National Parks in the United States That Are Even Better in the Winter

I love national parks, whether they’re in the United States or elsewhere. However, for the purpose of this post, I’ll focus solely on national parks in the United States, specifically ones that I’ve been to during the winter months. There are several advantages to traveling to national parks during the winter versus during the summer, including they are less crowded during the winter and prices for flights and hotels are often lower during the winter than during the summer.

I’ll begin with Everglades National Park in Florida. Last December, I visited a friend of mine who lives in Miami and she took my family and I here. She often takes friends who come to visit her to Everglades National Park and she told me it’s much more pleasant to come during the “cooler” months than during the summer, not that it cools off that much in the winter, but when you live there, it’s winter to you and you notice the drop in temperature. We didn’t see any mosquitoes or other bugs, but she told me when she was with a visiting friend earlier that year in the summer, they were nearly eaten alive by bugs at Everglades National Park.

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Airboat tour through Everglades National Park

We took an airboat tour through Everglades National Park, which I had done before on a previous vacation to the area several years prior. You’ll mostly see some alligators and many different types of birds as you zip around the wetlands. There are also manatees, the Florida panther, and turtles in the area that you may see if you’re lucky (well, probably not a panther because they’re so elusive).

My post on Miami and Everglades National Park

National Park Service link to Everglades National Park

I also visited some national parks in Utah during February one year including Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park. Both parks are located in the southwestern part of Utah, about an hour or so from each other by car. When I think of Bryce Canyon, I think of watching the falling snow on the hoodoos and red rocks while we were walking around the serenely quiet park, with almost no one else there but the three of us. There’s a winter festival scheduled from February 16-18 in 2020 that includes cross-country ski tours, photography clinics, ranger-led snowshoe excursions under the full moon, and guided fat bike rides. There are two ski resorts nearby, Brian Head Resort and Eagle Point. We stayed at Ruby’s Inn, which is the closest lodging to the park entrance, and they even have an ice-skating rink across the street during the winter.

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Bryce Canyon National Park in the winter

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah in the Winter

National Park Service link to Bryce Canyon National Park

Zion National Park is bigger and more people go there annually than Bryce Canyon National Park, so chances are you won’t be the only ones hiking there even in the winter but the crowds will be thinner than during the summer. Zion National Park is known for its slot canyon, Zion Narrows, which you can wade through given the right conditions (I did not do this). Winding through the main section of the park is Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. The Virgin River flows to the Emerald Pools, which have waterfalls and a hanging garden. Another famous part of Zion National Park is Angel’s Landing trail, known for its sheer drops on either side of the narrow trail. We stayed at Cable Mountain Lodge, which you can literally walk to the park from, and the rooms are spacious, clean, comfortable, and quiet.

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There wasn’t nearly as much snow in Zion as Bryce Canyon in the winter

Hiking in Zion National Park in Late Winter

National Park Service link to Zion National Park

It’s possible to combine Bryce Canyon, Zion, and the Grand Canyon National Park all in one vacation, like I did (plus we had a couple of other stops as well). Grand Canyon National Park as you might imagine is one of the most visited national parks, so going there in the winter is a great idea. If you can go during the week as opposed to on a weekend in the winter, not only will there be less people to contend with, you’ll have an easier chance scoring a place to stay within the park. Seeing snow on the Grand Canyon is something I will always remember. I’ve been there twice during the winter months and both times it was beautiful and peaceful.

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The Grand Canyon is beautiful any time of year but less-crowded in the winter

Grand Canyon National Park in Late Winter- the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

National Park Service link to Grand Canyon National Park

Although not a national park, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is a great place to visit in the winter. In the 18th century, dozens of Spanish missions were constructed across southern Texas. Four of the best preserved are in San Antonio, and can be visited as part of the national historical park. The 12 mile route near the San Antonio River is connected by the Mission Trail and links The Alamo with Mission Espada.

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Photo by Viajero Cool on Pexels.com

I have a brief post on the half marathon I ran in San Antonio, which also discusses the area, that you can find here:  Marathon of the Americas and Half Marathon, Texas-10th state.

