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Snapshots of Where To Winter in the National Park System, Cold Weather Edition


Whether you want to watch storms, ski or snowshoe in Acadia, look at the snowy La Sals off in the distance behind Arches' curious landscape, or marvel at the frosted trees in Yellowstone, there are plenty of cold-weather destinations to enjoy winter in the National Park System. Top photo courtesy ARAMARK Parks and Destinations, Acadia photo courtesy of Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, bottom two photos by Kurt Repanshek.

Editor's note: With nearly 400 units, the National Park System offers a little of something for just about every taste when it comes to where to go in winter. Today we take a look at an array of winter-destinations in the park system, from national lakeshores perfect for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing to High Sierra and Rocky Mountain parks where the snow is deep and the cold numbing...and the fun wide-ranging.

Winter long has been regarded as the slow season for national park visits, and that's a good thing if you prefer to have the parks to yourself. With most travelers confined by school schedules to the summer months, and many convinced winter is a bad time to be outdoors, you can savor the best of the parks from coast to coast in winter. Here are some snapshots of wintry fun in the parks that bear that out.

Acadia National Park

True, you probably won't have too many outdoor lobster bakes at Acadia during the winter months, but this island park offers miles of carriage paths for wandering and, when snowstorms cooperate, exquisite cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. A good snowstorm can open 45 miles of carriage paths to skiers and snowshoers, and hardy campers can pitch their tents at the Blackwoods Campground between December 1 and March (just don't forget to get your permit at the park HQ). If you've got the skills, and the equipment, you can even drive a dogsled along the snow-covered park roads (but not the carriage paths). Snowmobiling is even permitted on the 27-mile park loop road, if there's enough snow, of course. Once winter takes hold, the park somewhat regularly updates the snow conditions on its website.

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Most folks would envision a summer, not winter, trek to a national lakeshore. But there's a very special reason to look towards Apostle Islands in the frosty throes of winter: It's only then that you can walk on water. During particularly cold winters the surface of Lake Superior freezes hard enough along the lakeshore's shoreline so visitors can walk, ski, or snowshoe from Meyers Beach near Cornucopia, Wisconsin, to caves that have been cut into cliffs rising above the lake. These caves, known as the the Mawikwe Caves, can be quite beautiful thanks to the ice formations that adorn them. However, getting to and from the caves can be dangerous depending on the ice conditions. Apostle Islands staff checks the ice and monitors the weather to determine when the Mawikwe Caves are accessible. The staff, cannot, however, be there all the time. Cold temperatures can form thick ice, but wind and waves can break up that ice and make it very unstable.

Arches National Park

Winter months can be mild at Arches. I once toured the park in short-sleeves in late February. Even if you have to bundle up, the brilliant contrast between the red-rock monoliths and the dazzling white of the snow-covered La Sal Range in the background can be spectacular. Of course, even in winter you're not likely to have the 3-mile-roundtrip hike to Delicate Arch to yourself. But odds are pretty good that if you head out for the 7.2-mile trek to the Primitive Loop beyond Delicate Arch you will have only the wind and ravens to keep you company. That's the kind of solitary backdrop that spurred Edward Abbey to write Desert Solitare. The Devils Garden Campground is open, and they leave the water on year-round, too. But hauling in your own firewood would be a good idea if you want to sit around a campfire at night. During the winter months (November 1st to February 28th) sites 1 - 24 are available on a self-serve basis at the campground.

Grand Teton National Park

The problem with Grand Teton is that its neighbor is Yellowstone. Or maybe that's a good thing. Were the world's first national park several hundred miles or more distant, Grand Teton would overflow with winter visitors. After all, the Grand Teton itself has been dubbed America's Matterhorn thanks to its jagged profile, and the snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and even backcountry alpine skiing for the adventurous can be superb. Toss in the gateway town of Jackson Hole, the downhill skiing at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Grand Targhee, and Snow King, along with the National Elk Refuge with its winter sleigh tours of the elk wintering grounds, and you'll run out of energy, not things to do during a winter's visit. And if it's too cold outside, something that can happen in this western Wyoming valley, then head indoors at the National Museum of Wildlife Art where you can enjoy some of the masterpieces produced by George Catlin, Conrad Schwiering, Maynard Dixon, Alexander Pope, Frederic Remington and dozens of others.

