Winter Activities in 8 Western National Parks
Your national parks pass should still be burning a hole in your wallet.
No, winter might not be what most think as prime season for a parks’ road trip, but that’s all the more reason to get out there: the lack of crowds. Visiting in winter also provides an entirely new perspective on a place you may be altogether too familiar with. So, excuse the cliché, but “get ready to fall in love all over again.”
Starting from the northwest and looping through the parks until reaching Colorado, here are some of America’s favorite western parks that keep their gate open for winter play.
If there’s a national park that understands snow in the lower 48, it’s Rainier. In fact, they embrace it to the point that they’ve created a “snowplay” are with constructed slide tracks. If you’ve got children, or are a child at heart, grab your snow saucer or inner tube and head here for sledding. When you’re done, set up camp right next to the fun, or head into the backcountry and build a snow shelter for your winter camp. Though a minimum of 8’ of snow is required to do so, this part of the country hardly bats an eye at that depth — by winter’s end they’ve seen up to 75’ fall. Free permits for camping (required) are available at the visitor centers.
Winter mountaineering and backpacking are also options open to the public during this season, just make sure you are equipped, with both knowledge and gear, for the task at hand. Those who like a faster sport can take their splitboard or skis out for a tour and enjoy the major vertical found on Rainier, which has the highest elevation (14,411’) in the mainland.
And if you’re up for just taking some easy strolls, ranger-led snowshoe walks are also available, beginning Christmas Eve day. Departing twice a day (check the schedule by calling ahead at the park’s phone: 360-569-6575), these are perfect for the nature-lover who wants to learn about what changes the local ecology takes as it bears the brunt of winter. The two-hour outings are first-come, first-served.
Finally, at the Longmire Information Center, find out about Junior Ranger and Citizen Ranger Quest activities, as well as historic walking tours, available to all winter visitors.
Come when the internationally-famous cliffs of Yosemite lose their crowds and gain a winter coat and you’ll find a photographic park that’s perfect the picture-obsessed. Yes, the Sierra Nevadas are known for some heavily-loaded snow storms which can make driving tricky, but if you’re road tripping, the entry through Mariposa is an easy route that usually does not require chains to access. Or take one of the daily shuttles to the valley from the city of Merced.
Along with many of the roads staying open (bring chains, which are required on some) through the park, you’ll find mass amounts of options for lodging, dining, and entertainment (like the Indian Culture Museum, Vintage Music of Yosemite concerts, and lecture series). Photography workshops are offered at the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Village. And if you brought a pair of boots, hike some of the park’s (usually) dry trails, such as Yosemite Falls Trail and the Valley Loop Trail — showcasing some of Yosemite’s most picturesque vistas.
If winter sports in particular are what you’re after, Badger Pass Ski area is one of three ski areas operating within a national park and offers all the services you’d expect from a ski area. Ice-skating under the watch of the park’s “giants” at Curry Village has been a highlight for generations of visitors to the park. Guided ski trips and groomed ski trails are available for cross-country skiers. And like Rainier, Yosemite offers snowplay areas for sledding (and snowball fights).
Though Glacier closes most of its roads in the winter, that doesn’t mean it shuts down entirely. Enjoy a reduced entrance fee of $15 per car and free camping. For those looking to pitch a tent at a drive-up campground, head to Apgar Picnic Area and St. Mary’s campground; bring your own water or stove to melt and boil snow, as potable water is not available in the campgrounds. Backcountry campers will need to obtain a free permit, but the park is your playground at that point.
Glacier offers maps for popular cross country ski trails, which can also be utilized by snowshoers. Backcountry downhill skiing is also an option, as long as you are aware of avalanche conditions and know your way around backcountry safety. Winter mountaineering in Glacier is another option if you know the risks and have the skill set to enjoy it safely. The beauty in this park, with its soaring rugged skyline, make it a great place to break off the main trail and onto summits.
Saturday and Sunday visitors can take part in ranger-led snowshoe tours. Or take in the park via one of the scenic roads that remain open, including a portion of the jaw-droppingly gorgeous “Going to the Sun” road. Call ahead for conditions at the park’s line: 406-888-7800.
Imagine viewing Yellowstone’s colorful hot springs and geysers surrounded by a white canvas of snow — and noticeable lack of people. The beauty of the park is enhanced tremendously by a decrease in human activity. Though park entry fees remain unchanged from high to low season, the services offered are surprisingly high, with many visitor centers, concessionaries and lodging remaining open after the snow flies.
Test out your winter hardiness by obtaining a permit for camping in the backcountry of the park. Access is available by snowshoeing or skiing in via the entry road at Gardiner, Montana or the western entry on HWY 89/Route 191 (psst…free of fees in the winter!).
