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Be different: Target national parks in winter
By Tom Adkinson
December 23, 2022

yellowstone national park soda butte creek
Relatively few of Yellowstone National Park’s almost 5 million annual visitors see scenes such as this one of Soda Butte Creek. Image by National Park Service

Beaches in the winter, mountains in the summer. That’s the formula for choosing leisure destinations, right? Not necessarily when visiting some of America’s national treasures – our national parks.

One side effect of the coronavirus pandemic was increased visitation to national parks (297 million visits in 2021, up 60 million from 2020). Some national parks have practically been loved to death, but savvy travelers know to target destinations outside peak visitation periods.

In warm months, Yellowstone National Park is practically overrun with people who want to see the Old Faithful geyser and meadows where the buffalo roam, but far fewer make the effort to have a totally different snow-filled experience in winter.

Outer Banks
The sands of North Carolina’s Outer Banks look like snow in this winter scene at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Image by National Park Service

pink winter sunset outer banks
A pink winter sunset settles on Corolla, North Carolina, on the Outer Banks only a few miles from the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Image by John Warner/Visit Currituck

On the other side of the country, summertime sun-seekers revel on the beaches of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, but far fewer visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial after the weather turns chilly. (Some of those who do come in winter remember that the Wright Brothers’ famous first flight was on a blustery December day.)

“One beauty of the National Park Service is that we have a park for every season. People generally think of the big (and most famous) ones, but there are gems that don’t get the attention others do,” said NPS spokeswoman Vanessa Lacayo.

Some national parks are so remote they never will suffer from too many visitors. Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska saw only 7,362 visitors in 2021, but it’s entirely above the Arctic Circle. Another, North Cascades National Park, is barely three hours from Seattle, yet only 17,855 outdoor lovers visited in 2021.

In the Southeast, Congaree National Park is barely 20 miles outside Columbia, South Carolina, but only about 215,000 people crossed its boundaries in 2021 to canoe, fish or stroll boardwalks through the region’s largest old-growth bottomland forest. In a sense, they practically had the place to themselves.

Good planning can lead you to compelling off-season destinations.

el capitan
El Capitan (8,085 feet) is a landmark in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, one of three national parks near El Paso, Texas. Image by National Park Service

For instance, you can weave a trio of national parks in West Texas and southern New Mexico into one trip – Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park and White Sands National Park. All are within 150 miles of El Paso, Texas.

“You have the opportunity to see three very different parks in a short period of time,” said Elizabeth Jackson, chief of interpretation at Guadalupe Mountains, which contains the four highest peaks in Texas. The tallest is Guadalupe Peak (8,750 feet).

This is arid Chihuahuan Desert country – muted brown landscapes, yucca, agaves, and prickly pear cacti for the most part – that has a totally unexpected fall color season in McKittrick Canyon. The canyon is a geologic fluke with a moist, cool climate in relative terms. Its forest of ash, oak, and bigtooth maples put on quite a show. It may not be as flashy as New England’s fall color, but remember that this is desert country.

Another world, this one underground, exists just 30 miles away in New Mexico at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The park has 120 caves, the most famous of which is Carlsbad Cavern, a show cave with paved trails, dramatic lighting and elevators that drop you 754 feet underground.

Two popular activities are watching thousands upon thousands of bats fly out of the cave in early evening during warm months and “star parties” throughout the year. The celebrities at these parties are the stars and planets sparkling in the extremely dark desert skies.

white sands national park
The sand at White Sands National Park in New Mexico is fine enough that sledding is a park activity. Image by Tom Adkinson

The final jewel in this trio, White Sands National Park in New Mexico, gained national park status in 2019.

It is tiny – 275 square miles compared to Yellowstone’s 3,468 – but astronauts spot it easily from outer space. That’s because it is a gleaming white patch in an ocean of brown. White Sands is the largest gypsum dunefield in the world. These rolling swaths of gypsum, the same stuff in sheetrock walls, plaster of Paris, and even toothpaste, are pure white and almost blindingly reflect sunlight. It looks like snow, and is powdery enough for sledding.

If you are determined to go to a hugely popular western park such as Yellowstone (4.8 million visitors in 2021), winter requires more planning than summer, and first-time visitors especially are wise to book guided tours for activities such as snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and nature walks.

“Fall and winter are completely different from summer,” said Robin Hoover, executive director of Yellowstone Country, one of Montana’s tourism districts. “We like to promote them as the quiet time.”

One thing is certain: In the frigid winter air, you won’t be cheek to jowl with hordes of other vacationers competing with you to see geysers, bison, wolves, eagles, moose and elk.

Trip-planning resources:, and

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available on

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