Some of the world’s most breathtaking national parks are found in the United States and attract travelers from all over the world as well as Americans.
However, if you travel in winter, national parks might be closed or have limited access. In the worst-case scenario, you get there and can’t do what you had planned, which might just ruin your winter vacation.
You obviously don’t want that to happen, so in collaboration with other expert travelers, I’ve compiled this list of the best national parks to visit in the winter in the US, so that you can know where to go and exactly what to expect.
Some of the best national parks to visit in winter are snow-capped winter wonderlands, while others are hot weather destinations where you can enjoy warm sunny days.
Get ready to adventure through some of the most epic national parks open in winter that this country has to offer!
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Table of Contents
Best national parks in the winter
When visiting national parks in winter, make sure you are prepared for the weather conditions and particular restrictions to opening and access during the winter months.
Arches National Park
Recommended by Meg of Fox in the Forest
One of the best US national parks to visit in winter in Arches National Park in Utah. Not only do most of the main hiking trails in the park remain open all year long, but there are minimal crowds too.
Therefore, you can enjoy popular attractions like Delicate Arch, Park Avenue, and Devil’s Garden all by yourself. You’ll also love seeing the snow coating the La Sal Mountains in the distance.
Additionally, because there are fewer visitors to the park there is less light pollution. So, you’ll be able to do star gazing at amazing places like The Windows, the Garden of Eden Viewpoint, and Panorama Point.
However, be prepared for crowds between Christmas and New Year since is one of the most popular winter national parks for the holiday season.
Also, come dressed for chilly weather since daily highs hover around 48F while lows dip down to 17F. Thankfully though, the weather is relatively clear since the park only sees about two days of precipitation per month. Plus, be mindful of snow on the ground since it can make the ground slippery and obscure trail markers.
You’ll also want to pack lots of sunscreen and water, even in the winter, since this iconic national park sits at an elevation of 5,653 feet, making it easy to become dehydrated.
Then, plan to spend at least two days in the park so that you can enjoy all this magical place has to offer before going back to an amazing room at the refined, Moab Resort, WorldMark Associate in nearby Moab.
Joshua Tree National Park
Recommended by Ashley of Create Your Own Roadshow
Joshua Tree National Park is best known for its Dr. Suess-like trees and unique boulder rock formations. It is a sought-after hiking and climbing destination in the high desert of southern California being one of the most epic west coast national parks.
In the summer it can get hot, really hot, making the winter the best time to visit. Temperatures in the winter range fluctuate around 60 F and it is the perfect time for a west coast USA road trip.
These milder temperatures make for much more comfortable hiking and Joshua Tree is no arguing one of the most popular US national parks in winter. For comparison, Joshua Tree can easily reach over 100 F in the summer.
Whether you’re looking for a scenic drive, hiking trails, or climbing routes, there is something for everyone in Joshua Tree.
Much of the park can be experienced from the seat of your vehicle, you can drive a loop on Parks Boulevard and marvel at the scenery. Queen Valley Road is another great scenic drive.
Be sure to stop at Skull Rock and the Cholla Cactus Garden on your drive. For hikers, there are several options for trails. Ryan Mountain is the toughest but offers incredible views of the park and is one of the best hikes in southern California.
On the north side of the park, Fortynine Palms Oasis is a relatively quick hike to a secluded palm tree oasis in the desert. Climbing is a popular winter activity in Joshua Tree with a wide variety of route difficulties. You can hire a guide or climb on your own if you’re experienced.
Jumbo Rocks Campground and White Tank Campground are both surrounded by the iconic rock formations in the park making them great options for accommodations for tents, RVs, and campervans alike.
By staying within the park, you can experience incredible star-gazing in this designated International Dark Sky Park. Keep in mind that while winter temperatures are mild during the day, the desert can get below freezing at night.
Two to three days is a good length of stay for Joshua Tree making it the perfect winter weekend getaway to what’s possibly the best national in winter in the US.
Crates of the Moon National Monument
Recommended by Anwar of Beyond My Door
Craters of the Moon is best known for its volcanoes and rocky terrain. However, in the winter the place turns into a winter wonderland of snow and ice over these volcanic structures making it one of the best national parks in the winter in the US.
There are several reasons to visit Craters of the Moon National Monument in winter. Crowds are even lower than they are during the other times of the year and yet there is still lots more to do. You’ll actually see more locals, in particular Idahoans who come to explore the park with skis and snowshoes.
The main road during the winter is closed to traffic, and access is limited to skis, snow shoes, and walking. Folks can even hike up the various volcanoes and ski down if they prefer.
The visitor center also rents out snowshoes for a suggested donation while supplies last. Hiking out and along Devils Garden is a popular winter activity or hiking and skiing down the various cinder cones.
