A Breathtaking Look at Our National Parks in Winter

Winter wonderland

Photo: Charles Knowles/Shutterstock

When the temperature drops and the snow falls, you can stay inside and snuggle under a blanket or you can head for the great outdoors and experience the amazing sights of Mother Nature in winter. The sights seems to be particularly amazing at many of the country's national parks. Not only do they offer spectacular frosty scenery when cold weather sets in, there's also plenty to do outside as long as you're willing to bundle up.

From Arches National Park in Utah (shown here) to the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, here's a look at some breathtaking images of winter wonderland in our national parks. Whether you're an armchair traveler or ready to pack your bags, enjoy the trip.

Yellowstone National Park

Photo: Yellowstone National Park [public domain]/Flickr

Winter visits to Yellowstone can be challenging but fun because of restricted vehicle access. You arrive at the entrance, then hop on a snowcoach or snowmobile to get around the park. Because most park roads close to traffic in early November, snowcoach and snowmobiles are the only way to visit Old Faithful, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and other popular destinations until about mid-April.

Most lodges and restaurants are closed, but some visitor centers and warming huts stay open to offer shelter from the cold. There are guided snowshoe tours, ski and snowshoe rentals, and an ice skating rink, weather permitting.

Grand Canyon National Park

Photo: Grand Canyon National Park [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is closed to vehicle traffic in winter and conditions on the South Rim can be very extreme. That doesn't stop serious hikers from layering up and heading from the South Rim to the North Rim for a multi-day walking and camping adventure in one of the most inaccessible wilderness spots in the nation.

In the canyon, visitors might see mule deer and bald eagles, as well as California condors, elk, ravens and Albert's squirrels.

Backcountry permits are often easier to obtain in winter because there aren't as many requests. Mule trips from the South Rim down into the canyon are held in winter, weather permitting.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Photo: Dean Pennala/Shutterstock

Much of the year it can be difficult to see wildlife in the Great Smoky Mountains because so much of the park is covered by dense forest. But in winter, wildlife is easier to spot because the deciduous trees have lost their leaves. That's when it's easier to see black bear, white-tailed deer, elk, turkeys, woodchucks and other animals.

At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Smokies. Year-round, temperatures are 10 to 20 degrees cooler than in the surrounding lower areas. In winter, that difference can be particularly startling. The dome's observation tower is open all year, but the road leading to it is closed from December through March. So if you want to enjoy the best views of the park, be prepared to bundle up and hike.

Yosemite National Park

Photo: Min C. Chiu/Shutterstock.com

Most of Yosemite is cold and covered in snow in winter with some roads closed for the season. Don't plan on heading to Glacier Point by car, for example. Popular areas, like Yosemite Valley and Wawona, however, are accessible by vehicle year-round. Tire chains are often required on many park roads, so be sure you have them and know how to use them.

Downhill and cross-country skiing are popular in the park in winter in the designated area. There are options for wilderness campers who want to stay outdoors or in ski huts. And the Snow Creek Trail is for advanced skiers and snowshoers who want a real challenge. The hike ends up at the popular six-person Snow Creek Cabin.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Photo: Brian Wolski/Shutterstock

Snow doesn't stop people from heading outside in Colorado, and the Rocky Mountains are no exception. Outdoor winter activities range from snowshoeing and cross-country skiing to sledding and wildlife watching. Don't have your own equipment? No problem. There are several shops where you can rent or buy snowshoes, cross-country skis, poles, boots, sleds, tubes, saucers and anything else you need to enjoy outdoor activities in the park. Winter is also an especially good time to see elk, mule deer, moose and other animals.

The park is open year-round, but some roads and facilities may be closed in winter due to weather. Expect deep snow at higher elevations.

Grand Teton National Park

Photo: Grand Teton [public domain]/Flickr

The Grand Tetons are a popular place in winter for snowshoers, cross-country skiers and people just wishing to take in the wintry wonderland of the Wyoming national park. To prepare for visitors, the park's main roadways, US 89/191 and US 26/287, are plowed and open for travel, and those paths offer plenty of wildlife viewing and mountain views. Inner park roads may be closed based on weather conditions, however.

In addition to ranger-guided snowshoe walks, you can explore the park on your own — even via snowmobiles. If you're hoping to see some wildlife, keep your eyes open for moose, elk, mule deer, bison and pronghorn. You may also see grizzly and black bears, wolves and mountain lions, but they are often more difficult to spot.

Badlands National Park

Photo: Jiratthitikaln Maurice/Shutterstock

Winter isn't the most popular time to head to the Badlands to check out the famous buttes, gullies, canyons and fossil beds, but for the adventurous sort, less-crowded trails mean more solitary, peaceful paths through this rugged South Dakota park. Road and trail closures depend on weather conditions with limited campground availability during the winter months.

Check in with the year-round visitor's center before you go exploring to get the scoop on any weather-related advisories. Then head out into the snow and cold and look for bison, bobcats, mule deer, pronghorn and bighorn sheep.

Olympic National Park

Photo: Tobin Akehurst/Shutterstock

Most of Olympic National Park stays open and accessible in winter with a few programs and facilities closed. Just be prepared for rain and snow, as a sunny day can end up in a blizzard or a torrential downpour. Open on weekends, the popular Hurricane Ridge is the place to be for outdoor winter sports like showshoeing, cross-country and downhill skiing, tubing and snowboarding.

If you're looking to avoid the snow, the Pacific Coast beaches are typically snow-free and perfect for a sandy stroll at low tide. If you don't mind getting damp, check out the Hoh and Quinault rainforests. Winter is the wet season, but that means incredibly lush, green foliage in the rainforests, which get an average of 12 feet of rain each year.

Arches National Park

Photo: Dan Sedran/Shutterstock

Large snowfalls are uncommon at Arches National Park in Utah, but that doesn't mean visiting in winter isn't challenging. It can be cold and even a light dusting of snow can close roads and make trails slippery and hard going. Just prepare for the adventure and know that the facilities and opportunities may be limited in the winter months. There are no ranger-led hikes or campfire hikes, for example.

But the trade-off is a tranquil, less crowded park, leaving you plenty of time to explore the more than 2,000 documented arches in the park.