Winter is a special time. There's nothing quite like snuggling up with a mug of hot cocoa in front of a crackling fire. And, the cold air hitting your face as you zip down a snowy mountain is pretty fantastic. Then again, building a snowman next to giant rock formations that are millions of years old is quite spectacular, too. The United States offers some of the most stunning environments for a winter getaway — the national parks.
All of the national parks deserve a visit, but a few beg to be toured in the winter. These parks offer a unique perspective in winter and seasonal activities to entertain the whole family. From the oceans of the east coast to the mountains of the west, these national parks are the best for winter fun.
Olympic National Park, Washington
This national park is recognized for encompassing three very distinct ecosystems: subalpine forest and meadow, temperate forest, and the rugged Pacific coastline. But rather than taking a hike through the forests during the typical dry season, visit Olympic National Park in the winter for three spectacular getaways in one.
Take that rugged Pacific coastline. In the winter, it offers an exciting hike with giant waves crashing nearby. Don't be surprised to see huge logs being tossed around in the ocean as they are typically washed down the rivers during rainstorms. Storm watching can be safe as you can still view the action from atop bluffs near places like Kalaloch Lodge, the coziest place to stay during wintertime.
The forests themselves also come to life late in the seasons after winter rains cause mosses, lichens, and trees to pop with green. With temperatures typically in the 30s and 40s in lower elevations of the park, visitors can feel the wintry nip in the air, but still feel comfortable enough to enjoy hikes.
If the wild shoreline and stunning forests aren't enough, Olympic has yet another environment to offer: Hurricane Ridge, named for its forceful winter winds. This mountainous area offers the perfect venue for skiing, snowboarding, sledding, tubing, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing.
Yosemite National Park, California
Downhill skiing, ice skating, and overnight cross-country ski trips are all offered in beautiful Yosemite National Park which makes for the perfect getaway for winter-sports enthusiasts.
For some family fun, bring the kids to the outdoor ice skating rink in Yosemite Valley. A tradition in Yosemite since the 1930s, the ice rink is tucked beneath Half Dome and Glacier Point offering a majestic backdrop. Although it's outside, the family can stay warm by the outdoor fire ring or inside the store with hot cocoa and warm treats.
Located in the heart of the park is the oldest downhill skiing area in California. From mid-December through March, the Badger Pass Ski Area offers areas for downhill skiing, snowboarding, snow tubing, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. Beginning at Badger Pass, visitors can also enjoy over 90 miles of marked trails and 25 miles of machine-groomed track for backcountry skiing. From tranquil day trips to overnight adventures, Yosemite offers a thrilling getaway.
Biscayne National Park, Florida
If you're tired of shoveling your driveway and bundling the kids up in their snowsuits, Biscayne National Park is just the getaway you need. This watery paradise offers warm weather, water sports, and a sunny retreat far away from snowmen and blustery weather. And mid-December marks the beginning of Florida's dry season so it's the perfect time to visit.
Only five percent of this park consists of land so get ready for a wet and wild vacation. It is perfect for those looking to relax in the sun and for others seeking aquatic adventures. A great way to tour the park is by reef cruise. Traveling on a glass-bottom boat, tourists can peak into the world below and come in contact with more than 325 types of fish, shrimp, crabs, spiny lobsters, and birds.
Others looking to dive right in should check out various boating and snorkeling tours offered. Most are around three hours, though tours for scuba diving are much longer. Instead of succumbing to December's cold weather and runny noses, you get to swim with mountainous star coral, yellow snapper fish, manatees, angelfish, and more.
No one said you can't go camping or swimming in December, so lose the Gortex and slip into the comforts of a diving suit for a very different winter retreat.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Natural erosion helped create Bryce Canyon National Park, one of the most spectacular national parks in the country. Giant sandstone creations, known as hoodoos, attract more than one million visitors annually. But if these visitors aren't seeing them covered with snow, they are missing something truly beautiful.
