13 Best National Parks for Families to Visit in Winter

Some of the country's top national parks see crowds that are up to 90 percent lighter in the winter months.
Death Valley National Park (Photo: @TheMatchesGirl via Twenty20)
Death Valley National Park (Photo: @TheMatchesGirl via Twenty20)
  • I’m a family travel expert who’s visited 20 counties and nearly as many U.S. national parks with my wife and two daughters.
  • Winter is a surprisingly great time to explore some of America’s best national parks because the crowds are up to 90 percent lighter this time of year. 
  • These are my personal recommendations for the best national parks to visit in winter.

America’s national parks have always been one of the best family vacation ideas, and with their kid-friendly campgrounds, historic lodges, and low-admission prices, it’s easy to see why. But while the most popular national parks are often packed during the summer, they’re often overlooked in the wintertime. In fact, some of the best national parks to visit in winter see crowds that are up to 90 percent lighter in the winter vacation months. 

Best National Parks to Visit in Winter

Many of America’s top national parks are located in deserts and tropical locations, too. In winter, these typically inhospitable places (I’m looking at you, Death Valley) offer more pleasant temperatures than their summer highs. So, from snowy mountain peaks to warm sandy oases, here are the best national parks to visit in winter.

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1. Acadia National Park, Maine

Snow covers the carriage roads in Acadia National Park in winter (Photo: NPS)
Snow often covers the carriage roads in Acadia National Park when you visit in winter (Photo: NPS)

The first light of the new year in the U.S. shines on Acadia National Park‘s Cadillac Mountain, and the neighboring family vacation spot of Bar Harbor has plenty of kid-friendly New Year’s Eve activities and fireworks to keep the whole family feeling festive. Acadia National Park stays open all-year round, and in the winter its miles of carriage roads are groomed for cross country skiers, snowshoers, and hikers.

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Staying nice and warm in your car is a good option, too, because traffic drops substantially in the colder months, and the popular Park Loop Road near the ocean remains open for scenic drives.

Where to Stay in Acadia National Park in Winter

While many of the most popular park lodging facilities and campgrounds at Acadia are closed in winter, the classic seaside village of Bar Harbor has plenty of year-round accommodations that cater to cold-weather travelers. The Atlantic Oceanside Hotel sits on 12 acres of oceanfront property just a few miles from the winter entrance to Acadia. Each room features a patio or balcony overlooking the ocean, and there’s an indoor heated pool (and hot tub) to warm up after winter explorations.

2. Arches National Park, Utah

Delicate Arch at Arches National Park (Photo: NPS)
Delicate Arch at Arches National Park is especially pretty with snow in the distance (Photo: NPS)

One of Utah’s famed Mighty 5 national parks, Arches National Park boasts crazy-high numbers of visitors during the summer months, when long lines cause long waits at popular formations like Delicate Arch. But because many Utah visitors opt to visit ski destinations when the snows arrive, winter is a great time to visit Arches National Park without the crowds—or the scorching temperatures.

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At Arches, white snow contrasting with red rocks against a blue sky makes for a fantastic sight (not to mention photographs). Most of the hiking trails remain open all year, but be prepared for slippery conditions after a snowfall. If you don’t want to leave your car, there are scenic winter drives through the Windows Section of the park to the Delicate Arch viewpoint.

Where to Stay in Arches National Park in Winter

Located directly across from Arches National Park, SpringHill Suites Moab is an all-suite hotel whose rooms are nearly 25 percent larger than standard hotels, making it ideal for accommodating families. The family suite has plenty of space with a king bed, bunk beds, sofa bed, and trundle bed. Each room has its own TV with Netflix and Hulu. Plus, suites contain a kitchenette, dining room table, and complimentary hot breakfast. Kids will love the multiple pools and hot tubs to warm up in wintertime. 

3. Big Bend National Park, Texas

Chihuahuan desert snow and Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA (Photo: Shutterstock)
Milder Temperatures make it more enjoyable to visit Big Bend National Park in the winter (Photo: Shutterstock)

The winter months are full of sunny days with milder temperatures at Big Bend, making it one of the top national parks to visit in winter—and often a more enjoyable experience than during the blazing summer heat.

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The park sits on a curve (i.e., Big Bend) of the Rio Grande that cuts high walled canyons throughout the region. You can enjoy the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive through the Chisos mountain range, and there are plenty of hiking opportunities such as the Santa Elena Canyon Trail. And since it’s winter, why not warm-up by taking a dip in a natural hot spring? There’s a half-mile hike to a 105-degree natural pool adjacent to the Rio Grande. 

