9 Magnificent National Parks to Experience in Winter

Half Dome rises above the Merced River with white snow and evergreen trees covering the riverbank Yosemite National Park, California.
A snowy view of Half Dome above the Merced River during the winter in Yosemite National Park.

Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images / Getty Images

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. The pristine conditions and massive size of U.S. national parks make them particularly striking in winter. Not only do the parks offer an incredible frosty backdrop when cold weather sets in, but there's also plenty to do outside if you're willing to bundle up.

Here are nine national parks that are spectacular to experience in winter.

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Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho)

View of a small stream and hills at Yellowstone National Park blanketed in snow and covered by a forest of evergreen trees

Yellowstone NPS / Flickr / Public Domain

Primarily located in Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park extends into Montana and Idaho as well. The beauty of Yellowstone in winter makes it well worth the trip. Due to restricted vehicle access, however, winter visits can be challenging. You can drive yourself to the entrance but then need to 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.

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Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)

snow-capped mountains of Grand Canyon with blue sky and white clouds above

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The uniquely beautiful view of the Grand Canyon blanketed in snow is a special sight to see. However, conditions can be quite extreme. Portions of Grand Canyon National Park—including the North Rim—do not permit vehicle traffic in winter, and conditions on the South Rim can be quite severe. That doesn't stop serious hikers from layering up and heading from the South Rim to the North Rim for a multiday walking and camping adventure in one of the most inaccessible wilderness spots in the nation.

Situated in the northern half of Arizona, the park offers visitors the opportunity to 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.

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee and North Carolina)

Five horses graze during a snowfall in the Cades Cove section of the Great Smoky Mountains with a stand of brown trees and a snow-capped mountains in the distance

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One of the benefits of heading to the Great Smoky Mountains in winter is the opportunity to see wildlife. Due to the park's dense forest, it can be difficult to spot wild animals for much of the year. But in winter, after the deciduous trees have lost their leaves, the park, which straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, offers visitors the best chances 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 elevations. 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 in winter, be prepared to bundle up and hike.

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Yosemite National Park (California)

Cathedral Peaks and the Merced River blanked in white snow on a clear day with a blue sky in Yosemite National Park

Ron and Patty Thomas / Getty Images

Most of Yosemite, which is located in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, is covered with snow in winter. As a result, access is limited as some of the park's roads close 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 also options for wilderness campers who want to stay outdoors or in ski huts. The Snow Creek Trail is for advanced skiers and snowshoers who want a real challenge. Visitors willing to take a seven-mile hike with a 4,000-foot elevation change will arrive at the popular six-person Snow Creek Cabin.

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Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado)

Snow blanketing the ground with evergreen trees and snow-capped Rocky Mountains in the background and blue sky with white clouds above

Anna Stolarczyk / EyeEm / Getty Images

Snow doesn't stop people from heading outside in Colorado, and Rocky Mountain National Park is no exception. Outdoor winter activities range from snowshoeing and cross-country skiing to sledding and wildlife watching. Visitors without their own equipment can rent or buy snowshoes, cross-country skis, poles, boots, sleds, tubes, saucers, and anything else needed 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. Even if there is not significant snowfall at lower elevations, visitors to the park should anticipate deep snow at higher elevations.

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Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming)

Grand Tetons covered in white snow with a forest of evergreens in the foreground and a clear blue sky in the background

Grand Teton NPS / Flickr / Public Domain

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, U.S. 89/191 and U.S. 26/287, remain plowed and open for travel throughout the winter. These paths offer plenty of wildlife viewing and mountain views. Some of the park's inner 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 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.

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Badlands National Park (South Dakota)

Rock formations of Badlands National Park blanketed in a thin layer of snow with some portions of brown ground cover visible and a light blue sky with a layer of clouds in background

Tzam / Getty Images

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, and there is limited campground availability during the winter months.

Check in with the year-round visitor's center before you begin 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.

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Olympic National Park (Washington)

Hurricane Ridge at Olympic National Park with a layer of white snow in the foreground and evergreen trees and snow capped mountains in the background with a sliver of light blue sky above

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The nearly million-acre Olympic National Park in Washington offers a wide array of experiences for winter visitors. Most of the park remains open and accessible in winter with a few programs and facilities closed. Be prepared for rain and snow, as a sunny day can end up in a blizzard or a torrential downpour. The road leading to popular Hurricane Ridge is open on the weekends in winter. This is the place to be for outdoor winter sports like snowshoeing, cross-country and downhill skiing, tubing, and snowboarding.

If you're looking to avoid the snow, the Pacific Coast beaches are typically snow-free in winter 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.

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Arches National Park (Utah)

Red rock formations in the Windows Section of Arches National Park, in Utah, with small, green plants in foreground and snowcapped La Sal Mountain Range in the background

Rebecca L. Latson / Getty Images

Large snowfalls are uncommon at Arches National Park in Utah, but that doesn't mean visiting in winter isn't a different experience. It can be quite 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 facilities and opportunities may be limited in the winter months. There are no ranger-led hikes or campfire hikes in winter, 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 natural stone arches there.