Winter in canyon country is like stepping into a perpetual golden hour, when the sun lowers, the light softens, and the red rocks are dotted with snow. More important, the flood of hikers, bikers, and rafters dries up, leaving Arches and Canyonlands, on either side of Moab, up for grabs. “In the summer, there’s a hundred people trying to shoot Delicate Arch,” says photographer Dan Ballard of the iconic rock formation in Arches. “In winter, you may see no one at all.” All the area’s infamous biking trails are fair game, but the best experience once the snow falls is cross-country skiing in the La Sal Mountains, which loom over the area with views that stretch for hundreds of miles. The Utah highway department plows the 60-mile La Sal Mountain Loop Road in winter, so in the morning you can cruise up to the 9,600-foot parking lot at the Geyser Pass road, where groomed ski trails snake through the meadows. Then, once the sun starts turning the snow to slush, head back toward town for rock climbing at Wall Street, a sandstone cliff along the Colorado River. “It can be 30 degrees in town,” says Nate Sydnor, owner of Moab Desert Adventures, which offers climbing trips year-round, “but it’ll be 50 degrees and sunny on the wall.” Think of Moab as your winter adventure wonderland, sans the cold.
Fly: Moab has limited flights, so head to Grand Junction, two hours east, which has more options and cheaper fares.
Stay: Dining in Moab is mediocre at best, so rent a Village Rim condo with a full kitchen — and a hot tub. [moabcondos.com]
Isolation on the South Rim
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Most of the five million visitors hoarding to the Grand Canyon every year are fair-weather fans. Visitor numbers dwindle to around 200,000 in the month of January. That means on any given day, you will be hard-pressed to find 50 other vehicles in the whole park. On the way in, be sure to drive Hermit Road. The scenic Rim-tracing drive is only available to private vehicles in December, January, and February. “Hermit Road is kept plowed throughout the season and is open to visitors to drive themselves since the shuttle does not run during the winter,” says park ranger A.J. Lapre. Winter is also the only time you can hike Bright Angel trail on the South Rim without anyone there to block the iconic views. Enjoy the rare solitude while the morning clouds burn off in the afternoon southwestern sun among the snow-dusted buttes and canyon walls.
Fly: Landing at Flagstaff’s small airport or charting a plane directly to the Grand Canyon Airport, are the most convenient (and expensive) options. Phoenix, however, is your most reasonable bet. The Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport has the best fares and is a three and a half hour drive from the South Rim.
Stay: Winter rates at the Grand Canyon National Park’s Maswik Lodge South start at $89 per night. [grandcanyonlodges.com]
Celebrate Winter in Denali
Denali National Park, Alaska
When thinking about the best wild winter backcountry, Alaska should be the first destination that comes to mind. What could make for more classic cold-weather adventure than dog sledding and catching the Northern lights in the tundra of Denali National Park? The 14th annual Winterfest is being held on February 27 to March 1 this year, and includes: the Winterfest Olympic Games, hearty potluck dinners, ice carving, workshops on photographing the Northern Lights, and free dog sled rides (of course).
Fly: Avoid unpredictable weather and potentially hazardous road conditions from Anchorage by paying extra to fly into Fairbanks. The interior town is two hours from Denali, versus Anchorage’s five-hour trek on a good day.
Stay: Most of the hotels and lodges located in the Denali park wilderness and just outside of the park are closed during the winter season. But the town of Healy, just 12 miles north, offers several bed and breakfasts, along with motels and a grocery store that are open year-round. The Denali Primrose Bed and Breakfast has accommodations starting at $142 per night. [denaliprimrose.com]
Coastal Drive to Cadillac Mountain
Acadia National Park, Maine
A scenic coastal drive in Acadia leading to Cadillac Mountain, the tallest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic coast, is not just a summer adventure. But leave the drop top at home for this one. “Snow changes everything,” says Acadia’s Lead Ranger Kathy Grant. “The mountains are snow-capped and the ocean is beautiful as always. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking.” The drive through Bar Harbor (along Schooner Head Road, Otter Cliff Road, and Route 233) spans beaches, cliffs, streams, forest, waterfalls, and 17 stone-faced bridges on the park roadways. A mile-long stretch of the Park Loop Road south of Sand Beach stays open 365 days a year — even when the rest of the loop and park roads are closed — so you still get the best coastline driving this side of the Appalachian Trail. When you are ready to stretch your legs, the park has 45 miles of carriage roads offering the perfect terrain for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and winter hiking.
Fly: The Bangor International and Portland airports are the closest to Acadia, but offer deals on tickets. Southwest offers notoriously cheaper airfares into Manchester, New Hampshire, a four-hour drive to Acadia.
Stay: The Acadia Hotel is a quaint and authentic inn located in downtown Bar Harbor and open year round. Rooms start at $69 per night, and booking includes free downtown parking and a pass to the historic Abbe Museum. [acadiahotel.com]
Ice Skate in the High Sierras
Yosemite National Park, California
For winter travelers that don’t mind a crowd, the Curry Village outdoor ice-skating rink at Yosemite offers a winter classic: ice skating. “Hundreds of people a day come to ice skate at the base of the mountains during the winter,” says Sean Miner, a Curry Village employee. Open from Thanksgiving through February, the rink is far from the only attraction. When you are ready to get away from the ruckus, a shuttle from the nearby lodging areas can take you to Badger Pass ski resort for snowboarding, hiking, and Nordic and downhill skiing.
Fly: San Francisco has the cheapest airfare and the most consistent flights, with just under a four-hour drive to Yosemite. Fresno is closer to the park, but deals are harder to come by.