National Park Service link to San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Honestly, there isn’t a bad time of year to visit Hawaii, so visiting during the winter months can only be good. Not only would you get a break from your current winter weather, the crowds will be (a bit) thinner if you go after New Year’s Day and your airfare will be (a bit) lower than if you go in July or August. The temperature doesn’t change that much from one month to the next, but it will be a few degrees cooler in January than August. For example, the average temperature in Kona on the Big Island is 81 degrees in January and 87 degrees in August.

I’ve been to Hawaii three times, once in the fall (October), once in the summer (August), and once in the winter (February). All three times, I was swimming in the ocean, snorkeling, hiking, and loving life. I know my airfare was considerably more when I flew there in August and the lowest when I flew in February. I didn’t notice the crowds being any less in one month than another, however. The first time I went to Hawaii, I visited Haleakalā National Park in Maui and Volcanos National Park in Hawaii (the Big Island), but I wasn’t a blogger then so I don’t have a post on either of those parks but I can say they are both worth spending at least a day at. I’ve been to Volcanos National Park twice and would love to visit it again someday (plus go back to Haleakalā). I went to the islands of Kauai and Oahu on my most recent visit, neither of which have national parks, but still plenty of incredible hiking, including the Nā Pali Coast State Wilderness Park in Kauai and Diamond Head State Park in Oahu.

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Waimea Canyon in Kauai during the “winter” month of February

Rediscovering Kauai, Hawaii and Some of My Favorite Things

My First Time in Oahu, Hawaii- Even Better than Expected

National Park Service link to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

National Park Service link to Haleakalā National Park

What national parks do you like even better in the winter months? Have you been to any of these parks in the winter and/or other times of year? Any national parks in other countries that you loved during the winter?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 

 

Hiking Tips for the Beginner

I grew up hiking in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia and as an adult I’ve hiked all over the United States from Maine to California and most places in-between. In Europe, I’ve hiked in the Spanish Canary Islands, Austria, Germany, and Greece, to name a few countries. Although there hasn’t been that much hiking in the various Caribbean islands I’ve been to, where there were mountains or even trails in natural parks or preserves, I’ve hiked them. Hiking in New Zealand probably afforded some of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen just because it’s one of the most beautiful countries I’ve seen. In South America, I’ve hiked in Chile and Peru, which were also amazing places to hike and left me with an urge to go back and see more.

I know many people have done much more intense hiking than I have, just as others have done hardly any or no hiking in their lives. What I’d like to discuss here is more for beginners because I feel like that’s the group that I’d like to persuade. I understand for people that have never been hiking or maybe only gone once or twice, it may seem a bit daunting to go out on a several hour hike in the woods. I’ll cover things to do before you ever leave your house to go on a hike so you feel completely prepared and actually look forward to the amazing views you’ll see on your hike.

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Hiking in the Canary Islands- it’s not all beaches here!

First off, choose a place to hike. This can be a state park near where you live, a national park you have plans to visit, or a place you’re going to visit soon on vacation. If you don’t want to hike up a mountain, there doesn’t even have to be a mountain in the area since many trails are along lakes, rivers, or other flat areas.

Once you have a place in mind, pull up the website for the area and see if they have a list of trails. I’ll give you an example to go on for better reference here. Say I’d like to go to Arches National Park in Utah (which I really would like to visit someday). Go to the U.S. National Park Service website for Arches National Park, then click on “Plan Your Visit” then “Things to Do” then “Hiking.” Under the hiking section, you will see all of the trails at the park, listed from easy, moderate, to difficult. There are trail names, round-trip distance, elevation and estimated time to complete, and descriptions. These descriptions are thorough and accurate so if it says a trail is difficult, you should believe it is and not go out there if you’ve never hiked in your life, even if you are in good shape physically.

Just like runners gradually increase the distance ran, hikers should do the same and gradually increase in intensity and distance covered. Choose easy hiking trails to begin with and as you become more comfortable over time, work up to moderate and eventually more difficult trails. Remember that distance isn’t the only factor in the trail rating system. How quickly the trail increases in elevation and the general condition of the trail are also factors in rating a trail (if there are large areas of loose rocks going downhill especially, a trail would be rated as more difficult for example).

