Are you looking for the best national parks to visit in December? This guide will give details on fifteen fantastic parks that you can visit in December, why you should, and what to expect during winter.
While many don’t think to visit US national parks in winter, it might just be the prime time to visit some of the most famous ones since they get only a small margin of the visiting that they receive during the high season.
And, some of the ones located in California or the southwest are far more tolerable weather-wise during the winter! Here are some beautiful US National Parks to visit in December (and the winter months).
To be honest, many parks deserve to be on this list. However, there are some parks, such as Crater Lake National Park in Oregon that have little road access around the park and require a bit more effort.
There are also places, such as Haleakala National Park on Maui, that should be here as winter is an optimal time to visit, but it definitely requires more effort to get there! So, I left it off.
While the same can be said for a few parks on this list, there are still plenty of advantages to visiting during winter, whether it be for skiing and snowboarding, free park access, or just far fewer crowds.
If you have any experiences visiting a US National Park in December or during the winter, leave a comment about your trip there.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- US National Parks in December Worth Visiting
- Everglades National Park
- Dry Tortugas National Park
- Biscayne National Park
- Yosemite National Park
- Glacier National Park
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Yellowstone National Park
- Big Bend National Park
- Death Valley National Park
- Olympic National Park
- Channel Islands National Park
- Petrified Forest National Park
- White Sands National Park
- Shenandoah National Park
US National Parks in December Worth Visiting
Everglades National Park
December average temperature: highs around 77F and lows around 53F
Go there for: lower humidity ( = fewer mosquitoes), birdwatching, and clear skies
The Everglades is a fantastic national park to visit in winter. I have visited during this time of the year and there were not many crowds and I was very shocked as I heard this is a somewhat busy time to visit the Everglades. Maybe I just got lucky…
During the winter months, the Everglades goes through a dry season from early December until late April or early May. As someone who gets eaten alive by mosquitoes, I was excited to find less humidity and an overall, more comfortable visit. The skies are also clearer.
Since water levels are lower during this time of the year, the animals (ie: alligators!) congregate around watering holes and sloughs so it was actually relatively easy to spot them when I was there. If you’re heading out to the Everglades in December for alligator spotting, you should be successful.
Birds from the north also have migrated to this part of Florida for the winter, so you will be greeted with heaps of varying wildlife, making your trip to the Everglades in winter exciting and a true adventure.
Dry Tortugas National Park
December average temperature: highs around 76F and lows around 67F
Go there for: dry season, mild temperatures, fewer crowds, birdwatching
Beware: can be windy and the seas may be rougher, poor visibility for snorkeling
If you’re looking to take your chances on a national park in December, this is definitely a riskier one. But, if you get there and the weather cooperates, you’re in for a real treat.
Dry Tortugas is accessible by boat from Key West and you can organize your tour prior to getting down there or risking it and booking once there (don’t worry- December in Key West isn’t too chaotic). This is one of the US’s most remote national parks.
Hurricanes usually hit the area from June until November so getting a storm in December tends to be rare… but winter storms do happen and seas can be rough, so you need to be flexible with your travel itinerary if you plan to visit Dry Tortugas National Park in December.
One advantage of visiting Dry Tortugas in winter is that there will definitely be fewer crowds. In addition, the birds that migrated from the north are in abundance and birdwatching is a fantastic activity at the park.
Biscayne National Park
December average temperature: highs around 68F and lows around 62F
Go there for: dry season, increased activities, and ranger-led tours
Biscayne National Park sits a short distance from Miami and you can actually see the Miami skyline from Boca Chita Key inside of the park.
The reason the park is a fantastic place to visit is that it offers comfortable winter temperatures and since it is mostly a mangrove forest, you can witness spectacular flora and fauna from coral reefs to various fish and sea life.
December in Biscayne National Park is the start of the dry season. This actually means that it is the high-season and you’ll find more ranger-led programs and activities without worrying too much about having unfortunate weather during your winter trip to Biscayne.
