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Want to Escape the Cold? Winter is a Great Time to Visit These Desert and Coastal Parks


(Top photo): The Rio Grande exits Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park. Jim Burnett photo. (Bottom photo) It's hard to beat the setting, but camping on Garden Key at Dry Tortugas National Park requires some advance planning. NPS photo.

For some park travelers, winter trips conjure up images of snow-covered landscapes, but for others the season means sun and sand. Here are some suggestions for NPS sites where milder winter weather offers a fine time to enjoy parks that are just too toasty or buggy for most of us during the summer.

If you're looking for an escape from the winter chill, a classic answer is a visit to Hawaii. NPS sites in the island state offers a variety of terrain and experiences, from active volcanoes and ocean vistas to historical sites. If warm weather is your goal, you'll likely find it in parts of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Haleakala National Park.

Be aware, however, if you travel to higher elevations in either of those parks, you'll likely catch up with the cold you thought you'd left behind. Even in Hawaii, it's colder on top of the mountain that at the bottom, and when the temperature is hitting 80 on the coast at Haleakala, it can be below freezing on the 10,023 foot summit.

In addition to the obvious lure of viewing active volcanoes, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park offers scenic drives, camping, and over 150 miles of hiking trails. This is a fascinating place to study and observe natural history. The park is one of the few remaining natural areas in Hawaii protecting contiguous habitat from sea to summit; elevations in the park stretch from sea level to 13,677 feet at the summit of Mauna Loa. The result is an amazing variety of ecosystems and habitat for numerous native Hawaiian species, ranging from sea coast and rain forest to subalpine and alpine areas.

For a sample of the tropics a little off the beaten path, the Kipahulu area of Haleakala National Park is one possibility. Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park offers a chance to "step back in time to a sanctuary of Hawaii’s past where traditional Hawaiian lifestyle is preserved," and in addition to history, Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park offers hiking, a white coral sand beach, snorkeling, coral reefs and tropical fish.

Back on the mainland, a long-time winter favorite in the West is Death Valley National Park. Death Valley offers plenty of variety, from the tallest sand dunes in California and lofty mountains to Badwater, the lowest point in North America. For a peek into history and a bit of luxury in the desert there's Scotty's Castle. Try to catch one of the ranger guided tours to get some extra insights into Death Valley Scotty and the "castle" in the desert that bears his name.

Other place names such as Devil’s Golf Course, Furnace Creek and Dante’s View offer a reminder that even in winter, you'll need plenty of water and common-sense to explore this vast park, which includes more miles of roads than any other national park—almost a thousand miles of paved and dirt routes—and over three million acres of wilderness.

If your winter wish list includes a desert trip, don't overlook a relative newcomer, Mojave National Preserve. It offers many of the same attractions as Death Valley and Joshua Tree, and despite it's easy access off of I-40 and I-15 between Las Vegas and L.A., this third-largest NPS unit outside of Alaska has plenty of remote areas to explore.

Among Mojave's attractions are "singing" sand dunes, volcanic cinder cones, lava tubes and an extensive Joshua Tree forest—some say it's the finest anywhere. There are extensive scenic roads, both paved and unpaved, and how could you pass up a chance to drive to a desert oasis on a route called the Zzyzx Road?

Travelers in the center of the country might consider Big Bend National Park. Although the park's Chisos Basin can be pretty chilly due to its 5,400 foot elevation—and snow does occur occasionally even at lower altitudes—this is prime season for lower-lying desert areas. Popular areas from fall until spring include Rio Grande Village area and the nearby Boquillas Canyon and hot springs; at the opposite side of the park, the Castolon area, Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and Santa Elena Canyon are favorites with fans of Big Bend.

Big Bend offers some fine hikes, and the cooler months are a good time to enjoy those at lower elevations. One of my favorites for fine scenery is the two mile round-trip Grapevine Hills Trail, but be prepared for the seven miles of gravel road leading to the trailhead.

If you're yearning for a bit of tropical paradise this winter, there are several park options in the sunny Caribbean. For a mid-winter escape, it's hard to top the sugar-sand beaches of Virgin Islands National Park. Head to the small island of St. John and you can enjoy palm-lined beaches washed by warm turquoise waters; venture into the water for snorkeling or diving, or hike the park's trails.

