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Who doesn’t love going to national parks during their time off? Marveling at the towering red sequoias of Sequoia National Park, walking under one of the impressive arches of Arches National Park and standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon is part of most buckets lists and accordingly, it can get very crowded in those places. Especially at the height of summer. Most people think it needs to be hot out to get the most out of a national park visit, but let me tell you a secret: there are tons of national parks to visit in winter that don’t include you trudging through a couple feet of snow either. Winter is by far my favourite time to tour the amazing national parks the United States has to offer. When most people are cozied up at home, I love getting these places almost all to myself with nothing but nature for company. Without traffic jams clogging up the streets, hundreds of selfie-taking tourists in front of your favourite monument and loud people ruining the serene atmosphere, these national parks revert back to their original, natural state.
Ditch the Crowds and Head to These National Parks to Visit in Winter
At the moment, the United States offers 59 national parks that are operated by the National Park Service. While a snowy Yellowstone is a wonderful sight, the best national parks to visit in winter are all a bit further south and usually require nothing more than a light jacket during the day. Nights can get very cold though and unless you are a hardcore camper, I recommend sleeping indoors. Since it’s the off season, the cabins, lodges and hotels usually offer great deals that will keep you cozy during the cold nights and won’t break the bank. And you might not believe it, but all the photos below were taken in January and February.
Sequoia National Park in California
During winter, especially if there was some snow fall recently, Sequoia National Park requires all vehicles to have snow chains. This deters a huge number of people who all expect to encounter a wall of snow in the middle of California. Contrary to popular belief, there is usually very little snow and you will most likely not need the chains, but pick up a cheap pair at Walmart before your visit and enjoy being the only person walking among the towering redwoods.
Arches National Park in Utah
Parking is pretty limited in Arches National Park and during the summer months, it can take hours of waiting to finally be allowed into the Delicate Arch parking area. When you visit the national park in winter though, it’s normal to have a popular arch all to yourself and you can drive right up and start your hike. Plus, the contrast between the red stone and a sprinkle of snow can look amazing.
Death Valley National Park in California
The scorching heat of summer(45°C/116°F or more on a regular day) already makes Death Valley a winter park, but this still doesn’t stop most people from visiting during the warmer months anyway. Apart from the more comfortable temperatures, there are usually more clouds in the sky in winter and the light is soft and low, which makes for beautiful photography options.
Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona
The Grand Canyon has always been one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States. Winter offers a slower pace at the rim, but even then, there is always a number of people visiting. The South Rim is open year round, but the North Rim is closed to vehicles during the winter months. For a completely unique and serene experience, try a multi day hike to the North Rim, or to Havasu Canyon for example. Havasu Canyon is a sidearm of the Grand Canyon and boast some of the most stunning waterfalls in the world. But, bring a really warm sleeping bag for the freezing nights!
Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas
I prefer hiking in cooler temperatures and since Guadalupe Mountains National Park offers a number of great hiking trails, winter is the perfect time to visit. The park is also stunning to photograph, so don’t forget to bring plenty of batteries and memory cards!
Joshua Tree National Park in California
While the park is already pretty underrated, Joshua Tree is one of the best national parks to visit in winter. Temperatures in Joshua Tree National Park average around 15°C/60°F in the colder months, but nights are freezing due to it being located in the Mojave Desert. This deters most campers and you’ll be able to admire the thousands of name-giving yucca brevifolias, who to some Mormon settlers apparently looked like Joshua praying, in complete solitude. Now if that isn’t a religious experience, I don’t know what is.
Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado
Mesa Verde National Park hosts the fascinating archeological cliff dwellings built and inhabited by the Pueblo People between 550 and 1300 AD. Due to being built under overhangs in the canyon walls, these dwellings were and are, comfortably cool in summer and warm in winter.
Saguaro National Park in Arizona
It’s giant cacti, it’s the Arizona desert, it’s perfect for winter!
Zion National Park in Utah
The fact that Zion National Park now has to issue permits via a lottery to restrict visitors to the subway and the mystery canyon sections is indicative of how crowded it can get there. In winter, you have a much better chance of scoring one of the few permits and with a wet suit, those parts of the parks are even a lot of fun in the colder months. But also the rest of the park, such as the popular Angel’s Landing hike, will be much more pleasant during a visit in winter.
A Note of Caution:
While winter is usually a very calm season in terms of crowds, I strongly advise you to avoid Thanksgiving weekend, Christmas and New Year as well as Martin Luther King Day and Presidents Day Weekend. Those are all peak days and the parks will be crawling with visitors. Also, while you won’t find as much snow as you would in Alaska, it doesn’t hurt to check the weather conditions before you go. Cold weather fronts can lead to extreme conditions in all of those parks, so make sure to bring waterproof boots, gloves, hats, layers of warm clothes and a thick jacket to be prepared for whatever nature throws your way.