How to Celebrate the Holidays in a National Park
If you’re willing to brave the cold, winter can be one of the best seasons to visit America’s best idea
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Winter holidays are one of the most underrated seasons for visiting a national park. For one thing, the crowds of people making headlines all summer have largely disappeared, and travelers will find a more tranquil, quieter side of the parks that few get to experience. Ring in 2022 by watching the powerful spray of Old Faithful erupting with only a handful of souls by your side or enjoy a Christmas feast at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The national parks are home to a magnitude of holiday traditions—some old, some new, all treasured.
With a light dusting of snow atop its mile-deep red sandstone, Grand Canyon, often thought of as a desert park, is instantly transformed into a winter wonderland. For over 50 years, mule packers have loaded up a locally-sourced Christmas tree and hand-delivered it to Phantom Ranch, a historic cantina and smattering of cottages set at the bottom of the famous ravine. “The steak dinner is the staple of the Phantom Ranch experience,” said Sam Langner, VIP sales and community relations manager for the property, but during the holiday season, guests can also enjoy handmade artisan decorations and canyon-themed ornaments at the ranch. (Dinners start at $35 per person.)
Up top, the park’s El Tovar Hotel, which first opened in 1905, also gets in on the festivities, with a massive tree, Santa hat-adorned taxidermy, and extravagant holiday wreaths spilling out of the century-old lobby. Don’t expect to leave without a full stomach, Langner said. “They’re always famous for their French onion soup, but they also have specialty offerings, like turkey, that are unique to the holidays.” The hotel also hosts a New Year’s Eve dinner each year (reservations required).
Kids and kids-at-heart will flip for the Grand Canyon Railway’s Polar Express, which runs from mid-November through the end of the year. Though this particular journey doesn’t terminate in the park itself, the vintage train winds along the same, historic tracks that first opened to tourists in 1901. Aboard the whimsical ride, adventurers can expect to meet swarms of characters from the original Van Allsburg book and, of course, Santa Claus. (Tickets start at $38.)
After a two-year pandemic hiatus, next December the legendary Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite will once again be transformed into the luxurious eighteenth-century manor hall of author Washington Irving’s “Squire Bracebridge,” and for several evenings, a spectacle unlike any other will ensue. Opera singers and performers from top companies across the country combine to put on a show that’s part musical pageant and part festive feast, where guests can “be truly moved by the inextricable relationship between the holiday season and the wonders of nature that surround us all in the Yosemite Valley,” said Jonathan Spencer, performer and managing director of Andrea Fulton Productions, which hosts the event each winter.
At Bracebridge, the food is just as important as the play, with traditional Yuletide favorites like wassail, the baron of beef, peacock pie (made with turkey), and plum pudding each presented in an elaborate song and dance number, just as they were in 1927 when the production first made its debut with up-and-comer Ansel Adams in the cast. When the performers aren’t regaling diners with Christmas melodies, they put on a series of free “Holiday Pops” concerts between shows. (Tickets start at $252 for children and $320 for adults.)
For those not lucky enough to nab one of these coveted tickets next year (the company plans a full return in 2022, and tickets routinely sell out nine months in advance), there’s a wealth of other wintertime activities in and around the park, namely a seasonal ice skating rink at Curry Village (tickets start at $12.50), downhill skiing at historic Badger Pass ($62 for an all-day lift ticket), and an all-out NYE dinner at Rush Creek Lodge (starting at $55), just half a mile from the park.
Friends of Mammoth Cave’s annual Cave Sing, a holiday classic that’s been running for 42 seasons, is finally set to return in 2022. The concert utilizes the ideal acoustics of the world’s longest known caverns, and visitors are invited to bundle up and head underground to enjoy a chorus of holiday carols. The performances change from year to year, with brass quintets, violin soloists, massive choirs, and the occasional bluegrass band spreading Christmas joy to visitors of all ages.
The event is free to the public and on the books for next year, after a COVID-induced two-year lapse. However, those of us who are impatient can snag a taste of the concert’s magic from last year’s virtual Cave Sing recording.
Accessible only by snowcoach and snowmobile, the Old Faithful Snow Lodge is one of Yellowstone’s best kept secrets when it comes to reveling in Yuletide merriment and escaping throngs of summer tourists. Not only does the hotel’s full-service restaurant host special holiday dinners on Christmas and New Year’s Eves, but guests are also welcome to free ice skate rentals at the property’s adjacent rink. The park’s Bear Den ski shop is open all season for visitors to get their cross country ski or snowshoe on (lessons and guided tours are also available), and cozy lobby fireplaces beckon weary travelers looking to warm up after ringing in 2022 the traditional way: watching the year’s first eruption of Old Faithful. Talk about fireworks.
The only road in Yellowstone that’s open to wheeled vehicles all winter sits between the north and northeast entrances, making the park’s historic Mammoth Hot Springs area a hub for seasonal festivities. On Officer’s Row, a yearly tree lighting ceremony has been a tradition for over a century, and the Mammoth Chapel hosts two candlelit services on Christmas Eve each year.If all that snowy action works up an appetite, the Mammoth Hotel Dining Room, open year-round, also serves unparalleled Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve feasts.
Climb aboard a festive, 1940s diesel train and take a journey through Cuyahoga Valley all the way to the North Pole (set in the village of Peninsula, Ohio). The park’s volunteer-led Christmas train is a family tradition going back for 28 years, and once it’s left the station, a gaggle of friendly elves pour through the aisles to complete the “Chugga Chugga Choo” dance to make the train accelerate towards its destination.
Along the way, guests can write a letter to Santa, dance, sing, enjoy hot cocoa, and indulge their sweet tooth with holiday cookies, said Katelyn Gainer, director of marketing and communications at Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. “They pass light displays and the North Pole Post Office, where they see the letters they wrote get delivered for Santa to read,” said Gainer, and on the return trip, everyone gets one-on-one time with the big guy himself. (Tickets start at $45.)
While arid badlands and holiday mirth might seem incongruous at first glance, the Inn at Death Valley makes sure that winter wanderers have a lot to smile about. Once known for its celebrity sightings (Clark Gable and Marlon Brando were regulars), the vintage property transforms itself into a feast of delights throughout the holiday season, complete with poinsettias encircling the fountain, a glittering tree in the lobby, and fairy lights adorning the nearby date palms. “One year, we actually had some of our poles wrapped up in candy cane colors,” said John Kukreja, general manager of the Oasis at Death Valley.
Both the Inn and its sister hotel, the Ranch at Death Valley, have specially curated holiday menu items from Thanksgiving through New Year’s, like roast turkey with cranberry sauce or a hearty dish of lamb—perfect fare for indulging after the site’s “Christmas scramble,” a yearly golf game for guests and employees (a nine-hole game starts at $25).
The pandemic postponed a few of the park’s most notorious holiday festivities, said Kukreja, but they hope to be able to host more events in 2022. Fingers crossed that the hotel’s annual Christmas Eve golf cart parade and New Year’s Eve dance get the go ahead next season.