10 Best Things to Do in Mount Rainier National Park

Mt. Rainier is the iconic mountain seen from downtown Seattle, the largest mountain in Washington State.

Its large presence over Western Washington means that Seattleites simply call it “The Mountain.”

In fact, you’ll often hear them use the popular saying “The Mountain is out” – meaning that the skies are clear (a rare occurrence through the grey Northwest winters!) – and you can see Mt. Rainier looming over the landscape.

Although Mt. Rainier can be seen from Seattle, a visit to Mt. Rainier National Park is well worth the trip to truly take in the alpine wonderland.

There are plenty of things to keep you busy during your visit, but here are the 10 best things to do in Mount Rainier National Park, easily one of America’s most beautiful National Parks:

What to Do in Mount Rainier National Park

Enjoy the drive!

Tunnel in Mt. Rainier National Park leading to interior of park

As with many National Parks, the roads through Mount Rainier National Park are lined with breathtaking views, but also wind along cliff-sides, making them nerve-wracking if you’re not into that (no worries, there are plenty of roadside barriers).

The abundance of pull-outs along the road offer many places to stop to take in the views. There are a few different roads that offer entry into the park, depending on which direction you come from.

If you want to take a nice long drive, drive towards Paradise, where the road winds around trees and corners to give you stunning views.

If you enter the park from Seattle, you can drive from the Nisqually Entrance up to Paradise, and can continue on past to the Stevens Canyon Entrance, and up to Sunrise.

The Carbon River entrance is a side trip and you’ll have to leave the park and re-enter to access this area, but this also means there’ll be fewer people here too.

Hug some big trees

Tall cedar trees on a shady hiking path in the middle of the forest in Mt. Rainier National Park.

Stopping at the Grove of the Patriarchs is quite a treat, and one of my personal favorite things to do in Mt. Rainier National Park.

Here you’ll find huge cedar trees along an easy path through the woods. Although you may be in the park to see the mountain, take advantage of your trip into the Cascades to explore the forest landscapes.

On this walk you’ll be immersed in old-growth forest, full of lots of green and huge trees. Isn’t it crazy how old these trees are? There is a short hiking loop that will take you through trees older than the state of Washington.

My favorite way to enjoy the trees is to sit on one of the park benches and look up at the canopy. If your neck gets too sore, another option is to lie on the ground (off to the side of the path, of course!) and gaze up at these massive giants from the perspective of the forest floor.

This path is a flat and accessible loop, allowing you to experience the wonder of old-growth northwest forests without a long hike.

Spend a night at Mowich Lake Campground

A calm lake reflecting mountains and clouds and trees in Mt. Rainier National Park, called Mowich Lake.

Camping within the park gives you the luxury of falling asleep and waking up to an alpine glow on the mountain.

Sunset on the mountain is always a beautiful sight, and on a nice summer evening, you’ll be immersed in the light pinks and oranges surrounding the snow-capped mountain during golden hour, the best time for pictures.

There are several campsites within the park that allow advance reservations and offer more amenities, but if you’re up for a more rugged and spontaneous adventure, head out on the gravel road to Mowich Lake Campground.

Here, campsites are available first-come first-serve, so be sure to arrive early during summer, especially on the weekend, but if you manage to get one, you are afforded with unparalleled access to the beautiful Mowich Lake and a base camp for the surrounding adventures – including Tolmie Peak, Spray Falls and Spray Park hikes.

Be sure to bring enough water for your group or a filter for lake water, as there is no potable water at this campsite.

Bask in the fields of flowers at Spray Park

Purple, white, and pink wildflowers in the spring in Spray Park. Hiking here is one of the best things to do in Mt. Rainier National Park!

Spray Park in mid-summer is a wonderful place, with meadows full of multi-colored wildflowers blanketing the hills in front of Mt. Rainier.

Access to this trail is from the Mowich Lake trailhead on a gravel road, but if you make it to the trailhead you’ll be rewarded with a less-crowded hike than others in the park.

Two miles into the hike you can take a short detour to Spray Falls and then continue up the switchbacks to find meadows and a view of Rainier.

A good place to end this hike is at the viewpoint at Mist Park. From this endpoint, you can return the way you came for a total distance of 8 miles.

Climb to the top of an old fire lookout

A woman wearing a plaid shirt and black pants looking off into the distance of the mountains with a fire lookout (a small wooden hut) in the background.

Fire lookouts dotted the mountainous landscape of the Western U.S. before cell towers and satellites took off, allowing summer employees to live in the lookouts (small, one-room cabins) keeping watch for fires, and alert authorities when they spotted a fire.

No longer in use for this fire watching, these locations offer spectacular viewpoints, and many of these lookouts are preserved for visitors. There are several hikes within MRNP featuring old fire lookouts, but the most accessible hike is at Mt Fremont.

If you make it to the top of this 5.6 mile hike, you’ll be rewarded with a fantastic view of Mount Rainier and the shimmering Frozen Lake below, and a piece of history (the lookout).

The hike begins at Sunrise, then wanders past Frozen Lake, and up the final stretch to the lookout. Frozen Lake is a wonderful stopping point if you’d prefer a shorter hike (3 miles), and is surrounded by alpine meadows. Just make sure you stay on the trail to avoid trampling the plants!

Soak up the mist from Narada Falls

A narrow but tall waterfall cascading down a cliff-edge with trees and rocks framing it and a small rainbow prism in the waterfall.

Named from the Hindu word ‘Narada’, meaning uncontaminated, Narada Falls is an energetic waterfall that does not require a long hike to view.

The waterfall is located just off the park road between Longmire and Paradise. In fact, you can look down on the waterfall from the parking lot.

If this leaves you wanting more, there is a short trail that leads you down to a lower viewpoint, where you can stand in the mist.

Make sure to watch your step on the way down though, since the mist dampens the path and it can get slippery.

Spot mountain climbers from the visitor center 

The view of Mount Rainier from the window of the Mt. Rainier National Park Visitor Center with pine trees in foreground.

The Henry M. Jackson visitor center in the Paradise area of the National Park offers spectacular views of the mountain.

The visitor center looks over the popular climbing route to the summit and makes use of this viewpoint by offering telescopes for park visitors hoping to spot a climber making their way up or down the mountain.

Although the route to the summit is challenging and inaccessible to most park visitors, it is inspiring to gaze up at the route and imagine the perils and adventures of a summit trip.

At the visitor center, browse the information on the displays to learn about the formation of this volcano and the history of the region.

You can also chat with the friendly park rangers who love answering visitor questions, and browse the gift shop for souvenirs to bring home from your adventure.

Visit the Longmire historic district

A view of Mt. Rainier from Longmire, with rock-strewn landscape, green trees in foreground and the mountain in the background.

The Longmire area of the park has several hiking trails, a replica of a homestead on the park from the 1890s, and hot springs.

Longmire is named after James Longmire, whose homestead and hot springs resort was the park’s headquarters when it was established in 1899.

The park headquarters are no longer located at Longmire, but the 1916 park headquarters here now feature a museum with the early history of the national park.

In this location is also the National Park Inn and the Longmire Wilderness Center.

Watch marmots along the Skyline Trail

A well-trodden trail with wildflowers dotted on either side of the path and a patch of pine trees in Mt. Rainier National Park.

Marmots are a large, cute ground squirrel that live among the rocks and dirt in high alpine environments.

Although they live in many places in the park, a good place to find these cute creatures is along the Skyline Trail, a trail that goes from Paradise up the steps with the John Muir quote and onward.

If you don’t manage to see one, you may see their burrows along the dirt or hear their whistles across the meadows.

The Skyline Trail is the main hiking route from Paradise and can be done as a 5.5 mile loop or made shorter, depending on how you’re feeling.

Picnic at Tipsoo Lake

A perfectly snow-covered Mt. Rainier reflected in Tipsoo Lake with trees and grass around the lake edges.

Tipsoo Lake has a picnic area close to the parking area where you can eat with a view of the lake, creeks, flowers, and mountains.

After your picnic, you can continue to sit and enjoy the views or you can take advantage of the short and flat trail that meanders around the lake.

On this trail you can continue to enjoy the sparkling blue lake, views of Mt Rainier, and fun small wooden bridges over the little creeks that criss-cross the meadow.

Although there are plenty of hiking options at Mt Rainier National Park, the lake around Tipsoo Lake is a great stroll if you’re looking for a short and flat, but rewarding walk, and a great location for a picnic.

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7 of the Best Day Hikes in North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park encompasses some of the most remote mountains in the lower 48 states…. and some of the best views

Known for the lack of roads, meaning long hiking distances to reach destinations, there are enough trails and hikes in North Cascades National Park to last a lifetime.

However, there are thankfully also plenty of beautiful hikes for a day’s walk.  Here are a few of my favorite day hikes in North Cascades.

The Best Hikes in North Cascades National Park

Cascade Pass

Mountain pass with pine trees and a few snow-covered peaks and a slightly cloudy sky.

Total Length: 7 miles
Hike Type: Out and Back
Elevation Gain: 1800 ft
Difficulty: Moderate

Driving Directions: Take highway 20 to Marblemount and then continue onto Cascade River Road (proceed straight when highway 20 takes a left). Follow Cascade River Road 23 miles to the end of the road, where you will find the trailhead.

The Cascade Pass trail is a moderate-level hike, but it is the most popular hike in North Cascades National Park for a reason: it’s worth the climb!

A hike up this trail will grant you with fields of heather, snow-capped mountains vistas, and glacial carved valleys. 

You may also find a marmot or two and some chipmunks along the way. Take care not to feed the chipmunks — they are already chubby enough.

Diablo Lake

Turquoise-blue lake with pine trees and peaks in the mountains with a few clouds.

Total Length: 7.6 miles
Hike Type: Out and Back
Elevation Gain: 1400 ft
Difficulty: Moderate

Driving Directions: Drive east along highway 20 from Marblemount. After crossing the Gorge Lake bridge, drive another 1.5 miles, then turn left on Diablo Dam Road toward the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. Cross the dam and drive to the end of the road, where you will find the trailhead

Diablo Lake is a brilliant blue lake featured in many pictures from people hiking North Cascades National Park. Views like this are what make many people say the North Cascades is one of the best hiking destinations in the USA.

Smaller than the nearby Ross Lake, but equally as beautiful (or more), this trail features islands, deep gorges, waterfalls, and the stunning mountain peaks of the North Cascades. 

This trail offers views of Diablo Lake throughout the hike and ends at a viewpoint overlooking Ross Lake and a picturesque bridge.

The trail begins with a beautiful walk through old-growth forest. When the trail emerges from the forest and crosses Deer Creek, there is a short side trail that offers a view of the lake.

From here, the trail reaches views of a waterfall and the surrounding peaks. The trail then reaches an overlook of Ross Lake and its Dam. You can continue down the steep trail to the suspension bridge or stop here and soak up the views. 

If you want a change of pace on the return trip, you can enjoy a ride on the Diablo Lake Ferry back to the trailhead to experience the lake from a different perspective (and save some walking!). The ferry is operated by Seattle City Light from June to October.

Sourdough Mountain

Sourdough Mountain, a gray and green mountain, on a foggy day with pine trees.

Total Length: 10.4 miles
Hike Type: Out and Back
Elevation Gain: 4870 ft
Difficulty: Hard

Driving Directions: Drive east along highway 20 from Marblemount for 22 miles. When you reach Diablo Dam Road, take a left. In 0.7 miles at cross the Stetattle River bridge, stay to the right, and reach the trailhead in 0.25 miles from the road split.

Sourdough Mountain is the site of one of the first fire lookouts established by the U.S. Forest Service, and the historic lookout building still stands at its peak.

To reach the lookout, you first begin with steep switchbacks in the forest. The first two miles of the trail gains 3000 ft of elevation with grueling switchbacks.

However, this effort will become worthwhile once you make it out of the forest, where you will be greeted with wildflower meadows and expansive views that get better as you go.

Although beautiful, this is not a beginner-friendly hike in North Cascades, and there are a few considerations to keep in mind.

Since this is a steep trail, occasionally narrow and loose, the trail will be easier with a pair of hiking poles. In addition, the trail is steep and there is no water access until a potential stream 4 miles from the trailhead. 

Stehekin River Trail

A view of Lake Chelan, a still lake with a small beachy area and dock, part of the hike in Stehekin.

Total Length: 7.6 miles
Hike Type: Out and Back
Elevation Gain: 100 ft
Difficulty: Beginner

Driving Directions: This trail begins in the remote town of Stehekin, and to access this town you’ll need to take the Lady of the Lake ferry from Chelan. From the ferry dock in Stehekin, take a bus up the Stehekin Valley Road for 4.5 miles. You will find the trailhead after crossing Harlequin Bridge, following Company Creek Road to the airport, and walking to the end of the airport runway.

Explore the Southern side of the North Cascades National Park Complex with a visit to the town of Stehekin on Lake Chelan.

There are plenty of trails from town, but this shaded trail along the river is ideal for the warm summer day.

