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Exploring Winter’s Wonders In The National Park System


The roof of Olympic National Park is just one spot in the National Park System where you can get a great workout in this winter, with an incredible view as well/NPS

It started in mid-September; a few flakes began to flutter across the Crown of the Continent in Glacier National Park. The snow since then has slowly spread east and west, north and south. By January the white mantle likely will cover the whole northern tier of the National Park System, from Acadia west to Olympic, south through Rocky Mountain, into Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountain national parks.

But winter is not the season to stay indoors. It reveals another, deeper, dimension in the parks. You’re likely to see animals and their tracks that you wouldn’t when the ground is bare of snow.

“Every activity by any terrestrial animal is recorded by the snow,” Steve Fuller, who spent more than 30 winters in Yellowstone National Park, told me a few years back. “In summertime, we’re oblivious to what walks around at night.”

There’s more solitude and quiet, too. Many associate winters with weather best avoided, but if you’re properly outfitted you’ll be warm and safe and ready for anything.

And anything can be surprising.

During a snowshoe trek near Fountain Flat Drive in Yellowstone one January, I came across small tufts of hair, faint droplets of blood, and a raven’s wonderfully preserved and feathered outline in the snow. The bird had swooped down to grab a tidbit that had been tossed during a battle between prey and predator.

Another snowy day, I enjoyed a snowshoe trek on the southern flanks of Glacier National Park, just above Bear Creek. The next day, I headed out on a 16-mile cross-country ski to Avalanche Lake to the south of, and above, Lake McDonald.

When it comes to snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the National Park System, the options stretch from coast to coast as the following pages illustrate. Just remember, if you’re snowshoeing, don’t travel on top of ski tracks, and if you’re skiing, don’t kick and glide across snowshoe trails.

Here’s a glance at some of the possibilities:

Acadia National Park, Maine

True, Acadia is not at the top of the list when you think of places to cross-country ski or snowshoe in the National Park System, but it can be blissful when a nor’easter pounds the park.

The 45 miles of carriage roads are perfect for skiing and snowshoeing. Be careful, though, as snowmobiling is allowed on some of the roads, too.

If you’re thinking this would make a great weekend, or mid-week, trip, consider a donation to Friends of Acadia, to support their trail grooming.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Snowshoeing can be limited here, depending on the storm track. If you want to go below the rim and into the hoodoo-studded landscape, make sure that there’s enough snow. If there’s not, check out the Fairyland Point Road, which is unplowed in winter to allow the snowpack to build.

The park has a snowshoe program designed for beginners that shows off some of Bryce Canyon’s beauty in winter. Snowshoes and poles are available Here’s a glance at some of the possibilities: for free for those joining Bryce Canyon’s Snowshoe Rangers (when snow depth and staffing are sufficient). For those who don’t mind the biting cold once the sun goes down, Bryce Canyon rangers offer full-moon snowshoe hikes when snow depth exceeds 12” – 18”. Check the park’s website for dates.

On cross-country skis, you can exhaust yourself at Bryce Canyon. The rim-top road runs 18 miles, one-way, and has some incredible vistas down into the amphitheaters.

“On rare occasions when the snow depth allows, you can ski into the bottom of the Bryce Amphitheater from the outskirts of the town of Tropic,” according to park staff. “Another nearby favorite that allows for skiing among hoodoos is the Red Canyon Bike Path. Also outside of the park, Bryce Canyon City maintains many miles of groomed ski trails. If you don’t have your own skis, cross-country skis as well as snowshoe equipment can be rented in Bryce Canyon City.”

Though it is illegal to ski off of the rim into the canyon, you can enjoy a variety of routes above the rim, the rangers note. “These include the rim trail between Bryce Point and Fairyland Point; Bristlecone Loop; Paria Ski Loop; and the unplowed Paria View and Fairyland Point roads.”

Bryce Canyon is an increasingly popular winter destination/Kurt Repanshek file

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, District of Columbia, Maryland, West Virginia

When those winter storms blanket the District of Columbia and nearby Maryland and West Virginia with deep snow, a great ski or snowshoe hike can be found on the C&O Canal. There are more than 184 miles of towpath available once there’s enough snow.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

Cuyahoga Valley might not immediately come to mind when you think about winter sports destinations, but the park has not only cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, but tosses in ski lessons and ranger-led snowshoe jaunts.

The base camp for winter exploration in the park is the Winter Sports Center at Kendall Lake Shelter, an impressive sandstone and chestnut structure constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Here you can get information on trail conditions and warm up with a hot drink.

Practically all of the park’s 125-plus miles of hiking trails are open to snowshoeing. There are about 50 miles of trails and meadows for cross-country skiers, and the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath has 20 miles of trails for skiers.

