A summer vacation to America’s national parks has been a rite of passage for generations of Americans—a pilgrimage made each season ever since the country’s best idea became reality a century ago. Each summer, millions travel in search of the unique blend of natural awe and national pride that our most treasured landscapes inspire. Yet these warm-season sightseers are missing what might be the parks’ best-kept secret: winter.
While Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park is typically jam-packed from June through August, cold weather brings the same striking scenery and abundant wildlife but far smaller crowds. From December to March, an Old Faithful eruption seldom attracts more than 15 onlookers, says park spokeswoman Sandy Snell-Dobert, compared to hundreds who gather every hour all summer long. And Yellowstone’s geysers, steam vents, and hot springs are especially spectacular in the frigid winter air, billowing steam up to 1,000 feet high and frosting the surroundings like a scene from Frozen. “You get these completely white-coated trees,” Snell-Dobert says. “It looks like Christmas gone wild.”
Freezing temperatures yield a fresh take on other familiar—and relatively unfamiliar—park landscapes, from ice-coated coastal cliffs in Maine’s Acadia National Park to the snow-covered forests of Sequoia & Kings Canyon in California. For parks with hotter climates, winter is actually high season: it’s by far the most pleasant time to enjoy the sawgrass marshes of the Florida Everglades and the desert scenes of Arizona’s Saguaro National Park.
This winter, the National Park Service’s centennial celebration is already in full swing, with fee-free park days and tons of new activities. Don’t wait until school’s out to join the party: get started now at these winter wonders.
Everglades National Park in Florida
From December through April, the subtropical dry season spells sunny skies, 70-degree days, and a break from the blood-sucking bugs that plague South Florida’s wetlands the rest of the year. Less rain also concentrates wildlife at watering holes, boosting your odds of spotting the Everglades’ iconic alligators and wading birds like the bright pink roseate spoonbill.
Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah
This southern Utah park’s gravity-defying limestone spires—called hoodoos—appear even more delicate when snow dusts the reddish-orange rocks. Join a ranger-led full moon snowshoe hike (Feb. 20 and March 23, snowpack permitting), or time your visit during a new moon phase for world-class stargazing beneath some of the West’s darkest skies.
Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho
Winter ups the ante of the bizarre and beautiful landscapes of Yellowstone—counted among America’s best winter drives—as scalding geothermal features collide with single-digit winter air. Stay at the rustic Old Faithful Snow Lodge, accessible only by snowcoach, to spot steam-frosted bison, glimpse frozen waterfalls, and watch the world’s most famous geyser with barely a soul in sight.
Acadia National Park in Maine
Five feet of snow blanket Acadia’s evergreen forests and rocky headlands in an average year, transforming the park’s scenic loop drive and winding carriage roads into a paradise for cross-country skiers and snowshoers. Among Acadia’s little-known facts: in winter months, ambitious early-risers can climb Cadillac Mountain to be the first in the country to catch the sunrise. Celebrate the season—and the park’s 100th anniversary—at the Acadia Winter Festival (Feb. 26 to March 6), featuring dozens of workshops with local artists and naturalists.
Saguaro National Park in Arizona
Daytime temperatures average a comfortable 65 degrees from November through March at this gem just north of the Mexican border. Learn about desert-dwelling critters on a ranger-led nature walk, savor a smoldering Sonoran sunset, or simply marvel at the park’s namesake cacti, which can grow to be more than 45 feet tall and age over 200 years.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado
Snowfall adds another dimension to the vertigo-inducing depths of this remote, rocky chasm in west-central Colorado. From December through April, ski or snowshoe the six-mile South Rim Drive to peer from clifftops to the Gunnison River nearly 3,000 feet below. Bonus: in winter months, the park waives its $15 entrance fee.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks in California
Time slows to a primeval pace in a giant sequoia grove, where 275-foot-tall statesmen have watched the seasons come and go for more than 2,000 years. In winter, hike in snow-dampened silence to the General Sherman Tree, among the world’s largest living things. Want more adventure? Trek six strenuous miles into the backcountry to overnight at the cozy Pear Lake Winter Hut.