Better yet, the trail ends at Weaver Point at Lake Chelan, a campground with a bit of a sandy beach and view of the town.

The trail begins by wandering through the valley floor, giving you views of the neighboring mountains. About a mile into the hike, you will be greeted with your first view of the river and surrounding meadows.

Continue on from here until you reach Lake Chelan and enjoy the peaceful walk through the beautiful landscape.

Cutthroat Pass

A fall hike in Cutthroat Pass, one of the best day hikes in North Cascades National Park, with yellow trees and fall colors.

Total Length: 10 miles
Hike Type: Out and Back
Elevation Gain: 2,000 feet
Difficulty: Hard

Driving Directions: Drive approximately 50 miles east on Highway 20 past Marblemount to Rainy Pass. Turn left (across from the road to Lake Ann), and drive down the road half a mile to the parking lot and trailhead for the Pacific Crest Trail.

You can’t go wrong with any hike on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), a 2,650 mile trail that extends from the Mexican border in California to the Canadian border in Washington, but this hike to Cutthroat Pass is on one of the best sections.

To reach Cutthroat Pass, you will follow the PCT from its Highway 20 crossing, 5 miles north towards Canada.

The trail begins with small creek crossings that may be running high, so be sure to cross carefully. As the trail continues, the forest thins, and you can see the mountains across the valley, before crossing through the granite-filled, heather meadows of the alpine.

Upon reaching the pass, there are 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains to enjoy with your summit treats. This is also an excellent fall hike, as the larches will turn a brilliant yellow before winter comes.

Sauk Mountain

A view from Sauk Mountain with green grass mountain sides and a tiny brilliant turquoise glacial lake.

Total Length: 4.2 miles
Hike Type: Out and Back
Elevation Gain: 1200 ft
Difficulty: Moderate

Driving Directions: Take exit 232 off of I-5 to Highway 20, then after 35 miles, turn left onto Sauk Mountain Road (FS 1030). The trailhead is 8 miles down this steep, but generally passable road. It is worth reading recent trail reports on wta.com for an updated road report before you head out for this hike, as conditions vary throughout the season.

Sauk Mountain is one of my favorite hikes in the area because of the great variety you find along the trail.

Although outside the boundary of the national park, it showcases the best the region has to offer. It is never a slog, offering excitement throughout the entire trail, with views that grow continuously more impressive.

With the multitude of peaks that you can see from the trail, it is the perfect trail to bring along a map of the area for peak identification, or try out the PeakFinder app, an app that identifies visible peaks as you point your phone out on the horizon.

When you are not looking at the views, or if the clouds roll in, spend some time admiring the variety of wildflowers adorning the slopes, or listening for marmots squeaking as they run around the rocks.

Lake Ann

A small brilliant blue lake, Lake Ann, surrounded by wildflowers and mountain peaks at the base of a mountain valley.

Total Length: 3.4 miles
Hike Type: Out & Back
Elevation Gain: 700 ft
Difficulty: Beginner

Driving Directions: Drive approximately 50 miles east on highway 20 past Marblemount. Stop at the Rainy Pass trailhead on the right side of the road.

Not to be confused with Lake Ann near Mt. Shuksan, which is also a beautiful hike in the area, this Lake Ann is near Rainy Pass and the Maple Pass Loop.

Lake Ann is a crowd-pleaser for any season (besides winter, when the road closes), offering wildflowers in summer, larches in fall, and majestic snow-sprinkled mountains in early winter.

To find the trail from the parking lot, follow the “Lake Trail” signs. When you find a junction between a paved trail and a dirt trail, take the dirt trail to the right.

A mild hike through forest and wildflower meadows, this is a great stroll for any day.  Lake Ann is the perfect alpine lake, with beautiful blue water lined by talus fields.

From the lake, you can return back the way you came or continue up to Maple Pass for a longer hike. It is possible to do a loop hike on the Maple Pass Trail, but prepare for double the distance and double the elevation gain.

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Yellowstone in Winter: 30 Useful Things to Know Before Visiting

Yellowstone National Park becomes a wintery wonderland by mid-fall. The peaks are heavy with snowpack, bear hunker down with their full bellies, and the rivers steam at the touch of the frosty air.

As the temperatures begin to drop, the summer crowds disperse and Yellowstone in winter quiets down.

While normally you have to go back-country to get away from the crowds, in winter, Yellowstone front-country becomes a place to seek solitude and silence.

Yellowstone in Winter FAQs

View of Mammoth Hot Springs in sunrise light with lots of mist and steam and pastel colors from morning sun.
What is there to do in Yellowstone in winter?

Quite a lot! While most of the park is closed to private vehicles, snowmobiles and snowcoaches will take you to many of the most scenic parts of Yellowstone without the crowds. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are two of the most popular winter activities in Yellowstone, as well as wildlife spotting and wildlife photography.

Where should I stay in Yellowstone in winter?

Many of the lodges in the park itself are closed, with the exception of the Old Faithful Lodge.

Instead, I recommend staying in Jackson Hole or West Yellowstone.

For Jackson Hole, I suggest Wyoming Inn. This cozy inn features Western-style decor complete with a roaring fireplace, warm woodsy colors, rustic design touches, and large, modern rooms. Check photos and reviews here.

For West Yellowstone, I suggest the hip The Adventure Inn. This stylish spot has a minimalist style, with a Scandinavian sensibility mashed up against a woodsy edge. It’s like a Brooklyn loft and a mountain cabin had a baby: it’s beautiful. Check photos and reviews here.

Can I drive through Yellowstone in winter?

Only through the North Entrance in Gardiner, MT leading to the Northeast Entrance — otherwise a snowcoach or snowmobile transit must be booked. More on that below.

Road Conditions and Seasonal Closures in Yellowstone in Winter

Road leading into Yosemite National Park in winter

As Yellowstone National Park transitions into winter season activities, there are some important dates to keep in mind!

While certain roads close to private vehicles, others begin to open to over-snow transportation such as snowmobile and snowcoach – We’ll talk about these more in a bit.

Yellowstone Entry Price in Winter

Sun low on the horizon showing through a puff of steam from hydrothermal area of boardwalk

The price to enter Yellowstone National Park in winter is the same as at any other time of year: $35 for private vehicles and $30 for snowmobiles, each granting 7 days of admission.

However, if you like National Parks, I highly recommend investing in an America the Beautiful pass! It gives you one year of free entry to all National Parks and other federally-administered protected areas (National Forests, National Seashores, etc. — over 2,000 sites!) for the low price of $79.99.

Plus, 10% of that goes back into the National Park Foundation to keep the land pure, beautiful, and accessible for all.

>> Buy your America the Beautiful annual pass online here! <<

Yellowstone Winter Opening Dates

Paved road with snow covered trees in Yellowstone National Park

These opening dates apply to over-snow travel only. Over-snow travel includes snowmobiling, cross country skiing, snowcoach tours, and snowshoeing. It does not include personal private vehicles.

If you would like to drive your own vehicle into the park, you will need to use the North Entrance in Gardiner, MT — the only open road.

The road between the North Entrance and the Northeast Entrance remains open for private vehicles all year.

The following sections of road open mid-December for over-snow travel:

  • West Entrance to Old Faithful
  • Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful
  • Canyon Village to Norris
  • Canyon Village to Yellowstone Lake
  • Old Faithful to West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake
  • South Entrance to Yellowstone Lake
  • Yellowstone Lake to Lake Butte Overlook

Yellowstone Winter Closing Dates

Yellowstone geyser in winter showing blue turquoise water with orange rim in white snow

If you are planning to make a late winter trip to Yellowstone National Park, you will want to be aware of the winter closing dates for over-snow use.

The following roads close to over-snow travel in early March:

  • Sylvan Pass
  • Mammoth Hot Springs to Norris
  • Norris to Madison Junction
  • Norris to Canyon Village

All remaining roads close for over-snow travel, with the exception of the road between the North Entrance and Northeast Entrance, in mid-March.

Winter Road Conditions in Yellowstone

Curving paved road leading to Yellowstone in winter with snow-covered trees.

Always check on Yellowstone National Park’s official website for updated road conditions before traveling to the park. The weather can change quickly, and you’ll want to be prepared.

That means snow chains if you are driving the North-Northeast Entrance route, safety flares or triangles in case of a breakdown, and warm clothing / emergency blankets in case you are stranded for a while waiting for a tow.

When to Visit Yellowstone in Winter

Frozen Lower Yellowstone falls with trees on the landscape.

The best time to visit Yellowstone National Park for winter activities is between the end of December and the end of February. It’s one of my favorite National Parks to visit in December for good reason!

This is because it falls into the over-snow travel period but before the period ends, and it has the fewest crowds while also having some of the most stunning snow-covered landscapes you can imagine: white snow broken only by the beautiful kaleidoscope of the rainbow-hued geothermal pools in the ground!

Weather in Yellowstone in Winter

Misty foggy landscape of Yellowstone in winter with trees and mountains.

Yellowstone in winter can be summed up in one word: FREEZING.

Fun fact: The West Entrance recorded the park’s record low of -66°F in 1933. BRRR!

Here are the breakdowns for winter weather in Yellowstone and what to expect on a month-by-month basis from November through February.

November: Average high of 34° F and an average low of 13° F, with 12 days of rain/snow

December: Average high of 26° F and an average low of 4° F, with 13 days of rain/snow.

January: Average high of 28° F and an average low of 3° F, with 13 days of snow/rain.

February: Average high of 31° F and an average low of 4° F, with 11 days of snow/rain.

Getting Around Yellowstone in Winter

View from behind of a man on snowmobile with another snowmobile ahead on a sunny winter day.

Traveling in Yellowstone National Park is a little different in the wintertime.

Some pre-trip planning is in order if you plan to visit Old Faithful, Canyon Village, Yellowstone Lake, or any other area of the park that is inaccessible by private vehicle.

If you want to explore these areas of the park during the wintertime, you will want to schedule a snowcoach or snowmobile tour well in advance of your trip date! These excursions are popular among wintertime visitors!

Booking an Over-Snow Tour

A yellow snowcoach plowing through snow in Yellowstone National Park

You have two options for over-snow travel in Yellowstone in winter: snowcoach and snowmobile. And they are very different!

A snowcoach is an enclosed vehicle with large tires capable of driving on the park’s snow-covered roads with ease. They have comfortable seats and large windows for viewing the snowy landscape.

Snowcoach tours are great for families or visitors who want to sit back and relax while exploring the park with a knowledgeable professional.

For those with an adventurous spirit, a snowmobile tour will offer a thrilling Yellowstone winter experience!

Although driving speeds are limited to 25 mph in the park, riding a snowmobile past herds of bison and elk is exhilarating and unlike any other scenic tour. The best part is, the professional outfitters will make sure you are geared up to stay warm throughout the entire ride!

Now, let’s talk about what kind of fun winter activities there are in Yellowstone!

Overwhelmed by Visiting Yellowstone National Park in Winter?

Pack of elk with horns with one standing in the river and others in background

Admittedly, Yellowstone is not the easiest national park to visit in the winter if you are used to being able to drive to different points and not have to worry about over-snow transportation.

If reading this far into the post has gotten you feeling a bit anxious and overwhelmed by all the planning that needs to go into a successful Yellowstone winter trip, I strongly recommend opting for a 4- or 5-day guided tour which will handle all the logistics.

This 4-day tour includes transportation from Jackson, Wyoming on the beginning and end of the tour as well as 3 nights of accommodation in West Yellowstone, ending in Jackson Hole.

It includes the following: wildlife sighting opportunities in Grand Teton National Park (keeping an eye out for wolves, elk, bison, moose, elk, bison, foxes, eagles, deer and more!), a snowcoach trip to see Old Faithful and other hydrothermal areas in Yellowstone National Park, a horse-drawn sleigh ride into the National Elk Refuge, boardwalk hikes through Fountain Paint-Pots and Mud-Pots, and lots of stops for beautiful winter photography opportunities.

Check the itinerary and more details of this 4-day Yellowstone and Grand Teton winter trip!

Pack of four wolves walking through snow in Yellowstone National Park in winter

Another option is this 5-day wildlife-focused tour which covers Yellowstone extensively. It starts in Bozeman, Montana (a wonderful place to stay in winter!) and includes 4 nights of accommodation, dropping you off in Bozeman on the return.

It includes the following winter activities: a day of wildlife sightings (keeping an eye out for both bald and golden eagles, white-tailed deer, coyotes, elk, bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, and more), visiting Old Faithful via chartered snowcoach and also seeing Fountain Paint Pots along the way, Cooke City for the best place on earth to see wolves (located in the northern range of Yellowstone), and wolf winter safaris in Lamar Canyon with experienced wildlife guides and wolf researchers.

Check the itinerary and read more details about this 5-day Yellowstone wolf and wildlife focused tour!

Cross Country Skiing in Yellowstone

A white woman smiling and going cross-country skiing in Yellowstone national park

Yellowstone National Park is full of wonderful ski trails from groomed front country loops for beginners to remote backcountry routes for seasoned and highly-experienced skiers!

