When bison snort out steam at Yellowstone, snow bunnies traverse Yosemite's slopes, and mosquitoes vacate the Everglades, it's nature's way of telling travelers to consider a counterintuitive winter trip to a national park.
Visiting the crown jewels of the American landscape during summer with kids in tow is a cherished ritual, but it's a ritual for the masses: The 391 parks in the system, including the 58 major ones, drew 275.6 million visitors last year, and almost 40% of them came June through August.
A savvier 13% visited from December through February and took advantage of such winter-only activities as cross-country skiing at Montana's Glacier National Park, storm-watching in Washington's Olympic National Park, ice-fishing in Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, fireplace-snuggling at Triangle X Ranch in Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park, and no-broil backpacking in California's Death Valley National Park.
Falling gas prices and the still-steep cost of traveling abroad this winter could give a short-term boost to what some see as a growing long-term trend. "As the Baby Boom wave moves into retirement, we'll see some interesting changes in the demographics of the people visiting the parks and the times they visit," says Jim Burnett, a retired park ranger/outdoors writer.
To get a sense of what awaits in the great outdoors, consider five parks that show their best sides in winter.
Olympic National Park, Washington
•Why winter? Hiking through the Pacific rain forest is one of the park's top draws, but most trekkers see it only during the dry season, when everything is brownish and shriveled. Winter rains bring out the vigor and brilliant green lushness in the mosses, lichens and liverworts. In addition, rainstorms wash fallen Douglas firs, hemlocks and cedars down the rivers and into the ocean, where they are tossed about by giant waves and wind up back on the beaches. The spectacle can be viewed in relative safety from atop bluffs near Kalaloch Lodge.
•Entrance fee:$15 a vehicle; $5 a pedestrian/cyclist; good for 7 days.
•Coziest lodging, upscale:Kalaloch Lodge (888-896-3826; visitkalaloch.com), where rooms and cabins start at $123 a night.
•Coziest lodging, budget:Ten of Olympic's 16 campgrounds are open year-round, weather-permitting. Nightly fees are $10-$18 (nps.gov/olym).
•Heartiest dining:Roosevelt Dining Room at Lake Quinault Lodge (888-896-3827; visitlakequinault.com).
•Winter temps:30s and 40s at lower elevations, but up to 10 feet of snow can fall in the mountains.
•Information:Road/weather hotline: 360-565-3131; visitor information: 360-565-3130; nps.gov/olym
Death Valley National Park, California
•Why winter? Well, you could visit the country's hottest (it hit 134 degrees here once) and driest spot during summer, but even masochists can't venture far into the desert without risking their lives. Winter, when daily high temps average 65 to 72 degrees, is when the park's 3.5 million acres open up fully for leisurely exploration. Stargazing is especially rewarding during the long winter nights. And, a few times a decade, enough rain falls in winter that wildflowers bloom in February. Though there may be some crowds to contend with, especially during holidays, most visitors come in the spring.
•Entrance fee:$20 a vehicle, good for 7 days.
•Coziest lodging, upscale:At luxurious Furnace Creek Inn, rooms start at $350 (800-236-7916; furnacecreekresort.com).