Essential Park Guide, Winter: Exchange Leafy Summer Trails For Snowy Forests

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Paradise at Mount Rainier National Park is the kicking off point for many snowshoe adventures. Deby Dixon photo.

Winter in the National Park System often brings to mind frosty snowscapes, places where you can skim on skinny skis, or clomp along in snowshoes that, though a bit cumbersome, help you go places you might not venture without them.

There are numerous places to ski or snowshoe in the park system, too many to list here. But here’s a cross-section of locations across the United States, places where you can get out into the landscape for wonder, photography, or simple fun.

Many of these locations have regular ranger-led snowshoe tours once the winter sets in in earnest, so check with your favorite park before heading out.

Just remember to go prepared, though. Snacks, water, sunscreen, sunglasses, layers of clothing you can add or subtract depending on how hard you’re working, all help you enjoy your outing.

And if you’re really going on an adventure, maps, fire-starters, and leaving word with someone all are essential. Don’t become the focus of a search-and-rescue mission. Finally, some trail etiquette: snowshoers should stay out of cross-country ski tracks and uphill traffic has the right-of-way over downhill traffic.

Eastern United States

Acadia National Park

For snow conditions: 207-288-3338

Acadia might be best known for summer-time lobster bakes and exploring tidal pools for colorful marine life, but on those wonderful occasions when a winter storm blankets Mount Desert Island with snow the park’s 45 miles of Carriage Roads turn into playgrounds for cross-country skiers and snowshoers. Cross-country tracks sometimes are set by volunteers. You can check the park’s website for current trail conditions, while the Carriage Road User's Map can help you find your way on the carriage roads. You may also cross-country ski on unplowed park roads. Just be careful, as snowmobiles are permitted to use most of these unplowed park roads.

Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Site

For snow conditions: (802) 457-3368

This oft-overlooked unit of the National Park System near Woodstock, Vermont, has 20 miles of trails and carriage roads that, come winter and snowfall, are used only for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. The carriage roads date to the late 1800s when Frederick Billings oversaw their construction through the pastures and woodlots on the property. Those woodlots, by the way, now host some 400-year-old hemlocks. The average winter snow fall here is 80 inches, and the trails are usually in good condition for skiing between January and March, according to park officials. You can check on current conditions by calling park headquarters at (802) 457-3368.

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When snows come to Acadia National Park skinny skis arrive, too. NPS photo.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

For snow conditions:

(865) 436-1200

Great Smoky can offer some great, and challenging, snowshoeing. You just need to time your trek with the storms. When it snows in the Smokies the road to Clingmans Dome is closed to vehicles but available for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. There’s even a volunteer Nordic Ski Patrol that serves as a contact point for visitors using Clingmans Dome Road during winter. Among their many responsibilities are reporting weather conditions, providing cold weather emergency medical services, and assisting with search and rescue. Of course, there are plenty of other trails you can venture down when the snow piles up. The Appalachian National Scenic Trail can be accessed from Newfound Gap, and you can head north or south if there’s enough snow cover.

Mid-America

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

This lakeside park offers snowshoers 45 miles of trails perfect for exploring winter. Cross-country skiers also are welcome, and most repeaters head to the Ly-co-ki-we and Inland Marsh trails for skinny skiing. Lakeshore officials say the best option for cross-country skiing is the Glenwood Dunes Trail. The 6.4-mile trail is a series of interconnecting loops through gently rolling wooded dunes. This trail can be accessed from either the Calumet Dunes Trail parking lot or the nearby Glenwood Dunes Trailhead parking lot. The 3-mile Tolleston Dunes Trail is a good choice for advanced skiers. There are some difficult hills that can be tricky to navigate.

If the snow cover isn’t deep enough for skiing or snowshoeing, you can walk the Lake Michigan beaches and admire the shelf ice that piles up here. But park officials warn you that despite its appearance, the shelf ice is not solid. “In fact, due to the way it is formed, the shelf ice has numerous air pockets. It can be difficult to tell where the ice ends and the beach begins,” they say. “Don't walk on the shelf ice! A person applying even a small amount of weight on the ice can easily fall through and into frigid water that can quickly kill.”

