Bust the Blues: The 13 Best National Parks To Visit in Winter

Family looking up at the amazing rock formations at Zion National Park in Utah

If you’ve got a winter chill you can’t shake, plan for an island getaway right now. Just the thought of sitting on a pristine beach will make you feel warmer. If beaches aren’t your thing, then ponder a winter escape to the desert, packed with adventure and endless warm and sunny days.

13 National Parks To Visit in Winter

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Consider combining a national park getaway and your well-earned winter break. Each offers endless days of warm winter weather with stunning scenery to chase away those winter blahs. Here are the best National Parks to visit in winter.

1. Death Valley National Park in California

Death Valley National Park in California
Image Credit: James St. John – CC BY 2.0/Wiki Commons.

Camp out like a star at the legendary Inn at Death Valley, a secret winter hideaway for Old Hollywood that features a sparkling pool. With over 3.4 million acres, find plenty of room to spread out in the hottest, driest, and lowest National Park in the U.S. 

Summer is oven-like; however, the winter sun provides warm days and cool nights. Pack those layers, especially if checking out the stars. It is a Dark Sky Park known for its night skies. 

Lodging and camping are both available. Reservations are a must since the winter is high season. Hiking and scenic drives are the top things to do in Death Valley National Park. Visitors might even catch a superbloom if the area got rain. To enter Death Valley, visitors will need a 7-day NPS pass for $30. The park is about 200 miles north of Los Angeles.

2. Big Bend National Park in Texas

Big Bend National Park, Texas
Image Credit: Yinan Chen – Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

Located at the end of the road in the bend of Texas, this desert national park offers endless blue skies in the winter. Big Bend is where the desert meets the mountains and then meets the river. It’s a bit greener than the desert parks in Arizona and Southern California.

The Chisos Mountains are located entirely within the park’s boundaries. This area offers top hiking trails, a lodge, and a visitor center. For those who packed their passport, a day trip to Boquillas del Carmen is possible via its ferry. Alternatively, a float trip down the Rio Grande, especially the stunning Santa Elena Canyon is a top thing to do in Big Bend. 

Big Bend is remote, so visitors should pack in what they need, from food to water to gear. There’s a saying in West Texas: when you see gas, buy gas. El Paso is about 300 miles away.

3. Joshua Tree National Park in California

Joshua Tree National Park, California
Image Credit: Dietmar Rabich, CC BY-SA 4.0/Wiki Commons.

Two different desert ecosystems are found at Joshua Tree. This park can be explored in a few hours, especially when visitors take the scenic road. 

The Joshua Trees live in the northern portion of the park along with the boulders. Cactus rule the southern part, like the Cholla Cactus that  looks soft and snuggly (hint: They aren’t, and pups routinely make this mistake.) 

Joshua Tree is primitive, so find lodging or dining outside the park. Though all that glitters in Palm Springs is less than an hour away from the park entrances. 

 4. Saguaro National Park in Arizona

Saguaro National Park Arizona
Image Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch Photography.

This is the only national park dedicated to one cactus species, the iconic symbol of the desert southwest. Saguaro National Park is also an easy road trip stop for those driving along Interstate 10 through southern Arizona. 

This park is divided into two units on opposite sides of Tucson. Many a visitor (myself included) have missed the side with the cactus. It is worth noting the majority of the saguaro live on the east side of the park. Visitors might even spot a road runner, though visitors will definitely see one of the iconic symbols of Arizona. 

Saguaro National Park is less developed, so the park has no lodging or dining. Tucson offers everything a traveler would need, about 20 minutes from the visitor center. It is $25 for a 7-day vehicle pass.

5. Padre Island National Seashore on the South Texas Coast

Padre Island National Seashore on the South Texas Coast
Image Credit: National Park Service – Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

As the longest undeveloped barrier island in the world, Padre Island National Seashore is more than a beach. It is 60 miles long and drivable, so those kicking back might only see a passing seabird. Migratory birds on the beach outnumber the people most days. 

