Some people consider hiking and backpacking to be a three-season activity. Winter can be a dangerous time of year to hike, but with proper precaution and the right destinations, a winter hike can be a safe and enjoyable experience. This winter you don’t need to avoid the trails completely, but you do need to be prepared to travel to the right places.
Not every National Park is created equal. Some are especially beautiful in the fall; others peak in the spring. Then there are those that shouldn’t be attempted in winter, no matter how prepared you think you are. To ensure a pleasant experience this winter, consider avoiding these eight national parks.
1. Yosemite National Park, California
Yosemite may be in one of the sunniest states, however it is one National Park you will want to avoid during winter. December through March in Yosemite is a season of snow and solitude. While Yosemite Valley and Wawona remain accessible by car all year, there are many parts of the park that are closed, such as Tioga Road. The Road to Glacier Point is also closed (usually sometime in November). Since most of the park is covered in snow during winter, some hiking trails are not accessible and backpacking options are very limited. Aside from limited hiking, including the cable route up the infamous Half Dome, the waterfalls are more of a trickle this time of year.
Best Time to Visit: May-June
To get the true Yosemite experience in all its glory, visit during the early summer months where snowpack at higher elevation will be melting, meaning waterfalls in Yosemite Valley and Hetch Hetchy will be close to peak. These are also good months for moonbow viewing during full moon times. Mirror Lake is also its largest at this point.
2. Denali National Park, Alaska
Denali National Park may come alive in winter with cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and even winter camping, but it is also the worst season for hikers to explore. Unfavorable weather, with temperatures ranging from roughly zero to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, is only one reason many are deterred from hiking in Alaska during the winter time. The bigger issue is safety. While there are plenty of developed trails near the entrance area that offer views, a bit of solitude, and chance encounters with wildlife, these trails can be much more difficult to find during snow season—leading to a potentially hazardous hiking experience. Overnight accommodations are also limited in winter, when the hotels around the park entrance are closed.
Best Time to Visit: Late May, early June.
Denali National Park can and has snowed every month of the year in the past, so you can expect some snow year-round. However late May/early June is an optimal time to go when you can truly get the full Denali experience. Wildlife is also more active during warmer seasons and you’ll have a better chance of catching a glimpse of the critters roaming around the park. Shuttles will also be running all the way to Eielson visitor center to give you a wider view of the park.
3. Glacier National Park, Montana
If you are looking to snowshoe or ski, Glacier National Park is your place to visit this winter. If you are looking to hike, this is one national park you will want to avoid. By the middle of December, there are very few plowed roads in Glacier, leading to a less than fulfilling experience. Many trails will be closed off to hikers, including many of the most popular hiking paths. Visiting Glacier National Park in winter also requires much planning ahead of time—such as clothing, equipment, and food since most park facilities are closed.
Best Time to Visit: August-September
Late summer is an ideal time to visit Glacier National Park. Not only are the roads open again this time of year, the snow will mostly be gone allowing you to hike to places like Grinnell Glacier which is closed during winter months. Whitewater rafting is also an available option during summer months, a big draw for this national park. By August, most trails will be open and the Road to the Sun, an engineering marvel spanning 50 miles through the park’s wild interior, will also be open.
4. Grand Teton, Wyoming
The Grand Tetons are blanketed in snow come winter time: a time to partake in skiing, snow shoeing, snowmobiling and dog sled tours. But hiking? Not so much. Park roads are often snow-covered and icy—leading to dangerous driving conditions. In fact, travelers are cautioned to carry a winter safety kit in their vehicles for emergency during winter. Much of the Teton Park Road is closed to vehicles during winter. The unplowed section of the road from Taggart Lake Trailhead parking area to Signal Mountain Lodge—a distance of 15 miles—is only open for non-motorized use. The first heavy storms fall by November 1 and continue through April, with avalanches possible during heavy snow season.