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

For snow conditions: 906-387-2607

Pictured Rocks might sit on Lake Superior, but it offers 20 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails in the rimming forests. The Sand Point Snowshoe Trail is a 1.5 mile-long-loop trail beginning on Sand Point Road at the Sand Point Marsh Trailhead just a quarter-mile south of the park’s headquarters.

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Time your visit right to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and you can ski or snowshoe right out to Lake Michigan. NPS photo.

Other snowshoe treks at Pictured Rocks include the 5.6-mile round trip into Miners Falls from the “end of plowing” on the Miners Castle Road, the 6.5-mile round trip to Miners Castle from the “end of plowing” on the Miners Castle Road, the 6-mile round trip into Beaver Lake from H-58 via the summer access road, and the 10-mile trip to Chapel Falls from H-58 via the summer access road.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

For snow conditions: 231-326-5134

Sleeping Bear Dunes offers outstanding cross country skiing and snowshoeing on a variety of trails and terrain. The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is groomed for both classic track and skate skiing. Other ski trails are not groomed but are usually well tracked by previous skiers. Ranger-led snowshoe tours are offered every Saturday during winter beginning the first weekend of January. All hikes will begin at the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center on Highway M-72 at the edge of the village of Empire at 1 p.m. Call the Visitor Center at 231-326-5134, ext. 328 to make a reservation.

St. Croix National Scenic Riverway

A visit to the national scenic riverway that is bordered on the east by Wisconsin and the west by Minnesota is a great excuse to dig out those snowshoes or cross country skis and put them to work. During the winter months park staff regularly groom the Trego Lake Ski Trail, which offers 3.6 miles of beginning to intermediate skiing in three loops. Along the way you'll have a number of scenic overlooks to pause for a rest and to view the river and see if any wildlife is out and about. Snowshoers have their pick from the riverway's many hiking trails once they get buried in fluff. The Sandrock Cliff Trail provides a 5-mile-loop of beginning to intermediate skiing. One side of the loop follows the river while the other side is more interior, providing a wide variety of terrain and scenery.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

For snow conditions: 701-623-4730

Sure, it gets cold and snowy in North Dakota. That's why you have to keep moving when you're outdoors. At Theodore Roosevelt National Park, they'll help you stay warm by leading snowshoe and cross-country ski treks across the park's North Unit. Rangers lead 90-minute jaunts that “focus on the winter landscape and the ways that wildlife has adapted to winter in the badlands." These outings typically fall in February, but check the park’s website for the most up-to-date information. Otherwise, cross-country skiers can blaze their own trails through the snow. The best places to ski are on the frozen Little Missouri River and on closed park roads.

Voyageurs National Park

For snow conditions: (218) 286-5258

When the snow piles up and the moon is full rangers often lead moonlight snowshoe hikes at Voyageurs in addition to their weekly daylight tours. Snowmobilers (who have more than 110 miles of trail to ride), skiers, and snowshoers alike benefit from warming huts made possible by Polaris Industries Inc. and Voyageurs National Park Association. Voyageurs National Park, the International Falls Community Education Department and the Friends of Voyageurs National Park have partnered to offer cross-country ski rentals at the Rainy Lake Visitor Center. There are a large number of adult-sized skis, poles, and boots available during regular visitor center hours for $5.00 a day. Children's skis, boots and poles are available free-of-charge during regular visitor center hours. Call the Rainy Lake Visitor Center at (218) 286-5258 for availability.

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The Oberholtzer Trail at Voyageurs National Park can be particularly challenging if you're breaking the trail. NPS photo.

The Rockies

Bryce Canyon National Park

For Snow conditions: 435-834-5322

The combination of white snow atop red-rock formations make Bryce Canyon an appealing winter destination for cross-country skiers and snowshoers. The Navajo Loop Trail is a "must do" experience, one preferably traversed early in the morning before anyone else has had the chance to put footprints on virgin snow. Trails dropping below the rim are open to snowshoeing and hiking, but hikers are encouraged to check with the Visitor Center for weather updates.

Cross-country skiing is permitted on top of the plateau (above the rim), but no skiing, snowboarding or other sliding is allowed below the rim. You might schedule your trip to coincide with the full moon, and then join a ranger for a night-time snowshoe hike. These events are free and open to 60 visitors, but you have to get a ticket at the Visitor Center to join the hike. Check with the park’s website for dates of this winter’s snowshoe hikes. There are more than 50 kilometers of groomed cross-country ski trails -- most surrounding the park on adjoining national forest lands.