If you’re interested in getting out into nature on some cross country skis, these are our favorite beginner-friendly trail options for getting out into the nature of Yellowstone National Park in winter!

Upper Terrace Loop Ski Trail

View of Mammoth Hot Springs with orangey-pink sunrise sky and mist floating up from geyser.

A little spontaneous? This trail is great for last-minute trips into Yellowstone National Park in winter.

Since you can drive to the trailhead in your personal vehicle without booking over-snow transportation in advance, there’s often minimal planning involved.

The 1.5-mile loop is routinely groomed, but it can be considered difficult for beginners due to the few steep sections.

Enjoy this scenic trail around the upper terrace geysers and hot pots in Mammoth’s hydrothermal area. It takes about 1-hour to complete this loop, but leave time to take photos with the geysers, including Mammoth Hot Springs, Canary Spring, and Orange Spring Mound!

Black Sand Basin Trail

Steam rising from a geothermal feature with flowing river and snow on each side

The Black Sand Basin Trail is a great option for beginners or experienced cross country skiers!

This groomed ski trail begins at the Old Faithful Visitor Center and heads to the Upper Geyser Basin Trail. The 4-mile trail will take about 3-hours to complete as you glide past the many steaming hydrothermal features.

This ski trail is located near Old Faithful and is inaccessible to private vehicles during the wintertime.

Advanced planning is needed to accommodate for over-snow transportation.

Blacktail Plateau Ski Trail

Pack of elk with horns eating in the snow

Were you hoping to encounter some wildlife while skiing in Yellowstone in winter? Cover some ground on the Blacktail Plateau Ski Trail to spot bison, elk, and maybe a wolf pack in the distance!

This trail has a few challenging sections and stretches 8-miles with a trailhead on both ends.

It is common for skiers to park one vehicle on both ends of the tail or only ski in a few miles before turning around toward the trailhead. Either way, know your experience level and make a plan before hitting the trail.

Cross Country Ski Rental

A man on cross country skis with back turned heading towards a geothermal feature in Yellowstone in winter

Forgot to pack your cross country skis, or don’t know if you want to make the investment in your own pair just yet?

There are plenty of rental shops located in the towns of West Yellowstone, Gardiner, Big Sky, and Bozeman.

Stop by a rental shop or call ahead and they can outfit you with everything you need to experience Yellowstone National Park’s groomed cross country ski trails!

Snowshoeing in Yellowstone

A man with a red jacket and backpack snowshoeing on a misty day with snow

For those looking to take the trails a little slower, snowshoeing is a great option!

Snowshoes and trekking poles can be rented at many of the same outfitters offering cross country ski rentals, so no worries if you couldn’t bring your own along.

Many ski trails in the park are also snowshoe-friendly. Just avoid walking on top of ski tracks whenever possible, as this makes it difficult for cross-country skiers to return (as they trace their tracks!).

Here are a couple of trails to try out.

Observation Point Loop Snowshoe Trail

A blue sky day with snow on the ground and a view of Old Faithful geyser erupting steam high into the air

This trail is a must-do for anyone staying at the Old Faithful Lodge!

Conveniently located just past the Old Faithful Visitor Center, the Observation Point Loop Trail is a great way to watch the timely eruption of the world-famous geyser, Old Faithful!

Strap on your snowshoes because this 2 mile loop trail is closed to skiing. Along the way, you’ll catch views of other area geysers and maybe even some wildlife.

Tower Fall Ski Trail

For those looking for a longer snowshoe outing, the Tower Fall Ski Trail is a great choice.

Along this 5 mile trail, snowshoers will be rewarded with wintry views of Tower Fall and the Yellowstone River Canyon. Keep your eyes peeled, bison and wintering elk frequent these areas!

Winter users can park their personal vehicles in the parking area nearby Tower Junction and follow the unplowed road behind the gate.

The trail begins with a gradual uphill, which is great for warming up on chilly days! This trail is also popular for cross country skiing.

Winter Yellowstone Wildlife Viewing

A red fox looking towards the camera in the snow

A lot of Yellowstone National Park’s wildlife remains active throughout the winter season.

Although bear hibernate in their cozy dens during the snowy months, wildlife such as elk, bison, wolves, fox, coyote and bald eagle can still be spotted!

If you are taking a private tour in a snowcoach or on snowmobiles, your guide will be sure to point out any wildlife in view.

Wildlife Spotting Without a Tour

A grey wolf looking directly at the camera with snow-covered trees behind him

For those who are planning to take their own vehicles into Yellowstone, we have a few tips!

  1. Drive out toward the Lamar Valley with binoculars, hot beverages, and warm blankets. Find a nice spot where you can look out over the valley and start scanning! The Lamar Valley is famous for wolf sightings and a fresh blanket of snow often makes them easier to spot.
  2. In the wintertime, Mammoth Hot Springs becomes a popular spot for wintering elk to settle in. Spend some time in this area and count how many elk you can find!
  3. Bison can often be viewed along the drive to the Lamar Valley. If you see Bison as you drive along, be sure to only stop in designated pullouts for safety.

What to Pack for Yellowstone in Winter

A woman in a pink hooded parka with a camera photographing snow-covered trees

Waterproof Parka: In the snowy weather and freezing temperatures of Yellowstone in winter, you’ll want something like this wonderful North Face parka. It’s pricy to be sure, but it comes with a lifetime guarantee (which I’ve tested by sending in my zipper to be fixed after four years of use and abuse cycling in it all winter long – my jacket came back looking like new!).

I’ve had this one for ten years and it’s held up beautifully from everything to biking in NYC in winter to visiting north of the Arctic circle in Tromso and Abisko. It’ll certainly do you just fine in Yellowstone National Park in winter!

>>> Get yours here! <<<

Waterproof Pants: If you’re doing any winter hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, etc. (basically, anything more intense than just a stroll around town) you’ll want waterproof pants: trust me, jeans just won’t do when you’re dealing with snow this deep.

Snow Boots: For snow boots for walking around Yellowstone National Park as well as whatever town you’re using as your base, I suggest these cute and cozy Sorel boots for women, which are waterproof and warm but also have plenty of traction. Add some Yaktrax to the bottom for grip on icy surfaces and pathways. These are a godsend!

Warm Leggings: You have two options for ultra-warm leggings in winter – fleece-lined for people with sensitive skin like me, and merino wool for people who don’t find wool itchy like I do. I own several pairs of these fleece-lined leggings in a variety of colors (I have black, gray, and maroon). I wear these underneath my waterproof pants in the snow. For people who like wool, merino wool leggings are the way to go – the absolute warmest you can get!

Fleece-Lined Knit Hat: I live in several different colors of knit hats in the winter. Since your jacket is likely a dark or neutral color, it’s fun to liven up your look (and photos) with a selection of colorful beanies. I like a snug knit hat lined in fleece and with a pom pom that does absolutely nothing to add warmth but tons to add cuteness!

Thermal Top Layer: Again, this’ll depend on if you like wool or not. I don’t, so I go for thin performance thermals like this Heat Plus layer from 32 Degrees. However, if you’re a fan of wool, a merino wool base layer will keep you insanely warm and it won’t trap odors, meaning you can re-wear it several times before it needing a wash — great if you like to pack light.

An Enormous Scarf: The bigger and thicker and more wrappable the scarf, the better. I tend to opt for bright, bold colors to liven up my look. I love these ones — they’re cheap and feel soft like cashmere but aren’t pricy (or in my opinion, itchy!) like it!

Touchscreen Friendly Gloves: Taking off your gloves to use your phone when navigating on GPS, looking up something you’ve bookmarked, etc. is so annoying. Most gloves these days tend to be touchscreen friendly, but check before you buy. These gloves are adorable, touchscreen-compatible, and affordable.

Waterproof Gloves: You’ll also want to layer waterproof gloves over your touchscreen gloves if you’re snowshoeing or cross-country skiing and generally out and about a lot in the snow when you can’t put your hands in your pockets.

Headlamp (and Extra Batteries): Yellowstone National Park in winter can get dark early — and quickly — due to the early sunset time plus the mountains making it get darker even before that. Bring a headlamp in case any hikes take longer than expected! This Petzl headlamp is highly-rated and affordable.

Waterproof Backpack: You’ll want to keep your belongings dry, especially if you’re doing long hikes in the snow or freezing rain. Bring a waterproof backpack — you won’t regret it, especially if you’re carrying pricy camera equipment.

Snowshoes (optional): Many trails in Yellowstone in winter will require proper snowshoes (different than snow boots!) and poles if you want to do some winter trekking. You can also rent them, but they’re pretty cheap to buy and will last you for future winter trips!

Camera: You’ll want a camera to capture all that Yellowstone winter beauty. I use and love my Sony A6000! It’s mirrorless, so it’s lightweight and perfect for a high-quality camera that won’t weigh your pack down. Bring extra batteries as they burn out faster in the cold.

Battery Pack: Cold weather depletes cell phone batteries insanely quickly, so if you’re using your cell phone as your primary camera and navigation device (and who doesn’t these days?) you’ll absolutely want the ability to power up without a wall outlet while you’re out enjoying nature. I rely on an Anker battery pack to keep all my devices charged in the cold — and as a blogger who takes frequent winter trips to the Arctic and beyond with way more gear than a normal person needs, it’s served me very well!

Cooke City Excursions

A misty close up view of the peaks near Cooke City

Cooke City is a fun destination for self-guided winter trips into Yellowstone National Park. Here, winter is the primary season!

It’s not uncommon for folks to be snowmobiling in the surrounding national forest area into late June or even July!

If you’re planning on spending the morning searching for wildlife in the Lamar Valley, Cooke City makes a great place to enjoy a hot meal around lunchtime.

***

Bundle up and enjoy your winter adventure into Yellowstone National Park!

Pin This Guide to Yellowstone in Winter

Planning a Trip to Vietnam: 10 Step Travel Checklist

Planning a trip to Vietnam seems intimidating at first: the country is deceptively large, with so many incredible sights to see spread out all the way from north to south.

Of course, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Hanoi loom large on your itinerary wishlist, but other destinations – from Phu Quoc islands in the south to Da Nang and Hoi An and Hue on the central coast to Sapa and Halong Bay in the North – also beg for inclusion on the itinerary.

Add to that a perplexing currency with way too many zeros, a tonal language that’s hard to learn, and a visa requirement for virtually all visitors and you may be a bit overwhelmed with both excitement and confusion when it’s time to plan a Vietnam trip.

But planning a trip to Vietnam doesn’t have to be incredibly difficult, and it’s worth every minute of planning.

I’ve traveled there twice and I’ve spent a total of 5 weeks exploring the country and seen so many incredible places in the country. It’s one of my favorite countries in Asia by far, with incredible food, kind people, beautiful landscapes, and did I mention the food?!

So with all that being said, I’ll walk you quickly through the steps to planning a perfect trip easily through this Vietnam travel checklist, so you can tackle your trip planning one step at a time.

Planning a Trip to Vietnam in 10 Simple Steps

Step 1: Check visa requirements

One of the first places people get intimidated when planning a trip to Vietnam is that many countries who aren’t used to needing a visa to travel suddenly do.

If you’re American, European, Canadian, or Australian, you may find yourself in a visa process for the first time in your life!

Only a handful of fellow Southeast Asian countries are visa-free (plus Chile, as an interesting outlier!), and some European countries are visa-free only if your trip is less than 15 days. If you’re unsure if you need a visa or not, research the destination for your nationality.

However, don’t get too stressed: the Vietnam visa process is actually rather easy, and you can now apply for the e-visa online.

The e-visa takes 3 days to process and costs just $25 USD for a single-entry visa valid for 30 days. If doing a simple single-entry e-visa, you can just proceed straight to immigration with your e-visa without needing to pick up your visa on arrival.

If you need a multi-entry visa, you will need  to apply for the visa on arrival online ($25-50 USD depending on country), and you can pick it up when you arrive at the airport in Vietnam.This is the process I did on my last trip to Vietnam, and it only took about 30 minutes at the airport.

Step 2: Book your tickets

Once you’ve got your e-visa all sorted, it’s time to figure out your flights! The main airports in the country are Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon and Hanoi. I suggest looking into flights into both locations, though arrival in Ho Chi Minh City from overseas tends to be cheaper. You can find more information about Vietnam’s different airports here.

On my last trip to Vietnam, I booked a ticket from Sofia, Bulgaria to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam via Qatar Airways for approximately $550 USD roundtrip.

I generally use Google Flights searching for flights as I find their search engine to be the most intuitive, but Skyscanner has good search functionality as well.

You may want to take this time to decide if you want to book tickets for any travel within the country as well. Vietnam is a long, long country: the road distance between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi is 1,700 km, a 31 hour drive in Vietnam traffic terms!

(Oh, and side note: you probably shouldn’t plan to drive in Vietnam if you want to stay sane. That’s best left to professionals – and the Vietnamese!)

So if you want to visit both the northern and southern parts of Vietnam, you’ll probably need at least one or two domestic flights as well. But we’ll get into this a bit in the next section.

