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National Parks have seen a record number of visitors. Most national parks are at peak season between Memorial Day and Labor Day, but most are open year-round (check the weather and seasonal closing before you go!). That’s why the off-season is a great time to visit. From the Great Smokies to the Grand Canyon, some of the most popular summer destinations offer breathing room this time of year. And of course, there are a few that really shine come winter. If you’re looking for an outdoor experience that will wow in the colder months, consider these parks.
It’s the most visited national park in the country, and for good reason! It’s said to be within a day’s drive of 1/3 of Americans, entry is always free, and hello, it’s gorgeous. This time of year, you’ll get to experience the majestic Smokies without the crowds.
According to the National Park Service, about half of the winter days in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park see high temperatures of 50 degrees or greater, with lows typically at or below freezing. If you’re from the north like me, those temperatures seem perfect. Some days can even reach the 60s or 70s. Very often, you’ll find snow-free conditions on lower trails. Of course, the higher you go, the colder and icier it gets. Be sure to check the weather and road conditions prior to arrival.
A few things to do? Winter hiking! Bring some trekking poles, dress in layers and if you’re planning on gaining some altitude, bring something to strap on your boots to give you a little traction. Some excellent trail options include Andrews Bald, Charlies Bunion and Porters Creek.
The GSMNP holds one of the best collections of log buildings in the eastern United States. Over 90 historic structures—houses, barns, outbuildings, churches, schools, and grist mills—have been preserved or rehabilitated in the park. Cades Cove, a valley surrounded by mountains, remains a popular place to view these buildings, as well as check out white tail deer and other wildlife. There’s an 11-mile, one-way loop road circles the cove, offering motorists the opportunity to sightsee at a leisurely pace. Allow at least two to four hours to tour Cades Cove, longer if you walk some of the area’s trails.
Of course Everglades is a great place to visit in the winter. There’s so much to see and do here, but it truly is a top destination for birders. There are over 300 species in the Everglades, and many places to watch them. From the trails like Anhinga, the Mahogany and Vicinity (all wheelchair accessible!), to bike trails (like Shark Tram and Snike Bight) offering excellent birding to boot, you’ll get your fill of feathered friends.
On my most recent visit, I was stunned by the scale and beauty of this famous wildlife refuge. I had the great pleasure of exploring this National Park with Charles Kropke of Dragon Fly Expeditions, along with tour guide Alex of the family-owned Tigertail Airboat Everglades Tour. Alex, a member of the Miccosukee tribe, filled me in on the unique status of his tribe in all of America with the US Government. We visited the well-maintained camp of where his grandmother lived until the 1940s. Seeing the Everglades through the eyes of Charles and Alex demystifies and intensifies the natural beauty and wonder of this unique ecosystem. Luxuriant varieties of birds, deer and other wildlife are found at every turn of our airboat. You can watch that episode here. The story of the Miccosukee, the wildlife and mysterious aura of the Everglades is so uniquely a part of Florida.
Known as the hottest place on the planet, Death Valley shines in winter, with its snow-capped mountain peaks and occasional rainstorms. Most days are sunny and pleasant.
Here’s a fun thing to check off your bucket list: visiting the lowest point in the US. Badwater Basin sits at 282 feet below sea level. Another interesting stop? Devils Golf Course, an area of rock salt eroded by wind and rain into jagged spires. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear tiny pop. It’s billions of tiny salt crystals bursting apart as they expand and contract in the heat. Kinda like Rice Crispies, right?
Other interesting stops in the park include the two-mile hike to Darwin Falls, which crosses a creek and boasts a waterfall year-round! It’s a magical oasis in the middle of the desert. Prefer a scenic drive to a hike? Check out the geologic rainbow along Artists Drive, a one-way, nine-mile road that passes through eroded, colorful desert hills.
Early birds should try and catch a sunrise at Zabriskie Point, the most famous viewpoint in the park. Overlooking the golden colored badlands of the Furnace Creek formation, visitors can enjoy the view or hike from the point around Badlands Loop.
You can catch the start of wildflower season in February and March. When the conditions are right, Death Valley is painted with an explosion of color. Superblooms only happen about once a decade, but you will still see wildflowers in lower elevations this time of year.
The stargazing here is legendary. Death Valley National Park harbors some of the darkest night skies in the United States. If you love to stargaze, the parks has all sorts of ideas for planning the ideal outing. And speaking of stars… Did you know parts of Star Wars: A New Hope were filmed in Death Valley? You can check out the most famous locations here.
The Coachella Valley is one of the sunniest places on earth, making it the perfect winter escape. There are many easy day trips from the Coachella Valley, but the one that tops my list is Joshua Tree National Park. Sprawling over the Mojave and Colorado desert, this beloved park’s energy is the thing of legend. Designated as a National Monument in 1934 by FDR, and a National Park in 1994, this 1,235-square-mile park features excellent hiking, mountain climbing, and panoramic views featuring its namesake plant, the yucca brevifolia, more commonly known as the Joshua tree.
On my trip, I met up with George Land, a park ranger whose enthusiasm for the national parks began as a child. He brought me to Keys Ranch, the pioneer homestead of William and Francis Keys that was inhabited until the late 1960s! I can tell you with absolute certainty that I wouldn’t have lasted an hour living at this ranch, but fascinating to learn about those who did.
Hiking is a must in Joshua Tree. There are soooo many options, and the mild weather makes winter the perfect time to do so. Check out this awesome overview detailing some of the most loved trails. From easy walks (many wheelchair accessible) to strenuous climbs, you’ll find something that fits your abilities.
For those who prefer to soak up the vistas from the car, check out the Geology Road Tour, an 18-mile drive running through the park. There are 16 stops along a dirt road, and it takes approximately two hours to make the round trip. It’s worth mentioning that most passenger vehicles without four-wheel-drive may need to turn around few miles in. Look for signs marking the change in terrain and turn around if your vehicle is not capable of handling deep ruts and soft sand. You’ve been warned!
What’s your favorite park to visit in the winter? Share in the comments!
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