12 reasons to visit national parks in the off-season
1. Yellowstone National Park (Idaho, Montana, Wyoming) — Visitor numbers drop beginning in September each year and continue to progressively slow until the snow coaches begin their winter travels in December. Autumn weather can range from the 70s to the 20s with snow.
2. Zion National Park (Utah) — This park is getting more difficult to navigate with its single road through the park and a mandatory shuttle system in the busy months. You can explore it more freely in the off-season, whether that’s fall or spring. For autumn colors, go in October through mid-November.
3. Grand Teton National Park (Utah) — November is the quietest month in this park. It’s the perfect time to enjoy views of the Teton range, wither on skis or from the warmth of a fireplace. The resort town of Jackson Hole also has a relaxed pace this time of year.
4. Acadia National Park (Maine) — Maine’s winters are as rugged and variable as its coast. But Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island is great for snow enthusiasts. Visitors find 40 miles of cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and dog sledding, as well as opportunities to snowmobile and ice fish.
5. The Grand Canyon (Arizona) — The canyon has a special charm in winter. While the North Rim of the park closes to visitors during the winter, the South Rim offers lodging and services. Hop on the Grand Canyon Train and enjoy a scenic 60-mile ride (they also run a special Polar Express train during the holidays). If there’s enough snow, you can cross-country ski or snowshoe along the Rim Trail.
6. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina, Tennessee) — During January and February, you can enjoy the least-crowded months in the Smoky Mountains. You’ll find quiet trails, historical cabins, and much better visibility from vista points. Look for special events and deals with the Smoky Mountain Winterfest program, which runs November through early March.
7. Olympic National Park (Washington) — This park offers rainforests, mountain peaks, lakes, streams, and the stunning Pacific coastline. If you like snow, Hurricane Ridge has winter recreation opportunities. But the rainforest is lush green during the winter rainy season, while the beaches remain relatively snow-free.
8. Arches National Park (Utah) — The crowds flock to view these unusual rock formations in the spring and fall, so try winter or early spring if you want a quieter visit. The average high in February is 52 degrees Fahrenheit; March is 64.
9. Yosemite National Park (California) — Everything but the traffic and lodging is bursting at the seams during April and May. Waterfalls swell with snowmelt from the mountains, dogwoods are in bloom, and wildlife begins to stir. Hike in the lower mountains, visit the waterfalls, picnic in El Capitan meadow, and watch rock climbers.
10. Everglades National Park (Florida) — The heat and insects of the wet season scare off most visitors in spring and summer, but visit the park in May or June to enjoy the solitude. Wildlife viewing isn’t plentiful, but it’s the peak bloom time for orchids and other wildflowers.
11. Glacier National Park (Montana) — Winter and fall both have their advantages, but you can experience the bike ride of a lifetime if you hit this park just prior to its summer season. By June, much of the road is plowed and open only to bicycles and foot travel, with weekends most favorable to unrestricted access.
12. Denali National Park (Alaska) — Summer is the most popular, but the shoulder seasons (spring and fall) have their special moments, too. In either, you’ll find the snow-capped peaks more dramatic. Fall provides a spectacular display of foliage and glimpses of the northern lights.
From the Nov. 19-25, 2014, issue