3 National Parks That Are Perfect for a Winter Vacation
National parks aren’t summer-only destinations. Here’s why winter might be the best time to visit these stunners in Montana, California and Hawaii.
Summer may be the most popular time to enjoy America’s national parks, but it certainly isn’t the only time to visit. Winter snows bring a beautiful new perspective to popular northern spots, or you can enjoy delightfully temperate weather in southern desert and tropical parks.
More than 2 million people a year visit Glacier National Park, a wonderland of rugged mountains, breathtaking vistas and bountiful wildlife along Montana’s border with Canada. The vast majority, not surprisingly, arrive in the short summer season. Yet winter brings its own rewards. The lower elevations of the park are more accessible than you might think—and you’ll have this beloved destination almost all to yourself.
Stay in quaint Whitefish and you’re just a 25-mile drive on well-maintained roads to the West Glacier entrance. Near the Apgar Visitor Center, the view from the south shore of Lake McDonald explains the park’s name. Glaciers gouged the 10-mile-long lake and chiseled the imposing wall of 8,000-foot peaks. The peaks are part of North America’s backbone, the Continental Divide, which bisects the park.
Glacier becomes exponentially wilder in winter, when deep snows bury the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road, the only route that traverses the park—all the more reason to sign on for a guided snowshoe or ski tour. Local guides will customize an experience to suit your interests and skill level, from a relatively flat snowshoe tromp along Lake McDonald, to a 2,800-foot climb up toward Sperry Glacier, or an above-the-tree-line ski tour along 5,220-foot Marias Pass. Along the way, you’ll learn about the region’s history, geology—and maybe spot moose or other wildlife.
Nearby Whitefish is a winter destination all its own, home to Whitefish Mountain Resort ski area and a downtown filled with shops and restaurants. Visitors can even leave the car behind: Amtrak’s Empire Builder makes daily stops in Whitefish and the West Glacier park entrance.
The Glacier Institute offers periodic field workshops about ecological resource issues for teachers of middle- and high-school students.
For anyone weary of winter, this pocket of warmth in south-central California will feel like a mirage. First, there’s the desert oasis of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, a thriving resort region of palm-shaded boulevards and velvety, green golf courses. Then, just 35 miles northeast, lies the nearest entrance to Joshua Tree National Park—almost 800,000 square acres of sun-soaked, wild desert beauty.
Brutally hot in summer, the park’s arid climate is idyllic in winter, with daytime temperatures in the 60s and 70s. From Palm Springs, you can easily take a scenic day drive through the park, with ample time to sample several overlooks and short hikes. Campgrounds within the park offer even more options for exploring this dramatic desert landscape.
Just east of the Joshua Tree Visitor Center on CA-62, the Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail is one of the park’s nicest hikes. The 3-mile out-and-back route switchbacks gently up a rocky ridge, past fuzzy yellow cholla and barrel cacti as ruddy as rhubarb. Watch for the native chuckwallas, foot-long lizards that dart among the boulders and stoically sun themselves on warm slabs of granite. In a mile or so, a clump of fan palms erupts from the dry floor—a true desert oasis fed by an underground spring.
South of the Visitor Center, the park road weaves through a broad valley of Joshua trees. These sculptural plants (made famous as the title of a U2 album) are members of the Yucca family, with spiky leaves on branched saguaro-like arms. Near the Hidden Valley Picnic Area, the 1-mile-loop Hidden Valley Trail threads through a narrow gap in the rock and opens into a broad, rock-bound basin, where cattle rustlers supposedly hid their stolen herds more than 100 years ago. Continue on the park’s Pinto Basin Road toward US-10 across a vast basin of scrubby creosote, where the Colorado Desert meets the Mohave.
Download free teacher guides on the Mojave Desert for upper-elementary or middle-school students, available through the National Park Service.
A pair of the world’s most active volcanoes provides the fiery focus of this park on the “Big Island” of Hawaii—which boasts lower hotel rates than on some of the other Hawaiian Islands and pleasant temperatures during the winter.
Mammoth 13,679-foot Mauna Loa last erupted in 1984; Kilauea has been erupting almost continuously since 1983. The molten red lava, charcoal lava fields and lush tangle of native rainforest create a fascinating counterpoint to the surf and sand more typically associated with the Hawaiian Islands.
Visitors enter the park at its main entrance off Highway 11, where the Kilauea Visitor Center provides a good introduction to the region’s geology, Hawaiian culture and astonishing biological features, including many plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is still growing: Hardened lava flows have added nearly 600 acres of new land along the island’s southern coastline. Park rangers, the visitor center and the website provide up-to-date information about any closures caused by lava and steam, which occur regularly.
Nearby, the Volcano House hotel provides a dramatic overlook across the Kilauea Caldera, a 3-mile-long gape at the volcano’s summit. Crater Rim Drive loops 11 miles around the crater, but the summit eruption has closed the 4 miles of the route directly beneath the plume of hazardous volcanic gas and particles. You can still reach most of the trails and overlooks branching off Crater Rim Trail and the Thurston Lava Tube.
Chain of Craters Road leads to more recent volcanic activity, threading among steaming vents and recent lava flows. The road ends near the Holei Sea Arch, a magnificent natural arch created by waves pounding the lava shorelines.
As of fall 2015, the island’s best eruption viewing is near Kilauea’s summit crater, Halema’uma’u. At night, a lava lake deep within the crater casts a stunning glow on the clouds and surrounding sky. The closest visitors can get to this eruption is the Jaggar Museum observation deck. To enjoy this spectacular sight in relative solitude, arrive before sunrise.
The Hawaii Natural History Association has produced a Teacher’s Guide to the Geology of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, available free online for educational use.
Get more tips on visiting national parks—including secrets on how to beat the crowds and get coveted reservations—in our insider’s guide.
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