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 in cold weather. 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 warmest hat and gloves and head out to explore these six winter wonderlands, each of which has something truly special to offer during this time of year.
Best Wildlife Viewing
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. On winter days, the park is blissfully quiet. Most park roads aren’t plowed and are closed except to snowmobiles and specially designed snowcoaches that can navigate the deep snow.
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. You can also snowmobile into the park on your own, but you must first apply for a permit as a noncommercial guide and complete an online training course. Only four noncommercially guided groups are allowed in the park per day, and sleds must comply with the park’s Best Available Technology (BAT) rules.
To go deeper into the snowy landscape and track wolves and other wildlife, join a multi-day wolf discovery tour, such as those led by Brushbuck Wildlife Tours or Yellowstone Wild Tours or sign up for the Winter Wolf package offers by Yellowstone Park Lodges.
With its heavy log construction, oversize fireplaces, and tables heaped with puzzles and games, the Old Faithful Snow Lodge seems designed for supreme winter coziness. In winter, the lodge is accessible only by over-snow shuttle or snowmobile, then shuts for a few weeks and reopens in April when the roads open. Tucked into the gift shop, the Bear Den Ski Shop rents cross-country skis and snowshoes and offers lessons and guided tours. Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, located at the north end of the park, is the only other lodge open in winter, and daily guided tours depart from this location as well.
2. Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Archaeologists are still uncovering the mysteries of Chaco Canyon’s ancient structures, but they’re sure that the ancestral Puebloan 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 Chacoan people made careful observations of the skies and seasonal cycles and based agricultural and ceremonial events on this calendar, traditions carried on today by the Puebloans.
In honor of Chaco’s archeoastronomy 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 park service traditionally offers night sky programs on Friday and Saturday evenings from April through October but the events are currently on hold; check with the visitor center for current information and with the Albuquerque Astronomical Society, which maintains an observatory near the visitor center.
Open year-round except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day, the park’s visitor center houses an excellent museum displaying baskets, pottery, jewelry, and other artifacts, highlights from a collection of more than 1 million artifacts excavated in archaeological digs.
Ranger-led walks of Pueblo Bonito are offered year-round, while additional programming begins in April. Canyon Loop Road, which links six major sites, is open year-round, as is Gallo campground, which makes for a peaceful stay under the winter sky.
The winter solstice is a particularly 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. The sun dagger petroglyph atop Fajada Butte, the ancient city’s most dramatic solar calendar marker, is off-limits to visitors as erosion from foot traffic began to damage the rock alignment.
3. Bryce Canyon
Great Snowshoeing and Hiking
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: Snowshoes are provided for daily ranger-led snowshoe hikes, which take place at 1 p.m. from October 1 through Memorial Day, conditions permitting. You can also rent your own cross-country skis and snowshoes from local outfitters in Bryce Canyon City. Once trails become too icy for snowshoes, hikers can stick to boots with attached traction devices, available at the visitor center.
The Southern Scenic Drive to Rainbow Point is kept open in the winter except during and just after winter snowstorms, when it closes at mile marker 3.
Hoodoos and moon shadows are a memorable mix, so don’t miss the popular ranger-led full moon hikes, which continue through winter. To keep numbers down, a lottery is held daily at the visitor center. 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, and music.
4. Mount Rainier
Super for Snow Play
Boasting some of the deepest snow drifts in the continental United States (53 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 (93.5 feet), offers a full-service snow play area with tracks for sledding and tubing when the snow is deep enough for safe cover—check ahead for current conditions.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the park’s Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center offered guided snowshoe hikes twice a day on weekends, with snowshoes available for a $5 donation. While the visitor center has been closed during the pandemic, rangers are available at information stations near the museum. Or head out on your own; popular snowshoe trails range from 1-mile Alta Vista to strenuous challenges, such as the steep 11-mile trek to Sun Top. Snowshoes are available for rental from numerous area outfitters.
Those more inclined to adventure 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.
5. Grand Canyon
Festive with Fewer Crowds
With fires roaring in the fireplaces of its historic lodges 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 higher-elevation North Rim closes for the season, the South Rim and most services stay open, including the historic El Tovar Hotel and its majestic stone-and-pine log dining room and lounge.
Backcountry permits and campground reservations are easier to get at this time of year, and hiking trails are free from crowds, although traction devices and winter safety gear are advised. Best of all, 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, allowing you to stop for photo ops as many times as you wish with no scheduling issues. The Village, Kaibab Rim, and Hikers’ Express shuttles remain in service year-round.
The views from the Grand Canyon Railway are particularly appealing in winter, with deer and other wildlife standing out against the white backdrop. In November and December, the Polar Express–themed train ride features cars bedecked with decorations and Santa reading “The Night Before Christmas.”
6. Jasper National Park
Fantastic Ice Hiking
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 frozen landscape.
This article originally appeared online in October 2018; it was updated on January 14, 2022, to include current information.