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).
•Coziest lodging, budget:At 196 feet below sea level, Furnace Creek Campground is the largest of the park's seven campgrounds open in winter. Rates are $18 a night (877-444-6777; recreation.gov).
•Heartiest dining:Furnace Creek Inn Dining Room (760-786-3385; furnacecreekresort.com).
•Winter temps:Highs average 65 to 72 degrees; lows average 39 to 46.
Yellowstone National Park, Montana/Wyoming
•Why winter? Think how extra fantastic Old Faithful and its hundreds of fellow geysers and hot springs will look when the backdrop is a snowy carpet. Only one park road stays open to wheeled vehicles, so skis, snowshoes, snowmobiles and snow coaches are the best methods for viewing the bison and elk herds and the occasional wolf and moose.
•Entrance fees:$25 a car; $20 a snowmobile or motorcycle; $12 each pedestrian ages 16 and over entering by foot, bike or ski. All are good for seven days and include entrance to Grand Teton National Park.
•Coziest lodging, upscale:Old Faithful Snow Lodge & Cabins (opens Dec. 17; accessible by snow coach from main entrances), where cabin rooms start at $94 a night and lodge rooms, $191. (866-439-7375; travelyellowstone.com).
•Coziest lodging, budget:First-come first-served Mammoth Hot Springs Campground ($14 a night) is the only year-round campsite in the park (307-344-7901, no online reservations; nps.gov/yell).
•Heartiest dining:Old Faithful Snow Lodge Dining Room (866-439-7375; travelyellowstone.com).
•Winter temps:Highs average 28 to 34 degrees; lows average 9 to 13. Snowfall averages 150 inches a year.
Yosemite National Park, California
•Why winter? From downhill skiing at the five-lift Badger Pass area to ice-skating at Curry Village and overnight cross-county ski trips to Glacier Point Ski Hut, Yosemite is a winter-sports paradise. Snowmobiles aren't allowed, but that guarantees near-complete solitude for snowshoe hikes through the 8,000-feet-high Tuolumne Meadows area. And guided photography walks can teach budding shutterbugs how Ansel Adams coped with the winter light bouncing off Half Dome.
•Entrance fee:$20 a car; $10 a pedestrian/cyclist; both good for 7 days.
•Coziest lodging, upscale:Ahwahnee Hotel, where rooms start at $410 a night (801-559-5000; yosemitepark.com).
•Coziest lodging, budget:With 238 sites, Upper Pines is the largest of the four main campgrounds that are open year-round ($20 a night; reservations not necessary; 209-372-8502; nps.gov/yose).
•Heartiest dining:Ahwahnee Hotel Dining Room (209-372-1489; yosemitepark.com).
•Winter temps:Highs average 49 to 59 degrees; lows average 26 to 31.
Everglades National Park, Florida
•Why winter? The tropical storm season ends in November, taking with it those darn mosquitoes and biting flies. Taking their places are those darn tourists — winter's the high season here — but also thousands of migrating birds. Rangers lead excursions through the park's 1.5 million acres via motorboat, canoe, tram, bike or on foot through mangrove forests, stands of 600-year-old cypress tress, and sawgrass prairies, and along the coast.
•Entrance fees:$10 a car; $5 a pedestrian/cyclist; good for 7 days.
•Coziest lodging, upscale:Luxury lodging is plentiful in the Miami area, but the commute is about 40 miles, so chain hotels in the gateways of Homestead and Florida City are a better way to go. Typical is the Ramada Inn in Florida City, where rooms start at $157 a night (305-247-8833; hotelfloridacity.com).
•Coziest lodging, budget:The two main drive-in campgrounds are Long Pine Key and Flamingo Campground, both $16 a night (305-242-7700; nps.gov/ever).
•Heartiest dining:No fine dining in the park, so consider Capri Italian Restaurant (305-247-1542; dinecapri.com) in Florida City.
•Winter temps:Highs average 77 degrees, lows average 53.