Best Time to Visit: September
September is your best bet for visiting the Tetons without having to deal with crazy crowds and feet of snow. By September, the weather is beautiful, and the majority of trails are open and accessible by late summer. Some trails may require crossing snowbanks as late as mid-September, however trails in low country are typically snow-free by late spring or early summer, depending on the amount of snow the park received during the winter. By the third week of September, you also have the best chance to view the Grand Tetons at the peak of fall foliage color.
5. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Mesa Verde National Park, designated by the United Nations as a cultural World Heritage Site, is best known for the rare glimpse inside the lives of the Ancestral Puebloan people who inhabited the area for more than 7000 years. Hikers can even walk along the Petroglyph Point Trail to view prehistoric rock carvings. During winter however, this historic site sometimes isn’t as enjoyable. During the winter months (early November to March), visitors must take guided tours to see the dwellings rather than hike at your own pace/leisure. Because Mesa Verde is at a high elevation, so can happen as early as October and as late as May. Winter also brings the closure of trails, depending on weather.
Best Time to Visit: September-October
Mesa Verde National Park is open throughout all the seasons, however the fall months are ideal for both the weather and the thinning crowds. The Spruce Tree House, a cliff dwelling, can also be explored independently during warm weather months. Park roads, trails, tours, and facilities are also all open this time of year. Fall also helps you escape from the frigid winter temperatures and the hot summer heat.
6. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Voyageurs National Park is a water-based park with 218,054 acres and more than 1/3 of that acreage is water. There are also plenty of hiking opportunities, with more than 50 miles of trails. When winter comes, the water freezes, snowshoes are the only way to hike, and snowmobiling becomes a popular activity. Unfortunately, even for snowmobilers, trail closures are prevalent. Snow covers the park from late November until early April, making it difficult to not only hike but enjoy much of the park due to freezing temperatures, hazardous snow mobiling conditions, and limited trails available for hiking.
Best Time to Visit: Late August, early September
Late August to early September is the optimal time to visit Voyageurs National Park. By this time, the mosquitos have calmed, the weather is warm, all the kids have gone back to school, and the hiking trails are open for exploring. There is also the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the fall foliage that transforms the park. The end of summer also means longer days, allowing you ample time to get in all your long hikes in without the sun setting too early on your experience.
7. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Each year, beginning in early November through mid-April, park roads are closed to the interior of Yellowstone National Park for the chilly winter ahead. Forget hiking to popular destinations such as Old Faithful, you can only do this in winter by snowmobile or guided stagecoach. The road from the North Entrance to the Northeast Entrance is the only road open to private-wheeled vehicles during winter. Only two of Yellowstone’s nine lodging facilities within the park are open during winter months, which makes it more difficult to find a room nearby. Activities are also limited to snowmobiling, snowshoeing, ice-skating, and cross-country skiing. Yellowstone is a wondrous winter-wonderland when the snowfall hits, however it is not suitable for hiking.
Best Time to Visit: September-November
The best time to visit Yellowstone for hiking is from September to November. These months offer better weather and fewer crowds. The weather is still relatively mild and almost all of the summer crowds have dispersed, leaving behind many reasonably priced hotels and campsites. This park, however, is no stranger to cold. Temperatures have been known to drop into the 30s, even during the summer.
8. Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Badlands National Park is always open, however close to 900,000 of the park’s annual visitors come from May to October. In winter, when temperatures in Badlands plummet, tourists actively avoid this park due to the extreme temperature change, dipping as low as -40 degrees F in winter. A winter visit requires extremely careful consideration and preparation. With an average of 12 to 24 inches of snowfall during this season and relatively high winds, only limited sections of the Cedar Pass campground are open during winter months. The road leading to the Sage Creek Campground is also subject to temporary closures in winter, though you will unlikely have much competition for campsites this time of year. Trail closures depend on the current questions, so you should inquire at the visitor center before setting out for a hike of any length.
Best Time to Visit: September-October
The best time to visit Badlands is during the shoulder season of September to October, when the crowds thin, the weather isn’t unbearable, and trails are easy to navigate. Temperatures are not blazing hot but are also not freezing cold, and chances of thunderstorms are also down this time of year. Lodging during off-seasons is also much more affordable with more rooms available.