A true off-the-beaten-path option is Dry Tortugas National Park, where you can tour Fort Jefferson, the largest all-masonry fortification in the Western world, go snorkeling over coral reefs, enjoy world-class bird watching or just soak up some winter rays at this American outpost that's close to Cuba that it is to the mainland U.S.A. A visit to this park takes some advance planning, so here are some tips to help plan your trip; it's also prudent to check the park website for any last-minute updates.

A list of traditional winter destinations wouldn't be complete without Florida, and this is the prime season to visit Everglades National Park. The period from December through April is considered the park's dry season, when low humidity and milder temperatures greatly reduce the numbers of biting insects, and also improve wildlife viewing.

Long a favorite with birders and other wildlife watchers, the park also offers options for paddling on water trails, boating and fishing, hiking and both frontcountry and backcountry camping.

Everglades includes the largest remaining subtropical wilderness in the United States and the largest tract of federally protected wilderness east of the Rockies.

Elsewhere in Florida, Biscayne National Park offers excellent water-based activities right on the doorstep of Miami; the park boasts the northernmost coral reef in the United States.

Although the winter water may be too chilly for most swimmers, this is still a fine season for enjoying the southern national seashores. The summer crowds are gone and a warm January day can be a delightful time for a walk on the beach.

Canaveral National Seashore features 24 miles of pristine, undeveloped beach and dunes on a barrier island midway along Florida's east coast, between Daytona Beach and Melbourne. The park offers back-country camping, horseback riding, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, fishing, surfing, swimming, boating, birdwatching and nature and historical trails.

At the far western tip of the Florida panhandle, Gulf Islands National Seashore also includes nearby coastal areas in Mississippi. Famous for its white sand beaches on both the mainland and offshore islands, the park offers both developed campgrounds on the mainland and primitive camping on the islands, swimming, bicycling, snorkeling, fishing, hiking, beach combing, wildlife watching, and boating. There's also plenty of history at Gulf Islands, with fortifications spanning the centuries from the Spanish colonial Bateria De San Antonio (1797) to a World War Two-era coastal battery. Numerous hiking and biking trails offer a chance to get out and enjoy the mild winter days, and yes, the park is open after the infamous oil spill earlier this year.

Padre Island National Seashore, on the southern Texas coast, protects the longest undeveloped stretch of barrier island in the world. In addition to the usual beach-related activities, this is an especially fine area for winter and early spring bird watching. The nearby city of Corpus Christi claims to have "more bird species that any other city in the U.S., and has won the competition for being the Birdiest City in America from 2003 to 2008." Special birding tours are held in the park January through April; check with the park visitor center at (361)949-8068 for details. An easy day trip from Padre Island is the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, winter home of one of the rarest birds in North America, the whooping crane.

Although some of the areas mentioned above offer in-park lodging, winter can also be a popular time for camping, especially in parks blessed by mild weather before and after New Years. A previous story in the Traveler highlighted some good possibilities for winter camping, whether you favor a tent or an RV.

Hot or cold, NPS sites all across the country offer enough variety to please snow birds and snow bunnies. Just keep in mind that for some of these sites, "peak season" may be in January, so plan ahead! Even lower elevation desert and coastal parks can sometimes be chilly and wet in the winter months, so check the forecast before you go and, as always, be prepared for the unexpected when it comes to the weather.

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Escape cold in Death Valley in the winter? Maybe if you stay in a lodge, Jim. About the coldest I've ever been while camping was in Death Valley in February: cold, biting, almost incessant winds, well below freezing at night. I've been warmer camping in a foot of snow.

Zzyzx: the last name in health care. There's an interesting story on how it was built with unwilling labor. The former resort/spa has be a CSU research station for a couple of decades.

Tomp –

Thanks for the reminder that "warm" is relative when it comes to the weather, and places like Death Valley and even the Florida coast can sometimes be downright chilly during the winter.

Even though the website for Death Valley NP says, "In contrast to the extremes of summertime, winter and spring are very pleasant. Winter daytime temperatures are mild in the low elevations, with cool nights that only occasionally reach freezing," you are quite correct – there can be some cold and blustery days (and especially nights) at Death Valley.

As always, a good rule of thumb is to check the forecast before heading to any desert or coastal park with plans to bask in the warmth—and to keep in mind that the weather doesn't always cooperate with the forecasters :-)

Efforts to find "pleasant weather" in any season of the year bring to mind the quote sometimes attributed to Mark Twain: "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco."

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