Glacier National Park’s locals are always photogenic no matter what the season / NPS

Glacier National Park, Montana

It’s both a shame and a good thing that most of the Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed in winter. On one hand, it’d probably provide some incredible access for cross-country and backcountry skiers, as well as snowshoers. The bad news is that avalanche risks can be pretty high, and so it’s no great surprise the road is closed.

That said, there is still an incredible amount of landscape to explore on skinny skis and snowshoes. Take a nice daylong skiing adventure from Lake Mc- Donald to Avalanche Lake. Snowshoe advocates, meanwhile, need only cast their eyes upon the landscape and follow their gaze, mindful, of course, of too-steep slopes that might unleash a river of snow upon them.

Skiers looking for territory to explore can quickly find it at this page on the park’s website. You’ll find maps that break down ski trails in the Apgar-West Glacier, Lake McDonald- Avalanche, North Fork, St. Mary, Two Medicine and Marias Pass areas.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Cold? Check. Snow? Check? Endless possibilities? Check.

Grand Teton as a winter destination in the park system can be hard to beat. The Teton Park Road is groomed for Nordic skiing, thanks to the Grand Teton National Park Foundation, and then there are the endless miles of trail for snowshoeing and backcountry skiing if you've got the skills for that. For some cross-country ski options, check this story. Other options for cross-country skiers and snowshoers include Colter Bay, Antelope Flats Road, Taggart Lake and Flagg Ranch. For backcountry skiers, check safety conditions by calling 307-733-2664 for the U.S. Forest Service avalanche report or go to this site.

Naturalists provide guided snowshoe walks from the Taggart Lake Trailhead when snow conditions permit, usually the day after Christmas to mid-March. Call the park at 307-739-3399 Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. to make reservations. Reservations are accepted beginning December 1st of every year. Snowshoes are available for a rental fee of $5 for adults and $2 for children, 8 years or older.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina/ Tennessee

Great Smoky gets bountiful snows in the upper elevations, and yet the park is not known as a winter sports destination.

“Snowshoeing in the park is not commonly done, but I suspect that’s because most people don’t have that type of gear when traveling in the southeast,” said park spokeswoman Dana Soehn. “Certainly, the high elevation trails have enough snow in the winter to make them useful. Our rangers wear them as needed on backcountry trails. The only really good spot for cross-country skiing is Clingmans Dome Road,” she adds. “Most cross country skiers find that our high elevation trails have are too narrow with rock/log obstacles."

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine

What winter outdoor enthusiast doesn’t feel the pull of Katahdin Woods and Waters, which has many miles of cross-country skiing, practically unlimited snowshoeing, and miles of snowmobiling?

Skiers can find a great map of trails here. It shows both groomed and ungroomed routes, shelters, access points, lean-tos and campsites.

Two primitive community huts can be reserved. They are only accessible by skiing, snowshoeing, biking, or hiking. For the 2017 season, the huts are available to the public free of charge. Reservations and maintenance are provided by the staff of Elliotsville Plantation, Inc. (EPI) under permit with the National Park Service.

From December through March, a limited number of campsites and leantos are available for primitive camping only. Register for them by calling 207- 852-1291.

A word of caution: Logging occurs in the winter in this region, so be careful out there. According to the Park Service, “there are several active winter logging operations on roads accessing monument lands, including Swift Brook Road, Grondin Road, and Sherman Lumber Road. These roads may or may not be privately plowed for timber harvests on lands near the monument. It is recommended to avoid using these roads in winter while logging operations are active.”

Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

The ridiculous amounts of snow that fall on Mount Rainier justify the name “Paradise” when describing not just a destination in the park but also the winter conditions for snowshoers and skiers.

A favorable storm track can drop more than 90 feet of snow on the Paradise area. Last winter the park saw a more-modest 58 feet of snow. But even that brought grins to the snowshoers, cross-country skiers, and backcountry skiers drawn to the park.

Paradise is the hub for many of these pursuits, with snowshoers and skiers heading out in all directions. Ranger- led snowshoe hikes, of up to 2 miles, are typically given on weekends and holidays from late December through March, conditions permitting. These treks are open to the first 25 people who turn out at the Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise. A sign-up sheet is available an hour before a scheduled walk.

The Longmire area also has a number of trails perfect for snowshoeing once the snowpack builds. According to the Park Service, on heavy snow years there could be as much as 5 feet of snow on the ground around Longmire. For a trail map, visit this site.

Olympic National Park, Washington

Winter can be tricky in Olympic. Stay down low near the coast or in the rain forest and you will experience rain and drizzle with nary a snowflake in sight. Head up to Hurricane Ridge, however, and you can be busting through deep drifts of snow.

