Winter in the national parks is a spectacle of contrasts: rouge-tinged cliffs stand out against white snow and the stars seem to dazzle more brightly against dark skies. Storied sights and iconic drives that are jammed with selfie-takers and shuttle buses in peak season become silent and serene. Timid wildlife venture further out to forage and also become easier to spot against the snow. And special National Park Service winter activities offer new and unusual ways to discover the season’s extraordinary beauty. So pack your hat and gloves and head out to explore these winter wonderlands, each of which has something truly special to offer during this time of year.
In Yellowstone, winter is one of the best times of year for wildlife viewing and photography: Bison, elk, moose, mule deer, wolves, and coyotes venture down from the snowy peaks and gather in Lamar Valley and other lower elevation meadows. Bobcats and foxes prowl along Yellowstone River, and owls swoop out of the forest in search of prey. In winter, the park is blissfully quiet. Most roads inside the park are closed except to snowmobiles and specially designed snowcoaches that can navigate the unplowed roads: You can book ski, snowshoe, snowmobile, and coach tours through Yellowstone National Park Lodges to visit favorite attractions, including Firehole Basin, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and Old Faithful. Or go deeper into the snowy landscape with biologists and naturalists from Teton Science Schools on a multi-day Winter Wolves of Yellowstone safari experience. For a truly unforgettable New Year’s Eve, book a stay at the winter-only Old Faithful Snow Lodge—only accessible by over-snow shuttle or snowmobile—and join the hardy revelers who gather for a midnight geyser-watch to cheer the last eruption of the old year and welcome the first splash of the new.
Archaeologists are still uncovering the mysteries of Chaco Canyon’s ancient structures, but they’re sure that the Pueblo people who lived here between 850 and 1250 had a sophisticated knowledge of astronomy and lived according to an archaeological calendar that tracked the movements of the sun, moon, and stars. The winter solstice is still a special time at Chaco Culture National Historical Park: On this day, visitors can witness a solar alignment when the first rays of dawn hit the Chacoan great houses of Kin Kletso and Wijiji. In honor of these traditions and thanks to the park’s clear air, remote location, and lack of light pollution, Chaco was certified an International Dark Sky Park in 2013. The Albuquerque Astronomical Society maintains an observatory near the visitor center, which maintains a night sky program throughout the year.
With its 56 square miles of rock spires and hoodoos standing in stark relief against the snow, Bryce Canyon National Park is a winter explorer’s dream. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are permitted throughout the park, and the roads to Fairyland Point and Paria View are left unplowed, creating wide, smooth expanses for visitors to traverse. No snowshoes? No problem: The Bryce Canyon Snowshoe Program offers ranger-led excursions for all levels of experience, and equipment is provided. Or sign up for one of the ranger-led full moon hikes that take place November through March—hoodoos and moonshadows are a memorable mix. Over President’s Day weekend, Bryce Canyon celebrates all things winter with a three-day festival hosted by the NPS and Ruby’s Inn that features ski clinics, arts and crafts, wildlife and geology talks, stargazing, music, and more.
Boasting some of the deepest snow drifts in the continental United States (54 feet on average), Mount Rainier National Park is an impressive place to play in the snow. The Paradise Visitor Center, which once held the world record for annual snowfall, offers a full-service snow play area with tracks for sledding and tubing; it’s the only such facility within a U.S. national park boundary. On weekends, the Jackson Visitor Center offers guided snowshoe hikes (snowshoes are available for a $5 donation). Those more adventurously inclined can cross-country ski or snowshoe the Mount Tahoma Trails Association Hut-to-Hut System, the most extensive free system of the sort in North America. It consists of 50 miles of trails—20 miles of which are groomed—and three huts and a yurt along the way. For a more relaxing experience, the Crystal Mountain gondola, just six miles from the park’s northeast entrance, provides sweeping views of Mount Rainier’s 14,410-foot peak and the entire Cascade Range.
With its historic lodges draped in festive Victorian finery and powdery snow dusting the canyon walls, Grand Canyon National Park is radiant in winter. Better still, at this time of year its famous trails are unhampered by the hordes, and you’ll see less than 10 percent of the annual visitors. While the colder North Rim closes for the season, the South Rim and all its services stay open; the historic El Tovar Hotel even serves festive Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners in the stone and pine-log dining room. The Polar Express–themed train ride is popular with families; cars are bedecked with decorations and Santa rides along to read “The Night Before Christmas.” Out of doors, backcountry permits and campground reservations are easier to get at this time of year, and the West Rim’s iconic Hermit Road, which is accessible only via tour or shuttle bus for most of the year, opens to cars from December through February. New Year’s Day is also cause for celebration—many flock to ring in the new year with the first sunrise over the canyon rim.
The United States isn’t the only place with national parks that shine in the winter. During this season, the deep gorge of Maligne Canyon in Canada’s Jasper National Park is transformed into a magical landscape of frozen waterfalls, ice caves, and towering cliffs dripping with enormous icicles. Groundwater, fed by springs from an underground cave system, trickles into the canyon as temperatures plunge, forming continuous layers of ice and creating the fantastical formations. Ice climbers come with harnesses, picks, and crampons to scale the towering curtains of ice, and hikers can navigate the frozen canyon floor using ice cleats to prevent slipping or join one of the guided hikes, led by outfitters that provide safety equipment, through this fantastic frozen landscape.