A summer vacation to America’s national parks has been a rite of passage for generations of Americans—a pilgrimage made each season ever since the country’s best idea became reality a century ago. Each summer, millions travel in search of the unique blend of natural awe and national pride that our most treasured landscapes inspire. Yet these warm-season sightseers are missing what might be the parks’ best-kept secret: winter.
While Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park is typically jam-packed from June through August, cold weather brings the same striking scenery and abundant wildlife but far smaller crowds. From December to March, an Old Faithful eruption seldom attracts more than 15 onlookers, says park spokeswoman Sandy Snell-Dobert, compared to hundreds who gather every hour all summer long. And Yellowstone’s geysers, steam vents, and hot springs are especially spectacular in the frigid winter air, billowing steam up to 1,000 feet high and frosting the surroundings like a scene from Frozen. “You get these completely white-coated trees,” Snell-Dobert says. “It looks like Christmas gone wild.”
Freezing temperatures yield a fresh take on other familiar—and relatively unfamiliar—park landscapes, from ice-coated coastal cliffs in Maine’s Acadia National Park to the snow-covered forests of Sequoia & Kings Canyon in California. For parks with hotter climates, winter is actually high season: it’s by far the most pleasant time to enjoy the sawgrass marshes of the Florida Everglades and the desert scenes of Arizona’s Saguaro National Park.
This winter, the National Park Service’s centennial celebration is already in full swing, with fee-free park days and tons of new activities. Don’t wait until school’s out to join the party: get started now at these winter wonders.