This national park site offers a visitor center with a small interpretive area, flush toilets, and rinse-off showers. Camping is available at two developed campgrounds or along the beach without services. 

Facing inland, the hyper-saline Laguna Madre is the Intracoastal Waterway and part of the park. It’s a favorite place for fishing, birdwatching, kiteboarding and windsurfing. Though Padre Island National Seashore feels like a deserted island, Corpus Christi is only 30 minutes away. A one-day pass is $10. You can also use a National Park Pass to enter.

6. Everglades National Park in Florida 

Everglades National Park, Florida
Image Credit: Daniel Kraft – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0/Wiki Commons.

The Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S. The 1.5 million acres of wetland earned the designation of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve, a Wetland of International Importance, and a specially protected area under the Cartagena Treaty. 

It is home to several endangered species like the manatee and the Florida panther. Visitors can explore the Everglades via airboats, along one of its kayak and canoe trails, or on a guided tram tour.

Located at the southern tip of Florida, the park offers several visitor centers accessible from the Gulf Side and the Miami area. Find two developed campgrounds on the park’s east side for those wanting to camp. A 7-day pass is $30.

 7. Dry Tortugas National Park off the Florida Keys

Dry Tortugas National Park off the Florida Keys
Image Credit: Lindsey C. Straub – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0/Wiki Commons.

Escaping to an island is a frequent winter daydream for many travelers. Located 70 miles west off the coast of Key West, visitors must board a boat or float plane to get to the tropical paradise. Dry Tortugas features turquoise water, sea turtles, and one of the largest antique forts in the U.S. 

Day trippers make a day of it with provisions from the mainland. On the island, they will find picnic tables and Fort Jefferson, the main feature of Dry Tortugas National Park. Snorkeling, birdwatching, and beach lounging are popular activities, so visitors should bring a swimsuit and towel. 

Ferry and seaplane reservations are required. The ferry is $200 for adults and $145 for kids (4 – 16), and the $15 NPS entrance fee is included. The ferry is air-conditioned, and a small meal is included. Camping is available for those who want to spend the night.

 8. Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona
Image Credit: Grand Canyon National Park – CC BY 2.0/Wiki Commons.

This American icon is open in winter and might even sport a coat of billowy snow on the south rim. With fewer visitors, it’s a favorite time to visit and see the mile-deep canyon.

 Winter sunsets are just as beautiful, and visitors gather at Mather Point for the daily event. Another top activity is walking the Trail of Time, a portion of the Rim Trail that offers interpretive information about the geological layers of the Grand Canyon. Most of the lodging and dining are open on the South Rim. However, reservations are required. 

Entering the Grand Canyon requires a $35 seven-day National Park Pass. A seasonal shuttle is available at the main parking lot that serves the main South Rim Visitor Center. The Visitor Center is about four hours east of Las Vegas. Keep in mind that the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is closed for the winter due to impassable snow.

9. Zion National Park in Utah

Person hiking through Zion National Park in Utah
Image Credit: Shutterstock.

Southern Utah sports some glorious winter days with bluebird skies and fewer people. The red sandstone with a dusting of billowy snow might be the backdrop for your winter hike. 

The temperatures fluctuate a lot in winter from day to night, so layering is essential. The morning might require a puffy jacket, and a flannel shirt might be enough in the afternoon. The roads are plowed, and the Zion Canyon Shuttle runs daily through New Year's. 

The Zion Lodge is open for the winter season, and reservations are always recommended. For hiking, check in with Park Rangers or the Zion NPS website to see if the trails are clear of icy conditions (especially at higher elevations). A 7-day vehicle pass is $35, and reservations are not needed to enter the park. Zion is about 150 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

10. Guadalupe Mountains National Park in West Texas

Image Credit: Shutterstock/John Corso

High-pointers might prefer a winter hike to reach the highest point in Texas under comfortable blue skies and little chance of monsoon afternoon rains. The winter days top out in the 60s.

