June 1, 2020
Due to travel restrictions, plans are only available with travel dates on or after
Due to travel restrictions, plans are only available with effective start dates on or after
When the weather turns brisk and the days get shorter, it can be tempting to hibernate until spring. But if you’re a fair-weather hiker who traditionally saves your national park trips for more moderate seasons, it may be time to expand your horizons. Hiking in the winter means dodging sweltering heat, avoiding crowds, and experiencing some of America’s best scenery without a mosquito in sight. If that sounds appealing, we’ve put together some suggestions for national park trips that are perhaps most enticing in the winter, when the cold transforms the landscape.
But before we get to the big reveal, we wanted to share some good advice. Trudging across snow and ice in the bitter cold sometimes requires more than a mug of piping hot chocolate at the end of the trail. A travel insurance plan from Allianz Global assistance can provide peace of mind, real-time assistance, and even reimbursements for non-refundable payments you’ve already laid out in the event of trip cancellation. While you’re packing your gear, be sure to pack a travel insurance plan that fits your itinerary and budget.
And now, on to the national park trips…
Between the Giant Sequoias, towering rock formations, waterfalls and winding streams, California’s Yosemite makes it onto people’s national-park-trip-bucket-lists for a reason. Yosemite sports snowy peaks from September to April, and typically has no shortage of snowfall. That means exploring Yosemite by foot in the winter isn’t as easy as grabbing a pair of hiking boots. There are hundreds of miles of trails to explore, with snowshoes or cross-country skis being required in most cases.1 With the right equipment (yes, there are rentals!) you can traverse the snow and witness the Giant Sequoias during a much more still time of year. Another one-of-a-kind experience that can only be spotted during a winter trip to Yosemite is the Horsetail Fall “Firefall.” The temperatures, sunset, and waterfall have to align just right, but for a couple of weeks in February, it looks like a fiery cascade on El Capitan, something you won’t experience anywhere else.2 Fortunately, you don’t have to be an expert hiker to witness this event, it’s about a 3-mile roundtrip to the El Capitan Picnic Area from where you park.3
Zion National Park is Utah’s most popular national park, and a trip to Zion in winter is marked by mild temperatures, opportunities for solitude and no shortage of towering sandstone cliffs. Most of the park’s most popular hikes remain accessible through the winter, including Canyon Overlook Trail, the Emerald Pools, and Scout Lookout.4 An added incentive for making a trip here in the winter is that you can skip the shuttles and use your personal car in the canyons from November through March so that you can tour at your own pace. In fact, during the winter you can drive your car right to some of the trailheads, and with a bit of lucky timing, you could have areas of the park entirely to yourself.5 If you're planning a self-guided tour be sure to check trail conditions before you set out; some of the higher elevations can have icy conditions you should be prepared for. A trip to this national park in winter is particularly special because you may catch a glimpse of deer, elk, or bighorn sheep in the valley of the canyon. With offseason rates being more affordable than the rest of the year, consider staying at one of the lodging options onsite. Some of them offer guided “inn-based tours,” which will help you navigate Zion before you return to comfortable amenities and warm food after a day of hiking.6
You’ve probably visited a lake at some point, but Crater Lake National Park in Oregon isn’t your run-of-the-mill lake. It’s a pretty remarkable site any time of year, especially so in the winter. A trip to this national park will reward you with views of the United States’ deepest lake, but the depth isn’t typically what sticks with people. More notable is that the lake is the result of a volcanic crater; it’s surrounded by the Cascade Mountains and is fed strictly by snow and rain.7 There are exploration opportunities for every skill level — from free guided snowshoe tours led by park rangers, to moderate day hikes on Discovery Point Trail, to multi-day voyages that require permitting and experience with snow-camping.8
Looking for a wintery national park to visit on the East Coast? A trip to Acadia National Park in Maine could be just what you’re looking for. A trip to this national park in summer can mean being one of up to 25,000 people navigating the trails.9 In contrast, in the winter, only a few hundred people visit per day - making a hike here quite peaceful. You’ll need to do your research and consider checking in with the guides, because some roads and businesses close during the winter. In addition, certain areas of the park are designated for cross-country skiers, snowshoers, and snowmobiling. During particularly snowy weather, much of the park is best suited for experienced winter hikers because traction footwear and trekking poles may be required. But if there isn’t significant snow or ice on the ground, there are a few more accessible trails for beginners to aim for, including Ocean Path and Ship Harbor Trail. Bird watching is also popular in Acadia in winter, and snowy owls and black-capped chickadees spend winter in the park — with Schoodic Point being a popular spot for birders.9
Whether you want to want to try out snowshoes for the first time, prefer hiking in a quieter environment, or you just can’t get enough of the cold, there are plenty of opportunities to explore our national parks each winter. Bundle up, pack a snack, and hit the trails; you’ll get all the benefits of visiting these popular national parks without the setbacks of peak season.