Yosemite National Park
December average temperature: highs around 48F and lows around 27F
Go there for: fewer crowds and plenty of winter activities
Beware: many areas of the park are not accessible and require planning ahead, you may need chains on tires
While December may not be the most optimal month to visit Yosemite National Park, it definitely is beautiful and a great place to visit if you like snow and wintry temperatures.
It may be likely that some parks of the park become inaccessible or that you may need chains on your tires, so do plan ahead.
You should still be able to hike to Yosemite Falls (wear proper footwear!) or for an easier alternative, to Bridalveil Falls and you can still definitely check out the Half Dome during winter.
Another plus is that Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area are open and you can have a little fun on the slopes. If you’re not a skier or boarder, you can rent a snow tube and use that instead. Another option is to go snowshoeing through the park.
There are a plethora of winter activities at Yosemite National Park from cross-country skiing to ice skating to everything mentioned above, so you will definitely keep occupied and enjoy your visit to Yosemite in December (or any other winter month!)
Just a note- Tioga Road is usually closed during the winter months and you will need to plan ahead of time and take an alternative route.
Glacier National Park
December average temperature: highs around 27F and lows around 14F
Go there for: solitude and winter activities (snowshoeing, especially!), free backcountry camping
Beware: many areas of the park are closed and the weather is bitter cold… so dress accordingly
Another fantastic national park to visit in December is Glacier National Park in Montana. This park might be extremely cold during the winter months but if you dress appropriately and love the raw nature it offers visitors, you will still enjoy it.
During the winter, Glacier National Park has quite a large amount of activities to offer visitors- from snowshoeing to cross-country skiing and more. Do note that there are separate tracks depending on what activity you engage in, so be cognizant of that.
Some parts of the park are not accessible during the winter and you can find out the latest details here. Many roads are not plowed during the winter months, presenting a problem if you wish to drive Glacier National Park.
All lodging shuts down in winter, but camping is still an option for the adventurous. And… camping is free during the winter.
You do need a backcountry permit in order to camp at Glacier National Park in winter (it is free) and you can obtain it over the phone up to 7 days in advance. Alternatively, you can grab one at the Headquarters Building in person.
Rocky Mountain National Park
December average temperature: highs around 25F and lows around 12F
Go there for: winter activities and wildlife spotting
Beware: it is very cold and avalanche risks are real
Rocky Mountain National Park is such a wonderful park to visit in winter, especially since it has a copious amount of activities to keep visitors occupied.
There are many winter hiking opportunities and it is definitely an interesting sight to see the same trails that you’d hike in summer, in winter. The best winter hiking spots at Rocky Mountain National Park are in the lower valleys and eastern part of the park. These trails actually remain free of snow most of the time if you’re at a lower elevation.
You can rent snowshoes easily in the park, as well as other gear, like skis. Backcountry skiing and camping are a popular past-time during winter at Rocky Mountain National Park and you can do it for free with a permit. Just pick up the permit at the park headquarters and plan your trip safely and with the unexpected in mind.
It does get extremely cold at Rocky Mountain National Park in December and the other winter months. Extra insulation is advised and please note that dogs are not permitted in the backcountry.
Grand Canyon National Park
December average temperature: highs around 57F and lows around 39F
Go there for: few crowds, lower temperatures, and clear skies
Beware: it can be rather cold for what people think of when it comes to ‘Arizona’ (snow is not uncommon) and the road along the North Rim will likely be closed
If you have visited the Grand Canyon during the high-season, you know how painful the crowds can be. The natural sight is so worth it, but the crowds can make the entire experience unbearable.
That is why visiting the Grand Canyon in winter is definitely one of the US National Parks’ best-kept secrets. Seriously.
The crowds dissipate and the temperatures drop and the skies become clearer, making a trip to the Grand Canyon in December or January well-worth it.
Do note that while the South Rim of the park stays open year-round, the North Rim closes to traffic during the winter months. There are still many winter hiking and camping opportunities, making the park still a worthwhile visit.
If it gets too chilly for your liking, you can step into the Yavapai Museum of Geology where there are panoramic windows offering some insanely gorgeous views. And, you don’t have to spend all day in the park! You can simply spend half a day at the Grand Canyon and still see so much of it!
