Life

The Best US National Parks To Escape Winter’s Icy Grasp

With temperatures plunging and ice, and snow blanketing most of the United States this time of year, a National Park vacation might not be your first thought for a long weekend away. But while most National Parks truly shine brightest in the summer road trip months, there are some absolutely majestic options that can give you that same summer feeling in the dead of winter. And a little respite from the aching cold is certainly deserved right about now, isn’t it?

While it’s not talked about much, I actually believe that there are plenty of National Parks that are better in the winter – with mild temps, fewer crowds, and plenty of that sunshine many of us have been missing. Here are my eight favorite National Parks for escaping winter’s icy grasp:

Death Valley National Park – California

Death Valley National Park is always my first recommendation for a winter park visit. With temps in the summer that are regularly over 115 degrees, summer is not at all the time you want to be there. Shoulder seasons are great, but winter is really the sweet spot. With temps between 40 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit in January, you can visit this surreal landscape comfortably – and with fewer crowds.

What to do:

Make sure to stop and admire the view at Zabriskie Point, visit the lowest point in North America Badwater Basin, run around the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, and take the epic Artist’s Drive to vibrantly colored hills of Artist’s Palette.

Where to stay:

There are nine campgrounds scattered throughout Death Valley. You’ll want to book a spot at Furnace Creek in advance, but otherwise they are first come first serve. The Oasis at Death Valley Resort is a luxury option if you want the best of both worlds.

Everglades National Park – Florida

Everglades National Park is another perfect option for a winter National Park getaway. With January temps averaging between 56 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit, it is the perfect time to visit the 1.5 billion acre wetland preserve.

With over 2,000 species of plants and animals, the Everglades are truly one of a kind. They provide drinking water to most of South Florida and it’s the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles live together. I loved biking and spotting manatee during my visit – whose population in the park peaks between December and February.

What to do:

Bike at Shark Valley, hike the Anhinga Trail, visit Long Pine Key for some solitude, and explore the Flamingo area to look for wildlife.

Where to stay:

There are two drive-in campgrounds in Everglades National Park, both accessible from the Homestead entrance. Reservations are recommended during the winter months and can be made here. There are also many backcountry sites that are mostly accessible by watercraft and require a permit.

Saguaro National Park – Arizona

I’ve visited 55 of the major US National Parks solo, and one of the most pleasantly surprising parks of all is one of the lesser known: Saguaro. With two sections, West and East of Tucson, Saguaro feels different from other desert parks I’ve visited. It feels… mystical in some strange way. Named after the unofficial western mascot – the Saguaro Cactus – the largest cacti in the nation, it feels otherworldly.

I first visited in the winter and was happy to be comfortable in shorts and a tank, with January averages between 45 and 60 degrees.

What to do:

Take a ride down the Bajada Loop Drive, admire the Signal Hill Petroglyphs, and hike to the summit of Wassen Peak.

Where to stay:

There are just six backcountry camping sites that you must hike to (with a permit) in Saguaro. Luckily, Tucson is a vibrant unique city with tons of short-term rental and hotel options.

Biscayne National Park – Florida

Just outside Miami lies a National Park that doesn’t have quite the name recognition of the two others in Florida, but is well worth a visit. Biscayne National Park is 95% water – and is the perfect place for winter boating, canoeing, and snorkeling. With temps hovering between 68 and 76 degrees in January, and without the threat of hurricanes – winter is an ideal time to visit Biscayne.

What to do:

Explore six of the park’s shipwrecks by snorkeling or SCUBAing the Maritime Heritage Trail. Take a boat tour to Elliott or Boca Chita Keys to hike, swim, or snorkel.

Where to stay:

There are two campgrounds that are first come first serve on Elliott and Boca Chita Keys. The only way to access is by boat – and the fee varies based on just camping or docking and camping. Biscayne is halfway between Miami and the Keys – so there are endless options if camping isn’t your thing.

Big Bend National Park – Texas

On the border between Mexico and the US sits one of the most underrated National Parks in the system: Big Bend. Named for the curve in the Rio Grande, it is a remote and wild part of the country. A drive to Big Bend feels like stepping into another universe – and winter is arguably the best time to enter it.

With temperatures ranging between 35 and 68 in January it can feel cooler at night, but blissful during the day.

What to do:

Hike the short trail in Santa Elena Canyon or the longer South Rim, take a scenic drive, and soak in the natural hot springs on the Rio Grande. Cross the border into Boquillas Mexico with a valid passport.

Where to stay:

You can camp at Big Bend in the winter, just keep in mind that temps can get close to freezing at night and reservations are recommended during high season from January to April. You can also find luxury resorts in the area along with plenty of eclectic rentals – I recommend looking in Terlingua!

Dry Tortugas National Park – Florida

There are three major National Parks in Florida, and no surprise, they are all perfect for escaping cold winter weather. But if I could visit just one, I would always choose Dry Tortugas – hands down. Just 70 miles off the coast of Key West, it feels like another world entirely.

Catch a ferry boat or seaplane for either a day trip or, for the adventurous, primitive camping on the Garden Key.

What to do:

Explore Fort Jefferson, lounge on the sandy beaches, and snorkel in the pristine blue waters and vibrant coral reef.

Where to stay:

There are right regular sites and overflow camping on Garden Key. They are remote and primitive, but arguably the best spot to stargaze. If you don’t have the gear, there are plenty of options within walking distance from the ferry in Key West.

Volcanoes National Park – Hawaii

Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii famously encompasses the summits of two of the world’s most active volcanoes – Mauna Loa and Kīlauea. But there is so much more to this park. Extending from sea level to over 13,000 ft, I found Volcanoes to be incredibly diverse. With ferns, lava tubes, and plenty of trails, there is no shortage of activities at this park.

With temperatures in winter averaging between 65 and 70 degrees, it is the perfect time to visit this tropical paradise.

What to do:

Hike the Crater Rim Trail, visit the Thurston Lava Tubes, take a scenic drive down Chain of Craters Road to the Hōlei Sea Arch.

Where to stay:

There are two drive-in campgrounds at Volcanoes – Nāmakanipaio and Kulanaokuaiki. You can also opt to stay in the Volcano House Hotel within the park.

Joshua Tree National Park – California

At the intersection of two distinct ecosystems lies Joshua Tree National Park. Just a 2 hour drive from LA, the park is legendary – and for good reason. Encompassing the Colorado and Mojave deserts, Joshua Tree feels like a visit to another planet. The twisting Joshua Trees, unique rock formations, ample hiking, and temps between 48-65 degrees make this a perfect winter escape.

What to do:

Hike on some of the park’s 300 miles of trails (try Ryan Mountain or Barker Dam), visit the curiously shaped Skull Rock, climb on one of the 8,000 established rock climbing routes, watch the sunset at the Cholla Cactus Garden, and stay later for some of the best stargazing in the US.

Where to stay:

There are over 500 campsites at Joshua Tree – 5 campgrounds are reservation only, while 3 are first come first serve. There is also ample Bureau of Land Management land nearby to camp on, and an endless supply of IG-worthy vacation rentals in the area.

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