The hoodoos stand like giant skyscrapers in a large rock city. These amber and pink-colored formations make you feel as though you've traveled back in time when prehistoric creatures roamed the lands. And their colors are only enhanced when layers of puffy, white snow sparkle atop them.
Simply hiking around Bryce Canyon is incredible in the winter. With fewer visitors, one can feel the peace of nature while on the trails. In fact, sometimes the only noise heard is the snow crunching beneath your boots. The park's most popular attraction, Bryce Amphitheater, offers a full day's worth of hiking and it's landmarks — like Thor's Hammer and Silent City — are more colorful than in any other season.
Besides strolling around trails, the park offers areas for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Skiers of all skill-levels can slip through meadows, forests of ponderosa pine, and along the Bryce Canyon rim. Horse-drawn sleigh rides are offered for those wanting a romantic outing in the snow. No matter how you choose to tour the park, it's beauty will leave you speechless.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
The Rocky Mountains serve as a stunning and picturesque terrain for winter. Dusted with sparkly snow, simply put, the mountains are breathtaking. The amount of snow accumulation actually varies tremendously across Rocky Mountain National Park. The west side of the park has the deepest accumulation of the fluffy white stuff while the east side remains relatively with patchy snow. And this offers a variety of activities for visitors.
People of all ages can find something fun to do in Hidden Valley. Deep snow buries rocks and logs creating a safe and fun area for sledding. (But always check the area to make sure it's safe for children) The valley makes anyone feel like a kid again and is often the scene of snowball fights, rides on toboggans, and snowman building.
If you have the need for speed, head to the southwest corner of the park for snowmobiling. A two-mile stretch of the North Supply Access Trail connects the town of Grand Lake to a system of National Forest trails adjacent to the park. It is a beautiful place for a ride!
Rocky Mountain National Park is also one of the few parks that allow camping and backcountry camping during the winter. Aspenglen, Longs Peak, and Timber Crook campgrounds are open all year, but keep in mind that none of the campgrounds has water in winter. If you feel chilly just thinking about sleeping in the snow, don't worry. You can enjoy the winter activities of skiing, snowshoeing, and ice skating, but check into one of the many lodges or hotels surrounding the park.
Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
You may be surprised to see that a national park that is one-third water would make the winter's best list. But Voyageurs National Park offers a unique winter experience.
The main reason this park remains less-traveled is due to the fact that it's the only national park without a road. Entrance into the park is by boat or floatplane at Rainy Lake, but in the winter it feels way more adventurous. Once the waters freeze, visitors actually get to drive their car onto the 7-mile ice road!
Voyageurs allows perhaps the most controversial winter activity snowmobiling. Many parks, like Yellowstone National Park, are in a continuous battle over snowmobiling restrictions. Opponents claim snowmobiles not only damage the natural beauty of parks but also adversely affect wildlife. But at Voyageurs, snowmobile enthusiasts can enjoy four exceptional trails totaling 110 miles of snowy fun.
Perhaps the most unique winter activity this park offers is again related to the abundance of water. Ice fishing is a very different way to spend the afternoon but one that offers a unique experience. Whether enjoying the quiet solitude of fishing alone or laughing alongside friends, the park boasts nearly 84,000 acres of water to take on such an activity.
Channel Islands National Park
Late December through March happen to be the ideal time to visit this national park. Why? It happens to be the best time for whale-watching. Let's face it, seeing a monstrous whale slap its giant tail on the water will beat any video game you get for Christmas.
The waters surrounding Channel Islands National Park are home to many diverse and beautiful species of marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Nowhere else in the country will you have a chance to see amazing creatures as gray, blue, humpback, minke, sperm and pilot whales, orcas, and dolphins. The park visitor center has a tower with telescopes if you choose to look for whales while on land. But a closer viewing of whales is possible from public whale watching boats or private boats.
The park is made up of five separate islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara. And all offer rich lands of wildlife, flowers, plants, and stunning views to explore. Consider each island as a new land to discover and a local ranger, one for each island, can help guide you to the best sites to see.