The pandemic is making us bonafide experts at discovering our own backyards. National parks are no exception.
But just because winter is approaching doesn't mean we have to put away the backpacks, hiking shoes, and camping gear—now that we're all rock stars at spending the night outdoors—to wait for spring. Winter can be an extraordinary time to visit national parks. As long as we know what we're getting into.
National parks during the winter are a whole different ballgame from what they’re like in the summer. There are less crowds, making social-distancing a breeze, weather conditions are decidedly rugged, meaning blizzards and snow drifts are a thing, and many restaurants, lodgings, restrooms, and gas stations both in and around the parks are closed.
Meaning, you really have to think about where you’re going, what you want to do, and how to stay safe. Do it right, and you can focus more on the sights and less on the shivers.
Ready to experience “America's best idea” in an entirely new way? These tips will make the absolute most of the visit.
Going beyond inclement weather
In many way, planning a visit to a national park in winter is like putting together a camping trip.
Call ahead to see what’s open and what’s not. Decide where you’re going to sleep and what you’re going to eat beforehand.
It’s beyond what you think: Particular park roads and entrances that are open during the summertime may not necessarily be open during the winter. Take the Grand Canyon, which closes its North Rim entrance to traffic from late fall through mid-May, meaning all vehicles must come into the park at the South Rim. The distance between the two is 220 miles!
Can you imagine not knowing beforehand that the North Rim entrance was closed, and end up driving another five hours to get inside the park? That’s a surefire way to make for a miserable trip.
In the same vein, it’s also important to think about what to bring along. Consider making a packing list that includes gear, first aid, and clothing to be adequately prepared for any snowstorm or unexpected night in the outdoors that comes your way.
Are snow tires or tire chains required on the roads you’ll be traversing? Are trails particularly icy, so much so that you’ll need ice cleats or snow grips? Yup, that’s a thing and you can find the answers on most individual park websites.
Here's a quick list of equipment
Proper winter clothing (wind/waterproof jacket, hat, wool socks, waterproof shows, thermal base layers, gloves, scarves) is only the beginning.
Consider bringing the below, especially they may not be so top of mind until a few mistakes have been made along the way. And yes, it is possible to get a sunburn in the winter. (Snow is a natural reflector of sun...)
- Snow grips for shoes or boots
- Map (don’t rely only on the car’s GPS!)
- Car emergency kit, complete with ice scraper, jumper cables, and a snow shovel
- Water filter or tablets (for potable water)
- Headlamp and/or flashlight
- Emergency blanket (for an unexpected night outdoors)
- Matches and/or fire starter (great for emergency signals)
- Swiss Army knife
- Sunglasses/goggles (snow and winter winds can be blinding)
Understand weather differences
The basics: Know the difference between a winter watch and a winter warning.
A winter watch means that there’s the right mix of weather conditions for a storm or a blizzard to occur and comes before either of them take place. It’s important to be aware, but it doesn't have to mean abandoning all plans.
A winter warning means the storm or blizzard is either occurring or imminent. These are more urgent and typically result in four or more inches of snow or sleet over the next 12 hours.
This can lead to blizzard conditions, including sustained winds and low-to-no visibility. (Don't be a hero. If a warning is issued, stay inside.)
Even if there’s no winter watch or warning in effect, pay attention to the forecast and be ready for anything. Weather, especially in places as varied in elevation and climate as national parks, can change at the drop of a rock.
For instance, Maine’s Acadia National Park might be sunny and dry one minute, and ragging with sleet the next. Or maybe the western side of Montana’s Glacier National Park is seeing bright skies, while just over a ridge there’s a full-blown whiteout.
That’s the thing about mountain conditions: They can change and do change unexpectedly, and it’s important to be prepared for shifting situations.
Practice safety and be flexible
Because of things like reduced services and inevitable road closures, visiting national parks during winter require more flexibility.
Nowhere nearby to stop for a meal? Have beef jerky and trail mix for sustenance while planning the next move.
Is that trail you’ve been itching to try snowed-in? Opt for one that’s as equally as scenic and won’t require being carried out on a stretcher (you know, because you fought Mother Nature and Mother Nature won).
It makes sense to keep an emergency contact on hand and alert a friend or family member to where you'll be. Once in the park, if going on a specific hike or cross-country route, be sure and sign the trail log saying where you're going and what time you've left. Winter's often monochrome colors can make it especially easy to get lost.
Carry food and water in insulated containers to keep it from freezing in frigid temperatures, stay hydrated, and if you’re smack in the middle of a storm on the trail, find or make shelter and stay there until it passes.
Wet conditions can lead to hypothermia, so know the signs (which include confusion and slow, slurred speech) and how to treat them.
Go storm watching, skiing and more
Sure, many areas of the parks may be off-limits and regular activities on hold until the weather warms, but there are still plenty of cool and innovative ways to explore.
Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are popular in parks like Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park and Glacier National Park in Montana, while Olympic National Park even boasts its own downhill ski resort, as well as awesome storm-watching opportunities along the Washington coast.
Although most roads in Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park close to regular traffic each November, alternative ways to get around the park include guided snow coach and snowmobile tours, which present the park's bubbling geysers and frosty landscapes in an entirely new way.
Needless to say, putting off national parks in the wintertime can mean closing yourself a completely different experience.