The National Parks are an ideal family vacation year-round. In fact, visiting in the cooler months can mean fewer crowds, quieter trails and amazing snow-covered views. Here are the best National Parks to visit in the winter.
Yosemite National Park is home to giant sequoias, breathtaking rock formations, sheer cliffs and El Capitan—the immense wall of silver-gray granite looming like a skyscraper into the dazzling-blue sky, said to be the largest single block of exposed granite in the world. It's an unforgettable sight glistening in the winter sun surrounded by snow-capped peaks and dusted trees. Winter is also the best time to visit Yosemite and beat the crowds. The number of visitors drops dramatically and the average daytime temperatures are in the low 50s with sunny skies that are perfect for hiking and other winter activities. As one of America’s favorite ski areas with stunning viewpoints across 747,956 acres of natural beauty, there is cross-country skiing and snowshoeing to Glacier Point, plus ice skating at Curry Village and snow tubing and skiing at Badger Pass Ski Area—the oldest ski area in California.
Where to stay: The Ahwahnee
After enjoying this outdoor crystalline kingdom, guests are transported back in time to an era of elegance The Ahwahnee, the perfect place to warm the toes and sip a toddy while watching the silent snowfall and the one-of-a-kind "frazil" ice formations. Designated a National Historic Landmark, The Ahwahnee has even played host to important guests including queens and presidents.
For one of the most peaceful and tranquil winter retreats, the Olympic Peninsula, the most Northwestern Point in the contiguous US, offers a quiet getaway nestled among 500-year old fir and hemlock trees and quietly beautiful scenery. Diversity is the name of the game here, even in the winter. The park features several distinct ecosystems ranging from glaciers and mountains to forests. Hurricane Ridge is a must-visit for snow lovers. Not only is the average snowfall more than 400 inches here, but you can also find winter activities like cross-country and downhill skiing and tubing. Park rangers even lead families on guided snowshoe walks.
Where to stay: Lake Quinault Lodge
The historic Lake Quinault Lodge, the only accommodations right in the Quinault Rainforest, provides the ideal destination for a serene winter retreat. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was one of the lodge's visitors and there's even a restaurant onsite named for him.
Located just outside of Jackson Hole, Grand Teton National Park is one of the best National Parks to visit in the winter. The cars and the tourists empty out and a blissful solemnity takes over. Head out on a sunrise nature safari with a guide, who will help you spot moose and bald eagles, elk and bison. Or learn about winter ecology on a snowshoeing expedition led by a park ranger; two-hour tours are offered on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from late December through mid-March. After you've had your fill of nature, you can head to nearby Jackson Hole for some of the finest downhill skiing in the nation.
Where to stay: Four Seasons Jackson Hole
Located slopeside, the Four Seasons is the perfect base for skiing, and Jackson's annual snowfall of over 500 inches makes it heaven for powder buffs. Kids will love taking lessons at the nearby Kid's Ranch, where the groups are so small they practically get one-on-one instruction. Don't miss free après-ski s'mores by the hotel's year-round heated pool. The hotel offers nighttime stargazing tours in Grand Teton National Park. Your head will be spinning when you spot the Milky Way spreading across the crisp night sky.
For those who prefer sand to snow and want a warmer getaway option, Asilomar is a historic beachfront retreat that features 107-acres of state-protected beachfront property that serves as one of the top five birding destinations in North America. Families can take quiet walks along the shore and watch the crashing waves on the scenic coastline. Outdoor enthusiasts will love numerous walking and hiking trails found here, as well as riding bikes along the beach and the “Asilomar Ramble,” a ranger-lead nature tour for wildlife viewing. This is also one of Monterey Peninsula's best places for surfing, so be ready to throw on a wet suit and hit the waves.
Where to Stay: Asilomar Lodging
With room types ranging from standard to historic to multi-bedroom cottages, families can cozy up by the fireplaces at this charming hideaway after a day out exploring the area.
You've probably seen picturesque photos of visitors paddle boarding over the blue waters of Lake Tahoe that are so clear it practically looks like they're floating. But this destination is just as idyllic in the winter too. Not only is some of the best skiing in the country right nearby, but adventurous activities from ice skating to snowmobiling and UTV tours abound.
Where to stay: Zephyr Cove Resort & Marina
Zephyr Cove Resort offers guests the quintessential "log cabin" winter getaway combined with adventure for all levels. Zephyr Cove's winter activities range from leisurely scenic snowmobile tours to fast-paced off-trail rides to lake tours on the MS Dixie II paddle wheeler around Emerald Bay during the day or at sunset.
The iconic red rock arch formations look even more dramatic in the winter when the mesas are blanketed in snow. Most of the hiking trails, which range from easy strolls to harder treks, remain open all year and are much less crowded in the winter, though precautions like trekking poles are recommended after snowfalls in case of slippery conditions.
Where to stay: Sorrel River Ranch
Sorrel River Ranch offers the ideal home base for families ready to explore all that nearby Moab and Arches National Park have to offer. Set on over 240 acres right along the Colorado River, it offers spacious multi-story family suites, and fun for all ages from horseback trail rides among majestic mesas straight of old Westerns to tailored Jeeping tours.
Everyone thinks about Yellowstone as a summer vacation spot. But here's the thing: Winter is the best-kept secret in Yellowstone. First of all, you practically have the place to yourself. You can go skiing and snowshoeing through geyser basins and mountain meadows. Adventurers will also love exploring by snowcoach on groomed snowbound roads. There's spectacular wildlife watching, and wolves are easier to spot in the winter. Plus, you'll see elk, bison, deer, eagles, coyotes, and more. From the wildlife to the scenery, this is heaven for photographers. The play of fire and ice — with geysers and hot springs, set against a snowy backdrop — makes the geyser basins magical.
Where to stay: Old Faithful Snow Lodge
Only two of Yellowstone's cozy lodges are open in winter (Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel is the other one), which means there's about 10% of the number of people you'd have in the summer. At Old Faithful Snow Lodge — which is only accessible by snowcoach — you'll find steaming geysers right out the front door. Get one of the lodge's knowledgable guides to take you on a tour to the famed frozen Lower Falls.
Here's another secret, but equally amazing spot: Badlands National Park in South Dakota. In summer, tourists flock to the Badlands, but when the crowds leave it becomes a winter adventure wonderland. For one thing, it's more affordable than high-profile winter destinations like Aspen. It's easy to rent equipment from local outfitters, including snowmobiles for riding across 350 miles of marked trails, snowshoes and fat bikes, which are a great way to explore trails. Also check out the nearby Mount Rushmore (dramatic when it's covered in snow) and Custer State Park, where you can take free guided snowshoeing tours with a ranger.
Where to stay: Hotel Alex Johnson
With Rapid City as your home base, you can explore the Badlands and the entire Black Hills region. The Hotel Alex Johnson is the city's most historic hotel, having hosted six US presidents.