Camping is still possible in the winter, with the campsite still open and not charging any fees. Unfortunately, there are no campsite services available during the winter months, but that just ads up to the adventure.
Hotels are available in nearby Arco, like the Arco Inn Motel although winter tends to slow activities there as well. Since road access through the park is closed, one to two days is enough to explore the park as you’ll need to travel from the main visitor center area on foot.
Nonetheless, Crates of the Moon is one of the national parks in the winter that you should consider for a local and offbeat experience!
Smokey Mountain National Park
Recommended by Paula Pins the Planet
If you are searching for the best National Parks in winter, you should add the Smoky Mountains National Park to your bucket list. The reason is that during winter time you will find a lot fewer tourists exploring the park, and hikers on the trails.
The Smoky Mountains is the largest and one of the most visited National Parks in the US, with over 500,000 acres of land. Here you can find plenty of amazing activities to do, from renting a cabin in the woods and just relaxing while enjoying nature, or you can plan a very active vacation and choose some of the best Hikes in the Smoky Mountains.
The National Park has over 850 miles and 150 hiking trails to choose from in a wide range of difficulty levels. One of the most popular hikes is the Grotto Falls Trail, an easy 2.6 miles hike offering stunning views of the waterfalls and wildlife.
Also, the Shuckstack Fire Tower Hike is an excellent opportunity to hike 7 miles round trip, to catch jaw-dropping views of the mountains and one of the best hikes on the East Coast.
The winter is generally mild, but with the increase in elevation, extreme weather may occur. In the low elevations, visitors can expect warm temperatures and snow in the higher areas. Half of the days in the winter, the temperature is high, over 50 degrees. In the higher mountains, there is frequent snowfall.
The Park Vista Hilton Hotel is one of the best options for a hotel, located in Gatlinburg, right outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Grand Canyon National Park
Recommended by Veronica of Wander in Arizona
One of the top national parks in Arizona, the Grand Canyon National Park, is one of the bucket-list destinations for many.
This park, drawing millions of visitors, is known for its stunning landscapes encompassing enchanting layered bands of red rock unveiling millions of years of geological history.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the Wonders of the World, spanning over a massive strip of northwestern Arizona for over 280 miles of the Colorado River, 18 miles wide and a mile deep. It is surprisingly one of the best USA national parks to visit in winter.
Although the weather is harsh, Grand Canyon is quiet and crowd-free during December, January, and February.
If you love watching snowfall blanketed landscapes, you will love experiencing snowfall in one of the most beautiful places in America.
Unlike many of the most popular US National Parks, which face significant road closures during the winter, major roads in and out of the Grand Canyon remain open, offering you many opportunities to drive.
Winter is one of the best times for hiking the trails in the Grand Canyon. Make sure to bring layers, and begin the hikes late in the morning for bearable temperatures.
Make the short hikes along South Kaibab Trail and Bright Angel Trail, two famous hiking trails in the Grand Canyon known for their fantastic views.
Enjoy stunning views of the rugged panoramas and Colorado River, including Lipan Point, Mather Point, and Yavapai Observation Station.
Spend at least two to three days making the most of your time. South Rim is the famous end of what is one of the absolute best national parks during winter.
You can stay in Tusayan or Flagstaff nearby. Most people base in Tusayan due to its proximity to the park. The Best Western Grand Canyon Hotel is a great stay option in Tusayan.
Death Valley National Park
Recommended by Trijit of Dog Travel Buff
Death Valley is a place you do not want to go in the summer. Its scorching heat is unbearable. But, in winter, however, death valley becomes one of the most visited destinations in the US. Thus it is not surprising that it is one of the best national parks winter in the USA delivers.
Great news for fur baby parents, Death Valley is dog-friendly. If you want to spend a day in Death Valley with your dog, we suggest you visit this beautiful landscape in the winter.
The best time to visit this mesmerizing beauty of nature is between February and March. During this time, you can feel the cool and calm ambiance everywhere, without the scorching summer heat bothering you.
In winter, the temperature remains between 39 and 60 degrees, which is much more pleasant than at other times of the year.
If you go to Death Valley National Park in the cold season, you will avail a few exciting things to do. Places like Artist’s Palate and Artist’s Drive, Natural Bridge, Bad Water Basin, Furnace Creek, Dante’s View, Wildrose Campsite, and Devil’s Golf Course are the best attractions of Death Valley.
The natural calamity of these places will take you close to mother nature. There are some exciting hikes available in Death Valley that you can do only in the winter.
To mention some, Zabriskie Point Trail, Darwin Falls, and Bad Water Basin Crossing are all epic winter hikes with outstanding views. There’s only one thing to do, get ready for this epic national park in winter.