Step 3: Decide your Vietnam itinerary!

This is the most fun part, but it can also be the most overwhelming: planning your Vietnam itinerary!

I’ll throw out a few suggestions for you based on my own time there.

If you only have one week in Vietnam, I suggest sticking to the Northern part of Vietnam. Fly into Hanoi and spend at least 3 days there, and plan for day trips or overnight trips to Ha Long Bay and/or Sapa, depending on your preferences.

If you have two weeks in Vietnam, I would suggest doing the North and Central part of Vietnam. Take your Hanoi-Halong Bay-Sapa itinerary and add Hue (optional), Da Nang, and Hoi An to it.

If visiting Hue, you can take an overnight train to save time, taking an overnight train from Hanoi to Hue, and then a daytime train from Hue to Da Nang, which is in my opinion one of the prettiest train rides I’ve ever taken!

If you have two weeks in Vietnam but can’t imagine skipping Saigon, you could also spend one week based around the North and then fly down south for a few days in Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta.

I absolutely love Ho Chi Minh City and spent three weeks there, but I admit it’s light on sights compared to Hanoi and other places in the North of Vietnam. It’s really cool if you want to see the heart of modern Vietnam and the country’s biggest metropolis, but if you’re more interested in landscapes and historic sights, I’d suggest spending more time in the North.

If you have three weeks in Vietnam or even a month, that’s perfect! You won’t have to make any concessions and you can visit pretty much all of the major destinations in the country if you don’t mind zipping around the country by train and plane quite a bit.

Step 4: Budget your trip

A trip to Vietnam can really be on any budget spectrum. If you’re on a tight budget, it’s one of the most budget-friendly places you can travel – but if you love a bit of luxury, you certainly will be able to indulge in that in Vietnam as well.

If you’re backpacking the country, you can definitely travel for about $20 USD a day, and on $30 USD a day you’ll be living like a king (think private room in a hostel and 3 meals out a day). It’s a pretty comfortable country to backpack in, and when I traveled Vietnam on a budget, I never felt like I was making any big sacrifices.

If you have a mid-range budget, you’ll be able to enjoy the country even more on $50-75 USD a day per person. Think 4-star hotels for $30 a night for a couple, amazing massages for $10-15 an hour, and eating in upscale restaurants instead of street food for a handful of meals (though of course, no matter your budget, you should definitely indulge in the street food scene! It’s one of the best parts of Vietnam!).

If you have a luxury budget, the sky’s the limit! Stay at the finest hotels, take only private tours, eat at the finest restaurants, and you’ll still find yourself struggling to max out your credit card.

I recommend deciding in advance what you want to spend in total, breaking that into a per-day, per-person cost. Allocate about 1/3 of that for accommodations, 1/3 for activities, and 1/3 for incidentals and extras like shopping, transportation between cities, and meals. That should give you a good benchmark for how to budget for Vietnam.

Step 5: Plan Your Activities

I love and hate tours in Vietnam.

On one hand, the tours save you a lot of hassle that would be nearly impossible to surmount independently: you probably don’t want to drive in Vietnam, and public transportation can be a tough nut to crack.

On the other, tours often can feel like you’re being ferried around from one point of sale to the next, often with uncomfortable experiences along the way, like an unexpected captive animal encounter or a really pushy market experience.

Despite my reservations with some of my Vietnam tours, I do recommend booking tour experiences while in Vietnam. It saves unbelievable time and headache, and it does provide a lot of local insight: just be prepared to dislike about 10% of your itinerary and you’ll be much happier having that baseline expectation.

Best Tours in Hanoi

Best Tours in Hoi An

Best Tours in Ho Chi Minh City

Step 6: Book your accommodations

Next step is to plan where you’re going to stay! This will depend largely on your budget and itinerary.

Keep in mind too when booking accommodations that many Vietnamese cities are very large and spread out! Location is important, so I recommend sorting your searches by closeness to a desired central attraction.

For example, Ho Chi Minh City has 24 districts – and District 1, the central district, is huge! I was staying in District 1, but I was still about a 30-minute walk or 20-minute cab ride to the central area with the Independence Palace and Notre Dame Cathedral.

Hanoi is similar, and it’s easy to accidentally book something on the other side of the city! So I suggest searching by location first and then amenities second. While transportation around Vietnam is inexpensive, it is time-consuming and occasionally frustrating due to all the traffic, so I suggest being as close as possible to the heart of the action!

Step 7: Research any vaccinations you may need & prepare a travel medicine kit

I’m American, so the CDC is my guideline when checking travel vaccinations for international travel. The website recommends checking that you’re up-to-date in terms of boosters for the following common vaccinations: measles-mumps-rubella (MMR), tetanus, chickenpox, and polio. This is standard for any trip.

They also recommend Hepatitis A and typhoid, both of which can be gotten from contaminated food or water.

If you’re traveling in rural areas of Vietnam, you may need to take anti-malarials. However, malaria is not present in any of the cities, and it’s rare in the Mekong Delta area, so it’s unlikely that you would need anti-malarials. I’ve never taken anti-malarials in Vietnam. Bug bite prevention is likely enough.

You should, though, pack your own travel medicine kit! While you can find pharmacies in Vietnam, you may not find the exact brands you want or it may be frustrating to deal with a language barrier while feeling ill.

My travel medicine kit always includes stomach tablets like Pepto-Bismol, motion sickness pills, painkillers, and rehydration packets. I also include sunscreen, mosquito repellent, a topical antibiotic, a few alcohol wipes, and band-aids in my mini kit.

Also, research a few private hospitals before going. My first trip to Vietnam, my friend got really bad food poisoning and needed to spend a few hours in the hospital with an IV drip. It was stressful trying to find the information at the moment to get her to the right place where we knew they would speak English and we wouldn’t have any communication problems.

It’s unlikely you’ll get sick on your trip, but having the name of a hospital in each city you plan to visit in case of emergency will ease your mind.

Step 8: Pack your bags!

It’s almost time to go – so logically, next step is to start packing for Vietnam!

I won’t get into it in too much detail here as I have a detailed packing list for Vietnam here, but I’ll give you a quick rundown here.

Depending on where you’re going in Vietnam and when, you’ll likely pack quite differently. In summer in Vietnam, almost everywhere is hot – though in Sapa, you might find it can get quite chilly (I found myself wishing I had a heater one night in August!), and air conditioning in vehicles can be intense, so you’ll definitely want to pack a few cozy things to warm you up, even if most days will be sticky and humid.

Waterproof shoes and a waterproof jacket are essential for downpours which happen all throughout the year in Vietnam. Trust me when I say I’ve never seen rain like I have in Vietnam, and you don’t want to be wearing sneakers when you’re suddenly ankle-deep in rain!

If you’re visiting Vietnam in winter (December-March), you’ll need cool-weather clothing for the North, though the South will still be quite humid and hot.

Keep in mind that Vietnamese people tend to dress a bit on the conservative side and don’t love it when people show tons of skin, so aim for loose, flowy fabric rather than short shorts and skimpy tank tops. It’s actually more comfortable to wear and it’s more respectful to the culture.

Finally, Vietnam is absolutely notorious for its pickpockets. I was nearly pickpocketed in broad daylight walking in a park in Hanoi – luckily, my friend noticed the guy grabbing for my backpack and literally swatted his hand away!

I recommend this backpack with locking zippers which is made by PacSafe. It has some great security features: metal mesh under the surface that makes it slash-proof, inter-locking zippers that can then be threaded into a hard-to-open clasp, and RFID blockers so no one can steal your card data. It’s also very subtle and doesn’t look like a tempting, expensive bag, while also having visual cues that say “I’m hard to steal from, and frankly not worth it”. I’m obsessed.

Another safety note: one of the most common crimes in Vietnam is mobile phone theft, particularly by people on scooters who will snatch your phone on a street corner and zoom away. Never look at your phone while facing the street. I always found a discreet area and turned to the wall while I checked something on my phone.

Step 9: Prep for your arrival

There are a few things you should do prior to arriving in Vietnam that will make your trip start off on the right foot.

1) Download Google Maps offline for the city you’re arriving in. Just in case you don’t have data or don’t buy a SIM card right away, it’s extremely helpful!

2) Book a shuttle to get you to your hotel to save you stress and time. Here’s a trusted shuttle option from Hanoi Airport and one from Ho Chi Minh City Airport.

3) Buy a SIM card online in advance so you can easily access data while you’re traveling.

4) Have some cash in USD in case you have any issues with withdrawing money from the ATM upon arrival, or if you get flagged for fraud. Try to avoid this by notifiying your bank of your travel plans before leaving.

Step 10: Don’t forget travel insurance!

This is last on this list so that it’s first in your mind: you really ought to have travel insurance for your trip to Vietnam!

I’ve been a customer of World Nomads for years, and I love the peace of mind it gives me in case an emergency, accident, illness, or theft impacts my travels.

While Vietnam is a very safe country to travel overall, there are risks inherent to everyday travel, as well as a few risks specific to Vietnam (namely, food poisoning and pickpocketing/phone theft), and travel insurance backs you up in all those cases.

Get a free quote for your trip here.

17 Useful Things to Know Before Planning a Trip to Banff

Beautiful glacial mountains, pristine turquoise lakes, serene scenery everywhere you look.

That’s what Instagram tells you expect when you plan a trip to Banff, and in fact, Instagram and social media are probably a large part of the reason why you’re planning a trip to Banff in the first place.

The truth is that Banff has exploded in popularity in recent years, making it essential to be extremely mindful when planning your Banff trip so as not to end up getting disappointed by crowded trails, closed parking lots, and overly difficult hikes.

This post was written in conjunction with my lovely sister-in-law, Pati, who originally hails from Brazil but has made Calgary her home.

She spends her weekends and free time hiking in Banff and further afield in Alberta, and she has kindly agreed to share her wisdom from being an Alberta local and showing visitors around Banff all her favorite parts of the park.

Here’s what she thinks you need to know before you plan your trip to Banff!

Your expectations will be high – and they should be!

If you plan to visit the Canadian Rockies, you probably have your expectations on high mode already!

For me, for years, the place I later discovered to be Moraine Lake, was my background screen on my computer. So, you know you are set for a fantastic trip.

In my case, I was not disappointed; more than that, it ended up being the place where I choose to live when immigrating to Canada.

Before my first trip in 2016, I did extensive research, and I still believe that the places that I visited for the first time were good choices.

After living for almost three years close to Banff, I’ve included my original recommendations for a first time trip to Banff, but I’ve also made some adjustments to my original list and have a more local touch.

Give yourself enough time to enjoy Banff

Please keep in mind the duration of your trip.

Yes, one week in Banff would be excellent, as it will allow you to fully discover the place and go on some beautiful Banff hikes, but I know that for many people, this is not possible.

So my suggestion of the minimum time in Banff is three full days with a two-night stay. Anything else just isn’t enough!

Prepare for crowds

In the past few years, the tourism scene in Banff has skyrocketed.

While the epic landscapes and scenery will not let you down, be prepared for the crowds.

Be aware that you will have to be waking up early to guarantee a visit to some of the most popular attractions, and there may be some traffic, especially in the main town!

Plan your visit to Banff for the right time of year

To make sure that the lakes will not be frozen, it is best to visit from June to September.

With only around four months to see the lakes in their unfrozen beauty and the growing popularity of Banff, we have the recipe for a packed tourist place!

In my opinion, for a summer adventure, July is the prime time for hiking in the middle of wildflowers.

But overall, inside the June to September window, I prefer visiting in September.

Visiting Banff in fall

The last two weeks of September are the best to see the colors of the fall leaves and yellow aspen, and yet also to have fewer visitors.

In the first week of October, the chances of seeing snow increase; things are not frozen yet, and the lakes and landscapes look fantastic!

However, in October, there is a high chance of having overcast weather all day and a chance of heavier snowfalls.

Any travel after this has no guarantee: roads may be closed, and places that I list here might not be accessible until the next year.

Also, keep in mind that any travel after early-September could mean below-freezing temperatures (especially during the night) so, plan your clothing accordingly.

Accommodations in Banff

To be entirely honest with my experiences in four different hotels in Banff, accommodations in Banff are expensive and are really not that good.

Be prepared to pay the price of a four-star hotel and be delivered with the quality of two stars!

I never stayed in the fancy five-star hotels and resorts in Banff to say if, in that case, they are worth the money. But keep in mind that you are inside a National Park, so accommodations are limited.  

For camping, the booking opens in January and usually, in a matter of hours, it is booked for the entire year!

Alternatively, you can stay in Canmore (a town just outside the park). It will still be expensive, but the quality for the price can be much better.

Note: you cannot trust the pictures on the booking websites! In the past, I booked places that had gorgeous photos, but in real life, it was not the same quality. They can perform miracles in the advertisement pictures, so keep your expectations low regarding hotels here!

Transportation in Banff

There are options for public transit from the Calgary airport to Banff by shuttles, as well as inside the National Park by bus.

