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Just because school is back in full swing and chilly weather is upon us doesn’t mean vacation season is on hold for the winter months. Winter travel doesn’t mean having to jet off to a tropical location or booking an indoor getaway at a chlorinated waterpark. Several national parks are open year-round and are ready to welcome families for unique wintertime activities.
One of the benefits of the national parks system is that there are parks located around the country. Some are close enough to make for a quick, weekend trip. Others have so much to offer that families will find plenty of activities to fill longer vacations over winter break. Plus, there are fewer crowds during the colder months. Here are five of our favorite national parks to visit during the winter season.
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Arches National Park
The Mars-like landscape of Arches National Park in eastern Utah makes this destination a family favorite in the summer months, but when the snow flies, the more than 76,000-acre Arches National Park transforms into a truly otherworldly place. The terracotta red sandstone formations look like they’ve been sprinkled with powdered sugar when a dusting of snow settles over them. Seriously … one of my daughter’s tried to lick the rock formations because she thought the snow was sugar.
Arches National Park is not too far from some of the Southwest’s other spectacular national parks, like Grand Canyon National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and Zion National Park … all rank high on our list of America’s national parks worth visiting year-round.
Things To Do At Arches National Park
There is plenty to do at Arches National Park in the wintertime. Many of the hiking trails remain open year-round, as does the visitors’ center. During the winter months, hiking at Arches National Park is a much more pleasant experience for two key reasons – the crowds of visitors have dwindled to only a few hardy souls, and the temperatures are less scorching. Average temperatures in mid-winter fluctuate between 30 and 50 degrees Celsius … but it feels warmer after a long hike. I’m not a fan of profuse sweating, so cool-weather hiking is right up my alley.
Best Hikes At Arches National Park
The Double Arch Viewpoint hike, which is .6 of a mile out and back, is one of the park’s easiest, most kid-friendly hikes with the most majestic views. The Sand Dune Arch Trail is also short at only .4 of a mile roundtrip. In the winter, the play of light on the red rocks is extraordinary. One of the most popular trails is the Delicate Arch Trail. When national park lovers think of Arches National Park, they are most likely thinking of Delicate Arch, also known as “Cowboy’s Chaps” or “Old Maid’s Bloomers.” It is the largest arch in the area. Sure, visitors could hop out of their car at Delicate Arch Viewpoint to see the arch, about a mile away, but more ambitious families will take the three-mile roundtrip trail to capture that Instagrammable moment. Also, kids will love passing indigenous petroglyphs and the ancient Wolfe Ranch cabin. In the winter, there are fewer crowds to deal with, and the heat won’t be a factor.
Devil’s Garden Campground
Winter camping … it’s a thing! Devils Garden Campground at Arches National Park is open for winter camping on a first-come, first-served basis. Winter camping appeals to more people than just Queen Elsa from Frozen. My family snuggled in warm sleeping bags, and we all discussed the day’s adventures and had a great time. If the thermometer dips, just turn on the tent heater – they are fairly inexpensive on Amazon – until everyone is cozy. It actually got too hot a few times.
Where To Stay Near Arches National Park
For a true Southwest experience, stay at the Red Cliffs Lodge in Moab, Utah to capture the spirit of the region. There are both suites and cabins. Book the two-bedroom one, which is perfect for families. The adobe-inspired knotty pine furniture, terracotta walls, Saltillo tiles, and Navajo blanket designs will help kids feel like they’ve stepped back in time, albeit with all the modern amenities.
The rooms have large, flat-screen TVs, Wi-Fi, and even kitchenettes for quick, inexpensive breakfasts and lunches. So the picky eater in the family can make an EasyMac when she declares that all restaurant food is “yucky.”
Red Cliffs Lodge is appropriately named. It is set amid the burnt russet cliffs of Moab with an expansive view of the mighty Colorado River. The Cowboy Grill at Red Cliffs Lodge is one of the best places to take in the scenery. The restaurant is open for breakfast and dinner and serves food that even the picky one liked. They even prepare sack lunches for families to take along on a day’s adventures.
Everglades National Park
Channel your inner Shrek and plan a winter vacation at a swamp. No, really! Not just any swamp, but Everglades National Park in Florida, the country’s largest tropical wilderness area. Sure, there is a vast swamp, but the park also encompasses mangrove forests, sawgrass prairies, freshwater sloughs, and hardwood areas throughout its diverse ecosystem. Wintertime is the perfect time to head to Florida. Average temperatures during the day hover between 55 and 60 degrees celsius in the winter … sweater weather!
Who wouldn’t want to see alligators, manatees, and dolphins in their natural environment? We loved it, although I will admit that I was relieved that we only saw small alligators. One of the highlights was seeing the large aggregation of manatees … and learning that a group of manatees is called an “aggregation.” Many of the animals in Everglades National Park are more active in the cooler weather and are easier for visitors to see. During the winter migration, more than 350 different species of birds pass through the Everglades on their way to and from wherever it is they are going. Bird watchers will have the best time.
