Essential Park Guide: Winter Doesn’t Have To Mean Cold, Snow And Ice During Your National Park Adventure

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Winter is a great time to explore the Cholla Cactus Garden at Joshua Tree National Park. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Cold, snow, and ice aren’t the only backdrops to a winter’s visit to the National Park System. There’s a flip side to the Glaciers, Yellowstones, and Mount Rainiers of winter park vacations. They’re found in the Caribbean, south Florida, and even Nevada and Arizona.

Here’s a glance at some of the warmer parks to enjoy between December and April:

Big Bend National Park

Camping reservations: recreation.gov or 877-444-6777

Located in far south Texas along the border with Mexico, Big Bend has multiple personalities that can surface during the winter months. You might encounter perfect hiking and backpacking weather...or a snowstorm. In general, though, high temperatures December through February average in the 60s before climbing into the mid-to-upper 70s in March. Overnight lows during this period are in the mid-30s to mid-40s.

A great escape for backpackers would be the backcountry of the Chisos Mountains. Just looking to sit back and relax? Take a soak in the Hot Spring, the remains of an historic bathhouse on banks of the Rio Grande River. Birders who migrate to the park in winter are rewarded by the many northern bird species that winter here.

Campers have three base camps to choose from: Chisos Basin, Cottonwood, and Rio Grande Village ($14 per night). Some sites in Rio Grande Village and Chisos Basin can be reserved for stays between mid-November and mid-April.

Star-gazers, meanwhile, find the park’s winter skies offer some spectacularly clear vistas.

Death Valley National Park

Camping reservations: recreation.gov or 877-444-6777

Unlike most units of the park system, winter is the high season in Death Valley. That’s because the weather is so much more tolerable than during June, July and August, when temperatures routinely rise above 100 degrees.

Winter high temperatures are more moderate, ranging in the mid-60s in December and January before slowly climbing toward highs in the 90s in April. Overnight lows are in the 40s and 50s, which make the hot-spring-heated swimming pool at the Furnace Creek Inn so enjoyable.

Those cooler winter temperatures also make it much safer for you to take long walks in the park’s dune systems or down to the salt flats at Badwater. Winter also brings snow to the park’s ceiling, which can make for gorgeous vistas perfect for photographs.

While the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are the least-crowded time of year, according to park officials, peak season kicks in with Christmas and continues through President’s Weekend in February.

Campers (fees range from free to $18 per night) have plenty of campgrounds to choose from: the Furnace Creek, Sunset, Texas Spring, Stovepipe Wells, Mesquite Spring, Emigrant, and Wildrose campgrounds are open through the winter. The first five listed campgrounds all have dump stations.

Everglades National Park

Camping reservations: recreation.gov or 877-444-6777

Everglades National Park is a great winter destination. From December through April the park enjoys relatively low humidity and clear weather. Daily high temperatures rise into the high 70s and low 80s, while overnight lows dip a bit into the low 50s. That certainly beats the summertime highs in the 90s and humidity levels over 90 percent; combined they produce a heat index of more than 100 degrees. And the bugs can be ravenous.

Fortunately, the drier winter conditions mean fewer bugs to bite you, and the lack of moisture from rainstorms dries out the park’s landscape, leaving water holes dotting the park that draw wildlife. As a result, these months are the optimum time for birding and even spotting alligators and crocodiles.

A downside to this weather, though, is the number of human visitors goes up. Those planning a visit during the dry season are encouraged to make reservations in advance for camping, lodging, and tours.

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Kayaking can be done year-round at Everglades National Park, but you’ll encounter somewhat fewer bugs in winter. NPS photo.

There are two campgrounds -- Long Pine Key and Flamingo -- available for front-country campers ($30 per night for electrical hookups, $16 for tents). Both can handle RVs as well as tents. While Long Pine Key sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis, those at Flamingo can be reserved, and park officials recommend reservations.

Joshua Tree National Park

Camping reservations: recreation.gov or 877-444-6777

The geologic outcrops found in Joshua Tree make the park a prime destination for climbers who enjoy the mild winter temperatures for working on their bouldering and longer climbs in the park.