Yellowstone National Park
Location: Wyoming (plus small parts in Montana and Idaho)
December average temperature: highs around 26F and lows around 3F
Go there for: few crowds, winter fairytale experience
Beware: it is so cold in winter so dream warm and be ready… also, most roads are closed in the park
One of the most popular national parks in the United States is Yellowstone National Park and most tourists flock to the western park during the summer months. However, winter in Yellowstone National Park is a great experience, too! You just have to plan your trip well.
If you find yourself in Yellowstone in December, you will need to plan your trip ahead. It is extremely cold and parkas and insulated winter gear are essential.
Driving in Yellowstone during winter is not really that feasible and most roads will be closed.
However, most people get around on skis, snowshoes, snow coaches, and snowmobiles… making for a unique winter experience! The only road open is between Mammoth Hot springs and the northeast entrance of the park. So, in order to visit Old Faithful and some of the other main sights, you must book a tour.
While many restaurants and campgrounds are closed during the winter season, there are a few open still. And, warming huts open up throughout the park. You can click here to see where the park’s winter facilities are located.
While it may not seem like winter is an optimal time to visit Yellowstone, it truly is if you’re looking for a unique experience if you enjoy winter and seeing landscapes in a peaceful, transition state.
Big Bend National Park
December average temperature: highs around 60F and lows around 41F
Go there for: mild temperatures and dry season
Beware: it can be colder than anticipated for Texas but still better than summers
Big Bend National Park doesn’t get as much love as some of the other large American National Parks. Perhaps the negligence is because it is so remote or maybe because summers are completely unbearable that you really need to visit in the shoulder season to enjoy the trip.
But, visiting Big Bend National Park in December is another viable option if you’re looking for tolerable temperatures. Do note that it can get colder than anticipated and sometimes even a layer of snow coats the desert floor.
Fortunately, unlike many of the other national parks in winter, you can do many of the same activities as in other seasons. You can still go rafting on the Rio Grande, hiking in the Chisos Mountains, and admire the Chihuahuan Desert without an issue.
All campgrounds remain open and you won’t have to dress in huge parkas or worry about a miserable trip due to the weather. And… if you were to visit Big Bend during summer, you would be absolutely miserable for the opposite reason.
So, visiting Big Bend in winter is a great experience because it really offers the same trip, just without the heatstroke.
Death Valley National Park
December average temperature: highs around 66F and lows around 39F
Go there for: mild temperatures and photography of snowcapped mountains
Beware: sometimes there is heavy rainfall and flash flooding
Speaking of heatstrokes…
Death Valley just had what they believe to be the hottest recorded temperature on Earth recently. During the summer in California. If that isn’t enough reason to not visit this national park in winter, I don’t know what is!
But, for real, Death Valley is incredible during the winter months. It truly becomes a photographer’s paradise as the skies clear and the temperatures drop and you can see the snow-capped mountains far in the distance.
The best months to visit Death Valley National Park are from October until May. There are many ranger-led programs and while the wildflowers don’t really start blooming until around January or February, the skies are clear(ish) and stargazing is one of the most popular things to do in Death Valley in December and onward.
Do note that November and December are the ‘rainy’ season. However, it doesn’t really rain all that much, it just can be heavy and produce flash flooding.
Olympic National Park
December average temperature: highs around 32F and lows around 23F
Go there for: skiing and snowboarding opportunities, Hoh Rainforest
Beware: ranger-led programs are minimal, many facilities closed, avalanche risk
Visiting Olympic National Park in December (or any other time during winter) is a great option for adventurers and those that love to go snowboarding or skiing.
It is one of only three US National Parks boasting a ski life and you can experience it at Hurricane Ridge. While it is known for its downhill skiing, you can also go cross-country there as well on the marked routes.
Interestingly, you can see the Pacific from a few places within the park and when the winter storms rev up, it is a spectacular sight to see from afar.
