clear in this rugged wild place, offering dancing auroras at night. The photograph below may be your best bet for capturing the beauty of this park, however. The winter season is dark, very long and extremely cold – temperatures rise to only 5-7ºF during the day and fall to -50ºF at night. Hearty souls to choose to brave the elements anyhow will need to rely on dog sleds for transportation.

photo credit: National Park Service

20. Death Valley National Park, California and Nevada

Known as the hottest place on the planet, Death Valley is certainly a winter park. The mountain peaks are snow capped, and the low angled winter light makes this wild land more beautiful. Occasional rainstorms are a seasonal treat for this area is also the driest on the continent. Most days are sunny, however, so this desert is prime location for solar energy development, which The Wilderness Society is working to keep out of the most sensitive wild lands. We are also advocating for a bill that will protect more wild lands here since it is such a one-of-a-kind destination. For example, the stargazing here is legendary, so the park hosts several astronomical events during the cold months, including full moon festivals, star parties and Mars Fest in March. If you think you might visit, you will find it at its quietest between Thanksgiving and Christmas, after which visitation peaks so reservations are recommended. You can take a peek online first if you wish.

photo credit: National Park Service

This post originally appeared on The Wilderness Society’s website and is posted here with permission.