But honestly, things are so far away that renting a car will make it easier to move around.

I know that this is the exact reason why some places have the parking lots full at 6:00 am, and you will be contributing to that, but to give you perspective, Calgary is 130 km away from Banff, and the town of Banff is 58 km away from Lake Louise.

So, if you have lots of time in Banff, it can be helpful for everyone to use public transportation to the most crowded places (Lake Louise and Lake Moraine).

In any case, arrange to have a National Park Pass!

Is Lake Louise worth it?

In my humble Banff-affectionate opinion, this is a mandatory place to see when you plan your visit to Banff. I mean, did you even go to the Canadian Rockies if you did not visit it?

Lake Louise is to Banff what Eiffel Tower is to Paris: the heart. There is a reason why this is the most famous place, and I still remember the chills I had when I saw it in person for the first time.

It will be spectacular in any weather, but a sunny day adds color and contrast to your view and pictures.

Tips for Visiting Lake Louise

Lake Louise has a huge parking lot, but it can be filled quickly. Plan to arrive before 9 AM or after 6 PM during spring, summer, and fall.

In winter, I never had much trouble with parking. And yes, Lake Louise is accessible all year round!

Even frozen over, Lake Louise is magical since you can ice skate on it, see professional ice sculptures, or walk and stand in the middle of one of the most famous lakes in the world, completely frozen over, while you are surrounded by snowy mountains and chilly air that can be as cold as -30°C.

There are two hotels at a walking distance from the lake:  Fairmont Château Lake Louise (that is literally in front of the Lake) and Deer Lodge.

At the parking lot, there are public washrooms available, and there will always a national park ranger checking if you have the Park Pass (it must be displayed on the windshield of your car).

If you have the time and are feeling adventurous, you can also go to several hikes that depart from here (4 of the 9 hikes in this Banff hikes list start from here!).

If this is the case, arrive early in the morning, so you have time to enjoy both the lakes and the hiking!

You can also take the Lake Louise Gondola for beautiful views without the hike.

Is Moraine Lake Worth It?

In recent years, Moraine Lake is becoming more and more famous.

Several people claim it to be prettier than Lake Louise, a statement that we can dispute.

It is for sure one of the gems of the Canadian Rockies, but I credit this popularity to the fact that it is a challenge to get there.

Near Lake Louise, you will need to drive through a narrow secondary road for 12 kilometers uphill. But this road is often shut since the parking lot fills up extremely early.

The final piece that makes Lake Moraine so challenging to see is the fact that the road that gives access to it is closed from mid-October to mid-May because of the avalanche risk.

Tips for Visiting Moraine Lake

The parking lot at Moraine Lake is considerably small, and it’s also the departure point to several popular trails, leading to even more people needing to park here.

This means that usually by 6 AM, the entrance to the secondary road is closed by the park’s staff because the parking lot is already full!

In the fall of 2020, the road was already closed around 5 AM on weekends since the most famous hike to see the larches (Larch Valley) starts from the Moraine Lake.

Yes, even in the pandemic without any foreign travelers — it’s that insane!

Apparently, there is a trick that you have a chance to enter if you drive by 8 AM, as this is the time people who only went to see the sunrise at Moraine Lake are leaving.

They will open the road to the lucky people passing there for just a few moments as the first cars are leaving. This, of course, is not a guarantee, but you may have a shot!

Moraine Lake Insider Tips

An alternative if you do not see yourself waking up at 3 AM is to go there at the end of the day.

A few weeks ago, I stayed overnight in the Lake Louise area, and I went to visit Moraine Lake after 7 PM as the road was open again.

I still saw the pretty lake with the ten peaks behind it, but I did not have much time to explore around before getting dark and definitely had no time for any hike.

Finally, you also have the option to use the Roam Public Transit that departs from Banff town and can take you to Moraine Lake and Lake Louise.

It is back now for the larch season, but always check, as buses do not go year-round to all places and they were also affected by the COVID-19 situation, so do check online before relying on it.

So, now you know all about the almost-mystic Lake Moraine. The fact that I just spent more time writing about how hard it is to get there than about the Lake itself says a lot!

Visiting the Banff gondola and Sulphur Mountain

Views, views, views! Here, you are going to see the Canadian Rockies from the top.  

The gondola put you at 2,281 meters elevation with a 360-degree observation deck.

I have visited in summer and winter, and both were magical. I saw the entire Banff town, the most prominent mountains around, and even Lake Minnewanka at a distance.

Up there, you have the option to have fine dining in their restaurant or enjoy a hot beverage in the café area. Outside the building, you can also explore a small, well-maintained trail to the Cosmic Ray Station, a National Historic Site of Canada.

This is the place of a former laboratory active in the 1950s that was the most important cosmic ray observatory in Canada, helping to understand how the sun influences the Earth.

Are you feeling like some exercise? You can hike to the top of Sulphur Mountain as well and ride the gondola back down (paying the fee for a one-way gondola trip, of course).

It will be a 5-kilometer one-way hike with an elevation gain of around 740 meters. This is not a walk in the park, but it’s doable for a person of average fitness, as this is a trail full of switchbacks so the incline is not too steep.

It is also one of the safest hikes to do as a tourist since the trail is well-maintained, close to the Banff town, and literally right below one of Banff’s main attractions.

Tips for Visiting Lake Minnewanka

Near Banff town (so far away from Lake Louise/Moraine), we have one of the biggest lakes in the Canadian Parks, Lake Minnewanka.

The description is simple: a vast lake surrounded by mountains. I feel small every time I visit there, the giant half forested, half rocky walls around it even resemble a fjord.

A boat trip sightseeing here in the summer or seeing the frozen lake in winter are both equally memorable.

The vastness and openness of this place make the crowds spread out, and here you can be in a main tourist attraction and still find yourself completely alone, unlike at Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.

Please take care and do not wander, as this is the edge of the core habitat for grizzly bears. Hiking on most of the trails in this area is only permitted in groups of four people or more and carrying bear spray.

Tips for Visiting Johnston Canyon

Note: As of September 2020, access by car to Johnston Canyon is closed due to COVID-19.

Here you will get a different kind of landscape: no lakes or mountains, but instead, a fantastic creek forming a canyon and spectacular waterfalls.

The full walk to the upper falls is 2.5 km long (one-way) full of bridges and steel passages.

I hiked it in the winter, and it was almost like magic: the frozen waterfalls, the silence, it was like time was also suspended with the ice.

As early as November, you can walk in the winter landscape here, and the rock formations become breathtaking covered in ice and snow.

In summer, parking is not as complicated as in the famous Lakes, but it gets crowded, so an early morning visit will give you more peace.

Additional Places Worth Visiting in Banff

The five places listed above are what I consider the core attractions of Banff National Park, and they can easily take three full days and give you a great idea of why this region is one of the most beautiful in the world.

Below, I will mention a few other places that can add an extra sparkle to your visit. There is no right or wrong here: there are endless stops to see in Banff, so enjoy!

Surprise Corner Viewpoint: To see Sulphur Mountain and the iconic Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.

The Cave and Basin National Historic Site: Natural thermal mineral springs, the birthplace of Canada’s National Parks.

Banff Upper Hot Springs: To experience for yourself the thermal waters.
*As of September 2020, it is closed due to COVID-19.

Vermilion Lakes: Near Banff town, Lakes in between the Trans-Canada Highway and the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks.

Banff Park Museum and Banff Downtown: history, restaurants, bars, galleries.

Bow Lake: a good alternative in case you want to run away from the tourists in Lake Louise.

Peyto Lake: This stunning lake deserves a post on its own! Currently, the entire area is closed for construction, and access is strictly prohibited until Summer 2021.

Peyto Lake is also more distant, along the road going to Jasper, so it makes sense to include it in if you are visiting both National Parks.

Other Parks Nearby Banff

Banff is the most famous of the Canadian National Parks for a good reason, but some other adjacent Parks can give you striking lesser-known views and far fewer crowds.

You can also consider visiting the following Alberta National Parks: Jasper, Waterton, Yoho, and Kootenay National Parks. You will not regret it!

Pin This Guide to Planning a Trip to Banff

The 13 Best US National Parks to Visit in December

If you’re looking for a great place to travel in the winter in the United States, National Parks in December are a great option to spend the holiday season!

Whether you want a sunny escape to a normally too-hot desert national park like you’ll find in Southern California or Texas or you want a snow-covered winter wonderland like Yosemite, Acadia, or Great Smoky Mountains, you’ll find the perfect national park to visit in December for you somewhere on this list.

I asked fellow travel writers to come up with their best December national park destinations, and they didn’t disappoint. Read on to hear their tips!

The Best USA National Parks to Visit in December

Acadia National Park, Maine

Snow covered rocks with background of Atlantic Ocean and trees.

Contributed by Karen Warren of Outdoor Adventure Sampler

If you are looking to escape the summer and fall crowds at Acadia National Park, try a visit in the winter.

Snow draped mountains and ice formations on the cliffs make this Maine national park a winter wonderland! Enjoy the remote feeling of the wilds of Acadia, only matched by the incredible silence of a starry winter night there.

While most of the park loop road is closed in the winter, two scenic sections remain open.

Ocean Drive brings visitors to Thunder Hole to see and hear ocean waves spout up high in the air with a huge roar. The road to Jordan Pond gives access to 32 miles of groomed cross country ski trails.

Snowshoers will find a variety of tracked trails, where you can take an easy stroll on a frozen pond, or you can attempt a heart-pounding climb of Cadillac Mountain, the highest peak on the eastern seaboard.

Winter hikers seeking to climb a summit should use microspikes or snowshoes, and trekking poles.

  • Cross country ski on the Carriage Roads or the unplowed park roads.
  • Watch a gorgeous winter sunset at Bass Harbor Head Light.
  • Hike the Ship Harbor or Ocean Path trails to see the rugged Atlantic coast in the winter.
  • Hire a Maine guide to learn to ice climb on the frozen cascades of Otter Cliffs.
  • Score an awesome deal on a cozy B&B in Bar Harbor during this low season.

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Looking out over vista of a desert landscape with rocks in foreground and rolling greenish mountains in background.

Contributed by Nick of Illness To Ultra

You usually don’t think of traveling to the mountains in winter unless you’re skiing. Well, in Texas, that’s not entirely true!

Big Bend National Park has a mixture of mountains, canyons, deserts, and rivers fit for exploring in the winter while still avoiding extreme weather. 

December is a great month to visit the park as the temperatures are mostly pleasant. Ranging from 60° for the highs and 40° for the lows, it holds a drastic difference to the temperatures seen in summer when it can be truly unbearable. 

Big Bend National park has plenty to offer. If you like to hike, the Chicos Mountain Range can be a small challenge and provide great views across the desert. You’ll also find a whole variety of birds, and not to forget, you may even find some of the only bears in Texas. It’s worth mentioning that the range is much higher than the desert floor, so temperatures can drastically different. 

If you’re looking for a little history, you’ll find many Dinosaurs exhibits scattered around the park, where many spectacular fossils have been found. The prehistoric giant alligator and the Bravoceratops are ones not to miss.

It may still be a little cold for water activities, but if you’re brave enough, you can explore the Rio Grande for some spectacular views of the canyons and gorges.

  • Hike the 4.2 mile Lost Mine Trail to experience views over Mexico.
  • Take advantage of the cold temperatures and explore what the desert has to offer.
  • Marvel at the prehistoric beasts that once roamed the lands of Big Bend National Park
  • Take a river tour and explore the canyons with a different perspective.
  • Cross the Mexican border to experience the traditional village Boquillas.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

Snow starting to form on an Ohio waterfall and into a pool of pale green water

Contributed by Michelle Moyer of Moyer Memoirs

Declared a national park in 2000, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park is the only national park located in Ohio, as it runs from Cleveland to Akron along the Cuyahoga River. 

It becomes a winter wonderland during the winter season, complete with many inches of beautiful Ohio snowfall blanketing nature and freezing the ponds.

The park boasts the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, which takes visitors through the park on one-way or roundtrip rides daily.  This railroad becomes a truly unique attraction during the holiday season when it transforms into the Polar Express. 

Based on the hit story, it brings that tale to life as excited guests in their pajamas journey down the rails to the North Pole in order to meet the jolly man himself.  This experience allows visitors to the park to immerse themselves in the magic of the holiday season

For the active visitors there is a Winter Sports Center located at the center of the park with plenty of winter activities.  Located nearby are cross country ski trails, downhill ski resorts, sledding, and tubing hills, all beckoning the Cuyahoga Valley National Park visitor to take part in the adventures. 

After the Winter Sports adventures are completed, there are still many other activities to take part in since Cuyahoga Valley National Park is definitely one of the best US National Parks in December to put on your must-see list.

  • Ride the CVNP Scenic Valley Railroad Polar Express to the North Pole.
  • Get active at the Winter Sports Center with all sorts of winter activities.
  • Hike 125 miles of trails through the park and see icicles hanging from the rocky ledges.
  • Catch and release large-mouth bass while ice fishing at CVNP lakes and ponds

Death Valley National Park, California

Rolling tan hills in foreground, middle layer of brown hills with snow-covered mountains in the background with some cloud cover.