If you want to stay in Death Vally for a few days, we recommend Panamint Springs Resort which is located in Panamint Valley and offers basic but clean motel rooms.
Sequoia National Park
Recommended by Riley of Parks Expert
Without a doubt, Sequoia National Park is one of the best national parks for winter if you’re seeking a snowy escape.
The park completely transforms into a winter wonderland when it snows. Seeing the giant sequoia trees in person is an incredible experience, but they are even more beautiful under a blanket of fresh snow.
To see the giant sequoias in snow, hike the Congress Trail, a popular two-mile loop. You may need to wear YakTrax or something similar to avoid slipping on the icy trails. This trail begins at the General Sherman Tree, the largest tree on the planet. The Big Trees Trail is another great option, and it’s much shorter (one mile). Start from the Giant Forest Museum.
In addition to hiking, there are plenty of things to do when visiting Sequoia in winter. A favorite for many visitors is snow play. Bring your own sled and head to Wolverton to fly down the sledding hill. It’s also a great place for snowshoeing, especially on the Trail of the Sequoias.
Note that visiting Sequoia National Park in winter does come with some challenges. The road may be slippery, so visitors are advised to carry tire chains in their cars. You can rent these in the nearby community of Three Rivers. There are also limited services, so it’s best to bring your own food and drinks.
To add to your winter experience, stay overnight inside the park at the Wuksachi Lodge. You can warm up from the chilly temperatures (highs are usually in the 30s) by their lovely fireplace. It’s also a great area for stargazing if you’re willing to brave the cold.
The very best thing about Sequoia in the winter is there are fewer crowds, particularly on weekdays. If you’d like to have the Giant Forest almost entirely to yourself, avoid visiting around the holidays and try to come in the middle of the week.
No matter when you visit, Sequoia National Park is an incredible place where you will create fond memories and unquestionably one of the absolute best winter national parks in the US.
Yosemite National Park
Recommended by Kristel of Chef Travel Guide
The winter months in Yosemite are the antithesis of the summer with lower crowds and less traffic making it a good candidate for US national parks to visit in winter.
Yosemite Valley is at its quietest and most tranquil during the winter and offers up the chance to see the park when it’s blanketed with a layer of snow.
Although Yosemite Valley gets its fair share of snow, its surprisingly low elevation of 3966 feet means that the average temperatures sit at a relatively comfortable 50° F for the high and 26° F for the low.
Although the park might not be fully open during the winter, there is still plenty to do in the park. You can go snowshoeing and visit the giant sequoias at Mariposa Grove, or you can go ice skating at Curry Village with an up-close view of Half Dome.
Take advantage of this unique opportunity to see many of the valley’s sites in all of their winter splendor including Lower Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Falls, and Mirror Lake.
If you love to hike, the park boasts many of the most epic hikes in northern California, among them the Yosemite Valley Loop Trail is open year-round and will take you to many of the park’s best sites. You can also make the trek up the lower section of the mist trail up to the Vernal Falls Bridge.
During the Summer months, accommodations in the park are near impossible to get, but during the winter you will have no problem scoring a reservation at the famous Ahwahnee Hotel or at the Yosemite Valley Lodge.
Getting to Yosemite National Park in the winter can be long and icy, so enjoy the payoff by staying in the park for at least two days to see the sites and have enough time to enjoy warming up around the fire while exploring one of the most beautiful US national parks in the winter.
Best warm national parks in winter in the USA
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Contributed by Karen of Forever Karen
Located on the Big Island of Hawaii, you find one of the USA’s most captivating warm national parks in winter. Travelers venture to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to see Kilauea in action. As a very active volcano, scientists monitor its volcanic activity and close areas of the National Park when necessary.
While Hawaii experiences hot weather year-round (up to 80 F in summer), the average temperatures hover around 68 to 70 F, with less humidity in winter. With more tolerable weather, hiking around Kilauea allows you to explore its lava fields.
At four miles round-trip, the Kilauea Iki Trail allows you to hike into the barren crater of Kilauea Iki. While the initial path through the trees supplies shelter from the sun, once you reach the crater floor, there’s no shade.
The desolate landscape with very few shrubs is a stark reminder of Kilauea’s destructive power. In 2018, the Halema’uma’u Crater doubled in size due to extreme volcanic activity.
While the park closed the original museum and lookout, you can walk the Sulphur Banks Trail to see smoke or lava coming from its caldera and smell the rotten egg odor of sulfur beneath the ground.
Within the park, the Chain of Craters Road goes out to the ocean. On route, you’ll witness numerous lava fields with signage indicating the eruption dates. At the end of the road, the Hōlei Sea Arch provides photo opportunities of a 90-foot natural sea arch.
Consider staying a few days at the Volcano Inn, which provides lovely accommodation outside the park to get enough time to explore one of the most unique US national parks in winter.
