Winter calendar scenes come to life for visitors to our national parks during the colder months.
After a snow in Zion National Park, the soaring cliffs look like the layers of a fancy wedding cake iced in frosty white. In Yosemite, winter nearly stills waterfalls to create intricate ice sculptures. Yellowstone's famed geysers form dense clouds of fog in the icy winter air.
Winter visitation in the nation's scenic parks continues to increase, part of a growing trend toward offseason adventures in the outdoors. Many national parks that used to close entirely for the winter now accommodate winter visitors, controlling access and setting limits to protect wildlife and other park assets. Improved technology has led to snowmobiles and snow coaches with cleaner, quieter engines, eliminating some objections to their use in parks such as Yellowstone. Advances in winter sports gear such as snowshoes and cross-country skis also has enhanced the offseason visiting experience.
Despite the increased offseason interest, winter visitors still enjoy frosty landscapes free of the crowds that most national parks attract in summertime. Few parks close entirely in the offseason, instead keeping fewer facilities open. Of the national parks and monuments closest to Las Vegas, only the Grand Canyon's North Rim and Cedar Breaks close completely for winter. Minimal campground facilities are open in winter at Zion, Great Basin and the Grand Canyon's South Rim.
Where possible, scenic routes remain open for cars and buses. If driving on snow and ice does not appeal to you, consider the advantages of accessing parks by bus, train or plane. Many parks in winter have Amtrak connections and bus tour options. Air travel to the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas is possible year-round.
Some national parks offer special recreational opportunities that are not possible without snow, such as cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing and ice skating. Many schedule ranger programs and outings to encourage these winter pastimes.
Snowmobile courses in Yellowstone are cleared of obstacles, and the number of daily users is controlled. Touring by snow cat or snow coach allows winter visitors to enjoy Yellowstone's frosty scenery. Ice skating is popular in Yosemite. Snowshoe instruction and treks with rangers are scheduled in Bryce Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone. Bryce Canyon's Winter Festival over Presidents' Day Weekend includes many such special activities. This park with its high altitude and clear, dark skies also features astronomy sessions each weekend in the winter.
Winter hiking is very popular in parks such as Zion, Canyonlands and the Grand Canyon's South Rim where the high country gets the heaviest snow. Winters are mild at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the season preferred by veteran hikers to avoid toiling along trails in summer's soaring temperatures.
In Great Basin, Nevada's only national park, winters are harsh and long. Snows and freezing close many facilities and limit access above ground. Underground is a different story. The subterranean scenery in Lehman Caves remains open and unaffected by winter. There could be a blizzard at ground level, but the temperature in the caverns remains the same year-round.
Offseason visitors to national parks receive the benefit of reduced winter rates at the park lodges and hotels that stay open. The lodge at Bryce Canyon will be closed, but motels along Route 12 provide bases to explore not only snowshoe and ski trails in Bryce, but also the extensive snowmobile routes in nearby national forest areas. Accommodations in gateway towns near the parks should be less expensive than during summer months. Midweek rates are lowest. Weekend and holiday rates will be higher. Reserve rooms early.
One of the greatest advantages of an offseason visit to a national park is the opportunity to see a beloved place from a different perspective. Winter produces changes so profound that even a park well-known to you will seem like an unfamiliar place. A winter visit to one of our grand national parks might be the most memorable time you ever spend there.
Margo Bartlett Pesek's Trip of the Week column appears on Sundays.