Cedar Breaks National Monument

For snow conditions: 435-586-9451

While winter snows closed the road into the park, Cedar Breaks remains open for hardy skiers or snowshoers. A yurt located in the northern part of Cedar Breaks serves as a visitor center of sorts. It is staffed on weekends by volunteers between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., conditions allowing. When there's enough snow, trails for crossing-country skiers and snowshoers will be marked from the north park boundary along the north rim of the breaks, and along the Alpine Pond Trail. Guided snowshoe walks typically are offered every Saturday in January and February. Once the winter season sets in in earnest you can get information by calling the park at 435-586-9451.

Glacier National Park

For snow conditions: 406-888-7800

Though accessibility is limited in winter, Glacier nevertheless offers some wonderful cross-country skiing and snowshoeing opportunities. You can find ski trails at Apgar, Lake McDonald, North Fork, St. Mary, Two Medicine, and Marias Pass. Most, however, are unmarked. Snowshoeing, of course, can be done wherever you find enough snow, whether that’s along the shores of Lake McDonald or heading up the Going-to-the-Sun Road. For organized outings, check with the Glacier National Park Conservancy (406-892-3250), the Glacier Institute (406.755.1211), or the park staff (406) 888-7800). Possibilities range from ranger-led snowshoe jaunts to more in-depth snow courses offered by the Institute. The Conservancy, meanwhile, offers both snowshoe and cross-country skiing outings.

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Red-rock, white snow, and green conifers are dazzling under blue skies at Bryce Canyon National Park. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Grand Teton National Park

For snow conditions: (307) 739-3399

Winter is snowy, and can be extremely cold, at Grand Teton, but the opportunities for exploring the park’s landscape are many. You can head down the Teton Park Road, which is open only to snowshoers and cross-country skiers from the Taggart Lake Trailhead parking area to Signal Mountain Lodge-a distance of 15 miles- or explore trails along the Moose-Wilson Road, the Colter Bay area, or farther north near Flagg Ranch. Some areas are closed in winter to lessen the impact on wildlife, so be sure to check at the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center for that information. Also, in the past the park has offered daily, two-hour snowshoe excursions from the visitor center. Call the center at (307) 739-3399 to check on this winter’s schedule and to make reservations. Also, barring budget cuts, full-moon snowshoe tours are offered once a month.

Mesa Verde National Park

970-529-4622 or 970-529-4631 for trail conditions

Few folks likely would consider a winter visit to Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado, but those who do can combine snowshoeing or cross-country skiing with exploring some of the cliff dwellings. When there’s enough snow, the park grooms several trails for snowshoeing and skiing, while parts of the Wetherill Road are available for ungroomed skiing. Winter trails can be found on the Cliff Palace Loop, Wetherill Road Trail, Prater Canyon and Morefield Campground trails. The total distance covered by these trails is about 28 miles, and 20.4 of those miles aren't groomed. The ungroomed skiing is located on Wetherill Road, which is closed to vehicular traffic. To find out if winter trails are open, call the Chief Ranger's Office (Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.) at 970-529-4622, or the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum (7 days a week, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) at 970-529-4631

Rocky Mountain National Park

For snow conditions: 970-586-1206

Exploring Rocky Mountain National Park by snowshoe is a wondrous experience, and park rangers are ready to lead you into this park. Not only will you enjoy the solitude that winter brings to the park, but also gain opportunities to spy wildlife that somehow tolerate the cold and snow. Park rangers offer ranger-led snowshoe ecology walks for beginner-level snowshoers on the east side, and for beginner and intermediate-level snowshoers and cross-country skiers on the west side of the park. Reservations are required, but there is no additional fee beyond the regular park entrance fee. Check with the park staff at 970-586-1206 for scheduling information. Tubing is another fun winter activity at Rocky Mountain, with families heading to Bear Lake to slide down the mountainsides and out onto the ice-covered lake. A good cross-country option is Trail Ridge Road. Since the road is closed to traffic in the winter, it provides a nice wide path without any obstacles. Of course, you'll have to break your own trail.

