If you’re discouraged from going on vacation to a national park due to the 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. Serious and not so pleasant winters.
Winter weather prevents visitors to many parks. It also means that roads and facilities can close. 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 in the park.
I’m a retired National Park Service ranger who also spent some time as a winter resort manager, so I’m no stranger to helping people get used to winter travel. So I made a list of snow experiences in national parks, ranging from mild to wild. We’ll go from trips that keep you in the hands of professional drivers and guides to driving on ice roads and skiing for miles in the backcountry at night in a ski cabin.
I’m not encouraging you to run this winter and immerse yourself in an environment you’ve never experienced before. I suggest you plan your winter trip for next year and work to develop any new skills you will need to enjoy it. As your experience improves, the more you will be able to manage on your own and have a greater awareness of your abilities.
Having flexible plans is the key. If the weather makes travel conditions risky, change your plans. And when planning a winter trip, talk to the facilities you’re looking for to see how flexible they have to deal with weather-related route changes.
If you’re not used to winter driving, consider setting out with a tour group, finding a local shuttle, or teaming up with experienced friends in a vehicle suited to the conditions. Always have accurate and up-to-date travel weather information on hand.
Let’s start with a few easier trips to national parks in winter, and get more adventurous.
1. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Winter activities at Cuyahoga Valley National Park are hit or miss, depending on the weather. In a good snow year, there is a lot of cross-country skiing.
The park also has two downhill ski areas, Brandywine and Boston Mills, which produce snow and also offer tubing. Areas are available as long as the winter is cold enough to snow.
While you’re in the area, the Cleveland Metroparks also offer a series of trails, as well as ski and snowshoe rentals.
The Cuyahoga Valley, weather permitting, is a good place to hone your winter skills to prepare for more distant winter destinations and experience beautiful national parks without straying too far from the amenities of the big city.
2. Cedar Breaks National Monument
Located in southwest Utah at an elevation of 10,000 feet, Cedar Breaks National Monument is snow-capped in the winter, its visitor center is closed, and snowdrifts can reach 30 feet deep, or even much more.
So why the hell would I recommend it? Believe it or not, it is quite easy to access for the novice.
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 approximately 13 miles from I-15. If you want to avoid winter driving in the mountains altogether, take a shuttle bus from Cedar City to Brian Head Town. The free Brian Head Town Shuttle can take you to the snowmobile tour operator, who will guide you to the park.
If you’ve never ridden a snowmobile before, it’s not hard to learn, or especially physically challenging when traveling on groomed trails with a guide.
Another advantage of southern Utah is the bipolar nature of the weather. When winter storms come, they hit hard. But when the weather clears up and it’s time to dig, there are perfect sunny days that reward your patience.
3. Olympic National Park
The mountains of Olympic National Park are wonders to see in the summer, but winters make them inaccessible to most, with one exception: the Hurricane Ridge Ski Area.
Alpine skiers and snowboarders note: this is not a ski area rivaling Vail or Mammoth, so don’t come for the lifts and terrain. There are two cable cars, a Poma lift and a tube park. You are here for the experience of skiing 5,000 feet at the Winter Olympics, not skiing at the Winter Olympics.
Hurricane Ridge also offers cross-country skiing – fairly easy trips on roads closed to some of the toughest touring skis in the country. It is a good place for the less experienced.
If you don’t want to ski, take a ranger-led snowshoe ride from the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center – they’ll provide you with snowshoes and enough instruction to get you started.
Hurricane Ridge is accessible from Port Angeles. Winters are wet here, but not particularly cold and snowy. Driving up to Hurricane Ridge means driving in the mountains, so you will need chains, there is no commercial shuttle to get you there. Road crews are well experienced and the road is well traveled.
4. Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone must be the champion of winter experiences in national parks. The things that make Yellowstone great in the summer make it absolutely amazing in the winter. Geyers in the summer, wow. Geysers in winter, Wow on steroids! And the options for snow travel at the park are plentiful.
Getting to Yellowstone in the winter can be tricky. If you get on a plane and rent a vehicle, you never know what type you’re going to buy, and in the winter that’s a problem. Ask about shuttle availability from your Yellowstone accommodation to leave all winter driving to the professionals
And, of course, taking your own vehicle is great, as long as it’s good for winter travel, is experienced and keeps a close eye on traffic and weather information – and flexible with your plans.
You can travel on snow by snowmobile, snowmobile, cross-country ski or snowshoe. The park website and those of the host communities will give you plenty of options, as companies go out of their way to attract winter visitors. Snowcoach rides are easier and more 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 that was once criticized for diminishing the park experience, including requiring snowmobiles to meet low noise, low emission operating standards.
You’re not going to have the park to yourself in the winter, by any means. But you are going to experience the park in a way that most will only dream of.
5. Voyageurs National Park
If you are a fan of the reality TV series starring truckers riding the icy roads of Alaska, Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota can give you a taste of the experience of the ice road.
The park has two ice roads that will allow you to explore remote areas of the park in summer. The ice roads are regularly cleared and inspected, are wide enough to accommodate two-way traffic and parking, and provide access to other winter activities such as skiing and ice fishing.
Traveling northern Minnesota in the winter means more planning and preparation that I stressed, but it will be rewarded with the uniqueness of an uncrowded backcountry experience from the comfort of your vehicle.
6. Yosemite National Park
There are a variety of winter activities in Yosemite, from ice skating in Curry Village to downhill skiing at Badger Pass, to traditional Bracebridge dining at the Ahwahnee Hotel.
However, for this list, let’s move on to the wild side and focus on cross-country skiing, especially overnight trips to the Glacier Point and Ostrander ski touring huts.
The huts are by no means glamorous. You share them with other skiers. They require reservations by lottery, well in advance.
You will need good cross-country skiing skills and good aerobic fitness. How good is that? Glacier Point is 10.5 miles along Glacier Point Road. You can travel with a guide from the concession if you wish and is classified as an intermediate skill level. Ostrander is more difficult, for advanced touring skiers it is 10 miles and an elevation gain of 2000 feet.
The good news is, you have plenty of time to prepare if that is your goal. Otherwise, the aforementioned list of less rigorous winter activities in Yosemite awaits you.
The payoff for either is a Yosemite experience of solitude, silence, magnificent winter views, not to mention the completion of an overnight ski experience.
The backcountry ski hut of Sequoia National Park, Pear Lake, is less well known but still an amazing experience and a good alternative to Ostrander. It’s a 6 mile trip for advanced Nordic skiers and requires reservations well in advance. Covid activity and fires have limited its availability recently, so keep an eye out for future huts availability.
Other expert articles from former Ranger Greg Jackson: