Crowds flock to National Parks in the late spring, all through the summer, and into early fall. Even within the Grand Circle, where many parks are quite mild in winter, the amount of visitors drops from November trough February. If you want to skip the sweltering heat and large crowds, consider taking a winter trip to your favorite parks.
Arches National Park
Almost all trails at Arches remain open year-round. However, be aware that some trails, including the popular Delicate Arch, become more icy and slick due to higher elevation and terrain. Popular choices in the winter include Double O Arch, Sand Dune Arch, and Landscape Arch (and the continuing Devil’s Garden loop).
Year-round camping is offered at Devils Garden Campground. An orientation film is also offered year-round at the park visitor center.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
This national park receives a lot of snow, up to 8 feet annually. Thus, cross country skiing has become the most popular winter pastime, and ski tours with local residents are offered. Skiers park at the South Rim Visitor Center and ski the 6 miles of South Rim Drive, which isn’t plowed during snow. It offers access to the overlooks, which transform into a different world during and after snowfall. Snowshoeing is also popular. Using these methods of travel down into the canyon is not advised. Backcountry camping is permitted.
The North Rim Road and East Portal Road are closed in winter.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Many visitors to this park prefer to visit in wintertime, because the snow provides striking contrast and beauty to the unique landscape. Snow plows after recent snowfall may take several hours (or possibly overnight). Plowed roads lead to several of the most popular Bryce Canyon attractions, including Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point, and Bryce Point.
Waterproof hiking boots are necessary to hike any of the trails. Snow is plowed along the walking trails to the overlooks. The only trails that close during winter are Wall Street Slot Canyon (Navajo Loop) and Peekaboo Loop Connector Trail, due to possible snow, mud, or avalanche slides.
Canyonlands National Park
Though many visitor services are unavailable during winter, this park remains open year-round and can be a spectacular destination for winter visitors. Island in the Sky Visitor Center is closed from late December to early March and The Needles Visitor Center is closed late November to early March. Permits are still required for backcountry use, and a self-issuing permit station is located outside The Needles Visitor Center.
Some areas and roads are impassible in snow, such as Peekabo/Horse Canyon, but many trails are great cold-weather destinations. Wildlife sightseeing is a popular winter pastime in the park because the low visitor numbers and remoteness of the area. Photography and jeep tours are also popular in the area in winter due to fewer people, and unique landscapes.
Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park is a lower-elevation park that receives only occasional, light snowfall during winter. Temperatures are mild, and ideal for biking or hiking, such as to Chimney Rock or Hickman Bridge.
Wildlife sightseeing is also an incredible opportunity in the winter months at Capitol Reef. Animals are easier to spot in the snow, and many wander in nearer to people in search for food. The wildlife, landscapes, and activities are all very enjoyable during winter.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Visiting this park during the winter solstice, and seeing the alignment with the Chacoan Great House is a rare and unique activity. Winter days provide mild temperatures in this climate, but freezing nights.
Though the park only puts on a night sky program for visitors April through October, visitors in the winter can still enjoy one of the best places for dark sky viewing available. Visitors can also enjoy visiting other kivas and houses, as well as trails and hiking, like the short Petroglyph trail.
Grand Canyon National Park
Though the canyon receives snow in the winter, the roads are plowed and open for visitors. Some higher-elevation trails, like the popular Bright Angel trail, become icy and slippery. In mid-January, average temperatures may be in the low to mid-40s (fahrenheit).
The bottom of the canyon is more than a mile below that. Hikers who travel to the bottom of the canyon can expect temperatures to be nearly 20 degrees warmer. Multi-day hikes and camping at the bottom of the canyon is a unique and pleasant winter experience.
Great Basin National Park
Lehman Cave Tours, the most popular attraction at the park, are offered year-round. During winter, the group sizes and wait times are much smaller. Trails like Lehman Creek Trail are available in winter, and snowshoes are available for rent at the visitor center. Cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and hiking are popular winter pastimes in the park.
The roads are plowed to the Visitor Center and to Upper Lehman Campground. Camping is available year-round. Backcountry use requires registration at the visitor center.
Mesa Verde National Park
Many years the park hosts special events like skiing/snowshoeing in the moonlight or a special luminaria lighting event, for visitors in winter. Visitors can also enjoy those winter sports anytime on their own, and rent gear in Cortez, CO.
There are ranger-guided tours to Spruce Tree House daily, as well as access to some of the park’s most popular sites, such as Cliff Palace Loop. Check with the visitor center to learn up to date information.
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
Winter in Monument Valley can magical, with snow and such contrast on the monuments, and much fewer crowds. In summer, many people never even leave their car for long, do to the heat, but in winter, the colder temperatures are much more enjoyable to get out and explore the attractions.
Many local guides operate in winter, and can take visitors hiking, camping, horseback riding, or any combination of those activities. Visitors can also visit the visitor center, museum, and the Gouldings Trading Post.
Pecos National Historical Park
The park closes earlier in winter, however, guided tours are still offered. Visitors can still participate in the Civil War Tour, the Pueblos and Missions Tour, and the Forked Lightning Ranch Tour.
Visitors can also learn about the history and culture of the park at the visitor center, which is open year-round.
Petrified Forest National Park
Photography is a particularly popular winter pastime, because the vibrant and contrasting colors stand out even more in the soft winter light. Snowfall can also make for unique photos of the area.
Trails, like to Kachina Point, are often nice hikes in winter months. Visitors can hike, take scenic drives, or visit the visitor center and learn about the park.
Zion National Park
During the winter, you’re more likely to see some animals, like deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and eagles. Zion is one of the most crowded parks, but in winter is much less busy. Visitors can take their own vehicles through the canyon, instead of using the shuttles.
Some hikes, like Angel’s Landing, may be icy and cold, but remain open year-round. You may not want to jump in the Narrows river-hike this time of year, but the snow-capped mesas and vibrant colored canyon will make up for the lack of it.
Always make sure to check in with the visitor center in any park during winter. There you can receive current information on weather conditions, road plowing, and other recommendations. Also, remember, in slickrock country trails can be tricky to identify even in normal conditions. Snow cover can make it more difficult, so use caution and pay extra attention to cairns (stacked rocks that often mark trails on sandstone or sand dune terrain).