National Parks: What To Expect In the Winter

by  Alex Schechter | Dec 11, 2013
Death Valley, CA
Death Valley, CA / GaryKavanagh/iStock

A visit to major national parks like Death Valley and the Grand Canyon is guaranteed to be memorable no matter what time of year you go – but rest assured, your experience will vary. Blistering heat, overcrowding, and rim fires are just a few ways summer visits can be compromised. Instead, consider a visit to the U.S.'s most stunning natural wonders during the colder months. Just remember to pack extra layers!

Death Valley
Considered the hottest and driest place on the entire continent, you'd think winter would have zero effect on Death Valley's 3.2 million acres of gorges, dunes, and salt basins. Think again. The sprawling national park, which is roughly the size of Connecticut, also contains snow-covered mountains, where temperatures can drop below freezing in winter months. During winter, the low-elevation areas remain mild, with temperatures averaging in the mid 60s, so if you're planning a trip, be sure to stick to the valley itself (a winter program of guided walks, lectures, and presentations on the history of Death Valley is provided by rangers from November to April). The least crowded time to visit the park is over Christmas.

Yosemite, California's iconic reserve of sheer cliffs, crashing waterfalls, glassy lakes, and Sequoia groves, is possibly at its best in winter. The number of visitors remains constant year-round, but the appeal of Yosemite in the winter isn't about beating the crowds; rather, it's the abundance of winter sports (skiing at Badger Pass, say), indoor activities (the "Chefs' Holidays" series that runs throughout January, or fireside gatherings at the Ahwahnee Hotel), and simply enjoying the stark, snow-covered landscape. The latter is most notable in places like Lower Yosemite Fall and Cook's Meadow Loop, where postcard-worthy vistas of Cathedral Rocks and the Three Brothers await; meanwhile, other trails, such as Panorama Trail and Upper Yosemite, are inaccessible during winter due to excessive snow and ice. Also, keep in mind that any car entering the park is required to carry along a set of tire chains, to be used in all designated areas.

Grand Canyon
As strange as it is to think of the Grand Canyon covered in white, snow does indeed fall along the rim, making the geological wonder even more wondrous. The weather varies quite a bit during winter, with extreme conditions like below-freezing temperatures and heavy rains hitting the higher elevation points unexpectedly throughout the season (though, if it makes a difference, those erratic weather patterns continue in the summer, too). To properly plan a winter visit to the Grand Canyon, a look at the park's NOAA weather forecast page is recommended, while the park's website offers an in-depth look at winter trails (Bright Angel Trail, for example, is one that perfectly suits a winter hike). In general, winter travel is limited to the South Rim, as the North Rim, which receives an average of 144 inches of snow each year, remains closed from November through May.

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