Things To Do In Everglades National Park
Family travelers to Everglades National Park can explore the network of waterways on canoes or kayaks. We highly recommend taking an airboat tour through the Everglades. I only agreed to do it because the kids really wanted to, but it was one of the more memorable parts of the trip. The high-speed airboats skim the surface of the water and make tight, thrilling turns as they get passengers up close and personal with the unique ecosystems.
Families can hike or bike along the paths, camp, fish, and bird watch, but one of our favorite activities at Everglades National Park is to stargaze. Wintertime is Florida’s dry season, so there are usually fewer clouds. The park is so large and remote that there is minimal light pollution. The Milky Way, the stars, and several planets were visible on clear nights. My kids always enjoy searching the night sky for constellations, so this was a win for us.
Where To Stay Near Everglades National Park
Easily one of the most unusual places we’ve ever stayed, the Everglades Native Chickee Cabins in Ochopee, Florida, combine the comfort of a cabin and the immersive quality of camping with a healthy dose of history and culture. Each cottage – their word, not mine. I’d use “hut” – is modeled after the traditional homes of the region’s indigenous Miccosukee people who used the materials at their disposal to make buildings that kept out the rain, yet allowed for the flow of air to keep residents cool in the Florida heat. How did they do it? By weaving thatched roofs from palm fronds and erecting the houses on stilts.
Since the huts – there, I said it! – are situated close to the swamp and have spacious decks, they are ideal for stargazing at night and for watching sunrises in the morning. Hut cabins may not have been on your radar, but this was a great place to stay.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
No matter what the outside temperatures are, Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico is always 56 degrees Celsius inside the cave. The underground features of the park are unaffected by seasonal temperature changes and weather conditions. Carlsbad Caverns is open year-round and eager to welcome families for wintertime getaways.
Things To Do At Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Fewer visitors go to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the wintertime so the park’s most popular features – such as the Big Room, the King’s Palace, the Hall of the White Giant, and the Balloon Ballroom – should be less crowded. My kids marveled at the curious limestone formations found throughout the cave system and pointed out ones that resembled familiar objects – a giraffe, a tennis racket, Captain America.
During the winter months, the bat population at Carlsbad Caverns goes into hibernation, so guests won’t get to experience the nightly exodus of thousands of Mexican free-tail bats that emerge from the cave en masse to hunt for food. Personally, I viewed this as a benefit to visiting the park in the winter, but my husband and kids were disappointed.
Not all the sights at Carlsbad Caverns National Park are underground. The park has about 50 miles of hiking trails that take outdoor lovers through the Chihuahuan Desert’s rocky canyons and thorny bushes with views of the Guadalupe Mountains in the distance. Unique high desert plants native to the region, like yucca, agave, ocotillo, and catclaw, are abundant. My family hiked the Old Guano Trail, an out-and-back route that was once used by guano miners over a century ago. The kids liked it because they learned a new word – guano – which they added to their vocabulary and used often during the trip.
Where To Stay Near Carlsbad Caverns National Park
The Hyatt House is an extended-stay hotel in Carlsbad, New Mexico, which means several of the rooms and suites have small kitchens. That’s always a plus for me when traveling with the kids. We took advantage of the free breakfast buffet each morning. On one particularly pleasant day, we ate our meal on the patio so we could admire the scenery.
It was too chilly to use the outdoor pool, but the kids didn’t mind too much. After all the walking we did, they were happy to get some snacks from the lobby market and watch a movie in bed. As for me, I set up my laptop at the desk and used the quiet time to catch up on work.
Olympic National Park
One of the few temperate rainforests in the United States, Washington’s Olympic National Park is just that … temperate. While some of the other parks in the Pacific Northwest are buried under snow in the winter, nearly all of Olympic National Park remains accessible in the winter months. Don’t get me wrong … there is snow. In fact, the park caters to winter sports lovers. The park’s Hurricane Ridge area has slopes for downhill skiing, tubing, and snowboarding, as well as trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Cross-country skiing … oof! Now, that’s a workout!
Things To Do In Olympic National Park
Many of the natural features that attract visitors to Olympic National Park in the warmer months are just as appealing, or more so, in the winter. The park’s rocky Pacific coastline, which stretches for more than 70 miles, is dotted with towering sea stacks. It is one of the most scenic drives in North America. The waves are typically larger and more dynamic in the winter, so there should be some spectacular photo opportunities when the surf hits the rocks, but keep an eye on the tides. Olympic National Park’s beaches are bewitching, but they can be dangerous, too.
