Need help figuring out the best national parks to visit in winter?
With low entrance fees, endless free activities to enjoy inside the park, and affordable accommodations for those willing to camp, America’s National Parks offer an exceptional budget travel option.
But in peak season months, they can also be a crowded mess, majorly affecting both your experience and your ability to explore. Winter travel to the National Parks changes all that, offering a slower-paced, more off-the-beaten-path option.
In this post, we asked six travel bloggers to share their favorite national parks to visit in winter and the reasons why. From the frequently visited parks to the lesser-known, these spots are all worth a winter adventure.
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1. Yellowstone National Park in Winter
by Lauren from The Leek and The Carrot
Yellowstone National Park is America’s first national park (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site), containing 2.2 million sprawling acres packed with more than 10,000 hydrothermal features, 500 active geysers, 1000 miles of hiking trails, and 68 species of mammal (the most in the lower 48).
It is a powerhouse of wildlife, rare wilderness, and wonder, and it is also incredibly crowded in summer.
Yellowstone National Park isn’t America’s most visited national park (that honor goes to the Great Smoky Mountains – more on that below). But with a short regular season (April through early November), most of Yellowstone’s annual 3+ million visitors visit during the summer months, making the experience of such a spectacular place a little less spectacular.
Many people don’t know that parts of Yellowstone National Park re-open during winter, and if you visit the park, you’ll be one of a few hundred visitors instead of one of several thousand.
Traveling to Yellowstone in the winter is not for the faint of heart. Temperatures can be subzero, and the wind and snow mean serious business. Still, for those willing to pack their warmest layers and prepare to brave the elements, you will experience a Yellowstone few ever see.
Around mid-December (after enough snow accumulates), certain roads in the park open to guided snowmobile and snow coach travel. You may not be able to take your car, but you can book a snowmobile or snow coach tour out of West Yellowstone to visit the Geyser Basin, Old Faithful, and Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. You can do these as part of a guided group tour or book privately to explore at your leisure. Back Country Adventures does a spectacular job, and Yellowstone Alpen Tours offers travel in historic bombardiers.
You can find a full list of approved vendors on the nps.gov website.
Visitors are also welcome to travel wherever they like in Yellowstone by foot, making it the perfect park for avid cross country skiers and snowshoers to explore and winter camp. For those less experienced, many outfitters offer snowshoe and cross country ski rentals and guided tours near the west entrance.
If you’re hoping to take a snow coach, do a snowmobile tour, or explore Yellowstone on foot, West Yellowstone makes an excellent home base for your adventures. Several hotels remain open year-round, and Big Sky is only an hour away from the west entrance if you want to combine your trip with some world-class skiing.
My favorite accommodation lies halfway between West Yellowstone and Big Sky. 320 Guest Ranch offers beautiful cabins tucked between stunning mountains and the Yellowstone River. They have a restaurant on-site and offer sleigh rides in the winter.
The northeast entrance remains open year-round to private vehicles for those determined to drive their cars through Yellowstone. There is a four-hour out and back drive from the main entrance near Gardiner to Cooke City, Montana (the roads east of Cooke City are closed in winter), and it is truly fantastic if the weather cooperates.
It includes Mammoth Hot Springs, the Boiling River, stunning mountain vistas, and the Lamar Valley. The latter is one of the most spectacular wildlife viewing areas in the whole park, where it is not uncommon to travel alongside bison, moose, elk, and (if you’re lucky) wolves. Allow a whole day, so you have plenty of time to stop and take in everything you see.
Gardiner is slow in the winter, but it’s the best place to stay to explore the northeast area. A couple of chain hotels remain open all year, and the breakfasts at Yellowstone Grill are truly outstanding.
If you don’t mind a bit of a drive to the park, Livingston is a cute, Western-style town with great food an hour north of the park. Bozeman is about an hour and 20 minutes from the northeast entrance if you want to combine this part of the trip with a delightful university town.
2. Joshua Tree National Park in Winter
by Kristin from The Sustainable Explorer
When most people think of Joshua Tree National Park, they immediately think of scorching temperatures and a broiling summer desert. Little do they know, winters in the park can be quite the opposite.
Joshua Tree is arguably one of the best parks to visit during the winter. Not only are there fewer people, but you also don’t have to worry about the possibility of heatstroke. You may even encounter snow. In the past few years, there has been minor snowfall in the winter.
When preparing for a trip to Joshua Tree in the winter, layers are key. Often temps are mild enough for a light jacket during the day, but it can get deceivingly cold once the wind blows. Do not underestimate this desert climate, especially during winter nights or days when there is wind in the forecast.
You will most likely see many rock climbers throughout the park during the winter taking advantage of the “send temps.” Cooler weather is best for rock climbing, and with the number of legendary climbs in Joshua Tree, climbers flock to this oasis from early fall until late spring when it becomes too hot to climb.
