The man at the deserts landscape
Explore some of your area’s lesser-known national parks during the least busy time of the year. (YayaErnst/iStock)

4 Awesome Winter Road Trips to National Parks

Load up the car to see snow-covered volcanoes, cool desert landscapes, and empty beaches without any of summer's big crowds

The man at the deserts landscape
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As of press time, some trails, campsites, and businesses are closed due to Covid-19 precautions. To check for safety protocols and potential closures, visit the individual websites before you go.

Summer road trips to national parks feel like an American rite of passage. But in winter? That’s when the hardiest travel to our country’s wildest places for snow-covered volcanic landscapes, cool desert vibes, and empty beaches. We’ve put together regional road trip suggestions in various parts of the country to help you explore some of your area’s lesser-known national parks during the least busy time of the year.

Southern California

Badwater salt polygons in morning light with silhouette two people
(Courtesy Visit California)

On the southern border of California’s Sierra Nevada, two stunning national parks sit side by side: Sequoia and Kings Canyon. It’s worth visiting both of them. To get here, it’s a five-hour drive from Los Angeles or four hours from San Francisco. In winter, you’ll find ranger-guided snowshoe hikes, cross-country skiing, and the world’s largest tree—General Sherman, a towering sequoia that weighs more than 2.7 million pounds—covered in snow. Book a room or cabin at the Buckeye Tree Lodge (from $129), just outside the Sequoia National Park entrance in the town of Three Rivers.

From there, it’s four hours to Death Valley National Park, where you’ll appreciate the contrast from snowy peaks to rolling sand dunes in a below-sea-level basin. The climate in Death Valley is ideal during the winter months. Hike the trail along the southwest rim of a dormant volcano at Death Valley’s Ubehebe Crater, and meander along Artist’s Drive, a nine-mile road that passes through hillsides colorfully tinted with volcanic sediment. Furnace Creek Campground (from $22) is open year-round and is the only campground in the park that accepts reservations.

Eastern Seaboard

Bridge
(AdamIsovitsch/iStock)

Just 90 minutes from Washington, D.C., you’ll find the forested hills of Catoctin Mountain Park, a small but scenic national park in Maryland with 25 miles of hiking trails and the presidential retreat of Camp David in a top-secret locale. If you’re a rock climber, there’s bouldering throughout the park year-round and sport climbing at Wolf Rock, a short hike from the park’s visitor’s center. For non-climbers, the four-mile round-trip hike to Chimney Rock promises panoramic views. The park has camping year-round in rustic backcountry shelters (from $10) accessed via a three-mile trek.

A visit to Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park is just 23 miles west. The C&O Canal, which has a multiuse dirt-and-stone walking path, stretches for 185 miles from Washington, D.C., along the Potomac River into Cumberland, Maryland. Driving along the C&O Canal Scenic Byway makes for a great road trip.

Next, head to the beaches of Assateague Island National Seashore, a 40-mile stretch of coastline across Maryland and Virginia. The beach camping (from $30) fills up months in advance during summer, but from November to March, campsites are first come, first served and far less busy. You’ll pitch a tent on the sand of this barrier island amid herds of wild horses.

To add one more stop, enjoy a half-day drive to West Virginia’s New River Gorge National Park, where the famed New River Gorge Bridge spans over the water and rock climbers flock to the sandstone walls along the gorge. The park has more than 100 miles of hiking trails. Sleep nearby in a treehouse (from $201; via Airbnb) suspended in an old-growth forest.

Desert Southwest

Sand dunes at the San Andreas Mountains
(gnagel/iStock)

While crowds converge on southern Utah’s well-known national parks like Arches and Zion even in the winter months, New Mexico’s parks remain off the radar. From Denver, it’s an eight-hour drive to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a remote archaeological site in northern New Mexico that’s designated an International Dark Sky Park for its stellar stargazing. The trails here are covered in snow in winter, but you can still study the architectural feats of the Ancestral Puebloans and gaze through a telescope to a clear night sky. Drive three hours east to visit the historic pueblo of Taos and stay in a vintage trailer across from Taos Mesa Brewing at Hotel Luna Mystica (from $95).

Head six hours south to hit White Sands National Park, where its stunning dunes look white as snow and are just as much fun as snow to sled down. Winter is a great time to visit while avoiding summer’s scorching temperatures. Hike the dunes along five designated trails, or continue your road trip along the Dunes Drive, an eight-mile roadway that takes you into the heart of the dunes. This one-bedroom casita (from $75; via Airbnb) in a historic adobe home in San Miguel is about an hour from the dunes and has its own hot tub.

It’s another three hours toward the Texas border to reach New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National Park, where you can tour several of the underground caves on your own, along with miles of above-ground hiking trails across the Chihuahuan Desert. You’ll find plenty of inns at the park’s gateway town, White’s City. 

Rocky Mountains

(Courtesy Idaho Tourism)

In summer and fall, rock climbers go to City of Rocks National Reserve in southern Idaho—about three hours north of Salt Lake City or ten-plus hours from Seattle—to scale the granite faces the park is known for. But the place is practically empty in winter. You’ll find ice climbing for the well-initiated, or you can cross-country ski on the unplowed roads throughout the park. Stay at the 11-room Almo Inn (from $120) in the nearby town of Almo.  

It’s worth the extended detour into the city of Boise, Idaho, where skiing at Bogus Basin is less than an hour from downtown. You can make a reservation for a hot springs soak, or book a private tub (from $20) at The Springs in nearby Idaho City. The Modern Hotel (from $116) has sleek rooms and an attached bar (currently closed due to COVID-19) in Boise’s artsy Linen District.

At Craters of the Moon National Monument, about three hours from Boise outside the town of Arco, Idaho, you can explore lava tubes via snowshoes or cross-country skis along the park’s often-groomed Craters’ Loop Road, which is closed to cars from November to April.

Want more? It’s a half-day drive from Craters of the Moon to reach the iconic scenery of Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone, which are far less crowded during winter and just as stunning covered in snow.

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