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A Winter's Journey Through The National Park System


Particularly frigid winters turn the “sea caves” at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore into “ice caves.”/NPS

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin shelters a unique collection of sea caves that becomes coated with ice when winter turns bitterly cold. With the long-range forecast predicting a colder and snowier winter than average for the lakeshore, you might consider a road trip there this winter.

Arches National Park in Utah doesn’t usually get a heavy coating of snow, but when the white stuff falls it creates a wonderful contrast to the red rock that delights photographers.

Solitude is practically guaranteed at Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

“Because winter visitation is so low, you’re likely only to see the rangers and maybe one or two people passing through on the road. In summer, you’d be lucky to have an overlook to yourself. In the winter, you could sit at an overlook all day and not see anyone. With such light traffic on the road, the animals come out from hiding. It’s easy to spot bison, bighorn sheep, mule deer, rabbits, prairie dogs, and even an occasional coyote.” – Bryan Hansel in Otherworldly Winter Weather in the Badlands.

You might not connect whales with national parks, but come January gray whales often can be seen migrating south from Cabrillo National Monument near San Diego. The peak migration is mid-January, but you often can see whales at Cabrillo from mid-December to late March. The best viewing is from the Old Point Loma Lighthouse and the heights around the park’s Whale Overlook.

National seashores on the Atlantic aren’t normally winter destination conversation, but if you need to add a Snowy Owl to your birding life list, in recent years these Canadian visitors have been showing up at both Cape Cod and Cape Hatteras national seashores.

A light dusting of snow at Arches National Park creates a gorgeous contrast with the red rock/NPS, Jacob W. Frank

Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon usually sees snowdrifts that can dwarf buildings, which means reliable conditions for skiers and snowshoers. Just don’t get too close to the rim overlooking the lake, as cornices can, and do, break off. Some years ago one snowshoer met his fate that way.

Death Valley National Park in California/Nevada allows winter visitors to wear short-sleeve shirts one day while playing the Furnace Creek Golf Course and needing down jackets, crampons, and perhaps an ice axe to reach the 11,049-foot summit of Telescope Peak the next.

Hurricane Irma hit Everglades National Park hard in early September, but the park’s wildlife is used to storms. Winter is the high season in the park and draws birders and wildlife photographers in search of the animals that gather around watering holes.

Want to experience Grand Canyon National Park without the crowds, or high heat of summer? Book a room at Phantom Ranch and spend a few days watching the Colorado River flow by and a few nights counting constellations in the sky.

Many folks do not consider Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada a winter destination. As a result, you can enjoy some great snowshoeing or cross-country skiing on the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive and Baker Creek Road. If it gets too cold, head underground to explore Lehman Caves.

Crater Lake’s “big blue” shimmers like a sapphire against the snowy hillsides/NPS photo

Flee the snow by heading to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park where you can explore one of the few remaining natural areas in Hawaii protecting contiguous habitat from sea to summit; elevations in the park stretch from sea level to 13,677 feet at the summit of Mauna Loa. Put another way, you can explore rain forests and alpine areas and everything in between.

Another park overlooked by crosscountry skiers and snowshoers is Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in Indiana, where there are 45 miles of trails perfect for winter explorations when the snow cover allows. Not too miss are the “ice shelves” that Lake Michigan sends to shore.

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in Louisiana is well positioned along the Central Flyway to provide vital resting and wintering habitat for an impressive number and variety of birds. The park’s Barataria Preserve unit, located about 20 miles south of New Orleans, has bottomland and levee forest, cypress/tupelo swamp, and freshwater marsh habitats teeming with migrants and winter residents.

Climbers descend on Joshua Tree National Park in California during the cooler winter months to perfect their bouldering techniques.

Winter is a great season to visit Kings Mountain National Military Park in South Carolina. With trees having dropped their leaves, sight lines become more clear at this park that protects Revolutionary War history, and the season definitely is not as buggy as summer.

Many winter enthusiasts often overlook Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California. The landscape here gets many feet of snow, perfect for backcountry skiing and snowshoeing. Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado is hauntingly beautiful in winter, with falling snow creating a veil in front of the cliff dwellings long since deserted by their builders. Snowshoeing or skiing is allowed on the groomed Moorefield Campground Trail as well as the nearby Meadow Bliss Trail. Ungroomed skiing can be found on the Cliff Palace Loop Trail, the Wetherill Mesa Road Trail, and Prater Canyon. More snowshoeing options can be found on the park website.

Seasoned birders know that, come winter, Padre Island National Seashore in Texas really is for the birds. Special birding tours typically are held in the park November through April; check with the Malaquite Visitor Center at (361) 949-8068 for details. An easy day trip from Padre Island is the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, winter home of one of the rarest birds in North America, the whooping crane.

“Get a grip” takes on a very literal meaning at Joshua Tree National Park in California/NPS

Winter is the high season in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument along the Arizona-Mexico border. Temperatures are mild and the 208-site Twin Peaks Campground offers solarheated showers after a day of hiking.

Elephant seals congregate on the beaches of Point Reyes National Seashore in California during the winter months for breeding; they, in turn, attract human visitors to observe their behavior. Great observation points include Elephant Seal Overlook and the Chimney Rock Trail.

Two-hundred-and-forty years ago, on December 19, 1777, General George Washington led his Continental Army to Valley Forge to set up winter quarters. The event will be recreated this December 19 at Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania. Featured will be a candle-lit guided walk to the Muhlenberg Brigade huts, where a living Continental camp will be set up.

Zion National Park in Utah practically bursts at the seams with visitors from March through November. Fortunately, December through February offer you a little more elbowroom in this sandstone citadel. Winter storms that drop snow in northern Utah often bring heavy rains to the park—the winter months usually drop about half of the park’s annual precipitation—and they can generate spontaneous waterfalls off normally dry cliffs.

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