While most people visit national parks in the summer, some might argue that the winter is even better. Crowds have often dissipated and you can have entire trails (or regions!) to yourself if you time it right. With less traffic, wildlife spotting becomes easier, the trails are more peaceful, and you get to see some of the country’s most awe-inspiring landscapes softened under a blanket of snow.
Whether you feel like bundling up for serious winter weather—or you’re heading south to enjoy the sunshine—here are some of the best day hikes in national parks you can explore this winter in the mountains, desert, and everything in between.
1. Otter Cave Hammock Trail, Everglades National Park
Distance: 1 mile
Want to see a plethora of the wildlife Florida has to offer without venturing too deep into the groves? There’s no shortage of mellow hikes to explore the Everglades, but your chances of seeing alligators and other swampy creatures is especially high along this walking path that’s easily connected to driveable roads. This short path can flood in the summer, and besides, winter is a far more pleasant time to venture down to the Everglades.
2. Ocean Path, Acadia National Park
Distance: 4 miles
Acadia is a frigid winter wonderland. Many of the steeper trails become too icy and unpredictable for winter hiking, which makes you appreciate the tamer walking paths and incredible views this park affords. Ocean Path is a perfect outing for the entire family, traversing two miles point-to-point above the granite-lined shore between Sand Beach and Otter Point. Stop and admire the crashing waves at Thunder Hole, which create an especially dramatic contrast to the peaceful, snow-covered trees during the winter months.
3. Gower Gulch Loop in Golden Canyon, Death Valley National Park
Distance: 4.5 miles
Mild temperatures make winter the best time to visit Death Valley, as you can enjoy the mountain ranges that frame the valley floor and glow vibrantly in the morning and evening. The geologically fascinating Golden Canyon is easily accessible from the Oasis facilities and campgrounds, and there are plenty of options for out-and-backs of varying distances and difficulties. Gower Gulch Loop is a good choice, with plenty of detour possibilities, including a trip up to Manly Beacon for a photo op.
4. Whiteoak Canyon Trail, Shenandoah National Park
Distance: 4.8 miles
It’s hard to pick a “best” hike in Shenandoah, but with six waterfalls along the length of this route, the Whiteoak Canyon Trail is up there as far as the effort-to-reward ratio goes. The density of waterfalls, location of the trail, and abundance of warm-weather swimming holes make the trail highly traveled in the summer. But it’s a different experience under a blanket of snow. Keep an eye out for the many birds that call Shenandoah home throughout the year, including several species of woodpecker.
5. Marble Falls Trail, Sequoia National Park
Distance: 6.4 miles
With summer temperatures reaching into the scorching triple digits, this region of Sequoia National Park is best hiked in the shoulder seasons or winter. The trailhead for Marble Falls is easily found at Potwisha Campground, and the trail begins by winding through the woods before climbing switchbacks along the canyon wall. The trail continues into expansive views as the shrubbery thins, arriving at Marble Falls as the rewarding terminus. Bring microspikes for traction in case of icy spots, especially on the descent.
6. Snow Creek Trail, Yosemite National Park
Distance: 9.5 miles
Ready to work for your views? This is one of the most incredible year-round trails in Yosemite, but you’ll work during the grueling ascent to have your efforts rewarded with breathtaking views of the valley below. The shuttle drops you off at the Mirror Lake trailhead, where you’ll begin hiking on a gentle trail for a short and sweet warm up before climbing steep switchbacks past views of Tenaya Canyon across from the iconic silhouette of Half Dome. Bring snowshoes and enjoy the relative solitude compared to the summer crowds that pack this section of the park.
7. Fairyland Loop Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park
Distance: 8 miles
High elevation and desert terrain make this region a visual stunner in the winter, and more than anything else in this park, the Fairyland Loop Trail showcases the otherworldly terrain that Bryce Canyon has to offer. Dusted with snow, the features look even more spectacular. People who complete this loop will see amazing structures like Fairyland Canyon, China Wall, and Tower Bridge. You’ll gain and lose more than 2,000 feet of elevation, making this one of the more challenging hikes in Bryce Canyon—but it’s well worth the effort. Wear some sort of traction during the winter, as the trail is steep in places and can get icy from the freeze-thaw during the height of the sun.
8. South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon National Park
Distance: 14.5 miles
Difficulty: Very Strenuous
The sun keeps most of the South Kaibab Trail in Grand Canyon National Park relatively dry, but it’s a good idea to bring along traction just in case—it can help you safely enjoy the moderate winter weather that makes this hike slightly less exhausting than during the heat of summer. The trail starts from the South Rim and plunges down seemingly countless switchbacks deep into the Grand Canyon, offering panoramic views the whole way. This trail provides one of the fastest ways to get down to the bottom of the canyon—but be sure to remember that it takes twice as long to climb back out as it does to descend into the canyon. Trailhead temps can be sunny and 30, and you can expect hit temperatures reaching into the 50s the further down you go.
Written by RootsRated for Gregory Mountain Products.
Featured image provided by Alexandre Chambon