Where to Stay at Big Bend National Park in Winter

The only lodging within the Big Bend National Park boundaries is the Chisos Mountains Lodge, which is open year-round. The lodge offers fantastic views of the mountains and is adjacent to the Chisos Basin Visitors Center. A number of hiking trails start right from the visitors’ center, and kids can pick up an activity booklet to work on their Junior Ranger Badge.

Pro tip: Pair your visit to Big Bend with a stay at any of the best Texas family resorts, many of which have pools, water parks, and other kid-friendly amenities.

4. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Winter snow at Bryce Canyon National Park (Photo: NPS)
Winter snows are striking against Bryce Canyon National Park red rock pillars in winter (Photo: NPS)

The hoodoo-spired landscape of Bryce Canyon National Park adds another dimension entirely when snow falls on its peaks. The red rock amphitheater remains open year-round, and you can head to popular lookouts such as Inspiration Point and Sunset Point or hike favorite routes including the Navajo Loop and Queen’s Garden trails.

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Other winter fun includes the annual Bryce Canyon Winter Festival with ski and snowshoeing clinics, photography classes, kids’ activities like fossil talks and painting, and family concerts.

Where to Stay at Bryce Canyon in Winter

Just outside the park is Best Western PLUS Ruby’s Inn, a Bryce Canyon staple since 1916 and one of the host venues for the annual winter festival. The hotel’s family suites have two bedrooms to accommodate kids and parents, and all rooms come with complimentary breakfast. Inside the national park, camping sites are available at the North Campground all winter long.

5. Death Valley National Park, California

Death Valley national park in winter is more comfortable than it is in the summer (Photo: Envato)
Death Valley national park in winter is more comfortable than it is in the summer (Photo: Envato)

Death Valley? You may associate this national park with extreme heat, but the average high temperature at Death Valley in January is just 68 degrees Fahrenheit, and it’s 75 degrees in February. Visiting this national park in winter is a great time to enjoy its stunning landscapes, star-filled skies, and endless outdoor activities—including the lowest elevation golf course on the planet.

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While most national parks experience their lowest crowds in the winter, Death Valley has its peak visitation at this time of year. But you can still find plenty of space to spread out between Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well as after the new year through late February. Take advantage of the lower temperatures for hikes as well as nighttime stargazing.

Where to Stay at Death Valley National Park in Winter

The recently renovated Oasis at Death Valley encompasses two hotels, the AAA Four-Diamond historic Inn at Death Valley and the family-friendly Ranch at Death Valley. The resort is legendary not only for its location, but for the movies and movie stars who’ve stayed there (Clark Gable, Ronald Regan, and George Lucas, to name a few). 

Guest rooms at The Ranch at Death Valley open directly to the outdoors, and it has a massive spring-fed pool and abundant open green space, making it an ideal environment for families visiting in the winter months.

6. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Aerial view of Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park (Photo: Shutterstock)
Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park is located 70 miles from Key West (Photo: Shutterstock)

Located on a remote tropical island 70 miles west of Key West, Dry Tortugas National Park takes some effort to get to—it’s only accessible by boat or seaplane—but it’s definitely worth the extra miles to get there. The 100-square-mile park boundaries enclose a number of small coral reef islands. Swimming, snorkeling, diving, and boating in the clear blue water are all popular activities in the park.

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On land, you can explore the historic 19th century Fort Jefferson, located on Garden Key and built to support ships patrolling the Gulf of Mexico in the mid- to late-1800s. There are multiple lighthouses on the islands, including Garden Key Light (also called Tortugas Harbor Light) and Loggerhead Lighthouse on nearby Loggerhead Key.

Where to Stay at Dry Tortugas in Winter

The only place to stay overnight inside the national park is the primitive Garden Key Campground, which is open year-round. Another option for families is to visit this national park as a winter day trip from Key West. Stay at Parrot Key Hotel and Villas, located about five minutes from the Yankee Freedom ferry dock to Dry Tortugas. Kids love the resort’s multiple pools surrounded by tropical foliage, and the spacious suites and villas have plenty of room for families. 

7. Everglades National Park, Florida

Kayaking in Everglades National Park in Florida (Photo: Shutterstock)
Kayaking is one of the best ways to experience Everglades National Park in Florida (Photo: Shutterstock)

The Sunshine State is home to not one but two of the best national parks to visit in winter, because winter is the dry season for Florida’s Everglades National Park. With high temperatures in the 70s and evening lows in the 50s, the colder months are a great time to explore this tropical national park. 

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The tenacious mosquitos that are so common in summer months are gone (as is the heat and humidity), and there are plenty of birds and wildlife on display. Migrating birds from northern climates make their way to the Everglades, and alligators haul themselves out of the water to warm in the sun. Two-hour tours are available with Shark Valley Tram Tours (an official National Park partner), where naturalists take families deep into the Everglades ecosystem. 