The top thing to do in Guadalupe Mountains National Park is hiking and scenic drives. Hikers will find routes from short nature trails suitable for most to backpacking trails. This park is popular in the fall color season

Located in West Texas, road trippers frequently add this park to Carlsbad Caverns and Big Bend national parks trips. Most travelers explore this park as a day trip since it lacks a lodge and its campgrounds are primitive. Guadalupe Mountains National Park is located about 110 miles east of El Paso. To enter, a $10 7-day pass is required per person.

11. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park 

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Image Credit: Robert Linsdell – CC BY 2.0/Wiki Commons.

Is it erupting?  Maybe. The sight of spewing red-hot lava is on many a bucket list. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is on the island of Hawaii.

You probably were already dreaming of volcanoes, plumeria, and black sand beaches. With easy inter-island flights, adding a trip to see that park is doable with a longer Hawaiian vacation. Visitors take the Crater Rim and the Chain of Crater scenic drives to see the effects of past eruptions. Hiking is another top activity at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. 

Located in a quiet corner of the island, visitors will find lodging and dining at the Volcano House, located next to the Visitor Center. Cabins and developed campgrounds are close by. A car is needed to explore this park, and rentals are readily available at the airport. A 7-day pass is $30 to enter, and this park is cashless. It is about 100 miles east of Kona and 30 miles from Hilo to reach Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

12. Haleakala National Park on Maui 

Haleakala National Park, Hawaii
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Maui is open for visitors, and this is the best place to see the sunrise on top of its volcano. Haleakalā National Park features 30,000 acres of land and is divided into two districts. Visitors can explore the moon-like Haleakalā volcano on foot or via its scenic drive. Perched high on its summit, visitors can witness the spectacular sunrise ritual, though a special permit is required to enter the park from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. and is date specific.

Kīpahulu District offers a lush rainforest with waterfalls and sacred pools rich in Hawaiian history. This area is along the rugged coastline of south Maui. A car is necessary to visit Haleakalā National Park. A vehicle pass is $30 and is good for three days.

13. Virgin Islands National Park on St. John Island 

Trunk Bay in Virgin Islands National Park
Image Credit: olekinderhook, CC BY 3.0/Wiki Commons.

One of the lesser-known island parks, St. John is a separate island in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a U.S. Territory. St. John  is a protected paradise that travelers must take a ferry to visit from St. Thomas  (another island in the U.S. Virgin Islands) 

With turquoise water and white sand, the beaches are top destinations. Trunk Bay, Hawksnest, and Cinnamon Bay are all top beaches. Francis Bay is home to sea turtles. Camping and cabins are available at Cinnamon Bay, and prices start at $170 a night for an outfitted site. Dining is available at the Rain Forest Cafe from breakfast through dinner. 

A 15-minute ferry ride departs from Red Hook on St. Thomas to get to St. John. Adult fare is $8.15 one-way and $1 one-way for kids (2-11). A taxi might be the best way to get around the island and arrange a pick-up time before the taxi departs. This park is free to enter.

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Catherine Parker

Author: Catherine Parker


Catherine Parker has a passion for travel that’s driven her across North America, visiting all 50 U.S. states, seven Canadian provinces, seven Mexican states and top destinations in the Caribbean, Europe and Asia. She has been traveling and writing professionally for over 20 years and lived in the Austin area for almost as long. Catherine started her career in travel and tourism, flying for one of the majors as a Flight Attendant after graduating from the University of Houston.

As an award-winning journalist, Catherine is a contributor to U.S. News and World Report and Lonely Planet, among others. She covers the U.S. National Park Service, in which she was a finalist for the prestigious Dry Tortugas National Park Artist-in-Residence program. In addition to an active roster of publications, she publishes a family travel website, CarfulOfKids.com. In her free time, she restores old houses, tends her cottage garden, and corrals a menagerie of animals. She raised three adult-sized kids who love to travel as well.