If you are discouraged from vacationing in the national park because of the idea of dealing with crowds, consider a visit in the winter. And I’m not talking about Death Valley or the Everglades in the winter. I’m talking about visiting parks known for ice, snow and cold. Severe and unpleasant winters.
The winter weather keeps visitors from many parks. This also means that roads and facilities can be closed. But those who research, plan and prepare (who know where to go, what to do and how to get there) can have a fabulous experience at the park.
I’m a retired National Park Service caretaker who has also spent some time as a winter resort manager, so I’m not surprised to help people get used to winter travel. So I’ve put together a list of snow experiences in the national park ranging from mild to wild. We will go from trips that will keep you in the hands of professional drivers and guides to driving on ice roads and skiing for miles in the countryside to spending the night in a ski hut.
I don’t encourage you to run this winter and immerse yourself in an environment you’ve never experienced. I suggest you plan your winter trip for next year and work on developing the new skills you need to enjoy it. As your experience improves, you will be able to manage more on your own and become more aware of your capabilities.
Having flexible plans is the key. If the weather makes the conditions of the trip dangerous, change your plans. And while planning a winter trip, talk to the facilities you’re researching to see how flexible they are in dealing with climate-related route changes.
If you’re not used to driving in the winter, consider going with a tour group, looking for a local shuttle service, or teaming up with experienced friends in a vehicle suited to the conditions. You always have accurate and up-to-date weather information on hand.
Let’s start with some easier trips to the national parks in the winter and be more adventurous.
Blue Hen Falls (Michael G Marshall / Shutterstock.com)
1. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Winter activities in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park are quirky, depending on the weather. In a good year of snow, there is plenty of cross-country skiing.
The park also has two alpine ski areas, Brandywine and Boston Mills, which make snow and also offer tubes. Areas are available as long as the winter is cold enough to make snow.
While you’re in the area, Cleveland Metroparks also offers a number of trails, along with ski and snowshoe rentals.
The Cuyahoga Valley, weather permitting, is a good place to hone your winter skills to prepare for more remote winter destinations and experience some beautiful national park surroundings without straying too far from the comforts of the great city.
DCrane / Shutterstock.com
2. Cedar Breaks National Monument
Located in southwestern Utah at an altitude of 10,000 feet, Cedar Breaks National Monument is snowy in the winter, its visitor center is closed, and snowfall can reach 30 feet deep or more.
So why do I recommend it? Believe it or not, it has fairly easy access for beginners.
You can access Cedar Breaks with a guided snowmobile tour from the towns of Brian Head or Duck Creek Village. Brian Head offers easier access as it is about 13 miles from I-15. If you want to completely avoid winter driving in the mountains, take a shuttle service from Cedar City to the town of Brian Head. The free shuttle service to Brian Head City can take you to the snowmobile tour operator, who will guide you to the park.
If you’ve never done snowmobiles before, it’s not hard to learn nor, above all, is it a physical challenge when traveling on prepared trails with a guide.
Another advantage of southern Utah is the bipolar nature of the climate. When the winter storms arrive, they strike hard. But when the weather clears and there is time to dig up, there are perfect sunny days that reward your patience.
Hurricane Ridge (Zack Frank / Shutterstock.com)
3. Olympic National Park
The mountains of the Olympic National Park are wonders to behold in the summer, but the winters make them out of most, with one exception: the Hurricane Ridge ski area.
Note for mountain skiers and snowboarders: This is not a ski area to compete with Vail or Mammoth, so don’t come for the lifts and the terrain. There are two rope trailers, an Apple elevator and a tube park. You are here to enjoy the experience of skiing 5,000 feet at the Winter Olympics and not skiing at the Winter Olympics.
Hurricane Ridge also has cross-country skiing – from fairly easy trips on closed roads to some of the toughest downhill skiing in the country. It is a good place for the less experienced.
If you don’t want to ski, take a snowshoe ride from the Hurricane Ridge visitor center – they’ll provide you with snowshoes and enough driving directions.
Hurricane Ridge is accessed from Port Angeles. Winters are humid, but not especially cold and snowy. Driving up to Hurricane Ridge means driving through the mountains, so you’ll need chains, there’s no commercial shuttle to get there. The road teams have a lot of experience and the road is well traveled.
Great prismatic spring (sirtravelalot / Shutterstock.com)
4. Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone should be the champion of winter national park experiences. The things that make Yellowstone fantastic in the summer make it absolutely amazing in the winter. Geyers in the summer, go. Geysers in the winter, go for steroids! And there are many options for traveling through the snow in the park.
Getting to Yellowstone in the winter can be tricky. If you want and rent a vehicle, you will never know what type you will get and in winter it is a problem. Check the availability of shuttles from your accommodation in Yellowstone to leave all winter driving to professionals
And of course, picking up your own vehicle is great, as long as it’s good for winter travel, have experience and keep a close eye on road and weather information, and be flexible with your plans.
You can travel on the snow by coach, snowmobiles, cross-country skis or snowshoes. The park’s website and those of the walkway communities will give you many options, as companies go out of their way to attract winter visitors. Snowcoach trips are easier and closed if you are looking for the most comfortable experience on the snow.
The park has worked hard to improve the environmental impact of winter recreation, which was once criticized for diminishing the park’s experience, including the need for snowmobiles to meet standards for low-level operations. noise and low emissions.
Either way, you won’t have the park to yourself in the winter. But you will experience the park in a way that most will only dream of.
Rainy Lake (Kallie Kantos / Shutterstock.com)
5. National Park Travelers
If you’re a fan of the reality series with truck drivers driving Alaska’s ice roads, Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota can give you a test of the ice road experience.
The park has two ice roads that will allow you to experience the remote areas of the park in the summer. Ice roads are regularly plowed and inspected, wide enough to allow two-way traffic and parking, and give access to other winter activities such as skiing and ice fishing.
Traveling north to Minnesota in the winter means more planning and preparation than I have stressed, but you will be rewarded with the uniqueness of a mountain field experience from the comfort of your vehicle.
Half Dome (Ruslan Kalnitsky / Shutterstock.com
6. Yosemite National Park
There are a variety of winter activities in Yosemite, from ice skating in Curry Village to downhill skiing in Badger Pass, to the traditional Bracebridge dinner contest at the Ahwahnee Hotel.
However, for this list, let’s go to the wild side and focus on cross-country skiing, especially overnight trips to the mountain ski huts at Glacier Point and Ostrander.
The cabins are by no means glamorous. Share them with other skiers. They require lottery reservations well in advance.
You will need good cross-country skiing skills and you will be in good aerobic condition. So good? Glacier Point is 10.5 miles along Glacier Point Road. You can travel with a guide from the concession if you wish and it is classified as an intermediate skill level. Ostrander is more challenging, for advanced mountain skiers, it is 10 miles and a drop of 2000 feet.
The good news is that you have plenty of time to prepare if this is your goal. If not, mention Yosemite’s list of less stringent winter activities.
The reward for either is an experience of solitude, silence, magnificent Yosemite winter views, not to mention conducting an overnight skiing experience.
The mountain ski hut in Sequoia National Park, Pear Lake, is less well known but still an amazing experience and a good alternative to Ostrander. This is a 6 mile trip for advanced mountain skiers and requires reservations well in advance. Covid and Fire activity has limited its availability recently, so stay tuned for future hut availability.
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