The Everglades is a vast river of grass, so the best way to see it is to get out on the water via an airboat, canoe, kayak, or slogging through the wetlands with a ranger-led tour. 

Where to Stay at Everglades National Park in Winter

If the best way to see the Everglades is on the water, why not treat your family by staying on the water in a houseboat? Flamingo Adventures Campground offers houseboat rentals that easily accommodate a family of four (six adults max would fit snugly). The houseboats has two bedrooms, one bathroom, and a galley kitchen. Kids will get a huge thrill sleeping in bunkbeds on a boat.

To get an introduction to the region, hop aboard one of the daily boat tours that depart Flamingo Marina, and then skipper your floating hotel room out under the stars. 

8. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Winter at the Grand Canyon's South Rim (Photo: Xanterra)
Winter sees much smaller crowds at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim (Photo: Xanterra)

The North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park closes between December and mid-May, but winter at the South Rim is magical and offers a different perspective on this spectacular U.S. tourist attraction. Visiting in the colder months, you can fully appreciate the park’s mild winter temperatures, smaller crowds, and even one of America’s best historic train rides

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The winter sun is lower in the sky, meaning it doesn’t set directly over the Grand Canyon but instead cloaks the rocky peaks and crevasses in lovely purple, pink, and orange hues. And the nights sparkle in this certified Dark Sky Park where you can see the Milky Way with your naked eye. Winter sunrises can be equally spectacular. In-the-know photographers appreciate this time of year for the clarity of the light, especially just after a snowstorm. Because of clear skies, the visibility is highest in this season, too.

Wildlife is plentiful at this national park in the winter. You may see mule deer, elk, ravens, California condors, rock squirrels, and other creatures foraging among the ponderosa pine forests or soaring overhead on the rim. And they can even be easier to spot against a new blanket of snow. 

Where to Stay at the Grand Canyon in Winter

There are plenty of options for winter lodging at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, and, except for the Christmas holidays, securing a room within the park is almost assured. The historic El Tovar Hotel, which opened in 1905 and is perched on the edge of the South Rim, is a great choice for families. 

Another option to consider if you’re traveling in from Phoenix is taking the Grand Canyon Railway from Williams, Arizona. The train has daily round-trips and runs on historic Route 66 to literally steps from El Tovar, Hopi House, Grand Canyon Historic VillageBright Angel Trailhead, and all the attractions found at South Rim. 

Trains leave in the morning and return late in the afternoon, affording you around three hours at the Grand Canyon. Packages are also offered that include stays at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel in Williams, train travel to the South Rim, and overnight accommodations inside Grand Canyon National Park.

9. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Grand Teton National Park in winter (Photo: NPS)
Snowshoeing and snowmobiling take center stage at Grand Teton National Park in winter (Photo: NPS)

The summer crowds are gone and a blanket of snow covers the mountains when winter comes to Grand Teton National Park, and there’s no better backdrop for activities like cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, snow coaches, and dogsled tours than Grand Teton. Mushers hook sleds to teams of Alaskan Huskies for rides through the mountains, families can also take horse-drawn sleigh rides through the National Elk Refuge to get an up-close look at the herd, and there are ample opportunities to snowshoe with a park ranger on an interpretive hike.

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Those looking for a kid-friendly activity that’s more protected from the elements can opt for a snow coach safari. And there are plenty of family adventures that offer day-long tours with local guides, kid-focused programming, activity packets, and plenty of opportunities for wildlife observation, too. 

Where to Stay at Grand Teton National Park in Winter

A working dude ranch located within the national park, Triangle X Ranch is the only lodging available inside Grand Teton National Park in the winter. The ranch has 20 rustic log cabins, including historic 1800s settlers’ cabins that were later moved to the ranch. Rates include lodging in one of the one- to four-bedroom cabins, hearty western-style cowboy meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), use of cross country skis and snowshoes, and some of the most breathtaking views you’ll ever find.   

10. Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana

Boardwalk among the dunes at Indiana Dunes National Park (Photo: Shutterstock)
Visitors still come to hike among the dunes at Indiana Dunes National Park in winter (Photo: Shutterstock)

Who wouldn’t want to go to a sandy beach with miles of dunes in the middle of winter? Indiana Dunes National Park hugs 15 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, and while the park is best known for its summer beach activities on the lake, it makes a great place to visit in the winter too. 

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When the sunbathing and swimming crowds disappear, families have plenty of space for hiking, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding down snow-covered dunes. There are also dramatic shelf ice formations that gather along the Lake Michigan shoreline, giving a surreal arctic quality to the landscape. With the sun dipping early in the evening, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to catch a picturesque sunset along the Indiana Dunes lakeshore.