Stay: Curry Village offers 10 on-site cabins starting at $59 per night. For more comfortable accommodations, the award-winning Tenaya Lodge is just down the road down and starts at $129 per night. [tenayalodge.com]
Ski and Climb on the Continental Divide
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Rocky Mountain National Park boasts one of the summer’s best hiking trail systems with more than 350 miles over some of the tallest peaks in the country. With more than 60 mountains with summits reaching more than 12,000 feet, this is also the place to be for majestic winter mountain vistas. Take the opportunity to cross-country ski the Continental Divide and brush up on your ice climbing skills. The park’s granite and ice faces, such as the popular Hidden Falls, are renowned as some of the best climbing venues in North America. Overnight backcountry camping permits are free, and Longs Peak, Moraine Park, and Timber Creek, have campgrounds open all year long.
Fly: Land in Denver and take your rental car the 90 minutes to Estes Park, or take one of the four daily shuttles.
Stay: If you’re not camping in the backcountry, the clean, reliable Rocky Mountain Park Inn has rooms starting at $85 per night. [rockymountainparkinn.com]
Biking and Whitewater Haven on the Rio Grande
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Unlike most national parks, Big Bend allows mountain bikers on every trail, totaling to 150 miles of track. And with desert land, mountains, hot springs, and Rio Grande-riverside backcountry to bike, trek, and paddle, if you somehow do get sick of two-wheeling it, there are over a million acres to explore however you see fit. Winter temperatures hover in the pleasant 60 to 70-degree range — a far and welcomed stretch from the unbearable blood-boiling summer weather of the Southwest Texan Chihuahuan desert. In fact, what is considered off-season for most parks is perfect timing in Big Bend, with prime weather ranging from October to April. Take advantage of the whitewater opportunities and paddle Class II-III Rio Water through the half-mile-deep slotted gorges of Santa Elena Canyon while everyone else in the country is skiing. Half-day canoe floats are also offered year-round.
Fly: The closest international airport is El Paso, a five-hour drive. Southwest offers flights from Dallas-Forth Worth to Midland, which cuts the road travel to three hours.
Stay: The Chisos Mountains Lodge sits at an elevation of 5,400 feet in the heart of Big Bend, and rooms start at $134 per night. [chisosmountainslodge.com]
Vegas' Real Light Show
Death Valley, California
It’s strange but true: One of the best places to stargaze in the United States is a two-hour drive from the Las Vegas Strip. Death Valley is ranked as one of the world’s darkest skies, and there’s no darker time than winter, when there’s less atmospheric disturbance. For utter blackness, head to Mesquite Spring campground, where you can light a fire to stay warm (lows are in the 40s) and roast marshmallows before heading back to your hotel. “As the sun sets, you can see the Zodiacal light, a brilliant column of sunlight reflected off space dust,” says David Blanchette of the Las Vegas Astronomical Society. Peak viewing is an hour and a half after sunset, when the Milky Way is so bright you’ll think you’re on the moon — and coyote howls will be the only thing bringing you back to Earth.
Fly: The two-hour drive from Las Vegas to the park is one of the best in the Southwest.
Stay: Furnace Creek Resort — two hotels, restaurants, and a bar in the middle of nowhere. [furnacecreekresort.com]
Solitude and Wildlife in Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Every year 3 million people show up at Yellowstone, and only a tiny fraction of them do so during winter. But agoraphobia isn’t reason enough to wait for the snow to fall: Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are at their peak, and the park’s many geothermal features attract heat-seeking wildlife, which are easier to spot in all that snow. Besides, you can watch Old Faithful spew forth virtually alone, a vast improvement over summer months, when hordes as large as 10,000 can crowd around, looking to snag a selfie. On a clear winter day you can wander out just minutes from the newly renovated Old Faithful Snow Lodge and get lost in the pines with geese, foxes, bison, owls, and moose. Of course, if it’s wolves you want, head east to Lamar Valley. (You can stay just outside the park in the town of Mammoth.) “In terms of population and accessibility, there’s no better place in the lower 48 to see wolves,” says Yellowstone’s Rick Hoeninghausen. Plus, in winter, deep snow brings the canines down from the high backcountry for easier hunting — and viewing. Even they know enough to avoid the summer crowds.
Fly to: Bozeman, the only large airport with access to the park’s western entrance.
Ninety minutes from Miami, Everglades is Florida’s time warp back to the Jurassic era — panthers, alligators, manatees, and 360 types of birds, all fighting it out for survival in the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S. But in summer, 90-degree temps and 95-percent humidity cause even the wildlife to wilt and seek shelter. Which is why November to May — when the sky clears, the mosquitos disappear, and the water levels drop — is the best time to witness the life-and-death dramas playing out in the swamp’s back channels. “You probably won’t see a panther — that’s a cat that can run nearly 30 miles per hour,” says Charles Wright, a Florida naturalist and owner of Everglades Area Tours. “But alligators, dolphins, sea turtles, shore birds, and birds of prey, for sure.” The only real way to explore the 1.5 million–acre park is by kayak or boat, and by launching in the Turner River where it crosses underneath Tamiami Trail, you’ll have the best chance of seeing wildlife without packing camping gear. Slowly the channels will narrow and birds will alight as you pass. Alligators may even start patrolling the waters — and quickly your night out in South Beach will seem tame by comparison.
Fly: Miami is only an hour and a half away and has the cheapest car rentals.
Stay: Chokoloskee Island Park and Marina, which has boat rentals and is 10 minutes from the Everglades. [chokoloskee.com]