Ken Burns was one of the many who’ve said it: The National Parks were America’s best idea. It seems like the rest of the US populace would agree. In 2016, 331 million visitors toured the parks, topping 2015’s record-breaking numbers by 23.7 million visits. Good for the park budget, bad for the serenity. Whether you want to avoid the summer plebs or you’re just ready to plan a vacation right now, here are the 10 best national parks to visit during winter.
1. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
In July of 2017, more than 416,000 people visited Bryce Canyon. But in March, there were only 82,000 folks tramping around. That’s a big difference for those who’d prefer to commune with nature versus a bunch of tourists. While the weather in March ranges from a chilly 18 to 44 degrees, the cold temperatures and high elevation offer winter visitors a fun opportunity: cross-country skiing — seriously. Outdoor enthusiasts can lay their own tracks or glide up groomed trails to check out the snow-capped hoodoos.
2. Everglades National Park, Florida
On the flip side of weather and popularity, Everglades National Park is busiest in the winter months. But it’s hotter than Hades when the wet season hits — and the ubiquitous mosquitos are the size of golf balls. Head over to the Gulf Coast side of the park to canoe through extraordinary coastal mangroves, sawgrass marshes and pine flatwoods. There’s a world-renowned variety of migrating birds, cute manatees and the only place on the planet where gators and crocs coexist.
3. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
This seven island park lies about 70 miles off the coast of Key West. It’s accessible via seaplane or ferry, which keeps a lot of the riff-raff (i.e. annoying sightseers) out. It’s beloved by divers and snorkelers for its crystal clear waters and thriving coral reefs. And history geeks dig the guided tours of Fort Jefferson, a massive, unfinished 19th-century fort that was built to protect one of the most important deep-water anchorages in North America.
4. Yosemite National Park, California
Yosemite, one of the first tracts of land to receive the National Park denomination, is considered one of — if not the — most majestic places in the country. More than 4 million people made the pilgrimage to the home of the Half Dome and El Capitan last year. While most visitors come to stroll around the valley or hike the arduous Mist Trail in the warmer months, the park offers just as much outdoor activities during winter, with snow sports ranging from downhill and cross-country skiing to tubing, sledding and ice skating.
5. Joshua Tree National Park, California
Home to the convergence of the Mojave and Colorado deserts, Joshua Tree has a captivating assortment of flora and fauna. The most famous of flora is obviously its Seussian namesake yucca. It’s a favorite among hikers, horseback riders, birders and rock climbers, who scale the cracks of giant monzogranite slabs. October through May is the best time to go, when daytime temps are in the 60s and 70s.
6. Channel Islands National Park, California
Kind of like North America’s version of the Galapagos, the five islands that make up this park have been isolated for thousands of years, creating unique species (like the island fox, island deer mouse and Channel Island spotted skunk), found nowhere else on earth. It’s chilly AF December through March, but it’s the best time of year to watch migrating gray whales along with resident seals, sea lions, dolphins and the occasional pod of orcas.
7. Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico
Carlsbad Caverns’ infamous bats fly south to warmer climes when the temperatures start to drop, so don’t expect to watch the nightly Bat Flight until Memorial Day. However, the 119 caves that gave this park its moniker maintains an internal temperature of 56 degrees throughout the year. Stroll around the Big Room, the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America, and admire the stalactites, lily pads and cave pools without hundreds of bumbling tourists snapping selfies at every bend.
8. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
Although winter in Hawaii is considered the rainy season, with daytime temperatures averaging a balmy 79 to 83 degrees the weather is still far more desirable than in most of the US. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is one of the most impressive sights in the notoriously beautiful state. Visitors can watch two of the world’s most active volcanoes belch out molten lava. The shorter winter days offer more time to view Kilauea’s incandescent crater against the night sky.
9. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
There’s a reason the Grand Canyon is one of the most visited national parks: It’s one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World due to its awe-inspiring scale and size. The summer crowds and corresponding traffic, however, can put a damper on the wonderment. For those who aren’t trying to schlep down the canyon walls, winter is the ideal time of year to admire the layers of red rock capped with white snow from the popular Bright Angel Trail.
10. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
The Colorado Rockies are America’s most popular winter playground. So, their designated national park is an obvious pick for a cold season trip. Visitors snowshoe, cross-country ski and sled through the pristine wilderness that serves as a backdrop for those idyllic Coors Brewing Company ads.