Where to Stay at Indiana Dines in Winter

Located just two miles from Indiana Dunes National Park on the shore of Chubb Lake, the unpretentious Best Western Indian Oak has double queen rooms that can accommodate a family of four. An additional one or two small children can sleep on the sofa bed. Breakfast is included, and there’s an indoor pool for the kids to burn some energy.   

11. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Beat the heat by visiting Saguaro National Park in the off-season (Photo: Shutterstock)

Stately cacti stretch their arms to the sky in Arizona’s Saguaro National Park. Like other desert parks, Saguaro is one of the top national parks to visit in winter because the season brings cooler temperatures (highs in the mid-60s, nighttime lows in the 40s) and even a chance of snow. There are plenty of options for hiking and biking throughout this unique desert ecosystem, including a trail that leads to a hill with nearly 200 petroglyphs created by indigenous people 500 to 1,000 years ago. 

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The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum sits just outside the southern boundary of the Tucson Mountain District section of the park. Open year-round, its 21 acres of walking paths take you through various habitats (grassland, woodland, canyon) complete with animal residents (mountain lions, black bears, Mexican gray wolves, ocelots, and bobcats, among others). There’s also an aquarium, reptile and amphibian hall, and multiple aviaries.

Where to Stay at Saguaro National Park in Winter

Saguaro National Park has two districts, Tucson Mountain (West) and Rincon Mountain (East). The popular Tanque Verde Ranch sits just outside the border of the Rincon Mountain District and is one of the best dude ranches for families in the entire country. The all-inclusive resort includes three hearty cowboy meals a day, horseback rides, mountain biking, hiking, fishing, children’s programs for kids ages three to 17, and much more. 

12. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Yellowstone is one of the best national parks to visit in winter (Photo: NPS)
Yellowstone is one of the best national parks to visit in winter (Photo: NPS)

Not many places can match the beauty of Yellowstone in winter, and that’s why they call it a wonderland. Yes, temperatures plummet, but so do visitation levels—and in an age of overcrowded tourist attractions, that makes winter an even better time to visit. Some of the best wildlife (and geyser-viewing) opportunities come during the height of winter, too. That’s especially true for the park’s grey wolves, because the snowy landscape provides the sort of contrast that makes their appearance even more dramatic.

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Bison also roam the landscape with frozen, crusty manes, while large herds of elk gather in the lower elevations and are an important food source for wolves, mountain lions, and bears. Winter visits to Yellowstone’s interior are available via snowmobiles or 4×4 snow coaches driven by national park guides. 

Where to Stay at Yellowstone in Winter

Two classic park lodges, Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins, remain open from mid-December to late February to accommodate winter national park visitors. Both lodges are less than half a mile from major geothermal features and offer tours to remote regions of the park that depart right from their doorstep. 

With Yellowstone’s vast size, it’s easy to break up your visit between these two lodges located about 50 miles apart, allowing you to spend more time exploring geysers and hot springs as well as watching for wildlife. 

13. Zion National Park, Utah

Then snowcapped towers of Zion National Park at wintertime (Photo: Xanterra)
Then snowcapped towers of Zion National Park sparkle at wintertime (Photo: Xanterra)

Named for the Hebrew word meaning “refuge,” Utah’s Zion National Park isn’t just one of the top national parks to visit in winter—it’s also one of the most beautiful places on earth. While the park’s apricot-colored canyon walls and endless views draw hordes of tourists in the warmer months, visitor numbers drop along with the temperatures when winter rolls around. 

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Weather conditions vary this time of year, but there are frequent sunshine-filled days with moderate temperatures throughout the winter. And though December through March sees the highest level of precipitation at Zion, snow doesn’t last long on the valley floor as temperatures rise to daytime highs of 50 to 60 degrees. Ice and snow remain on the peaks and higher elevations, however, making some hikes more challenging.

Where to Stay at Zion National Park in Winter

Located in the heart of the park near the Virgin River and multiple trailheads, Zion National Park Lodge makes a great home base for families visiting in the colder months. Book a winter escape with the Bed and Breakfast package for select winter dates to get accommodations and a hot breakfast for each night’s stay.

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Dave Parfitt
Dave Parfitt is a freelance travel writer interested in illuminating transformative family travel, multi-generational travel, inclusive and accessible travel, under-the-radar destinations, and immersive, authentic experiences. Dave's work has appeared in Lonely Planet, AAA, Fox News Travel, US News & World Report, FamilyVacationist, TravelAge West, USA Today, and Family Circle, to name a few. An academic with a PhD in neuroscience, Dave also works as an educational developer at a four-year college in Western New York when not in a theme park, national park, or on a cruise or road trip with his family.