Visit a national park in the spring, summer, or fall, and you’ll get endless trails, stunning campsites, and mild weather. You’ll also get hordes of other people. Winter is a whole different story, with way-fewer crowds and pristine snow-covered landscapes. With the government finally open again, it’s the perfect time for a visit. Operations and access may be limited due to the season, but the parks below still have plenty to do, from shimmering full-moon hikes to lift-accessed skiing. All you need is a few extra layers.
This park in southern Oregon gets an average of 44 feet of snow each winter, so this time of year its trails and campgrounds are buried by snow. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan a trip. Highway 62 and the access road into Rim Village are plowed and always open. However, the first big snow of the year closes Rim Drive around the crater, turning it into a perfect cross-country skiing and snowshoeing route. The west rim is great for beginners, while the east rim should be tackled by experts with avy gear and training as it passes through some avalanche zones. The reward is sweeping views of the lake from Sun Notch and Garfield-Applegate Ridge. There are also ranger-lead snowshoe hikes every weekend from December through April. There are no winter accommodations inside the park, so stay 20 miles away in a cabin at Union Creek Resort (from $129), which rents snowshoes and cross-country skis.
Backcountry skiers flock to the high-elevation peaks and steep couloirs within Rocky Mountain National Park each winter. The former Hidden Valley ski area, which closed in 1991, has low-angle bowls you can skin up, or tackle the 1,500-vertical-foot Dragontail Couloir, a classic Colorado route. Colorado Mountain School offers guided backcountry skiing excursions in the park and hostel-style bunks upstairs at its Estes Park office starting at $40 a night. Or opt for a room at the recently renovated Ridgeline Hotel in town (from $119). The Latitude 105 Alehouse in the lobby serves up good beers and great burgers.
Wildlife Expeditions of Teton Science Schools, the only nonprofit wildlife-tour provider in Jackson, Wyoming, has a winter trip through Yellowstone that’s hard to beat. You’ll travel the park’s snow-covered roads in a custom Mercedes-Benz snowcoach—basically a van with four tank treads instead of tires—while taking in views of Old Faithful and the park’s other famous geothermal features. You’ll also stop for snowy treks in search of wildlife like bison, coyotes, and foxes. The Old Faithful Snow Lodge, located within the park, is only accessible by snowcoach shuttle in the winter, but it’s well worth the effort (from $159).
The Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area, on the south side of Yosemite National Park, has five chairlifts and 90 acres for downhill skiers as well as some 25 miles of groomed trails for cross-country enthusiasts. The road to Glacier Point is closed once you pass the ski hill, but you can cross-country ski the 21-mile round-trip to earn a stunning panorama of the entire valley. Or ice-skate with views of Half Dome at the outdoor rink in Yosemite Valley. Stay at the historic Majestic Yosemite Hotel (from $518), or book the backcountry Ostrander Hut (from $50 per person), which requires a hardy ten-mile ski trip to reach.
Imagine empty trails, brilliant stargazing, and fresh snow coating a red-rock desert—that’s Bryce Canyon National Park in the winter. The park has a Winter Festival, scheduled from February 16–18 this year, that includes cross-country ski tours, guided fat biking, and photography clinics, and don’t miss the ranger-led full-moon snowshoe excursions. It’s illegal to backcountry ski off the rim into the canyon, but the lifts at Brian Head Resort and Eagle Point are just down the road. Ruby’s Inn, the closest lodging to the park entrance, has an ice-skating rink across the street (from $80).
Sections of the famed Park Loop Road—a popular scenic drive in Acadia National Park—remain open in the winter, so you can still access the park by vehicle. Once you’re inside, set out on snowshoes or skis. The Friends of Acadia Winter Trails Association grooms about 32 miles of trail for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing when conditions allow. For a slower pace, Maine Wilderness Tours offers guided ice-fishing trips in the area and cottage rentals near prime fishing spots. The Acadia Hotel in downtown Bar Harbor has an outdoor hot tub and loaner bikes for exploring town (from $99).
In Olympic National Park, you can ride a rope tow at Hurricane Ridge, one of only three ski areas in the country still operating within a national park and a charming, family-friendly hill that feels like a throwback to another era. Hurricane Ridge also has sledding and cross-country skiing, or you can go for a long midwinter walk on the park’s deserted beaches. Stay at the Kalaloch Lodge, which is open year-round and has amazing storm watching from the porch (from $95).