At the time of going to press, some hiking trails, campsites and shops are closed due to Covid-19 precautions. Before you get started, visit each website to check for security logs and possible closures.
Summer road trips in national parks feel like an American rite of passage. But in winter? Then the hardest thing is to travel to the wildest places in our country to experience snow-capped volcanic landscapes, cool desert vibes and empty beaches. We have compiled regional road trip suggestions in different parts of the country to help you explore some of the lesser-known national parks in your area during the least busy time of the year.
(Photo: Courtesy California)
On the southern border of California’s Sierra Nevada, there are two breathtaking national parks next to each other: Sequoia and Kings Canyon. Well worth visiting both. It’s a five-hour drive from Los Angeles or four hours from San Francisco to get here. In the winter, find ranger-led snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and the world’s largest tree – General Sherman, a towering sequoia weighing more than 2.7 million pounds – covered in snow. Book a room or cabin at Buckeye Tree Lodge (from $ 129) just outside the Sequoia National Park entrance in the town of Three Rivers.
From there, it’s four hours to Death Valley National Park, where you’ll appreciate the contrast between snow-capped peaks and rolling sand dunes in a basin below sea level. The climate in Death Valley is ideal in the winter months. Hike the trail along the southwest rim of a dormant volcano at Death Valley’s Ubehebe Crater and meander along Artist’s Drive, a nine-mile-long road that winds through slopes colorfully tinted with volcanic sediment. Furnace Creek Campground ($ 22 USD) is open year-round and is the only campsite in the park that accepts reservations.
(Photo: AdamIsovitsch / iStock)
Just 90 minutes from Washington, DC, you’ll find the forested hills of Catoctin Mountain Park, a small but picturesque Maryland national park with 25 miles of hiking trails and the presidential retreat from Camp David in a top secret area. If you’re a rock climber, year-round bouldering and sport climbing is available at Wolf Rock, a short hike from the park’s visitor center. For non-climbers, the four-mile circular hike to Chimney Rock promises panoramic views. The park offers year-round campgrounds in rustic backcountry accommodations (starting at $ 10) that are accessible via a three-mile hike.
A visit to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park is only 23 miles west. The C&O Canal, which features a multi-purpose dirt and stone hiking trail, stretches 185 miles from Washington, DC, along the Potomac River to Cumberland, Maryland. Driving along the C&O Canal Scenic Byway is a great road trip.
Continue to the beaches of Assateague Island National Seashore, a 40-mile stretch of coastline over Maryland and Virginia. Beach camping (starting at $ 30) fills up months in advance in the summer, but November through March campsites are always there first, served first, and far less busy. You will pitch a tent on the sand of this barrier island amid herds of wild horses.
Enjoy a half-day drive to New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia, where the famous New River Gorge Bridge stretches across the water and climbers flock to the sandstone walls along the gorge. The park has more than 100 miles of hiking trails. Sleep nearby in a tree house (starting at $ 201; via Airbnb) hung in an ancient forest.
(Photo: gnagel / iStock)
While the crowds in the well-known national parks in southern Utah such as Arches and Zion also converge in the winter months, the parks in New Mexico remain off the radar. From Denver, it’s an eight-hour drive to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a remote archaeological site in northern New Mexico designated as the International Dark Sky Park for its excellent stargazing. The trails here are covered in snow in winter, but you can still study the architectural masterpieces of the ancestral Puebloans and look through a telescope into a clear night sky. Travel three hours east to visit the historic pueblo of Taos and spend the night in a vintage trailer across from Taos Mesa Brewing at Hotel Luna Mystica (from $ 95).
Drive six hours south to reach White Sands National Park, whose stunning dunes look snow-white and are just as fun as sledding in the snow. Winter is a great time to visit while avoiding the scorching summer temperatures. Hike through the dunes on five designated trails or continue your road trip along Dunes Drive, an eight-mile long road that takes you into the heart of the dunes. Located about an hour from the dunes, this one-bedroom casita (from $ 75; via Airbnb) in a historic adobe home in San Miguel has its own hot tub.
The Texas border is another three hours to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, where you can explore several of the underground caves and miles of above-ground hiking trails through the Chihuahuan Desert on your own. The park’s gateway city, White’s City, is full of inns.
(Photo: Courtesy Idaho Tourism)
In summer and fall, climbers head to the City of Rocks National Reserve in southern Idaho – about three hours north of Salt Lake City or more than ten hours from Seattle – to scale the granite expanses for which the park is known. But in winter the place is practically empty. You can find ice climbing for beginners, or you can go cross-country skiing on the unploughed roads throughout the park. Stay at the 11 room Almo Inn (from $ 120) in the nearby town of Almo.
Well worth making a long detour to the town of Boise, Idaho, where skiing in the Bogus Basin is less than an hour from downtown. You can make reservations for a hot spring bath or book a private tub (from $ 20) at The Springs in nearby Idaho City. The Modern Hotel (from USD 116) has elegant rooms and an attached bar (currently closed due to COVID-19) in Boise’s artsy linen district.
At the Craters of the Moon National Monument, about three hours from Boise outside the city of Arco, Idaho, you can snowshoe or cross-country ski touring lava tubes along the park’s often groomed Craters’ Loop Road, which is closed to cars from November through April .
Want more? It’s a half-day drive from Craters of the Moon to see the iconic scenery of Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone, which are far less crowded in winter and equally breathtakingly covered in snow.
Main photo: YayaErnst / iStock