Contributed by Neha of Travelmelodies

Death Valley National Park straddles between California and Nevada and makes for a perfect US winter national park destination. The weather gets pleasant with temperatures hovering around 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit in the daytime to 30-40 degrees at night. 

Even though the name sounds ominous, Death Valley California has intriguing beauty in the dry rocky formations, badlands or the colors spurting through the dry desert. It is the lowest, driest and hottest place in the US apart from being the world’s hottest place.

Due to much milder temperatures, it is easier to explore areas of the park at leisure and advantage of smaller crowds. It might snow at higher elevation points like Dante’s Peak or Telescope Mountain.

Not to miss activities in this winter US national park include:

  • Walk and explore the famous Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and do sandboarding. 
  • Stargaze at the Milky Way and the stars at the darkest skies in the US. Dante’s View, Badwater Basin or Mesquite Sand Dunes are great places to view the night sky.  (Do carry blankets/jackets)
  • Drive the nine-mile long Artist’s Drive (Artist’s Palette) for spectacular views of colored soil mountains. 
  • Experience the magical sunrise and sunset at Zabriskie Point over the unique rocky formations.
  • Hike the easy 1.8-mile-long Badwater Basin Salt Flats Trail, the lowest point in North America to experience unique salt formations.

The entrance fee of the National Park is $30 USD for a non-commercial vehicle that is valid for 7 days.

Death Valley makes for a great day trip from Las Vegas or Los Angeles, as both are just a few hours away.

For sure, Death Valley National Park is a must-visit in winter, to enjoy the park at leisure without the scorching summer temperatures!

Everglades National Park, Florida

Lone tree with orange-yellow leaves standing in a marsh or swap area with plant life in the water and marsh in the back.

Contributed by Lori Sorrentino of Travlinmad

Unlike many US National Parks, winter is the dry season in the Florida Everglades and the perfect time to explore Everglades National Park!

The weather is mild — 55-85 degrees (F) is typical — and the lack of rain keeps mosquitoes and no-see-ums at bay.

Located at mainland Florida’s southern tip before you reach the Florida Keys, the Everglades is the only sub-tropical wilderness in the United States and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

There are so many things to see and do in the Everglades for outdoor adventure lovers and eco-travelers who love hiking, fishing, and paddling.

  • Hike to places generally unreachable on foot during the rainy summer like parts of Fakahatchee Strand and Big Cypress.
  • Paddle through the mangrove tunnels in search of wild orchids
  • Search for wildlife like alligators, dolphins, bobcats, black bear, manatees, deer, and the elusive Florida panther. Sightings are generally better given the lack of water.
  • Stop in the Skunk Ape Headquarters for a quirky swamp experience
  • Try the Indian Fry Bread at the Miccosukee Reservation restaurant

There are three main entrances to the Everglades: Shark Valley Visitor Center is closest to Miami, the Gulf Coast Visitor Center is near Naples, and the Flamingo Visitor Center is the southernmost visitor center in the Park accessible from the Main Park near Homestead.

Winter is a great time to visit Everglades National Park and surrounding nature preserves — one of the most under-visited National Parks in the US.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Snow on the edge of a canyon rim looking into the magnificent Grand Canyon on a partly cloudy sky day.

Contributed by Maggie Turansky of The World Was Here First

The Grand Canyon is one of the best national parks in the United States to visit in December.

As one of the most visited national parks in the entirety of the country, the Grand Canyon sees vastly fewer crowds in the winter than it does in the warmer months but it is perhaps at its most beautiful when dusted with a blanket of snow.

Whether visitors want to experience the Grand Canyon as a day trip or a multi-day adventure, there is no denying that it is particularly majestic in December.

Keep in mind that the North Rim of the Canyon is closed to visitors in December (it is only open from June-September) and that, if you want to do some of the more strenuous hikes, you may need to come equipped with ice-specific gear. Some trails also can close at short notice if they are deemed too dangerous for weather-related reasons.

If you’re looking for some fantastic, wintry-things to do at the Grand Canyon, here are some top examples:

  • See the Canyon under a dusting of snow while on a leisurely walk along the Rim Trail.
  • Enjoy fewer crowds and some peaceful solitude on the trails – but be prepared for winter conditions!
  • Warm up with a drink and a spectacular view at the El Tovar Lounge.
  • Get to the Canyon in style and experience a winter wonderland by taking the Grand Canyon Railway from the town of Williams.
  • Spot elk and other wildlife foraging through the snow around the Canyon.

You can’t go wrong with visiting the Grand Canyon National Park any time of year, however, it may be best experienced in December.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee & North Carolina

Snow covered landscape with waterfall still flowing into a small creek with all rocks and plants covered in white snow.

Contributed by Carrie of Trains, Planes and Tuk Tuks

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, on the border of TN and NC, offers some of the highest mountains east of the Mississippi. It’s the perfect destination for snow-capped peaks and icy waterfalls.

December is an ideal time to visit the Smokies to avoid the summer crowds. Most of the park remains accessible, with the exception of a few roads in the Catahoochee area and some of the boat-accessible trails from Fontana Lake.

You can hike, snowshoe, camp, and drive to the many peaks in the park — but beware of rapidly deteriorating conditions up high. When conditions in Gatlinburg are moderate — in the 60s during the day — it can be 30 degrees, snowy, icy, and windy on the peak of Clingman’s Dome. Wear layers!

5 of the top winter activities in the Smokies include:

  • Visit Clingman’s Dome for sunrise — you’ll have it all to yourself!
  • Marvel at icy waterfalls on the Deep Creek Trail
  • Brave the frigid temperatures to camp on Mount Sterling and watch the sunset from the fire tower
  • Drive to Newfound Gap — roughly halfway up the ridge — to see snow-capped peaks above you and the end of fall colors below you.
  • Snowshoe to the top of Mount LeConte

Joshua Tree National Park, California 

Desert landscape with cactus-looking Joshua trees which are brown trees with green spikes, orange rocks and blue sky in background.

Contributed by Carol Guttery of California Crossings

At first glance, Joshua Tree National Park looks like an empty forbidding landscape.

But look more closely and you’ll see a resilient garden of not only the craggy endangered Joshua Trees, but 750 other plants and hundreds of different kinds of wildlife. Combine that with the red rock landscape and epic views and it’s no wonder that nearly three million people a year visit the park.

The park is located in the hot dry landscape of the Mohave and Colorado deserts in eastern California. And it’s for this reason Joshua Tree is such a great national park to visit in the winter.

Summer temperatures scorch up to 99 degrees, but in late January, you can experience a cool, comfortable 61 degrees — perfect for hiking and sightseeing.

If you hustle, you can actually do most of the top sites in Joshua Tree National Park in one day. Here are some suggestions:

  • Hike some of the old mining sites such as Barker Dam, Pine Street Mill or Wall Street Mill.
  • Take a tour of the Key’s Ranch and learn how the Keys family managed to make a successful homestead in this dry landscape. (Also, tales of murder and intrigue.)
  • Visit the spiny Cholla Cactus Garden.
  • Check out the Arch Rock, which is a short loop trail near the White Tank campground.
  • Watch the sunset at Key’s View. The panoramic view overlooking the Coachella valley is a must-see.

Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

Cloudy sky with a view of orange lava flowing into the Pacific Ocean, causing a large cloud of white-gray smoke at the place where lava meets water.

Contributed by Noel Morata of This Hawaii Life

One of the most unique and beautiful US national parks to visit in winter is located on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Volcanoes National Park is ever-changing with the constant lava flows, earthquakes, and the recent collapse of the main caldera in the park that has made it larger and even more impressive.

Now considered a huge caldera like the Pacific version, the park is fun to explore on your own or with a guided tour. A first visit to the visitors center will give you more history, ranger talks, or a wonderful video introduction to the park, history, culture, and what you can view for the day’s events.

You can decide to just do a fun road trip through the park and visit the main attractions around the park, take a easy or panoramic hike through popular trails or even wander through a lush forest and into a historic lava tube that is open for the public to enjoy. 

Here are some things to do while visiting Volcanoes National Park

  • Visit the Visitor’s Center to get information and background on the park’s history and culture.
  • Check out some of the cool vista points for panoramic views and photo opportunities to the gorgeous Caldera.
  • Have lunch at the historic Volcano House with magnificent views of the main caldera
  • Check out a lush lava tube at Thurston Lava Tube
  • Drive the Chain of Craters road and stop at the main attractions and in the end visit the stunning arch on the coastline.

A visit to Volcanoes National Park is a must and if you are exploring the island in more detail, check out my post on free or cheap things to do on the Big Island to inspire and also save on your budget to Hawaii. A visit to the park is definitely the top attraction on the island.

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Snow covered landscape revealing a geyser in colors of orange on the rim and deep turquoise blue in the middle. Pine trees in background.

Editor’s Choice

Dreamy geysers spouting hot steam into the air as the snow falls on an otherworldly landscapes. Bubbling hot pools in every color of the rainbow contrasting against the white snow. And no crowds?

Sign me up: Yellowstone is the perfect national park to visit in the USA in December, if you plan it right.

Since Yellowstone’s average elevation is 8,000 feet, you can only access the interior of the park via a chartered snowcoach or snowmobile (information on how to do that here). The only open road runs between Mammoth Hot Springs and the entrance at the northeast, which should be open year-round.

Also note that lodging options are gathered limited, but the Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs are two options which are open within the park.

Otherwise, you’ll want to look for lodging in one of the neighboring gateway towns like Gardinier, West Yellowstone, Cody, or even a bit further away like Big Sky or Bozeman in Montana.

Some of the best things to do in Yellowstone National Park in winter include:

  • Go cross-country skiing on the Cascade Lake Ski Trail (4.5 miles)
  • Cross-country ski or snowshoe on the flat Old Canyon Bridge Ski Trail to see beautiful views of the Yellowstone River (1 mile)
  • Go by snowmobile tour to some of Yellowstone’s most beautiful and iconic locations like Old Faithful
  • Head just outside of the park to soak and unwind in the Boiling River, which, luckily, is not actually boiling temperatures!
  • Photograph the park’s wildlife with a snowy backdrop

Yosemite National Park, California

White snow covered landscape with unfrozen Merced River reflecting a snowy scenery in the background including snowy pine trees and snowy granite rock cliffs.

Contributed by Ashley Whitehead of World to Wander

Yosemite National Park is known for its sheer beauty because of its trees, waterfalls, and many rivers. This park is massive, coming in at nearly 1200 square miles!

Yosemite attracts millions of people annually and there are pros and cons to visiting throughout the seasons. However, winter in particular gives a unique opportunity to see the park because of fewer visitors. Let’s not forget the white snow that blankets the rivers and trees!

The park is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. It’s important to note the conditions before your arrival as some roads will close or require snow chains to enter.

Tioga Road, Mariposa Grove Road and Glacier Point Road are closed every year from November until Spring. Additionally, some hiking trails will also be closed due to hazardous conditions.

Regardless of closures, there are plenty of things to do to enjoy the park, such as:

  • Head out on a hike to the Lower Yosemite Falls or Mirror Lake
  • Watch the sunrise over the Half Dome
  • Book an adventure tour with lodging, hiking, meals and transportation included
  • Grab your snowboard or skis and head to Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area
  • Visit the Ansel Adams Gallery in the park

If you’re looking for the perfect time to visit Yosemite National Park without the crowds and some peace and quiet, winter is the perfect time.

Zion National Park, Utah

Desert view from Angel's Landing viewpoint with red rock and green shrubbery and plant life dotting the Martian looking scenery.

Contributed by David of The Whole World is a Playground

Utah’s first National Park, Zion is home to magnificent scenery, iconic hikes, and beautiful wildlife.

Winters in Zion are relatively mild: the low elevation of Zion Canyon, where many of Zion’s trails begin, means that snow rarely reaches the canyon floor and most of the park is accessible year-round.

That makes it a great US National Park to visit in December! Some great December activities in Zion include:

  • Rent dry suits in the nearby town of Springdale and hike the water-based Narrows.
  • Hike the incredible Angels Landing, Zion’s most iconic trail. Make sure to take your Yaktrax ice grips if it is icy, as it can be dangerous. Only do this if you have experience with winter hiking, as there are steep drop-offs throughout the hike.
  • Catch an early sunset at the park’s most beautiful viewpoint, Canyon Junction.
  • Stargaze from the wide-open Kolob Terrace Road.
  • Stay warm in the car and drive over to the east side of the park to check out the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel and Checkerboard Mesa. If you’re in the mood for a hike then the awesome views from Canyon Overlook are worth braving the elements for! 

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7 Best Hikes in Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is one of Southern California’s iconic parks, known for its trails and hikes. Its dreamy terrain expands over 800,000 acres providing 114 hiking trails, running tracks, viewing trails, and much more.

The stunning views and rewarding hikes attract thousands of visitors to Joshua Tree each year.