Human-powered travel sound too taxing? Plan a trip on a snowcoach or snowmobile for a guided tour, or have a hybrid experience and arrange a shuttle to pick you up from skiing.
And for those looking to gain some knowledge, there are plenty of ranger-led programs, such as the Snowshoe Walk in West Yellowstone, the Old Faithful Evening program, and Yellowstone’s Wildlife in Winter program in Mammoth. The park even has junior ranger winter programs for the little ones.
Yellowstone’s neighbor is even quieter and entrance to the park drops to five dollars per car in the winter. Pick one up at the Moose, Moran, or Granite stations, and have access to a fantastic groomed cross country trail running for 14 miles from Taggart Lake to the Signal Mountain Lodge. Snowshoers can use a multi-track lane to walk their dog or just enjoy the stark beauty of the Tetons in the winter. More adventurous types can explore non-maintained trails as well, including the trail to Huckleberry Hot Springs (call park to check on status). For more trails, check out all the options via the park’s map.
However, you don’t have to explore by yourself. If you prefer company, take one of the naturalist-led snowshoe trips. These run on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from December 26th through mid-March and discuss topics such as winter ecology and snow science. Reservations can be made by calling the park at (307) 739-3399 during their hours: Monday through Saturday 10:00-4:00 pm (MST).
And be sure to stay for the evening as the sky puts on some heavenly entertainment.
Though smaller than its sister, Zion National Park, Bryce is no less spectacular and its beauty is only magnified by winter snows that highlight the curves of its mesmerizing formations. Contrasted against Utah’s deep blue skies and combined with all the activities open to winter visitors, Bryce is a landscape photographer’s dream in the winter.
One of the most memorable ways to experience this canyon is on a full moon tour, which is taken by snowshoe if snow is deep enough on the trail (snowshoes are available for free to participants). This is an incredible experience to be led by a ranger through the eerie shadows of the hoodoos and hear Native American legends about the formations and learn about the geology of the park.
If gliding is more your thing, take your cross country skis and weave between the hoodoos on the Red Canyon Bike Path, or ski above the rim of the canyon on a number routes. Winter backpacking is by permit only and given to highly skilled backcountry travelers, but offers an even further escape from civilization and incredibly still moments in the desert environment.
Want to come when Bryce is in full winter-celebration mode? President’s Weekend at the park is marked by the Winter Festival, a multi-day event featuring astronomy, a “Snowshoe Planet Walk,” geology talks, hikes and more. Call ahead for more details: 435-834-4747.
The park has two sections: the South Rim, with services throughout the year, and the North Rim, open to more hardy explorers. Hiking in either section can leave enthusiasts to their own devices, so while you need to be prepared for self-sufficiency, if you’re needing a quiet getway there are many opportunities in the Grand Canyon.
The North Rim operates a yurt which can be reserved through a permit system from December until March. It is located near the administrative center, so don’t expect a pristine retreat, but for those wanting to explore the North Rim, it could be a cozy basecamp for up to four nights.
At the South Rim, enjoy views of the Canyon from a protective overlook: the Yavapai Museum of Geology. This museum is open year round and is a good spot to warm up before hiking the Trail of Time or heading back to Mather Campground for the evening. Besides the Trail of Time, there are plenty of other routes to explore the park in winter, including the Greenway Trail which is open to cyclists.
If you are looking to enhance your outdoor or creative skills, go on a guided adventure, or learn about the culture of the area, the Grand Canyon Field Institute — a nonprofit and official partner with Grand Canyon National Park — offers multi-day workshops throughout the season, from winter photography to Wilderness First Responder certifications. Or take a free ranger-led walk and learn about the area’s geology and rich history.
Colorado is already known as a winter getaway, so you should expect no less from its most popular park. In addition to snowshoeing with a ranger (with two levels of difficulty at this park, or as part of a winter ecology program), winter visitors can also take a cross-country tour with one as well. And, like Bryce Canyon, RMNP offers snowshoe hikes on full moon evenings. Holiday programming is also part of the winter line up from right after Christmas through New Year’s Day. And little ones can enjoy the Junior Ranger Program through RMNP as well.
Of course, all these things can be done on your own, if you’d like to choose your own adventure while visiting the park!
Backcountry skiing and riding is obviously an option, since the park resides in a state that holds 28 (or so) ski areas. Spots such as the Flattop East Face and Hidden Valley offer lower angle, open slopes; the latter is a former ski area. From there, difficulty increases; tight chutes, steep descents and varying terrain can be found.