Though Joshua Tree takes its name from the highly distinctive stands of Joshua trees with their contorted limbs capped by green spikes, the national park's name no doubt could have been just as closely associated with its boulder fields.

Winter temperatures typically reach the 60-degree mark during the daylight hours, and drop to near freezing at night. Snow at times can be found at the park’s higher elevations.

Hikers find themselves walking past the oddly shaped Joshua trees, alongside clusters of cacti, and through mazes of rock rewards. As a result, you’re rewarded with wonders right in front of your eyes as well as gorgeous far-off vistas.

Campers can choose from the Black Rock, Indian Cove, Cottonwood, Belle, Hidden Valley, Jumbo Rocks, Ryan and White Tank campgrounds. Black Rock and Indian Cove sites can be reserved for winter visits. There are no RV hookups at any of the campgrounds. Rates range from $10-$15 per night.

Saguaro National Park

If you hate hot weather for backpacking and hiking, winter's the perfect time to head to Saguaro National Park in far south Arizona. Daytime high temperatures at Manning Camp, built in 1905 by one of Tucson’s early mayors at an elevation of 8,000 feet in today’s Saguaro Wilderness in the park’s Rincon District, average about 48 degrees. Night-time lows, meanwhile, dip into the high 20s. The park’s lower elevations enjoy daytime highs in the mid-60s and overnight lows just about 20 degrees cooler.

The Saguaro Wilderness Area can be a great place to explore on an extended trip. Covering nearly 60,000 acres, in the park’s Rincon Mountain District, you can leave the saguaro stands behind as you climb up in elevation and through pine-oak woodlands and into mixed conifer forests.

A wonderful, and educational, time can be had at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum just south of the park’s Tucson Mountain Desert. A few hours spent there will teach you about the vegetation found in the park and elsewhere in the Sonoran Desert, as well as the wildlife found there. You’ll find exhibits on fish, reptiles, mammals, and the different ecosystems found here. Birders will enjoy the hummingbird exhibit!

There are no front-country campgrounds in the park.

Virgin Islands National Park

Camping: CinnamonBay.com Reservations: 340-776-6330, 340-693-5654 or via email at cinnamon@caneelbay.com

It takes a great effort for most of us to reach this Caribbean jewel, so go in the winter when you’ll really appreciate the warm weather and turquoise waters. With a wealth of beaches -- Trunk Bay, Cinnamon Bay, Coral Bay, Leinster Bay and more -- you can find your own patch of sugar-sand to relax on between snorkeling adventures.

Explore this island park and you’ll find a rich, and at times dark, history. You’ll find chapters that delve into slavery and pirating, a history whose stories reside in the ruins of sugarcane plantations that once covered the island of St. John and in bays and coves that were visited by pirates. And the history extends further back in time, as evidenced by rock faces into which petroglyphs were hammered by ancient cultures.

Cinnamon Bay offers a water-side campground, with sites available on a first-come, first-served basis. Rates range from $37-$93 per night for the first person, depending on whether you choose a bare site, or one with a platform that comes with its own tent, cots, mosquito netting, picnic table, propane gas stove and gas lantern, and more. Each additional person costs $10 or $20.

Those are just a very few warm-weather winter destinations in the National Park System. Others include Gulf Islands National Seashore that sprawls along the Mississippi and Florida coastlands and offers myriad camping, fishing, and snorkeling opportunities; Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida, with its big cypress swamp and tropical vegetation that the winter months make more ideal for exploring, and; any of the Hawaiian national parks, such as Hawaii Volcanoes and Haleakala, or the World War II Valor in the Pacific Park that includes Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial.

Of course, you also can escape the cold weather simply by going indoors at Faneuil Hall at Boston National Historical Park or President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park, New York, or by heading underground at Mammoth Cave National Park.

The possibilities come winter are myriad in the park system, with settings to fit just about anyone’s definition of winter fun.

Comments

The Everglades are amazing in winter. Because there's less water, animals tend to congregate and they're much easier to see. Try the Anhinga Trail.

The anhingas are preening themselves, the alligators and turtles are out in the sun. Plus you can see countless number of herons, egrets, and gallinules, a colorful bird which appears to walk on water. What a wonderful place with kids.