If you are planning to visit the park, you can go for the best hikes in Joshua Tree for a good workout. It will be unjust to the magnificent setting if you won’t lace up your hiking boots once you are there.

While it is not easy to pick a favorite, here are seven best hikes in Joshua Tree that will make your trip worthwhile.

All About Joshua Tree

The Joshua Tree National Park gets its name from the Yucca brevifolia or Joshua tree. With about 800,000 acres of park, Joshua Tree provides dozens of experiences for people from around the world.

Apart from the park’s namesake trees, you will find other exotic flora, whimsical rocks, and dozens of trails waiting to be explored. The amazing hiking, biking, and horse riding trails make Joshua Tree one of America’s most attractive rock climbing places.

In spring, the place is laden with wildflowers so tourists can enjoy wildflower viewing and appreciate the exotic wilderness.

When the night comes, the desert sky clears out, revealing thousands of stars worth gazing at. The park is an ideal site for photography as every design looks like an artist sketched it.

It makes for a great fit for any type of trip whether that’s family, solo or as a couple. Use the awesome family travel hacks if you plan to go as a family to ensure you have everything prepared to make for an amazing trip.

7 Best Hikes in Joshua Tree

One of the best experiences of Joshua Tree is hiking along the magnificent trails of the park. If you are seeking a steep hike, you’ve got ten mountain peaks rising to the skies with an elevation of 5,000 ft.

Or, you can explore Joshua Tree’s five fan oases that display the most splendid sights.

Lace-up your shoes and bring your favorite travel backpack because we have listed down seven best hikes in Joshua Tree that are too tempting to resist.

Hidden Valley Trail

The Hidden Valley Trail lies in the heart of Joshua Tree Park, right after Park Blvd. While you hike around the 1-mile loop, you can experience a little piece of history in the Hidden Valley, which was once popular with castle thieves who would hide their loot there.

Natives strongly believe that the entrance of the Hidden Valley — the beginning of the trail — was created by Keys, who wanted to make a larger entrance for his castle.

The Hidden Valley Trail is an easy hike through giant rocks and boulders adorned by different trees and cacti varieties. You will also find picnic tables and BBQ grills along the trail to stop and have lunch. It is a great hike for people of all ages looking for an easy and fun hiking adventure.

Barker Dam Nature Trail

Barker Dam Nature Trail is another short 1.4 miles hike located east of the Hidden Valley. The trail is almost like a stroll through splendid scenery with giant rock formations. There is also a wide variety of flora along the trail as you enter into the open valley where you will find the dam.

The Barker Dam was built a long time back to collect water for livestock. There is also an old stone horse trough by the dam, and the water collected there attracts all kinds of birds.

When the dam is filled up, you are likely to find wildlife along the hike too. It’s a good hike when the dam is full, but make sure to look out for the bighorn sheep.

Ryan Mountain Trail

One of the most popular and best hikes in Joshua Tree is the Ryan Mountain Trail. It is a 3-mile hike to reach the summit of the mountain. While it’s a short trail, you will have to climb over a 1000 ft for 1.5 miles from the desert sands to the summit.

The hike is nowhere near a stroll. But, once you get to the top, it will be well worth the effort.  From the top, you can have a panoramic view of Joshua Tree Park and even enjoy a snack while watching the sunset.

Boy Scout Trail

A classic hike in Joshua Tree Park, Boy Scout Trail is a seven-mile trip that lets you discover the Wonderland of Rocks. If you hike deeper into the rocks, you will find the secret haven of dense willow trees.

With only 400 ft of elevation, the hike is a favorite of photographers and backpackers who are looking for some solitude and, of course, wildflowers.

About 3.5 miles in, your turn-around spot will be Willow Hole. It is a water source circled by lush green vegetation and desert wildlife. If you see some water there, you might want to stick around the area as you might encounter the bighorn sheep too.

Cholla Cactus Garden Loop

One of the shortest and best hikes in Joshua Tree, Cholla Cactus Garden Loop, is a hike through the Colorado Desert cactus garden. The view of thousands of natural cholla cactus makes the trail a must-see for every park visitor.

If you walk too close to the Cholla Cactus, it might jump onto your skin or clothes, which is why it is also known as Jumping Cactus.

The area is great for photography throughout the day. But, watch out for the cactus needles in the dark as they are a bit hard to get off.

Warren Peak Trail

If you are looking for a longer hiking experience, the six-mile Warren Peak Trail is the one for you. Although the last few miles are very steep, the trail is moderate for the most part.

The route is unique because you will find fewer Joshua trees and more pinyon, oak, and juniper trees along the way. You will also come across the Black Rock Spring, a source of water for the wildlife.

At the end of the trail, you will have a view of the western part of Joshua Tree. You will also be able to admire the Santa Rosa, San Jacinto, and San Bernardino Mountains.

Before hiking the Warren Peak Trail, you want to plan out a few things.

As the trail is exposed to the sun, you have to stay prepared with enough water and sunscreen. Some parts of the trail are more sandy, which might affect your pace. Therefore, pick your timings wisely.

Wall Street Mine Trail

All the history lovers out there will love the 2.8 mile Wall Street Mine Trail. It is one of the best hikes in Joshua Tree for learning the history of the park. In the 1900s, Bill Keys processed gold ore in the Wall Street Mine.

The miners carted the ore to the top of the hill, where they crushed it into the sand. They mixed the sand with water and mercury to wash away the useless gravel with water.

If you hike the trail, you can explore the ruins of the gold past. These include the preserved gold mine area and a gravestone. On your way to the mine, you’ll come across the ruins of Wonderland Ranch and an old windmill that pumped water from the mill.

Make sure you have at least two hours to fully explore all the colorful ancient history.

Know Before You Go

Before you go hiking in Joshua Tree, you should know a few things about the location and climate.

Since the park consists of two deserts, the temperature can soar up pretty quickly during summer, early fall, and late spring. The high temperature and dry air can make hiking extremely difficult for some people. So, try to apart yourself to the climate before going for longer or tougher hikes.

If you are visiting Joshua Tree in summer, you can also eliminate any potential risks by an early start, carrying plenty of water, and wearing enough sunscreen to stay protected.

We recommend that you visit the park in spring when the temperature is mild, and the flowers are blooming everywhere. Fall is also a good time to visit the park, but the air can be dry during this time, so stay prepared. In winters, the area gets cold enough to force you to put on layers of clothing.

Another thing to keep in mind is that there are no services in the park. So, you will have to carry everything you will need during the day, including water, food, sunscreen, and a first-aid kit. Since the area is pretty rocky, you also want to carry your best hiking boots for a tension-free adventure.

Conclusion

Joshua Tree is a great place for nature lovers seeking adventure, beauty, and some action in their hiking boots. The park provides its visitors with endless opportunities to explore the history of the region to its depths.

No matter which hike you pick from our list of best hikes in Joshua Tree, you will fall in love with the scenic views, unique flora, and impressive wildlife in the park.

Author Bio: Via Travelers is a modern travel blog providing the best tips, hacks, and itineraries to ensure you have an amazing adventure! Follow us on Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter.

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9 Best Hikes in Yellowstone for All Levels of Hikers

With over 900 miles of hiking trails, Yellowstone National Park has plenty of beautiful terrains to explore on foot.

There’s a trail for every experience level and age group from stroller-friendly boardwalk trails abound the colorful geysers near Old Faithful to challenging mountain summits that offer rewarding views of the pristine landscape below.

Pack your backpack, grab your camera, and don’t forget the bear spray. These are the 10 best hikes in Yellowstone National Park you won’t want to miss!

The Best Hikes in Yellowstone for All Levels

Fairy Falls

Distance: 2.5 miles (5 miles return)
Trail type: Out-and-back
Estimated time to complete: 3-5 hours
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation gain: 250 feet

Who doesn’t love a scenic waterfall hike in Yellowstone? Fairy Falls is arguably the m ost beautiful waterfall in Yellowstone National Park, but lesser-known than Tower Falls, Upper Falls, and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone.

Fairy Falls is most commonly accessed from the Midway Geyser Basin near Grand Prismatic. To hike to Fairy Falls from the Midway Geyser Basin, park in the Fairy Falls Parking Area about 1 mile south of the geyser basin parking.

From the parking area, cross the bridge over the Firehole River and follow signs to Fairy Falls. After about a half-mile of hiking, you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful overlooking view of the Midway Geyser Basin including Grand Prismatic.

This is a perfect spot to stop for photos! The Yellowstone hike to Fairy Falls is about 2.5 miles each way, with under 250 ft of elevation gain. Once you arrive at the falls, you’ll be blown away by the water’s free fall from 200 ft above!

Before you head into the park, check with a park ranger or online for trail conditions. The Fairy Falls Trail is closed in the springtime for bear management.

Avalanche Peak

Distance: 2.1 miles (4.3 miles return)
Trail type: Out-and-back
Estimated time to complete: 3-4 hours
Difficulty: Difficult
Elevation gain: 2,100 feet

Extraordinary views of Yellowstone Lake, remote wilderness, and towering alpine peaks wait at the summit of Avalanche Peak.

At 10,574 ft high, Avalanche Peak is a challenging Yellowstone hike fit for experienced hikers with tolerance to steep terrain and high elevation.

One of Yellowstone National Park’s more physically demanding day hikes is also one of the most rewarding.

Roundtrip, this tough Yellowstone hike is about 4.3 miles. In the first 2.1 miles heading to the summit, the elevation gain is a whopping 2,100 ft!

The switchbacking trail that leads to the summit offers stunning views the entire way.

This trail is not recommended during September or October as grizzly bear activity heightens in the months leading up to their winter hibernation. Always hike in groups, make noise, carry bear spray, and be bear aware whenever hiking in bear country.

Winter is also not recommended due to high levels of snowfall.

Uncle Tom’s Trail

Note: Temporarily closed: check here for updates or check AllTrails trip reports for up-to-date information.

Distance: 0.6 miles (1.2 miles return)
Trail type: Out-and-back
Estimated time to complete: 30 minutes – 1 hour
Difficulty: Easy in length, but lots of stairs, so more like moderate for those with bad knees/mobility limitations
Elevation gain: 350 feet

The view from the observation deck at the base of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone is a must-see for anyone visiting Yellowstone National Park.

Located in the Canyon Area at the South Rim, this heavily trafficked trail takes hikers from the top of the canyon down 328 steps to the base of the Lower Falls, which is a towering 308 ft high!

The hike down into the canyon is no problem with the well-crafted staircase, but keep in mind you’ll have to climb back out. There are many comfortable places to rest on the return hike, and it’s not a race to the finish.

The original trail, constructed by Uncle Tom Richardson in the 1800s, was not as you see it today. Before the well-constructed series of staircases and switchbacks, the trail was made primarily of rope ladders, which brought hikers down to the base of the falls.

Tower Fall Overlook

Note: At time of writing, this beloved Yellowstone hike is closed. Check AllTrails data for recent updates to see if it’s opened back up!

Distance: 0.9 miles (1.8 miles return)
Trail type: Out-and-back
Estimated time to complete: 1 hour
Difficulty: Easy/Moderate
Elevation gain: 250 feet

Check out the epic 132 ft drop of Tower Creek from the Tower Fall Observation Point! The waterfall is ominously framed by towering pinnacle rock formations, which give the creek its name.

Access to the observation point is very convenient! From the roadside parking area, head towards the trailhead, which is just past the general store.

There’s a popular overlook that’s a short walking distance from the parking area and another that involves covering a little more effort. The second viewpoint includes a 1-mile round trip walk down to the Yellowstone River towards the bottom of the falls.

Unfortunately, the trail ends short of the waterfall’s base due to a mudslide in 2004, but the riverside walk is enjoyable and scenic.

Reward your little hike with a treat from the general store!

Mammoth Hot Springs Trail

Distance: 3.5 miles
Trail type: Loop
Estimated time to complete: 2 hours
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation gain: 560 feet

If you were hoping to see elk and hot springs, Mammoth is the place to be! Located nearby the North Entrance and Roosevelt Arch, Mammoth Hot Springs is a great place to get an up-close look at hot springs and even spot some wildlife!

Walk along the series of boardwalks through the variety of hydrothermal features.

Choose to stay on the Mammoth Terraces Trail to explore the Upper and Lower Terraces, which are filled with steamy multi-colored hot pots, or use this trail to access a web of remote backcountry hiking trails.

In total, there are about 1.3 miles of boardwalk available to explore around the Mammoth Hot Springs, plus the traditional trails.

There is parking at the Upper Terrace area, however, the parking area at the Lower Terrace is larger making finding a space much easier!

Mount Washburn

Note: This route may be closed — check AllTrails in advance to see if it’s changed

Distance: 3.1 miles one way (6.2 miles return) if coming from Dunraven Pass trailhead
Trail type: Out-and-back
Estimated time to complete: 3-6 hours
Difficulty: Strenuous
Elevation gain: 1,400 ft

If you’re looking to bag a peak in Yellowstone National Park, Mount Washburn is one of the most popular summits and day hiking destinations!