One of the can’t-miss winter activities in Olympic National Park is visiting the Hoh Rainforest. This forest turns magical during winter as the season is wet and everything turns an even brighter shade of green.
Do note that winter in Olympic National Park brings about avalanches and sometimes blizzard-like conditions. Dress accordingly and don’t go anywhere you’re not supposed to go!
Channel Islands National Park
December average temperature: highs around 60F and lows around 37F
Go there for: awesome sunsets and mild temperatures
Beware: winter storms pop up frequently from December until March
Visiting Channel Islands National Park in December is an excellent choice if your schedule is flexible and you enjoy traveling during low-season.
While this is not the most popular season to visit Channel Islands National Park (summer and fall are), you definitely have your perks if you opt for a December, January, or February trip.
Gray whale spotting usually starts in January but you can spot orcas, minke whales, and dolphins year-round. There are also seabirds, seals, and sea lions year-round.
Also, there are some fantastic hikes at Channel Islands National Park that you can consider doing if you’re an active traveler. The weather will make the hikes a bit easier, pending the rain stays away, and the trails will be less crowded.
In addition, winter is renowned for having epic sunsets at the park- so definitely head put the Channel Islands as one of the best national parks to visit in December and the winter months!
Petrified Forest National Park
December average temperature: highs around 50F and lows around 23F
Go there for: mild temperatures and clear skies
Beware: it can be colder than expected for Arizona
Petrified Forest National Park in winter is a fantastic time to go and truthfully, probably the best time to visit.
The summer temperatures, much like the Grand Canyon, are scorching and undesirable. However, winter temperatures can sometimes bring light snow, but it definitely will be a nice and more comfortable time to visit the park.
The rainy season takes place in summer, so you don’t need to expect too much rain during December at Petrified Forest National Park, or any other months during the season. If clear enough, you can see up to 100 miles each way!
The busiest month at the park is actually February and the least-busiest month is November, so December hits at an optimal time for the best scenery paired with cheaper pricing. The Petrified Forest NP is one of the best national parks to visit in December.
White Sands National Park
Location: New Mexico
December average temperature: highs around 57F and lows around 22F
Go there for: tolerable temperatures and the dry season (wet season is in summer)
Beware: nights are very cold
White Sands National Park may look like hills covered in snow year-round given the sand’s beautiful hue, but it is actually not typical to find snow here, but not super rare either.
Visiting White Sands National Park in winter will grant you with the rare opportunity to see snow there or some winter rainfall, but overall, this park is fantastic to visit in winter.
The temperatures during the summer months are painfully hot (like 110F) and the rainy season actually starts in early July lasting until late September. Therefore, December is a great time to visit!
While you will just miss the Cottonwoods changing their color in late October into mid- November, you will still have plenty to see by visiting White Sands in December.
Do note that the park is closed on December 25.
Shenandoah National Park
December average temperature: highs around 39F and lows around 23F
Go there for: fewer crowds and backcountry hiking and camping
Beware: many facilities are closed and it can be very cold
I grew up in Virginia and this park is seriously gorgeous no matter what time of year you choose to visit it! Autumn at Shenandoah gets all the attention, but I definitely recommend visiting Shenandoah National Park in winter… particularly at the beginning of December.
You may still get to see the fall foliage depending on the year and it is a great time to escape to the wilderness.
There is a mystery that comes over this park in winter and it is a fantastic time to photograph as you can witness the seasons make their transition with your own eyes. It can be foggy and the strata of the mountains really take on the ‘blue’ hue that gives the ‘Blue Ridge Mountains’ their name.
It is also a great time to visit Skyline Drive as the snow usually hasn’t arrived in full-force yet and the road remains somewhat clear. Do note that this is just the usual situation and there are always exceptions to that rule.
During the winter, you can head to see some of the Virginia caverns in the area like Luray and Shenandoah, as well as hike to some waterfalls before they completely freeze.
To be honest, there are so many national parks to visit during the winter months and every single one has its advantages and disadvantages. We hope this if you’re considering a trip over the December holidays, that this guide to the best national parks to visit in December will help you get that trip planned!
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