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