One of the best times to visit one of the US National Parks is during the winter. The crowds are lighter, the scenery is as beautiful as always, and there are typically good deals to be found on accommodations. Here is my list of some of the top parks to visit during the winter. The second part of this series will run on Thursday.
New England & Mid-Atlantic
While most facilities—the visitor center, museums, picnic areas, campgrounds, and roads—close for winter, 45 miles of carriage roads in Acadia convert to snow-buried trails for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing with some groomed for easy touring. Winter travelers can tour the scenic 27-mile Park Loop Road on snowmobiles, or hop onto one of the park’s frozen lakes to ice fish. Hike-in primitive camping is available at Blackwoods Campground, while surrounding towns offer lodging in hotels, inns, and bed-and-breakfasts. Due to its northern latitude, snow, below freezing temperatures, and early darkness prevail.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park can see mild winters with valley daytime highs in the 50s while snow falls frequently in the mountains. Scenic drives on year round primary roads such as Newfound Gap, Little River, and the Cades Cove Loop may offer easier wildlife watching with the deciduous trees devoid of leaves. Hikers and backpackers need to be prepared for swollen streams and trail impediments such as bridge washouts, downed trees, and erosion. Stop at one of three visitors centers to tour exhibits, get up-to-date information on trail conditions, and check on campsites at Smokemont or Cades Cove campgrounds. Communities surrounding the national park in North Carolina and Tennessee offer a wide choice of accommodations including hotels, cabins, bed and breakfasts, and campgrounds.
Heartland & Rocky Mountains
Glacier National Park’s interior buries under 3-13 feet of snow in winter, making it a quiet reserve for cross-country skiing, backcountry skiing, and snowshoeing with closed roadways serving as trails. The park service plows 12 miles of Going-to-the-Sun Road along Lake McDonald for sightseeing. Visitors can overnight at the primitive camp in Apgar Picnic Area if prepared to handle temperatures that may plummet to below zero at night, and from the parking lot at the end of the plowing, skiers and snowshoers can continue to tour the road. Rangers usually lead snowshoe tours on weekends. With most in-park and surrounding community services closed, Izaak Walton Inn just outside the southern park boundary offers unique accommodations in cabooses, an engine, and a historic lodge plus groomed trails for cross-country skiing while Flathead Valley offers year round lodging, dining, and alpine skiing and snowboarding.
Winter brings a unique crowd-free time for watching geysers, bison, and elk (bears hibernate) in Yellowstone National Park. While the road to Mammoth Hot Springs from Gardiner to Cooke City is plowed all winter, deep snow buries most of the park roads, making them available for guided snowmobiling and snow coach tours. Trails convert to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing paths with winter overnight backcountry skiing an option by permit. Visitors can drive to the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel to overnight or take a snow coach to stay in the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. West Yellowstone, Gardiner, and Cooke City offer year round lodging, dining, gas, and shopping services.