If you’re anything like me, then you love visiting national parks. Not only are they a great reprieve from the bustling city life, but they also afford some of the most spectacular views in the country. Add to that opportunities for unique geological sites, history recounted right in the landscapes, and fascinating wildlife encounters, and these quickly become my favorite places in the world.
There are about 60 national parks in the United States, alone, and I never pass up a chance to visit one. But in the past few years, I have come to find that surprisingly, winter is actually one of the best times to go.
Crowds are greatly diminished
Though I live in a city, I am not a fan of crowds. And perhaps because I live in a city, I especially don’t want to encounter them while escaping to a national park. Summertime is popular, because kids are off from school, the weather is warm, and it’s easier to take vacations. However, if you go when everyone else does, you have to battle lines at the gate, traffic on the roads, and bodies in your snapshots.
Winter is the off season for most national parks, so attendance isn’t as abundant, and one can actually breathe. I’m happy to trade in my hiking boots for snowshoes, and I don’t get a bunch of heads in my shots. In fact, when we went to Yosemite, most of the people in the park were fellow photographers! No kids, no campervans. Just tripods and blissful quiet.
This was also evident in Zion National Park. We hiked the famed Angels Landing trail, and while we passed other hikers on the trail, it wasn’t unpleasantly crowded. We even had some empty stretches to ourselves. This is especially important when ascending the final leg – with all the chains and narrow ridges – I can’t fathom traversing that segment while fighting a constant stream of people coming back down.
Cooler weather is better for hiking
Depending on which park you visit, summer heat can make a hike miserable (Death Valley, anyone?). The cooler temperatures of winter keep sweat at bay and just allow for a much more pleasant experience. In a park like Rocky Mountain National Park, winter days are just as dry as summer (in fact, more so), and the crisp air is refreshing once the blood gets flowing.
Besides, winter opens up additional activities like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing! Breaking your own trail is a whole new way to experience a park.
We really benefited from the temperatures on our hikes through Zion. I run cold, so I’m always bundling up, but I was stripping layers on Angels Landing, and I couldn’t imagine how gross I’d feel doing that hike in the summer. The weather was comfortably cool, and with a bit of clouds, the view from the top was better than any summer day!
Views are magically beautiful
Well, I suppose this is true any time of the year… but in the winter, you get the added benefit of snow. I love love love love snow! More to the point, I love photographing snow. It adds an enchanting beauty and transforms any landscape into a unique wonderland. A dusting makes the views glisten, and inches perfectly contrast the rich greens and reds of the park.
Something about the draping of purity in my photos and the way snow softens all sounds. Sure, it’s cold, but I can bundle up. Just being in that space relaxes me and enthralls my photographic senses.
We had hoped for snow in Zion, but it just wasn’t cold enough. However, we were in for a real treat in Bryce! Snow-tipped hoodoos? Eye candy! I couldn’t get enough. Snow enhances any view.
Colder weather also allows for ice and mist. Icicles and frozen rivers are fun to photograph! And I get all giddy at mist. We were fortunate to see daily mist in Yosemite Valley, and it looked like a scene out of a fairytale.
Days are shorter
Now, for most travelers, this might seem like a bad thing. Doesn’t that mean less time to enjoy the park? Au contraire, mon frère!
Think about it. Ordinarily, when you visit a park, you wake up around 7 or 8, eat some breakfast, and then roll into the line of cars at the gate and actually get to your first viewpoint around 9 or 10. If you’re an avid hiker, you might be out much earlier than that, but you’re typically wrapping up your day by 5 or 6 and heading back into town for a bite and a brew.
For a photographer (or anyone who likes the best views), the ideal time to enjoy the park is during golden hour. The rich reds of iron-rich rock, the playful early sunbeams dancing on a waterfall, the magical hues of dusk. With the shorter winter days, sunrise is closer to 8am, so you aren’t sleeping through it. And by the time you’re calling it a day, the sun is already beginning to set, painting the park in sunset pastels.
For a photographer like myself, this also means we don’t have to stay up as late for park night photography. We can shoot the stars or moonscapes and be back to our hotel in time for a rousing game of Jenga.
But there are some downsides
Of course, a vast majority of vacationers visit national parks in the summer, with good reason. Visiting in the winter has a few drawbacks.
First, parts of the park close in the winter. Much of the Crater Lake rim is closed due to snowfall, and Only Yosemite’s central valley remains open in the off-season. Almost all of Mount Rainier National Park is closed in the winter. This can be limiting, especially if you have your heart set on a specific hike or viewpoint. Other parks, like Arches National Park, is almost entirely accessible during the winter.
The decrease in visitors might also bring with it a decrease in amenities. Restaurants and hotels might only operate seasonally, and this is a popular time for construction and maintenance. Rocky Mountain National Park’s Skyline Road – a major artery through the park – closes during the winter.
And in some areas, the weather can be unpredictable. We got some rain in Zion, but it was nothing that kept us off the trails. Yosemite was closed entirely just a week before our planned visit, due to flooding. A week after we went, a major snowstorm hit, and roads were impassible. It’s somewhat of a gamble, but in my eyes, worth it.
I discovered the concept of national parks in the winter a couple years ago, and I have been in love with the idea ever since. Summertime might be more reliable and easier to plan, but the avoidance of the throngs, the more comfortable hiking, and the superb photographic opportunities make it well worth the risk! After all, I’m ultimately in it for the photography; everything else is a secondary consideration. I’m thrilled with the photos I’ve gotten from these excursions, and I can’t wait to add more national parks to my list!
Love national parks? You might like these products, now available in my shop!