The same can be said for Olympic National Park’s waterfalls. In the wet winter months, the waterfalls are formidable. They are mesmerizing to look at but don’t venture off the paths. The rocks and mud are slippery when wet … and they are always wet in the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. If it has been cold enough, plan a hike to see Madison Falls and Marymere Falls. When these falls freeze, visitors are treated to a veil of solid ice.
Olympic National Park is home to one of only a few accessible hot springs in the state, the Olympic Hot Springs. Like the hot springs at Mammoth Hot Springs, Olympic’s natural pools have water that ranges from piping hot to tepid, depending on their proximity to the hot spring. Check the park’s website.
Olympic Hot Springs Road was completely washed out in 2021 and has been closed for construction. If it remains closed, the only way to reach the Olympic Hot Springs is by taking a challenging 10-mile one-way hike from the parking lot at Madison Falls. On the plus side, there may not be other people at the hot springs when you arrive.
Where to Stay Near Olympic National Park
Not much can beat the beauty of Olympic National Park, but the Olympic Lodge by Ayres in Port Angeles, Washington, comes close. Our room was spacious and had all the comforts of home. Some of the rooms are pet-friendly, and the kids were disappointed that we didn’t bring Hank, our 100-plus pound dog, along on the trip. Sometimes, we don’t need ALL the comforts of home!
For me, it was all about the views. From the lobby and lounge, guests are treated to floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the golf course (I’m sure it’s beautiful in the spring and summer, but there wasn’t much to see in the winter) and the gorgeous scenery of the Pacific Northwest. We felt like we were inside a snow globe with flurries swirling around. I fell in love with the enormous fireplace … I could have sat on the leather sofas in front of the fireplace all day.
Grand Teton National Park
Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park is a snow lover’s dream destination for winter sports. The majestic mountains are perfect for skiing, snowboarding, sledding, tubing, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. The park has three ski resorts within its borders – Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Grand Targhee Resort, and Snow King Resort. It’s not the hottest place for a family vacation … the average temperature in January and February is just 25 degrees Celsius.
The mountain splendor of Grand Teton National Park rivals that of Yellowstone National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and even Yosemite National Park. The entire place embraces the winter weather lifestyle and welcomes adventure-seekers and adrenaline junkies to its lodges and resorts. Most of the trails are open for snowshoeing and winter hiking. There are groomed cross-country ski trails for beginners as well as for more experienced skiers.
Things To Do In Grand Teton National Park
For family travelers who want to speed things up, there are snowmobile trails that wind through the snow-covered mountains. Or guests can slow things way down and take a charming horse-drawn sleigh ride in the freshly fallen snow. Ever heard of fat biking? I hadn’t until we vacationed in Wyoming. Visitors to Grand Teton National Park can rent fat bikes – specially designed bicycles outfitted with wide, fat tires that can handle snowy terrain – and pedal along the winter trails at their own pace.
Jenny Lake, Phelps Lake, and Jackson Lake offer ice fishing in the winter months. Visitors can rent ice fishing gear and purchase the necessary fishing licenses at the park before hitting the ice, or they can join an ice fishing guided excursion to learn the ins and outs of ice fishing from an expert. No matter what outdoor activity is on the day’s agenda, families can unwind at the indoor heated swimming pools at one of the lodges, like Jackson Lake Lodge or Snake River Lodge.
Where To Stay Near Grand Teton National Park
Snake River Lodge in Teton Village, Wyoming, served as our base of operations. The location was perfect … just a short walk to the mountain tram. It was the amenities of the Lodge that won us over. The family-friendly three-bedroom suite gave us plenty of space to relax. We had our own fireplace, full kitchen, and rich wood cabinets.
We all left Snake River Lodge with pool envy. The lodge has a one-of-a-kind heated indoor/outdoor pool with a swim-through partition between them. There are hot tubs located both inside and outside if you want to experience the crisp mountain air and lightly falling snow while relaxing in the warmth of the rejuvenating hot tubs. The entire pool area was designed to look like a cave with a stone grotto and waterfalls.
Chill out in these 5 best National Parks with activities for families looking for winter vacation destinations.
Other National Parks We Love in Winter
Death Valley National Park – the lower elevation makes for better weather.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park – so much to do and see all year long.
Joshua Tree National Park – visiting a desert is such a treat for my family. It is so different from our climate.
Big Bend National Park – it made our short list of places to go to watch the 2024 eclipse.
DON’T MISS! Best Things To Do In Joshua Tree National Park
We are national park people, but there are too many parks to cram into a summer vacation. Fortunately, we are also cold-weather people. Visiting a national park in the winter gives us a chance to experience the place from a different perspective and at a more leisurely pace. The parks are typically less crowded in the wintertime, the temperatures are not sweltering, and there are (usually) no mosquitoes. We don’t want to wait for warm weather to return. Instead, we make the most of winter break by planning outdoor adventures.
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