Winter Visits to the National Parks

Snorkeling in Biscayne National Park -- a great mid-winter escape. NPS Photo.

Planning a national park visit during the winter months is not as easy as it might seem. Do you pack your long johns, or your swimsuit?

Obviously, if you plan to visit Denali National Park and Preserve to learn a bit about dog sledding, long johns, or some other warm layer, makes sense. If you're trekking to Dry Tortugas or Biscayne national parks in February, though, you'd want to make sure you have your swimsuit and plenty of sunscreen.

One of the beauties of a winter escape to a national park is you'll likely encounter few crowds, as most park visitors are constrained by school schedules. One exception to that rule, however, would be Death Valley National Park. It's so darn hot in the middle of summer -- 120 degrees is not unusual -- that few venture there during that timeframe. February and March, though, are the high season here. The weather is mild, with highs typically in the 70s and 80s. And if the winter months have been wet, you'll likely encounter a gorgeous bloom of wildflowers.

Another plus to vacationing during the winter months is you often can find lower airfares than you would encounter during the prime vacation months of June through August.

If this timetable works for you, the most difficult decision you'll likely confront is where to go.

A trip to Yellowstone would be unforgettable, as the bitterly cold temperatures of mid-winter can lead to curtains of ice being raised around some geysers as their spray turns to ice. Bison are sheathed in snow and ice, wolves can be seen coming and going from hunts, and waterfowl that remain in the park congregate on those few rivers that are not completely iced over.

While climatological swings can generate somewhat warm chinooks in Yellowstone, this winter the hallmark has been snow and cold. In fact, a strong winter storm today forced the park to close most of its roads to snowmobile and snowcoach traffic.


Deteriorating conditions prompted park managers to close all other park roads and entrances to snowmobile and snowcoach travel by early afternoon. Up to 18 inches of new snow has fallen along the park’s Grand Loop road in the past 18 hours. Snow depths at developed areas in the interior of the park range from three feet at Madison Junction to over five feet at Grant Village.

Sounds like perfect weather for a comfortable chair and a good book in front of the fireplace at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, don't you think?

Personally, I'm ready for a trip to Biscayne for some snorkeling. With about 3 feet of snow in my backyard, a recent bout of single-digit and below-zero overnight temperatures, and a winter storm watch through Wednesday, the thought of splashing down into the warm Atlantic to explore the wet side of this national park sounds incredibly appealing right now.

But there are many, many other options. You could go cross-country skiing in Sequoia, storm watching at Olympic, tortoise tracking at Saguaro or ice fishing at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

For more ideas, check out the Park Service's new website dedicated to winter escapes in the parks.

Comments

Kurt,

I actually packed both my long johns and my swimsuit on our Sunday drive into Yellowstone. We actually posted some pictures here: http://picasaweb.google.com/GenevieveandRiver/YellowstoneWinter2008 .

I also witnessed something really terrible in the park that made my heart drop. I'm going to post something about the whole experience in a couple days, more focused on this incident (though my partner Genevieve wrote a small snippet about it in one of the captions).

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

Jim, skinny dipping in mid-winter? You folks bring out the hardiness of life that's good for the soul...I love your spirit! Thanks for sharing the family.

Well, that is the Boiling River, a thermal run off which flows into the Gardner River. In the pools where the run-off meets the Gardner, over tiny little waterfalls, the water is as warm as bath water.

Now, it was cold getting in and out! However, while you were in it, it was really like the most wonderful bath ever.

The Boiling River is a bit too popular for its own good; even when I first went in it back in 1993 in the middle of the night (at the time, I didn't know that a hefty fine would go with that), we still came across some drunks we were convinced would fall in the "boiling" part of the hot spring (this was at 3 AM). On a summer day, you'll barely find room for yourself to sit (in the spring, forget about going there, the high river makes it too dangerous, and the area is closed). The area and the land around it is a bit fragile. I wonder how it has changed over the years; I don't notice a difference in the last 14 years since I was there; so perhaps it's holding up okay. If it isn't, I would like to know so I don't add to a problem.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

I can highly recommend a winter visit to Carlsbad Caverns. Although the bats are gone, so are the summer crowds. The silence while strolling slowly down into the Natural Entrance to the cave along the dimly backlit self-guided trail is overpowering. It's like entering a sacred underground gallery of art, a place of worhship, ornately decorated with complex vertical fixtures, both massive and delicate, formed from eons of dissolutions and re-depositions of calcium carbonate and calcium sulfate.

During the winter season, the ranger-to-visitor ratio is outstanding. You will find from three to six uniformed rangers stationed underground, roving along the self-guided trail, eager and able to answer individual questions. They encourage conversing using only a very soft tone of voice to preserve the sense of silence underground.

Formal ranger-led guided tours are reserved for the Kings Palace, the Left-hand Tunnel, the Lower Cave, and elsewhere where group supervision is required. Reservations and tickets are required for all guided tours. But, I would most definitely rate the self-guided walk to the Big Room from the Natural Entrance as a "must do" experience for all first time visitors, with winter being the very best season for this journey.

If you can, avoid using the elevators for entry into the caverns. This route of entry is rather anti-climactic. Use them only if the Natural Entrance is closed,or if walking downhill over a rather steep, but paved series of switch backs is not an option physically.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

I wrote about the rest of my recent winter trip into Yellowstone about an hour ago. While swimming in the boiling river was fantastic fun, this was anything but fun. It raises serious concerns about the cost of our winter treks into parks like Yellowstone and the lengths sometimes gone to for making it possible for us.

If you are interested, please check out Hey Park Service! Don't bulldoze Yellowstone buffalo just so I can stay on my side of the double yellow line.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World