Great Basin National Park

Overlooked even in summer by mainstream park goers, Great Basin is a ghost town of sorts in winter, which can be a great reason to head there! Though it's in the heart of the high desert, the soaring peaks of the park act as rakes when winter storms pass through, pulling down tons and tons of fresh powder snow perfect for cross-country skiing on the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive and the Baker Creek Road, snowshoeing on the trails or, if you're jonesing for some fresh turns, some great off-piste opportunities. Of course, you also can head underground to enjoy a tour of Lehman Caves. These trips are offered daily year-round. In winter, 60-minute tours are led at 11 a.m. and again at 3 p.m. Ninety-minute tours fall at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. You can make a reservation if you wish, at 775-234-7331, but park officials say they're not usually necessary in winter. And, of course, you're welcome to camp at the Lower Lehman Creek Campground, but there's no water there in winter and it does get quite cold.

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

Snowshoe hikes and cross-country skiing at Indiana Dunes can be wonderful winter activities in the park. For snowshoers, there are 45 miles of trails perfect for exploring winter. Cross-country skiers also are welcome, and most repeaters head to the Ly-co-ki-we and Inland Marsh trails for skinny skiing. At the lakeshore's Douglas Center (219-395-1821), Family Day is celebrated 1 p.m.-3 p.m. every Saturday through May. If there's enough snow on hand, you can try to keep your balance on cross-country skis, which are available on a first-come, first-served basis. A snowshoe outing is scheduled, weather permitting, from 1 p.m. - 2 p.m. on January 22 from the Calumet Dune Trail Parking lot. And on February 5 from 1 p.m. - 3 p.m. at the Douglas Center rangers will explain how animals adapt in winter. If there's enough snow, this will be conducted on cross-country skis. If not, then a casual hike will be offered. Reservations are recommended.

Mount Rainier National Park

What better place to head in winter than Paradise? It might be a well-worn phrase, but at Mount Rainier you'll find some great sledding, tubing, and snowshoeing opportunities. In fact, folks have already been making turns on the mountain (do they ever put the boards up here?). While there are specific places for sledding and tubing on snow for your own safety, rangers also lead snowshoe jaunts for about two hours beginning in mid-December and continuing on into March. These are offered daily around the year-end holidays, but usually by the time mid-January arrives they're available only on weekends. But that doesn't mean you can't head out on your own. Attached below are pdfs on the park's snow play, winter camping, and winter trails.

Olympic National Park

Alpine and Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, and even storm-watching are among the highlights to be enjoyed in Olympic during the winter months. While it's too cold for most of us to consider a dip in the Pacific between November and May, there's little chance of substantial snowfall in the park's lower elevations. As a result the hiking can be quite good along the coast, into the Hoh, Queets, and Quinault valleys, and even out to Ozette. But if it's snow you want, then head up to Hurricane Ridge. This winter the road should be open most days, as a mix of private and public dollars will enable crews to take their best shot at keeping the Hurricane Ridge Road open. Double-check with the park, but in past winters they've offered ranger-led snowshoe tours along the ridge. What's the deal with storm-watching? When power Pacific storms come ashore they slam into the park's coastline, and the waves pounding both the beaches and the sea stacks are incredible to watch. Park Service officials say that there typically are 10-15 good storms each month for this type of sightseeing. At Kalaloch Lodge overlooking the Pacific you can take advantage of the Storm Watcher Package, which starts at $149 a night for two. These gets you one night’s accommodations, breakfast for two, two rain ponchos and a souvenir fleece blanket with the Olympic National Park logo. Additional nights may be added at $99 per night. (Promo code: STORM10; 2-night minimum if you arrive on a Friday.) Attached below is a pdf on Olympic's cross-country and snowshoe trails on Hurricane Ridge.

Rocky Mountain National Park

To the unschooled, Rocky Mountain is a summer, not year-round, destination. But those who know know the winter treasures of Rocky. Whether it's tubing at Bear Lake or snowshoeing, or even just hiking in the park's lower elevations, Rocky can be a jewel in winter. Come January and the rangers offer weekly snowshoeing and cross-country skiing outings, too. And while it certainly gets cold in the park when the sun dips below the horizon, that doesn't mean the campgrounds are closed. The Longs Peak Campground and designated sections of Moraine Park Campground are open all winter, though you might be wise to pack in your own water...and perhaps a way to keep it from freezing, such as a well-insulated cooler! Self-registration permits for backcountry camping is available in winter zones. There is no charge in the winter for backcountry camping. Beginning in January and running into March rangers lead a number of snowshoe and cross-country ski jaunts. See the attached pdf for details.

Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park

Imagine snowshoeing or cross-country skiing below some of the world's tallest trees. That's what awaits those who endeavor to visit Sequoia during the winter months. Before, or after, you hit the trails, stop by the Giant Forest Museum to learn more about the giant trees and this part of the High Sierra and to pick up ski maps, books and first aid. Two miles north of the museum is the General Sherman Tree. When snow closes the upper Sherman Tree parking lot, you can usually find parking in the lower lot located by the Generals Highway. If there is enough snow on the ground, the Wolverton area is open for snowplay. Find your way to Kings Canyon National Park and at Grant Grove you can attend the annual Nation's Christmas Tree Ceremony, which is held on the second Sunday each December. At Grant Grove Village you'll also find lodging, a restaurant, market, and cross-country ski and snowshoe rentals. When there is enough snow accumulation both Big Stump and Columbine Picnic areas are open to snowplay. Snowshoe walks are usually offered at Wuksachi Lodge and Grant Grove on Saturdays and holidays when conditions permit. The park provides snowshoes free for the two-hour, one-mile walk. Group size is limited, so reserve your place at any visitor center or by calling 559-565-4480 for the Wuksachi walk and 559-565-4307 for the Grant Grove walk. Hardy, experienced backcountry skiers can plan excursions to the Pear Lake Hut.

Valley Forge National Historical Park

History begs you to visit Valley Forge in the winter months. How else to come close to understanding the challenges confronted by General George Washington and his Colonial Army? Their encampment here during the winter of 1777-78 has been the focus of countless historical analyses and stands out in our country's history for obvious reasons. According to Dr. Harold Selesky, this encampment "was the first ... of troops that eleven states (all except South Carolina and Georgia) had raised for an extended period, generally a term of three years or the duration of the war. No army like it had ever existed before in America, or would exist again." Not only can you tour some of the huts the troops built to endure the winter, but throughout the winter months the park offers living history tours and other special events. For instance, on December 19 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the location of the Muhlenberg Bridgade there will be candlelight tours and a "march" to the bridgade's huts. "At the Muhlenberg huts park staff and volunteers in period clothing demonstrate camp life while the Colonial Revelers rejoice in the Visitor Center. Refreshments, holiday shopping, and free gift wrap at the Encampment Store. (Weather dependent)" For a listing of more events, check the park's website.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone is the icon most intrepid park travelers, those who don't mind bone-numbing cold, want to see come winter. With its heavy snows, temperatures that can fall to 40 degrees below zero, geysers and hot springs that never freeze, and wolves, bison, and elk readily visible, is that any surprise? True, visiting Yellowstone in winter is not done on the cheap. Getting into the park's interior can be expensive. But the road from Mammoth Hot Springs to Cooke City through the northern range is kept open year-round, offering you many opportunities to seek out wildlife in the Lamar Valley or head off towards Tower Falls on skis or snowshoes. The accommodations, libations, and sustenance make the Old Faithful Snow Lodge a great basecamp in the park's interior, while the Mammoth Hotel on the northern lip of the park is a great base for excursions to the Lamar Valley for wildlife watching or to Indian Creek or Tower for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. For something a bit more invigorating, at least weather-wise, consider signing up for one of the Lamar Valley Wolf Week programs the Yellowstone Association Institute is debuting this coming winter. The weekly programs, to be offered in December and March, are based at the association's Buffalo Ranch field campus. The programs will be a mix of classroom learning and field trips to look for wolves. Reservations for the Lamar Valley Wolf Week can be made by calling 1-406-848-2400.

Yosemite National Park

With a downhill ski area, groomed cross-country ski trails, endless backcountry acres for the hardy, and even an ice rink in its iconic valley, the only drawback to a winter visit to Yosemite is that you won't get to see its waterfalls at full throttle. Of course, winter brings closure to the Tioga Road, which gets buried under snow. And while the road to Glacier Point also is closed in winter, that's only to automobiles. Cross-country skiers and snowshoers are more than welcome to make the trek from the Badger Pass Ski Area to the overlook. Not only are there 25 miles of groomed ski trails, but there are another 90 miles of marked trails, and you can even sign on to join an overnight ski tour to the Glacier Point hut with its wood heat, dormitory boarding, and great views. Rangers also lead snowshoe hikes from Badger Pass throughout the winter.

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I am continually awed by the amount of effort that goes into keeping this website up and running.

Thank you Kurt and everyone else involved.

Agree with Lee -- thanks!

More ideas:
Ozark National Scenic Riverways and adjacent lands have lots of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding. Winter is great because the otherwise-abundant ticks back off when it's cold. Once the hunters finish up, there's nobody in the park.

Big Bend NP, Guadalupe Mountains NP. When it's cold everywhere else, the temperature is often pretty pleasant in these parks.

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