Think national parks are just a summer thing? Think again. Sure, access is limited in some places and the weather can be unpredictable, but those who venture into the parks during the winter months are typically rewarded with thinner crowds, abundant lodging options and a wilderness experience that feels more, well ... wild.
Here are a few reasons to pack your warmest puffy and get out there this winter:
Try a winter-only activity
Our national parks have more to offer than just hiking and camping (although those are still options in many places). If you’re ready to get your winter wonderland on, grab your skis or snowshoes and head to Olympic National Park’s Hurricane Ridge.
Olympic is one of only three national parks with ski areas, the other two being Yosemite and Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio. With just 10 runs and 800 feet of vertical, the nonprofit Hurricane Ridge Ski and Snowboard Area isn’t a destination for big resort skiers. But a steady stream of local regulars and outside visitors are drawn to the ridge’s laid-back atmosphere and the access it provides to the park’s rugged backcountry terrain.
“There are pro snowboarders with their kids and hillbilly loggers,” says Frank Crippen, who runs the ski school. “It’s very eclectic.”
From the ski area’s main rope tow, backcountry skiers and snowboards can traverse out along the ridge and enjoy views that stretch across the Strait of Juan de Fuca into Canada, before dropping in on one of dozens of lines back to the main road. Huff it back up to the parking lot, or hitch a ride with William H. Nelson (yes, that’s his real name), a silver-bearded shuttle bus driver who schleps skiers and their gear back up the hill in exchange for tips. For an extended tour, the two- to three-day ski traverse between Hurricane Ridge and Deer Park is a Northwest classic.
Not into skiing? Many national parks, including Olympic and Yosemite, offer ranger-led snowshoe walks during the winter months. Or, for a real winter treat, check out the ice-skating rink at Yosemite’s Half Dome Village. A tradition since 1928, the rink is open from mid-November to mid-March, weather permitting. Between laps, warm up at the campfire with a hot cocoa.
See familiar places in a new light
Yosemite’s massive glacier-carved valley is a breathtaking sight in any season, but it’s only the off-season visitors who get to see Half Dome and El Cap dusted in winter white. Winter also brings a better chance of spotting bobcats and other animals that generally stay hidden during the warmer months.
“It’s quiet, it’s beautiful, there’s great wildlife viewing, and it’s very peaceful,” says Scott Gediman, a Yosemite ranger and spokesman.
Many of the campgrounds in the valley stay open year-round, and snow is generally only a concern at higher elevations, according to Gediman. Some of the park’s waterfalls—including 594-foot Nevada Falls—run year-round and will partially freeze if the temperatures drop low enough.
Closed roadways around Yosemite, meanwhile, become a playground for cross-country skiers. Beginners will enjoy the groomed trail that follows Glacier Point Road, and experienced skiers can follow one of three trails for 10 miles to Ostrander Lake, where a snack bar is converted into an overnight ski hut during the winter months.
Find R&R amid thinner crowds
Spend a summer weekend in one of America’s more popular national parks, and you’ll soon discover how exhausting it can be to fight traffic and navigate through the sea of selfie sticks on crowded trails. If you’re looking for rest and relaxation, the off-season is a much better time to visit.
Take Acadia National Park, located along Maine’s rugged Atlantic coastline. In the summertime, the park typically sees around 500,000 visitors per month. December through March, that number drops below 20,000.
Snowfall closes many of the roads through Acadia, but several of the park’s main attractions remain accessible for those willing to strap on snowshoes or cross-country skis. One potential destination: Cadillac Mountain, a drive-up attraction in summer that turns into a (much quieter) 2- to 4-mile hike or snowshoe come winter. Many of the businesses and attractions in adjacent Bar Harbor remain open year-round, and visitors turn out for annual events like the Winter Beer Fest and Village Holidays celebration.
Back at Olympic, the park’s expansive coastline—accessible year-round but busiest in summer—becomes a backpacker’s paradise for those who wait for a dry weather window. Or you can watch the storms roll in from a room at the cozy Kalaloch Lodge and explore the tide pools at nearby Beach 4.
Wildlife viewing is another draw for Olympic’s off-season visitors. Late fall and early spring is prime time for whale watching along the coast, as orcas and gray whales migrate from Alaska to Baja California and back again. The park’s large Roosevelt elk population remains active year-round and is best viewed from the Hoh Rain Forest, a magical hiking destination in any season.