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 in Zion National Park in Late Winter

Zion National Park is in southwestern Utah near Springdale and is the sixth most visited US national park with almost 3 million visitors a year. Not surprisingly, most people visit during the months of June, July, and August. However, my family and I chose to visit Zion in late February, and what a great decision that was.

Advantages of visiting Zion National Park during the winter:

There are several reasons for visiting Zion National Park during late winter, but the top one that comes to mind is to escape the crowds. During the summer months, Zion can feel quite crowded but if you go during the winter, there is only around a quarter of the people there as during the summer. You don’t feel like you’re constantly walking on the heels of other groups of people and you can enjoy the peaceful nature of the park better.

Also, Zion Canyon is beautiful during the winter months and it’s cool to see frozen or partially frozen waterfalls (pun intended). The peaks weren’t snow-covered when we were there, but I’m sure they’re even more beautiful when they are.

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Another advantage of going during late winter is it’s not as hot. During the summer, the temperature is often above 100°F/38°C. That’s not exactly comfortable hiking weather in my opinion. But during late winter, daytime temperatures are usually around 50-60°F, which is quite comfortable when you’re hiking. There is a chance of rain or snow, however, as nearly half of the annual precipitation in Zion Canyon falls between the months of December and March. When we were there, the weather was great with no precipitation but you do need to be prepared for wet or slick conditions.

Disadvantages of visiting Zion National Park during the winter:

The biggest disadvantage of visiting Zion National Park during the off-season winter is some of the trails may be closed due to ice. Although this was not an issue while we were there, it is a possibility during the winter, especially during the peak of winter.

Another disadvantage is if you want to hike The Narrows during the winter, you’ll need a dry suit. The Narrows is a section of the canyon on the North Fork of the Virgin River. You wade through water that’s around waist-deep on most people during certain sections, but the level of the river varies by season. We just hiked up to The Narrows as far as we could without getting wet and turned around. We’ll have to do that hike another time when it’s warmer. Fall would be a good time for that and not so crowded.

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Trails in Zion Canyon

There are seven trails in Zion Canyon but eighteen trails total in Zion National Park. Some of the more popular trails are The Narrows (discussed above), Angel’s Landing, and Lower and Upper Emerald Pool Trails. I had just read about someone falling to their death from Angel’s Landing before we went to Zion, so I nixed that trail since falling to my death didn’t really sound very appealing to me. If you do hike the ever-popular Angel’s Landing trail, just be very aware while you’re out there and be cautious.

We chose to hike Lower Emerald Pools (a portion was closed due to a rockslide several months prior), Upper Emerald Pools, Kayenta, and The Grotto Trails, which all form a nice loop of about 5 miles and can be completed in a few hours even with lots of stops for photo ops.  These trails are listed as easy or moderate by the National Park Service. While the entire hike is definitely not easy, there are some difficult parts to it. We also did the Riverside Walk Trail to The Narrows and went as far as we could go there. Riverside Walk Trail is 2.2 miles and follows the Virgin River along the bottom of a narrow canyon. It is an easy and scenic trail.

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On our second day, we chose the Watchman Trail, which is 3.3 miles round-trip and is listed as moderate. There are views of the Towers of the Virgin, lower Zion Canyon, and Springdale. The trailhead is by the Zion Canyon Visitor Center. The Watchman Trail was my favorite trail at Zion National Park. It was a good way to end our stay at the park.

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How to Get Here

Although you could arrange a tour with a company, most people fly into Las Vegas, rent a car, and drive the 2 1/2 hours from there. Alternatively, you could fly into Salt Lake City, get a rental car, and drive 4 1/2 hours from there. Public transportation (not counting the Zion National Park shuttles) are pretty much non-existent in this area, so unless you’re with a tour group, you need to have your own vehicle or a rental. We flew into Las Vegas, spent the night there, and drove from Vegas. If you’d like to read further about that, see Las Vegas Layover, the Anti-Bourdain Version. The roads were all well-maintained and it was an easy drive, even in our (unexpected “upgraded”) rental sports car.

Where to Stay

We stayed at Cable Mountain Lodge and couldn’t have been happier with the choice. There are several different suites and studios to choose from and you are literally within walking distance to Zion National Park. You don’t have to worry about fighting to find a parking spot or wait in a long line just to get into the park, just walk out of your room and take a short walk over a bridge to the park. We stayed in a suite and it was HUGE! We had a full, well-stocked kitchen, table with chairs to eat at, large living room area with a sofa bed and a separate bedroom, and a nice bathroom. There was even a balcony off the bedroom with chairs and a small table.

Zion Lodge, the only lodging available in the park, is three miles north on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive and is open year-round. Motel rooms, cabins, and suites are available but the suites tend to be much more expensive than what I paid at Cable Mountain Lodge. Zion also has three campgrounds with only Watchman Campground offering reservations from March through November.

Regardless of where you stay, whether it’s at Cable Mountain Lodge, Zion Lodge, Watchman Campground, or somewhere else in Springdale, make your reservations as early as possible, at least several months in advance.  Places book up quickly, especially during the busy summer months, but year-round as well.

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Where to Eat

The only restaurants in the park are at Zion Lodge and are Red Rock Grill and the seasonal Castle Dome Cafe. I was surprised at how few restaurants there are in the town of Springdale. There are less than thirty, but several are only open seasonally or only for breakfast and/or lunch. We ate at MeMe’s Cafe for pastries and muffins after hiking the first day, Zion Pizza & Noodle when my daughter wanted pizza, Zion Brewery, and we picked up breakfast items and lunches to take with us into the park at Sol Foods. MeMe’s Cafe looked like it had the best options for breakfast, but we chose to eat in our hotel room for breakfast to save time and money. If you’re a foodie, you’ll likely not be impressed with the food choices here. I wouldn’t call myself a foodie and found that nothing my family and I had was bad per se, but nothing was really spectacular either.

What to Bring

Dress appropriately for the weather but if you’re doing The Narrows remember it’s much cooler here even in the heat of the summer. Bring a jacket just in case and depending on the season, dress in layers. Be prepared to get very wet if you’re hiking The Narrows.

Bring enough water and snacks to get you through several hours.

You’ll want sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses year-round.

Bring the maps that they give you at the gate with you.

Don’t forget your receipt for re-entry or even better get an Interagency Annual Pass to allow access to all national parks for $80, good for 12 months from purchase.

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Other Information

Zion National Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with some services and areas closed seasonally.

Parking is limited inside Zion, and parking lots at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center commonly fill by mid-morning. To avoid parking hassles, park in the town of Springdale and ride the free town shuttle to the park. You can park anywhere along the road in town that does not have a parking restriction. To find the shuttle stops, look for the ‘Shuttle Parking’ signs throughout town. If you are staying at a lodge or motel, leave your car there and take the shuttle to the park, or better yet, stay at Cable Mountain Lodge and just walk to the park!

You could easily spend a week at Zion and still not do all of the trails. Just don’t try to do them all in 2 or 3 days, or you’ll be exhausted by the end. Check out the listings and descriptions in this very descriptive hiking guide ahead of time and decide which trails are right for you.