The summit has panoramic views of Yellowstone’s pristine landscape, but that’s not all. The peak also has an active fire lookout, which includes interesting interpretive exhibits.

There are two trails to the summit of Mount Washburn. The first option begins out of the Dunraven Pass Trailhead and is 6.8 miles roundtrip. The second option begins at the Chittenden Road Trailhead and is the shorter route option at 5.8 miles roundtrip.

Both trails offer beautiful scenery and access to the 10,243 ft summit of Mount Washburn. Whichever trail you choose to pursue, be sure to pack all the Yellowstone day hiking essentials including food, water, layers, a trail map, and bear spray.

Keep your eyes peeled as you hike, trail users often report seeing bighorn sheep close to the summit!

Lamar River Trail (Cache Creek Trail)

Distance: 3.5 miles each way, 7 miles return
Trail type: Out-and-back
Estimated time to complete: 3-5 hours
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation gain: 700 ft

The Lamar Valley is famous for its wildlife sightings and pristine prairie landscape.

While driving through the valley, it’s not uncommon to spot giant herds of bison, wolves patrolling in the hills, or a grizzly bear lumbering around the willows near the river. When visiting Yellowstone National Park, make a visit to the Lamar Valley a high-priority!

Although a drive-by view of the Lamar Valley is nice, an in-depth excursion on foot is even better!

Take one of the best hikes in Yellowstone on the Lamar River Trail/ Cache Creek Trail to explore the area’s rolling landscape, wildflowers, and wildlife. Hikers commonly see herds of bison along the way. Don’t forget to monitor the trail ahead to see who’s footprints have been left in the mud!

Begin your hike into the Lamar Valley at the Lamar River Valley Trailhead and follow the trail toward Cache Creek. The roundtrip distance is around 7 miles with about 700 ft in elevation gain.

Pro tip: Stop often and scan the hillsides using a spotting scope or binoculars to find wildlife. It can be difficult to spot wolves and bear from a distance without one of these tools since they blend so well with the landscape!

West Thumb Geyser Basin Trail

Distance: 1 mile
Trail type: Loop
Estimated time to complete: 30 minutes
Difficulty: Easy
Elevation gain: 60 ft

Located on the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake, the West Thumb Geyser Basin Trail is a great spot to stretch your legs and enjoy a picnic lunch.

The boardwalk trail here is a 1-mile loop that sees lots of use in the summertime. With the astonishing views, there’s no wonder why!

The West Thumb Geyser Basin Trail takes hikers along the shores of Yellowstone Lake for a closer look at the fascinating hydrothermal features. Stroll the boardwalk and take in the alpine views from this magnificent trail.

Old Faithful Geyser Loop Trail

Distance: 0.7 miles
Trail type: Loop
Estimated time to complete: 20 minutes
Difficulty: Easy
Elevation gain: 15 ft

Watching the timely eruption of Old Faithful is often high on Yellowstone National Park visitor’s bucket list. Many arrive at Old Faithful without realizing how much hiking there is to do in the area!

The Old Faithful Geyser Loop Trail is the perfect short Yellowstone hike to do if you have a little time to spare before the big event! At only 0.7 miles roundtrip, this trail is a nice boardwalk stroll for any experience level.

Pass by the colorful pools and bubbling pots as you make your way around the loop. Watch the time! You’ll want to be back to the Old Faithful Viewing Area with time to grab a seat for the eruption.

Old Faithful Pro Tip: If you’re not interested in watching Old Faithful from the bleachers near the visitor center with everyone else, make your way over to Observation Point in time for the event.

To get to Observation Point, find the trailhead at the end of the boardwalk near the Old Faithful Lodge and Old Faithful Lodge Cafeteria. Follow the trail about 0.75 miles to an obvious lookout area.

Remember to be mindful of the natural landscape when choosing a viewing spot. Stay on the maintained trail and avoid stepping on the fragile alpine vegetation.

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I hope these tips helped you plan some fantastic Yellowstone hikes for your upcoming trip!

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5 Best Grand Canyon South Rim Hikes

The Grand Canyon is a hiker’s paradise with some of the most beautiful vistas in the entire United States.

While the hike down to the bottom of the canyon is best left to expert hikers, there are several easy to moderate Grand Canyon day hikes worth the effort!

The combination of utter exhaustion and triumphant accomplishment can bring a special sense of clarity and peace to a troubled mind. 

The Grand Canyon has provided that combination to many adventurers over the centuries.  The first humans to see the Canyon, the Ancestral Puebloans, are estimated to have looked over the edge some 12,000 years ago!

Today, the Grand Canyon has hundreds of miles of hiking trails to offer all fitness and adrenaline levels, and just one look at any vista is enough to tell you why this is a place you must visit at least once in your life.

No matter your challenge, physical or emotional, the grandest of all canyons has a gorge, a side canyon, a drainage gully, or ravine to draw you in and wrap around you, and bring you peace.

This post covers only hikes in the South Rim; I have a few North Rim hikes mentioned in this post comparing the South Rim to the North Rim.

Beginner Grand Canyon Hikes

There are two main “corridor” hiking trails along the South Rim: the South Kaibab and the Bright Angel trails.

Corridor trails are well marked and well-maintained, albeit heavily traveled. 

You won’t find solitude on these trails, but you will find solace. The Bright Angel Trail has the most options for a variety of skill levels. 

Not wanting to go beneath the rim? For those who are completely new to hiking, there is a 9-mile trail along the South Rim that provides spectacular views of the Grand Canyon along the full length of the trail. 

The Tunnels

Distance to First Tunnel: 0.5-mile roundtrip
Elevation Change: 300 feet
Estimated Time: About 30 minutes

Distance to Second Tunnel: 1.5-miles roundtrip
Elevation Change: Around 800 feet
Estimated Time: About 1 hour – 1.5 hours

A great first Grand Canyon hike below the Rim on the Bright Angel Trail takes you about a quarter of a mile down the trail to the first of two tunnels along the trail.  This is a very popular spot for families with young children and offers plenty of photo options of the Canyon and the hikers. 

Because of the popularity, the walk down may feel a bit like the line at an amusement park, but the thrill at the destination is much different. 

The chattering of hikers on the trail drops off dramatically as everyone stops at the tunnel to take in the scale of the Grand Canyon from below the edge. 

Even in just this short distance, you know you have walked into something extraordinary! 

Continuing down the trail approximately another half of a mile will bring you to the second tunnel which is equally as spectacular.

At this higher elevation, you can see junipers and pinyon thriving between great gaps in the rock.  The occasional shrubs and wildflowers scattered between the trail proper and the rock wall are a testament to nature and her ability to create life and beauty in the most unlikely of places.

Further down the trail, the multicolored cliffs are as inviting as they are imposing and the pull of the wonderful views can make it easy to forget that what goes down must come up.

Any Grand Canyon hiking trail below the Rim requires a significant effort to return to the top.  A safe estimate is twice as long to hike up as it took to hike down. 

The walk back to the surface from either tunnel is not terribly steep, however, any hike out of the Grand Canyon should be celebrated. 

The trail does steepen after the second tunnel, so don’t let the easy stroll down the trail trick you.

Unlike mountain hikes where you do the climb and then get an easy hike back down, in the Grand Canyon hiking down the trail is easy, but then you have to turn around and go back up.

As the park signage reminds hikers, “Down is optional, up is mandatory!”

1.5 Mile Resthouse

Distance: 3 mile roundtrip hike, as the name suggests!
Elevation Change: 1,300 feet elevation
Estimated Time: 2-3 hours

A great turnaround point, and a very popular Grand Canyon day hike for beginners, is another three-quarters of a mile down the trail to the 1.5 Mile Resthouse. 

This stop has composting toilets, seasonal water in the warm months, and an emergency telephone. The small “resthouse” structure has shade and plenty of space to enjoy a snack and a good rest before the climb back to the top. 

The view northward in front of you from this stop includes the full length of Garden Creek drainage gorge, which the trail runs along, and the formation called the “Battleship” directly west of the gorge.

In the Canyon proper, you can see the Bright Angel Canyon scoring the North Rim and providing a stage for the l, the only corridor trail on the North Rim.

Each peak in front of you has a name.  The two most prominent features in the view from 1.5 Mile Resthouse are the Cheops Pyramid to the west of the Bright Angel Canyon, and Zoroaster Temple to the right.

This is my favorite Grand Canyon hike for a beginner.  You get a good feel for the lure of the Canyon and the effort to return to the surface, without waking up sore the next morning. 

Intermediate Grand Canyon Hikes

3 Mile Resthouse

Distance: 6 miles roundtrip
Elevation Change: 2,240 feet
Estimated Time: 3-4 hours

For those with more hiking experience under their belt, there are two great Grand Canyon day hike points further down the trail. Another 1.5 miles down the trail is 3 Mile Resthouse. 

This resthouse, like 1.5 Mile Resthouse, also has composting toilets, seasonal water in the warm months, and an emergency telephone.

The shade structure is slightly larger than at 1.5 Mile Resthouse and I have spent many hours reading, writing, and sketching from this location.

If you’re lucky enough to reach the stop after hikers going down have made their way through, but before the hikers coming up reach the location, you can spend 2 to 3 hours here with very little company. 

Otherwise, this stop is an extraordinarily popular turnaround point and is a bustling location for Grand Canyon hikes!

The view of the Canyon from the 3 Mile Resthouse is not much different than 1.5 Mile Resthouse because the trail is still hugging the walls of the Garden Creek gorge and hasn’t yet turned to a more open view of the main Colorado River gorge. 

However, if you turn around and look back up at the Rim from where you started, the view is very different. 

The cliffs looming from where you came from are spectacular and humbling.  This is when you realize you are merely a guest here and you do not want to overstay your welcome. 

Take your photos, finish your journal entry or sketch, and after a good rest, start the return climb up the trail.  

This is a 6-mile round trip Grand Canyon hike and is the perfect combination of canyon immersion and a good workout.

Indian Gardens Campground

Distance: 9.6 miles roundtrip
Elevation Change: 3,000 feet
Estimated Time: 5-6 hours

Another great turnaround point for an intermediate to advanced hiker is the Indian Gardens Campground.  This oasis in the Canyon is 4.8 miles from the Rim, so a round trip hike is almost 10 miles in a single day. 

This hike takes an average of 2.5 to 3 hours to get to the campground so plan on 5 to 6 hours for the return trip.

For those with the time, this is a beautiful hike.  Indian Gardens is a stunning riparian area filled with cottonwood trees tucked in the crevices of the Canyon walls.

The small creek, Garden Creek, that created the drainage gorge the trail has been hugging, passes through the campground on its way to the Colorado River.

As with both rest houses, there are toilets and an emergency phone.  Indian Gardens also includes a ranger station, a mule corral, and year-round potable water.

The campground here contains 16 tent campsites, each with a table, two ammo boxes for food storage, and a shade structure. 

A backcountry permit is needed if you care to spend the night and be sure to plan ahead as this is a premium backpacking stop and the campsites fill up quickly. 

Despite the time commitment to reach this spot, the effort is well worth it.  This surprising water hole surrounded by the formidable multicolored cliffs is refreshing and energizing.

If planning to turn around here, be sure to leave early enough to reach the top before the sun sets. 

The Expert Grand Canyon Hike

Plateau Point

Distance: 12.2 miles roundtrip
Elevation Change: 3,200 feet
Estimated Time: 8-12 hours

This is the further point you’re recommended to do as a day hike in the Grand Canyon.

You can apply for a permit to hike to Indian Garden if you want to break up this into two portions, or if you want to attempt to hike to the river (which is not recommended as a day hike)

The trail from Indian Gardens to the Plateau Point is considerably less steep than in the upper 3 miles of the trail. 

Can You Hike to the Rim to River and Back in a Day?

In a word, no. The National Park Service adamantly discourages hikers from going to the Colorado River and back in a single day. 

The river is 9.3 miles from the trailhead so a round trip hike is almost 20 miles in a single day!

Of course, there are many visitors to the Canyon who take the risk, and each year, approximately 250 need to be rescued. 

NEVER try to swim in the Colorado River – the water is very cold and moves very fast.  The river water is not drinkable without some form of treatment so plan accordingly if you want to fill up at the River.  

There is an emergency phone and a primitive toilet, but no water at the River Resthouse.

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Final Notes on South Rim Grand Canyon Hikes

Irrespective of your turnaround point, the hike down into the Canyon is the easy part.  Spend time on the trail taking in the panoramic views. 

Notice the changing colors of the rock as the sun and shadows move across the Canyon.  Allow your mind to quiet itself. 

Enjoy your turnaround point related and in high spirits.  Then start back up the trail with a singular focus.  The euphoria as you take that last step on to the rim surface is immensely satisfying and cathartic.

The physical and emotional effort to hike the Grand Canyon is an accomplishment at any distance and any fitness level. 

Every time I take a hike into the Canyon I shed a little more discontent, and bring home a little more comfort and joy!

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