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A Five-Pack Of Parks Where Winter Is Anything But Off-Season

acadia cadillac mountain view in winter

Whether you want winter—or an exit from it—the national parks have an escape route for you. This is what snowshoers and expert Nordic skiers will find atop Cadillac Mountain, a main attraction in Maine's Acadia National Park. NPS photo by Todd M. Edgar.

From snowsports to whale watching, America’s national parks have it all come winter. At National Parks Traveler, we’ve compiled a brief overview to some of the best national parks to visit once the last leaf falls from the trees. No matter where you live or what you’re interested in, there’s something for everyone at America’s geographically diverse national parks.

Acadia National Park: For Snow in the East, a Maine Attraction

Long known for iconic coastal scenery, Acadia is a great park to visit at any time of year. Travelers looking for adventure will find no shortage here as the northern snows begin to fall. As one of the few national parks that allows recreational snowmobiling, visitors can zip along the 27-mile Park Loop Road and most fire roads. On the opposite end of the adrenaline spectrum is ice fishing. With eleven lakes and ponds to choose from, there’s bound to be a winning catch for everyone. If you have your own dogs and equipment, dog sledding or skijoring is permitted on all closed roads. There are also the usual winter activities such as hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. There is no accommodation located inside the park (except camping) but lodging abounds in the seaside towns surrounding the park.

Why you should go now: The striking landscape takes on a different kind of beauty when frosted by snow. While cold, Acadia is hardly unmanageable and the variety of activities will please a wide spectrum of winter enthusiasts.

Biscayne National Park: For the Winter Escapee In Florida

Since 95% of Biscayne is water and winter tempts are often in the seventies, it is the perfect destination for anyone looking to make like a bird and fly south for the winter. The park’s concessioner offers guided glass-bottomed boat tours or visitors can rent kayaks or canoes to explore on their own. Home to more than 500 species of fish as well as a wide variety of coral, birds, butterflies, reptiles, and manatees, Biscayne is perfect for wildlife lovers. Snorkeling and diving are some of the best ways to experience the park. The submerged Maritime Heritage Trail lets you explore historic wreck sites in the park. "Only accessible by boat, the trail maps out six different wrecks. Mooring buoys provide a place to leave the boat while you dive in to take a closer look.

Why you should go now: December marks the beginning of Florida’s dry season and temperatures stay warm enough year-round that a wetsuit should suffice to explore this watery wonderland.

Channel Islands National Park: For the Offshore Experience in California

Located off the coast of southern California and accessible only by boat, Channel Islands National Park includes five of the eight Channel Islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara. There is no lodging on the islands, only camping, and being prepared is key as there are no restaurants or shops either. However, the undeveloped nature of the islands provides the perfect opportunity to explore the wildlife, both on land and in the sea. With mild weather year round, the real winter draw to the islands is whale watching. Gray whales can be spotted mid-December through mid-March; early morning is the best time for sightings. Imagine spending a winter vacation watching whales slap their giant tails on the waves. That’s a lot better than shoveling the driveway!

Why you should go now: Southern California’s perfect weather already makes it a great place to spend the winter. Add in rugged islands and whales and you have a vacation that can’t be beat whenever you get there.

Joshua Tree National Park: For the Desert Side of California

Located inland of Los Angeles, and a stone’s throw from the resort town of Palm Springs, Joshua Tree National Park is where two great deserts meet, the Mojave and low Colorado. Families and independent travelers enjoy breathtaking desert beauty. Activities include camping, hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, and a guided tour of Keys Ranch. Visitors can explore one of the five oases in the park, which abound with wildlife, or take a ride on the 29 miles of bike trails. Joshua Tree is also a world famous rock-climbing destination and has something for all skill levels. Experts can test their limits, while beginners and children will have a great time scrambling over some of the most unique rock formations in the world and exploring the many caves and crannies.

Why you should go now: Who says escaping the cold has to be wet and wild? Joshua Tree is perfect with comfortable days (60 F) and low humidity. There are occasional snows at higher elevation and nights do get below freezing, so campers should keep that in mind.

Yosemite National Park: For the Winter Sports Enthusiast in California

Solitude? Check. Dramatic landscapes? Check. Oh, and did we mention the downhill skiing, outdoor ice rink, sledding, and overnight cross-country ski trips? While Yosemite’s peak season is the summer, it is truly something special in the winter. Whether you want to reflect on the landscapes that have inspired poets and artists for decades or feel the wind burn your cheeks as you race down a mountain on Badger Pass, Yosemite has something for you. Enjoy a snowshoe hike or take the kids to the ice rink that sits beneath Half Dome before retiring to the lodge for hot cocoa by the fireside.

For a better look, check out this great winter video.

Why you should go now: Winter in Yosemite is snowy and cold, but sunny and cool days are not uncommon. It’s a great way to gain a perspective on a unique experience—Yosemite without the crowds.

Haley Hepburn is an intern at National Parks Traveler. She lives in Boone, North Carolina, where she is a senior at Appalachian State University (recently named one of the country’s “Coolest Schools” by Sierra magazine). Haley is studying English, business, and communication and hopes to one day work in publishing. After graduation she intends to teach English abroad and has a special interest in national parks in other countries.

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Nice piece...but there's a huge omission: Acadia has 45 miles of carriage roads, of which approximately 30 are groomed for cross-country skiing by the volunteers of the Acadia Winter Trails Association (supported by Friends of Acadia). We often have snow when other coastal locations don't, the immaculately-maintained surface of the roads is a perfect base for ski trails, and the scenery is phenomenal.

Thanks Aimee—great addition to the article and a great winter opportunity. Gotta love those "carriage roads" that the wealthy laid down on their "pleasuring grounds" prior to the land becoming national parks. Same situation in the Blue Ridge Parkway's Moses Cone Park, an industrialist's estate before becoming a park along the Parkway in the mid-20th century. The twenty-five miles of wandering gentle carriage roads created by Cone in Blowing Rock, North Carolina are not groomed for Nordic skiing, but they're immensely popular with skiers when the conditions are good. Check out this story for a little more on that.

Thanks for the mention of Channel Islands National Park - we take people kayaking in sea caves year round at Channel Islands National Park. Winter can be a great time to enjoy hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, and camping with some fantastic conditions, fewer visitors, and plenty of wildlife throughout wintertime.

Great tip CIO. Sounds like exactly the kind of winter experience we wanted to point out with this story...

Follow to keep up to date with Acadia related news.

If you go in the summer look into sea kayaking

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