The intersection rock area is a popular place to climb, offering bouldering, trad, and sport climbing. I like the Planet X area. It’s a bit further into the park than Intersection rock but offers some fun, easy climbs such as the routes on the Dragon Scales boulder. These routes vary from VB to V2.
If climbing is not your thing, there are also many great hikes throughout the park. My favorite trail in JTNP is the Lost Horse Mine Loop, a moderate 6.7-mile hike. There is also a shorter out and back 4-mile option if you don’t want to make the full loop but still want to see the leftover mine structures.
As the park has grown in popularity, Joshua Tree’s downtown has also started to thrive. Fun clothing and consignment shops with psychedelic themes dot Highway 62 (the main highway outside Joshua Tree National Park). If you are into crystals, you should also check out the Joshua Tree Rock Shop.
Along the highway, there are also several great restaurants. I highly recommend checking out Boo’s Organic Oven for some coffee and a slice of their vegan carrot cake in the morning. If carrot cake for breakfast isn’t quite your style, The Natural Sisters Cafe serves up organic, locally sourced, comfort food in the mornings and afternoons. For dinner, Crossroads Cafe is the place to be, and I love their vegan 3-Bean Chili.
Accommodations in Joshua Tree are simple and affordable. There are loads of fun Airbnbs located in the area, and if you prefer camping, there are a few different types of campgrounds available.
Inside the national park, there are first-come, first-serve campsites as well as reservation-only campsites. Outside the park, there is some BLM land that you can camp on.
For more information about BLM camping, check out our BLM Dispersed Camping Guide.
3. Shenandoah National Park in Winter
by Megan from Virginia Travel Tips
While it explodes with tourism and is easily one of the nation’s most visited national parks during summer and fall, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia becomes a quiet and otherworldly place during the winter months.
Shenandoah is best known for its viewpoints, hiking, and Skyline Drive, which remains open throughout the winter. The views along the way are quiet, and the scenery has a peacefulness to it that you just simply cannot find during heavier tourism months. But be warned, it can suddenly close if there is a snowstorm or the roads ice over.
One of the best things to do in Shenandoah National Park, even during the winter, is to hit the hiking trails. One of the most famous winter hikes in Shenandoah is Stony Man, a 1.6-mile trail that you will find at mile marker 41.7. Another popular trail is Dark Hollow Falls, one of the most epic waterfall hikes within the park. It is a fairly steep 1.4-mile hike found at mile marker 50.4. And for novice hikers, the Frazier Discovery Trail is a great 1.3-mile loop that takes you to an overlook with a sweeping panoramic view. You can find Frazier at mile marker 79.5.
The cost to enter the park is $30 per vehicle with unlimited access for seven days, allowing you to make the most of your trip at an affordable price. However, if you’re located nearby and are on a slimmer budget, you can opt to visit during one of the free days like Veterans Day (November 11) or Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (the third Monday in January).
Another reason to visit Shenandoah in winter is that there are plenty of fun things nearby to keep you occupied! Luray Caverns is the largest cave east of the Mississippi and makes a fun pitstop. The region is also home to several wineries and Staunton – one of Virginia’s most charming towns.
If you need a place to stay nearby, you can opt for Cider House Orchard Stay in Timberville, Massanutten Ski Resort, or the Gum Tree Lodge in Gordonsville.
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4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Winter
by Carrie from Planes, Trains, and Tuk Tuks
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the best winter destinations in the U.S., full stop. But when you take into account that admission is free and you can stay in the park for $5 a night, it’s a top budget choice as well.
The Smokies are the most biodiverse region within the National Park System, largely due to the huge elevation span. The main draw in winter is hiking, as there are few other winter activities available. You can choose from winter hikes with high temperatures in the ’60s — where you might even visit a swimming hole — or frigid, snow-covered peaks.
Smoky Mountains National Park is an especially great winter park for hikers and trail runners looking for big, fast miles. In winter, the park’s highest point, Clingman’s Dome (which you can drive to March through November), becomes accessible only by an 18-mile, 4,000-foot climb with limited daylight in temperatures that frequently hover in the teens. The Boulevard Trail to Mount LeConte is also devoid of crowds: mainly because it’s 19 miles long and takes you to a wild, wind-blown summit that’s usually covered in ice.
If you’re after something easier, the winter views from Charlie’s Bunion are unreal: just be sure to bring microspikes to explore the cliffs. Due to lighter crowds, winter is also the best time to visit Alum Cave, the Deep Creek Waterfall Loop, or Midnight Hole.
The Smokies are a surprisingly remote destination, especially on the North Carolina side. There’s not much in the way of food, gas, or facilities. Pack your lunches and snacks, fill up your tank in Waynesville, and be completely self-reliant in terms of gear and navigation. The Tennessee side is more developed, especially around Cades Cove, but the trails are crowded, and they aren’t as beautiful.
