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
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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!