“Typically snow-covered, Hurricane Ridge provides opportunities for snowshoeing, cross-country and downhill skiing, snowboarding, tubing and more. Hurricane Ridge’s winter season is generally mid-December through the end of March,” the Park Service notes.

Because of the harsh wintry conditions that can envelop the ridge, access can be limited. Park staff tries opening the road from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday and holiday Mondays. Motorists are required to carry tire chains.

At the summit there’s a small area for skiers and snowboarders with two rope tows and a poma lift.

Snowshoe programs featuring ranger- led hikes are held mid-December through March, conditions permitting. The walks take place at 2 p.m. on weekends and holiday Mondays. They last about 90 minutes, and cover less than a mile. The cost is $7 for adults, $3 for youth aged 6 to 15. A sign-up sheet is put out a half-hour before the scheduled walk and limited to 25 names.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

The rule of thumb for Rocky Mountain is that more snow falls to the west of the Continental Divide than to the east. As a result, Grand Lake might make a better basecamp than Estes Park. As always, check the weather forecast and the snow depth before making a long, expensive trip.

If you’re interested in a snowshoe hike with a ranger, take a beginning or intermediate snowshoe program on the west side of the park. On the east side, beginning snowshoe walks are scheduled each Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday from January through March, depending on conditions.

Backcountry skiing in Sequoia National Park comes with outstanding panoramic views, such as this one in the Kaweah drainage looking into the San Joaquin Valley/NPS

On either side of the divide, you can snowshoe on most park hiking trails. Cross-country skiing works well on Trail Ridge Road once it’s snow-covered, and sledding is allowed at the old Hidden Valley Ski Area.

Another option is the YMCA of the Rockies, which boasts a Nordic center with more than 100 kilometers of ski trails as well as a dogsled program.

Sequoia National Park, California

There are plenty of trails to follow once the snow gets deep in Sequoia, from the 2-mile long Sunset Rock beginner trail in the Giant Forest to the 6.2-mile Alta Trail that takes you from Wolverton to the Giant Forest. Trail maps can be purchased through the Sequoia Parks Conservancy at this site.

All told, there are more than 30 miles to explore in this land of the giants. Experienced skiers can challenge themselves on the Pear Lake Trail, which travels 6 miles one way and climbs to the 9,500-foot summit of “The Hump.” The consummate winter explorer will want to snag overnight accommodations in the Pear Lake Ski Hut ($40/person). Reservation applications for this coming winter are taken through noon on November 3, so it might be too late this winter if you’re not quick. Check this website for information, or call 559-565-4251.

Sequoia rangers lead snowshoe walks in Grant Grove and Giant Forest. For the Grant Grove walk, sign up at Kings Canyon Visitor Center or call (559) 565-4307. Reservations are required, and there’s a limit of 20 participants. Walks typically last 1.5 hours and are up to 1 mile in length.

For Giant Forest, sign up at Giant Forest Museum or call (559) 565-4480. Reservations are required, and there’s a limit of 20 participants. Walks last 2 hours and are up to 2 miles in length.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

With Lake Michigan providing ample moisture, once winter’s cold temps arrive the national lakeshore is a great place for skiers and snowshoers.

Snowshoe hikes typically occur every Saturday beginning the first weekend of January. All hikes start at the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center on Highway M-72 at the edge of the village of Empire at 1 p.m. Call the visitor center at 231-326- 4700, ext. 5010 to make a reservation.

The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, which runs 22 miles between Empire and the Bohemia Road, has a paved surface, so once snow covers it deeply enough it’s perfect for both classic and skate skiers.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Though it can get incredibly cold in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in winter, snow is an iffy proposition.

“We average around 30 inches of snow each year, but with only a few inches on the ground at any one time,” said Laura Thomas, the park’s visual information specialist. “Sometimes we get lucky, like last winter, and get a large snow event with opportunities for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

“With heavy snowfall, portions of the North and South Unit scenic drives have to be closed to vehicle traffic. The closed sections of road are great for cross-country skiing.

“Another favorite place for skiing and snowshoeing is along the frozen Little Missouri River (when there is sufficient ice),” she continued. “When snow is lacking, there’s always good, old-fashioned hiking. The badlands’ infamous mud and sticky bentonite clay are frozen solid in winter, making hiking much easier.”

Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico

“Winter is a spectacular time to visit the Valles Caldera National Preserve. The preserve has miles of trails for the adventurous skier and snowshoer,” said Kimberly DeVall, the park chief of interpretation. “Whether you are skiing a groomed trail in a developed area or venturing into the backcountry, remember that you are traveling in an environment with all its dangers: unpredictable wildlife, changing weather conditions, deep snow, and snow covered streams. Your safety is not guaranteed. Be prepared for any situation and know the limits of your ability.”