The #1 way for intrepid, budget-minded travelers to experience winter in the Smokies is backcountry camping. Sunrise from the campsite atop Mount Sterling is magical after snow, or you could snag the coveted LeConte Shelter for a night. Avoid the cold at lower-elevation sites like Campsites 60 or 151, which are in beautiful stretches of a creekside forest. Sites must be reserved in advance for $5 a night, but you can usually get whatever sites you want a day or two before your trip in winter. LeConte Shelter and Icewater Springs are worth booking weeks in advance, even in January.
If you prefer a little more warmth, the bunkhouse at Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City is a great budget option. Shared rooms start from $40/night, or you can stay in the motel for $80/night. There are ample hotels in Gatlinburg, the most popular base for visiting the Smokies. Still, they tend to be either absurdly expensive or extremely gross, and you’ll have long drives on icy roads to reach the park’s better hiking areas.
5. Everglades National Park in Winter
by Rachel and Dana from Traveling Found Love
The unique ecosystem of Everglades National Park is home to rich birdlife, alligators, crocodiles, and lush vegetation. It is one of the largest and most beautiful national parks in the United States, providing important habitat to many rare and endangered species.
Winter is the most attractive time of the year to visit the Everglades. During the dry season from November through April, temperatures are enjoyable, and wildlife encounters are at their best. Plus, you won’t have to worry about pesky mosquitoes and biting flies.
The park has three different main areas to visit, and visitors can tour only a small portion of the park on the land. There is the north entrance at Shark Valley, the main entrance at Florida City, and the northwest entrance at Everglades City. Each section of the park offers a different experience.
If you want to explore Everglades National Park on land, head over to Shark Valley, the most popular area to see an abundance of wildlife closeup. You can opt for the Shark Valley Tram Tour, which provides a 2-hour guided excursion on the 15 miles of paved pathway.
A budget alternative is to ride the paved pathway by bike. Rent a bike for a few dollars or bring your own to explore the park more independently and at your speed.
Hiking opportunities in the Everglades are much more limited than most national parks since it’s largely marsh and wetlands. However, you can find some short walks, nice hiking trails with stunning viewpoints, and kayaking opportunities at the park’s main entrance. Check out these trails: Anhinga Trail, Mahogany Hammock Trail, Pay Hay Okee Lookout, and Gumbo Limbo Trail.
The northwest side of the park is best for exploring the Everglades from the water. The National Park Service has granted permission to certain companies to offer canoe or kayak tours and rentals within the park. For a more budget-friendly option, it is best to bring your kayak or canoe and launch at one of the several points to explore the waterways of the Everglades.
Taking an airboat ride is highly recommended in the Everglades because you can access remote parts of the park. Although not a cheap experience, it is well worth it. The National Park Service has approved three airboat ride companies located along US Hwy 41/Tamiami Trail between Miami and Shark Valley.
After a fun-filled day in the park, enjoy a delicious meal at the nearby Everglades Gator Grill or La Cruzada Restaurant located in Homestead, just a few miles from the Main Park Entrance. For accommodations, we recommend staying somewhere between Homestead, Florida City, and Miami for the quickest access to the National Park and to snag some good deals on hotels. The Fairway Inn Florida City and the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Miami Kendall are cute hotels with nice properties where you get a lot for little money.
6. Big Bend National Park in Winter
by Michelle from The Wandering Queen
One of the best national parks to visit in winter is Big Bend National Park. It is a vastly underrated destination with incredible hiking and a great place to explore if you are on a budget.
This park is best to see in the winter because it can be scorching hot in any other season. They even close some of the visitor’s centers in summer due to the heat! To do most activities comfortably, the best time to go is December, January, or February.
Hiking in Big Bend National Park is stunning. One of the best trails, Hot Springs Trail, is located right next to the Rio Grande. It has stunning views of Mexico and the sprawling river with stops where you can even take a swim. It is best to go around sunrise to avoid crowds and the heat. Even in winter, it can get fairly warm. The trail is extremely easy and short: only about a half-mile round trip.
Another great trail to hike is The Lost Mine Trail which has beautiful views of the mountain and canyons. It is one of the best trails in the park and makes a great sunset hike. Another great trail is the Santa Elena Trail which is what Big Bend is most known for. The trail is another easy and short hike at 1.7 miles round trip. It is probably one of the most popular areas to photograph, and you can watch people canoe down the Rio Grande.
One hotel within the park is the Chisos Mountains Lodge, and it even has a nice restaurant. There is also Lajitas Golf Resort in the nearby town of Lajitas, Texas, outside of the park.
Is your favorite national park on the list? Tell us in the comments which national park you’d like to visit in the winter.
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