Virgin Islands National Park
Recommended by Theresa of Fueled by Wanderlust
Virgin Islands National Park is the perfect tropical escape from the winter cold and easily one of the coolest national parks to visit in winter in the USA.
Making up 60% of the Caribbean Island of St. John in the US Virgin Islands, December through March sees average winter temperatures ranging from the high 70s to low 80s degrees Fahrenheit.
The best things to do in Virgin Islands National Park include visiting the pristine white sand beaches along North Shore Road, going hiking on upwards of twenty trails, and snorkeling or island hopping on a boat tour.
The beaches on St. John offer clear water for snorkeling, where you can see sting rays, sea turtles, and all sorts of other creatures.
While all beaches in Virgin Islands National Park are gorgeous, the top two to visit are Trunk Bay and Maho Bay. Don’t forget to stop at their respective overlooks for the perfect photo op!
The gorgeous coastal Ram Head Trail is the perfect hike to do in winter since the cool breeze makes this two-mile dry, exposed trail much more comfortable than in summer.
The other most popular hike to do in winter is the five-mile Reef Bay Trail, which leads out and back past Danish plantation ruins to a pristine, secluded beach.
The main hotel on St. John is The Westin, which is just a five-minute taxi ride away from the shops, restaurants, and ferry dock of Cruz Bay. It is best to stay on St. John for at least one week to properly enjoy the various beaches, do a boat tour, and fit in a few hikes.
Haleakala National Park
Recommended by Diane of Travels with Eli
Winter is a great time to visit Haleakala National Park on the island of Maui, Hawaii. Because Maui is close to the equator, the temperature is consistent year-round and this makes it one of the best national parks in USA in winter to escape the cold.
Haleakala National Park has two vastly different districts: the Summit District and the Kipahulu District.
The Summit District encompasses the top of the Haleakala Volcano crater. The elevation at the top of Haleakala is just over 10,000 feet. It can get chilly at the top of the volcano with year-round highs from 50 to 65 and lows around 30 degrees.
Visiting Haleakala’s Summit District is a perfect day trip from the sunny resort areas of Lahaina, Kaanapali, and Kihei. Start the day early to experience the sunrise from the top of Haleakala.
It is one of the most incredible experiences in the park! Another must-do is to hike the 2 miles out and back Haleakala Crater trail.
There is nothing like exploring the top of Haleakala. Hiking the crater feels like walking on the moon. It is such a unique experience.
The Kipahulu District is along the coast on the southeast side of Maui. In this district, high temperatures are generally in the 70s-80s with lows from 65-75 year-round.
Access the Kipahulu District by driving the iconic Road to Hana. Haleakala National Park is actually one of the most epic stops on the Road to Hana. It is located 12 miles past Hana town.
One day should be enough time to see the highlights of this district if you start early. To do that, you will need to stay in Hana for at least one night.
The two not-to-be-missed hikes in the Kipahulu District are the Pipiwai trail to a bamboo forest and the Kuloa Point trail to the Ohe’o Pools (commonly known as the 7 Sacred Pools.)
Everglades National Park
Recommended by Megan of Red Around the World
Everglades National Park is one of the best national parks in the winter in the US simply because it’s just the best time of year to visit the park.
Winter is the dry season in the Everglades so it won’t be as humid and there will be a few fewer mosquitos feasting on you. It’s also the best time to see wildlife in the park thanks to the lower water levels.
The temperatures are comfortable, usually in the high 70s or low 80s. It may rain occasionally but will most likely be sunny.
The Anhinga Trail is one of the best trails in the park and it is almost impossible to hike it and not see any wildlife, alligators included. Plus, it’s easy so you’ll have time to do many other things.
There are quite a few short boardwalks and at the end of the scenic drive, you can join a boat tour or rent kayaks to explore the mangroves. If you have a second day, make the trip to Shark Valley to rent bikes and bike the 15-mile loop.
If you are camping, there is a campground in the park but if you want a hotel, Homestead and Florida City are the closest options. The Courtyard by Marriott is a good mid-range choice and the Quality Inn is a good budget option. If you prefer city life, Miami is nearby as well.
Reflections on US National Parks to visit in winter
With these epic national parks to visit in winter, I hope you’ve found the right one for your winter vacation. Whether you like to escape the cold and hit some of the warmest national parks in winter or you prefer cooler weather the US delivers!
If you thought it was a bad idea to visit national parks in winter, the above suggestions should have changed your mind. Sure, you’ll get a different experience than in the summer months, but as you see, many of these destinations are over crowded in the summer, while in winter you can actually enjoy them with fewer crowds.
Finally, make sure you always follow the Leave No Trace Principles when you head out in nature. Happy travels!