Yellowstone National Park

For snow conditions: 307-344-7381

Yellowstone has miles of trails for the adventurous skier and snowshoer. Whether you are skiing a groomed trail in a developed area or venturing into the backcountry, remember that you are traveling in wilderness with all its potential dangers: unpredictable wildlife, changing weather conditions, hydrothermal areas, deep snow, open streams, and avalanches. Approximately 35 miles of trails are groomed for cross-country skiers, some on the Grand Loop Road, some on trails that parallel the road, and some that head out from roads across the landscape. Maps and trail brochures are available for trails in the Mammoth, Tower, Northeast, and West Yellowstone/Gallatin areas. These trails range from easy to difficult, so be sure to gauge your experience honestly and take a map.

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Is there a better view on skis or snowshoes than of Crater Lake and Wizard Island? NPS photo.

West Coast

Crater Lake National Park

For snow conditions: (541)594-3100

With snow already piling up deep at Crater Lake National Park, park rangers are ready to lead you on snowshoe hikes into the landscape. In past years weekly snowshoe treks have been held every Saturday and Sunday through the end of April. Crater Lake is one of the snowiest inhabited places in America, receiving an average of 44 feet of snow per year. The ranger-led snowshoe walks are a fun way to explore this winter wonderland while learning how plants, animals, and people survive in the deep snow. The walks last 2 hours and cover approximately 1 mile of moderately strenuous terrain. They wind through forests and meadows along the rim of Crater Lake. Participants should be at least 8 years old, be in reasonably good physical condition, and come prepared with warm clothing and water-resistant footwear.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

(530) 595-4480 for snow conditions

Although the park highway usually closes by mid-November, you can access the park year-round. Throughout the winter the park highway is plowed to the southwest parking area on the south side of the park and to the Loomis Museum on the north side of the park. Ranger-led snowshoe hikes head out from the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center. During these hikes rangers discuss the basics of snowshoeing, winter survival, and winter ecology. The vast majority of Lassen Volcanic's backcountry provides unparalleled opportunities for challenging and relaxed skiing. The Loomis Museum and the Southwest Parking Area are popular starting spots to ski the 29 mile snow-covered Main Park Road. There are very few marked backcountry/wilderness winter skiing trails.

Mount Rainier National Park

360-569-6575 for snow conditions

Mount Rainier offers endless terrain for snowshoers, and rangers typically offer weekly walks at Paradise. Snow conditions permitting, the walks are generally offered on Saturdays, Sundays, holidays, and daily during winter break (December 21 - January 1).

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Snowshoeing is a popular activity at Lassen Volcanic National Park. NPS photo.

After early January, walks are only offered on Saturdays and Sundays, and holidays. Walks start at 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m and meet inside the Jackson Visitor Center. Sign up at the information desk beginning one hour before the start time.These hikes generally cover 1.5 miles over two hours. Organized groups of 13-25 people may reserve a snowshoe walk in advance. Paradise also is a recreational hub for sledding and tubing on the flanks of the mountain. Skiers can take to unplowed roads, some marked trails, and, for the experienced, unmarked routes. A map of trails in the Paradise area can be found on the park’s website.

Sequoia National Park

559-565-3341 for snow conditions

Imagine snowshoeing or cross-country skiing below some of the world's tallest trees. That's what awaits those who visit Sequoia during the winter months. Before, or after, you hit the trails, stop by the Giant Forest Museum to learn more about the giant trees and this part of the High Sierra and to pick up ski maps and books. Two miles north of the museum is the General Sherman Tree. When snow closes the upper Sherman Tree parking lot, you can usually find parking in the lower lot located by the Generals Highway. If there is enough snow on the ground, the Wolverton area is open for snowplay. Find your way to Kings Canyon National Park and at Grant Grove you can attend the annual Nation's Christmas Tree Ceremony, which is held on the second Sunday each December.

Alaska

Kenai Fjords National Park

For snow conditions: (907) 422-0500

Visiting Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park during the winter is getting a little bit easier now that the National Park Service has authorized snowcoach travel to the popular destination. With the advent of operations in the park, Adventure Sixty North, a commercial snowcoach operation, became the first such activity authorized in a unit of the National Park System in Alaska. The company provides scenic tours and guided snowshoe walks, and passengers can be dropped off to enjoy winter activities on their own. The park has authorized four round-trips per day and no commercial services Tuesday through Thursday after 1 p.m. Rates range from $20 per person for a one-way ride, up to $60 per person for drop off and later pick up. Additional information can be found at the company's website.