This has been a topic on my mind almost 24/7 it seems lately. Austin’s school semester ends in late November (earlier than usual). I’m also trying to find a way to see the entire Western US while we still live in Montana!
So, since we’ll have a large gap of time in the colder months, I’ve been doing a TON of research about what to do in US National Parks during Winter months.
I’ve primarily been focusing on Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Zion National Parks. However, I’ll add some info below about others as I come across them. This will likely turn into a blog post that gets updated several times as I continue doing research!
First things first, if you only plan on visiting a National Park once in your life, I’d probably recommend waiting until warmer months to see all of it’s beauty and be able to comfortably walk around. However, there’s just something about snowy mountain caps, less people, and different types of activities that make visiting National Parks in Winter feel so inviting to me.
I also must admit that at the time of writing this, I haven’t actually done any of these activities. That will definitely change before 2021, but as of right now, this post is a product of my research.
Yellowstone National Park in Winter
One activity that I am SO EXCITED to do this year is snowmobile through Yellowstone in the Winter. Austin and I had our first snowmobile adventure in the mountains of Anchorage, Alaska (read more about that here!) and we absolutely loved it.
And what a unique way to see the sites of Yellowstone!
Another option is to ski or snowshoe along one of the many trails Yellowstone has to offer. If you’d rather be warm the entire day, you can also tour Yellowstone in an enclosed snow coach.
Entrance to Yellowstone in the Winter is a bit more tricky. When snow starts to fall, most of the roads are closed to regular traffic. The only exception is the road from the Northern Entrance to the Northeast Entrance. This is how we were able to visit Mammoth Hot Springs in Winter last year.
The easiest way is to enter is to book a snowmobile/snow coach tour with one of their approved vendors. Non-tour groups can also visit Yellowstone on a snowmobile (i.e., if you own your own), but you must apply ahead of time and there are several restrictions.
Most of the lodges and restaurants are closed during the Winter, but there are a few still open with the addition of warming huts. Here’s a lot more info on those including the pending times and dates they’re open.
The photo below shows Mammoth Hot Springs in the Winter. Compare it to the same area in the Summer here!
Zion National Park in Winter
Zion becomes a little trickier to hike in the winter, but from the pictures I’ve seen, a WHOLE lot more beautiful.
There’s something about snow-covered trees mixed with red rock that has me ready to take a winter trip to Utah.
Unlike Yellowstone, snow mobiles are NOT allowed in Zion. However, they are allowed on trails right outside the park if that’s something you’re set on experiencing. Once in the park, you can still hike, backpack, camp, etc., but you’ll want to check with a park ranger or the Zion newspaper to make sure the trails you want to access are open.
Snowshoeing and skiing are also allowed in the park and might be a little more winter-friendly than regular hiking.
One really cool thing that you can only do in the winter is drive the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive in your own car. Usually, you’d have to take a shuttle to do this, but shuttles don’t generally run in the winter (except for certain holidays), so you can ride in the comfort of your own car!
Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park is just south of Yellowstone and the two parks are often visited in a single trip. And get this – there is only ONE accommodation open in the park during the winter months and it looks incredible.
Triangle X Ranch is a dude ranch turned bed and breakfast. It’s a little on the pricier side ($160 per person per night), but all meals are included, views are plentiful, it includes snowshoe/ski rentals, and they have a hot tub out back to keep you warm while taking in the mountain views. This is also the only place to stay in Grand Teton National Park in Winter, so they can kind of charge what they want.
It’s a goal of mine to stay here before we leave Montana. It probably won’t happen this winter as we’re working to be as frugal as possible right now. BUT next winter, this place is calling my name!
Aside from staying at this ranch, Grand Teton is full of gorgeous mountain ranges made even prettier by a blanket of snow. Snowmobiling and snow coach tours are available. Hiking is also allowed on trails that remain open.
Grand Canyon National Park in Winter
The North rim of the Grand Canyon is unfortunately closed in Winter, but the South rim is open for exploring!
Many people embark on a multi-day winter hike from the South rim to the North rim and then back again. I contemplated doing this in December this year, but I just don’t think Austin and I are seasoned hikers yet. There is a lot of preparation and precaution that’s gotta go into something like this.
If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that Austin and I tried out truck camping for the first time last weekend. We were fully prepared for the cold. However, we were NOT prepared for the blanket of snow we woke up to at 4am. I think we need a few more successful winter camping trips under our belt before we try something as epic as winter backpacking!
If you do decide you want to winter hike along the floor of the Grand Canyon, you can either apply for a backcountry permit or book a stay at the Phantom Ranch which sits right on the Canyon floor. This option would actually be perfect for us, but there’s no more availability for 2020. If you want to stay here, you have to book pretty far in advance.
This is one of the National Parks that I’m so excited to visit in Winter at some point!
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite has been on my list for quite some time. We’re currently trying to plan a trip for early/mid December. We considered Yosemite, but a LOT of the roads are closed in Winter.
What you can do, however, is ski, snowboard, or snow tube at the Badger Pass Ski Area. Unfortunately, they are not opening this area for the 2020-2021 winter season. That said, if you’re planning on visiting further in the future, this will definitely be an option.
Glacier National Park
It seems that most of the roads in Glacier National Park are closed during the winter. However, Going to the Sun Road, one of the most scenic roads in the entire US, is open (weather permitting).
Like other parks, snowshoeing and cross country skiing are popular activities this time of year. Unfortunately, none of the visitor’s centers, restaurants, or lodges are open for public use.
Personally, I can’t wait to make it up to Glacier in the Summer to hike the Highline trail and stay the night at one of the Chalets in the park.
Here’s the gist:
For the most part, the colder and snowier the days are, the more deserted National Parks will be. For some people, the serenity of having these snow-covered mountain views to themselves is enough to convince them to brave the cold.
I just might be one of those people!
In my opinion, I’d like to visit national parks in Winter only if there’s something unique to do there that you can’t do the rest of the year.
For instance – snowmobiling in Yellowstone.
That’s such a unique experience that you can’t get any other time of year, anywhere else!
It also comes with a cost.
If you’re looking to stick to a budget, but still see some gorgeous winter landscapes, I’d opt for one of the national parks that allow snowshoeing and/or cross country skiing along hiking trails. As long as you have the necessary equipment, you can do this on your own time for the cost of the park entrance.
You can even simply drive around the park in your own car (in some parks) – there will certainly be less traffic!
Let me know in the comments below if you plan to visit a national park in Winter and where you want to go!