There are 20 miles of marked cross-country and snowshoe trails in the preserve. About half are groomed weekly for skiers. That said, skiers and snowshoers are free to kick-and-glide or tromp through an open valley or deep into a silent forest. In general, terrain and deeper snows on north slopes in the preserve make for better for cross-country skiing.

The Valle Grande Bookstore has a limited number of snowshoes and poles available for rent.

The Black Bay area of Voyageurs National Park is popular with snowshoers/NPS

Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

Though paddling usually comes to mind when Voyageurs National Park is mentioned, winter sports are far from overlooked in this corner of Minnesota. The park maintains many miles of cross-country, snowshoe, and even snowmobile trails.

“My favorite is the Black Bay Trail system near the Rainy Lake Visitor Center,” Ranger Eric Grunwald says when talk turns to skiing. “The system includes 7.4 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails. These trails include loops for all skill levels: beginner, intermediate, and expert.

“The system gets moderate use, so it’s a great place to find some winter solitude on most days. It’s also a great place to see wildlife like snowshoe hares, chickadees, and juncos,” he added. “Even if you don’t see any wildlife, you’re likely to see signs of animals alongside the trails; animal tracks from hares and wolves are seen fairly commonly.”

For those in need of skis, the park’s Rainy Lake Visitor Center has some to loan. It’s open Wednesdays-Sundays in winter. The center also has some snowshoes on hand if you don’t own a pair.

“There is also a short snowshoe trail in the Black Bay system. It’s called the Black Bay Beaver Pond Overlook Trail, and it leads one half mile to an active beaver pond,” Ranger Grunwald noted. “Of course in the winter, you are not likely to see a beaver, but if you snowshoe out on the frozen beaver pond surface, you can walk right up to the beaver’s lodge to get a closer look at their interesting home.”

Yellowstone National Park is one of many winter wonderlands in the National Park System perfect for exploring on skis/NPS

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Yellowstone is a spectacular winter wonderland…if you can endure the bitter cold. There can be long runs of days when the mercury never tops 0 degrees Fahrenheit. But there also can be hefty dumps of feather-weight snow, perfect for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

“The Upper Geyser Basin provides a unique and beautiful backdrop for winter activities,” says Ranger Annie Carlson. “On a very cold day, the steam from the hot springs and geysers coats every surface, every pine needle, with sparkling frost. Ice particles float through the air as diamond dust. Visitors can ski, snowshoe, or walk the trails and boardwalks of the Upper Geyser Basin to enjoy the scenery.”

The ranger cautions that skiers in the basin should “expect areas of ice and bare patches on the trails.” The 1.5- mile boardwalk trail from Old Faithful to Morning Glory Pool is often groomed for skiers, she adds.

“There are many popular ski trails that leave from the Old Faithful area. Some avid skiers will stay at the Snow Lodge for a few nights and spend their days exploring the trails,” she said. “The Lone Star trail is usually groomed and fairly flat; great for beginners. Other trails, such as Mallard Creek and Howard Eaton, are steep and challenging. At the Snow Lodge, you can arrange to be dropped off by snowcoach at certain trailheads and then ski back to the developed area.”

For park visitors who don’t reach Yellowstone’s interior, “the road from the north entrance to the northeast entrance is plowed during the winter, making the ski areas around Mammoth, Tower, and the northeast accessible to private vehicles,” said Ranger Carlson.

Yosemite National Park, California

While the Tioga Road that runs through Tuolumne Meadows isn’t open to vehicles in winter, hardy souls can cross-country ski or snowshoe along its path. Or, you can head up towards Glacier Point and the Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area, formerly called Badger Pass Ski Area.

The ski area has five lifts, 800 vertical feet, and 10 runs. Though not on par with Squaw Valley, this little ski area that usually sees 300 inches of snow a year has been the training grounds for countless park visitors. There’s also a tubing area and terrain park here, and the access to the backcountry and cross-country ski trails is superb.

Bring your skis, or rent, and take a few turns down the mountain, stopping for views and cocoa as often as you wish. You’ll also find 90 miles of marked snowshoe and cross-country ski trails, and 10.5 miles of groomed skating track.

From the ski area snowshoers can take a short trip out to Dewey Point, with guides from the Yosemite Conservancy, or head out into Aspen Grove for a selfguided snowshoe hike. There are also two overnight huts accessible from the ski area for the more adventurous, and if you’re visiting in February, don’t miss the Nordic Holiday celebration.

To prepare for your wintry exploration of Yosemite, visit this page for trail brochures and additional information on winter sports in the park.

That’s just a sampling of the many spots in the National Park System where winter is another great season to get out and enjoy the landscape and scenery. It’s not a season to be timid, for it not only offers another side to the parks, but one of solitude not normally available in summer.

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