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One of many great views while hiking in Alaska

OK. So you have a trail or maybe even a couple of trails in the same park in mind and you’re ready to head out for a couple of hours to go hiking. Now what? First, check the weather for the day. Really, you should do this a day or so before you plan on going hiking. If there’s a good chance of thunderstorms you definitely shouldn’t be hiking in that. If there has been rain recently in the area, you should know that many trails will be muddy and slippery. That may be fine if you’re an experienced hiker but if you’re new, you probably shouldn’t go out under those conditions.

Next you need to pack a backpack to bring along on your hike. Here are some things you should always pack for a day hike:

sunscreen

bug spray

water

snacks

fully-charged cell phone (download the area in Google Maps before you go out so you have it offline)

small first aid kit (that includes matches or a lighter)

printed map of the trail if possible for a back-up

bear spray if there are bears in the area or pepper spray

Also, familiarize yourself with the area you will be exploring as best as you can beforehand. If you are going to an area where flash floods are a possibility, you should be prepared for that and know what to do should one happen. Websites are great but speaking to a park ranger when you get to the park is also a great way to familiarize yourself with the park. Ask specifically about trails you were planning on hiking but also ask about other areas of the park.

Make sure you wear proper footwear for hiking. Many times I’ve been amazed at how many women wear flip flops and dressy sandals on trails. With so many great hiking shoes available now, there’s just no excuse for not wearing appropriate shoes on a trail. I personally like Merrell’s hiking shoes because they’re fairly light-weight, comfortable,  have great traction and they’re not bulky like traditional hiking boots. While plenty of people go hiking in regular athletic shoes/running shoes/tennis shoes or whatever else you want to call them, they just don’t have as good of traction as hiking shoes unless they’re specifically trail running shoes, which would of course be fine for hiking.

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We came upon this fox while hiking in Chile

You should also be appropriately dressed for your hike. This will be dictated partly by weather conditions, but you’ll be more comfortable if you wear “wicking” fabrics basically made to speed-up the evaporation of sweat from your clothes. Cotton, by the way, does not do this but actually holds moisture in the fabric. While it may sound crazy to some people, merino wool socks are great year-round (not just when it’s cold outside) as they are great at quickly evaporating moisture. A hat and sunglasses are also good for sunny days. Long pants will of course protect your legs better than shorts if it’s not too hot for pants. Layers are always a great idea especially if you’ll be going up in elevation since it’s cooler at the top of a mountain than at the bottom.

It’s a good idea to let others know where you’ll be especially if you’ll be in a more remote area, so let someone else that won’t be hiking with you know where you’ll be hiking and what time you will be on trail. Likewise, after you return, send them a quick message so they know you’re no longer hiking. Some parks also request that you sign in at a trailhead.

Sometimes a permit is required to hike a certain area. Check online as soon as you know you will be hiking in a particular area to see if you need a permit because some permits are only available during a certain time frame. There will be a link on the website for permits if they are necessary. Usually this is for longer, overnight hikes but some places do this to limit the number of hikers per day.

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Hiking in Bryce Canyon National Park in the winter was one of my favorite experiences!

Keep your distance when (if) you see wildlife. If you come across a bear, moose, elk, or even deer and you’re pretty sure it doesn’t see you, slowly and quietly back away (facing the animal so you can still see it) the way you came until you’re well away from the area. What ever you do, don’t run! The animal will think you’re prey and chase you. If a mother has her babies near-by, she will be extremely protective of them and will be willing to fight you to the death. There’s a trail near where I work and several years ago a runner came upon a mama deer and her babies and made the mistake of approaching them. The woman was kicked in the face by the deer and was so badly beaten up that she looked like she had been in a boxing fight.

Finally, if you want to go hiking in a new place and want to take along your dog, make sure dogs are allowed first. Some places allow dogs on specific trails but not others and other places don’t allow dogs at all. Be extremely cautious about letting your dog off-leash on a trail even if you do it all the time near your home; you certainly don’t want to lose your dog in a huge park and/or a place you’re not familiar with.

Do you like to go hiking? Did I leave any other important information out? If you don’t like hiking, I’d be curious to know what you don’t like about it. If you have any questions for me about hiking, I’d be glad to answer them.

Happy hiking!

Donna