Punxsutawney Phil has spoken: It’s officially spring, folks! Okay, the weather may not be completely on board yet, but we are! We’re packing up the car, bringing a few extra layers and headed to some of our favorite national parks – ones that happen to shine during these crispy winter – errrr, spring days! So after the cold shock of unzipping the sleeping bag has worn off and the leggings have been hastily thrown on, you’ll be glad that little groundhog welcomed spring early.
Yosemite National Park is blissfully serene in cold-weather months, especially under the canopy of changing leaves and a blanket of snow. Winter means cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and even downhill skiing—with a fraction of the approximately 4 million visitors the park sees year-round. A word to the wise, Tioga Road, the main access to the eastern parts of the park, is currently closed, meaning your excursions will be focused on destinations around Yosemite Valley. But there’s still plenty to do there (be sure to check out the park’s handy Yosemite Guide beforehand). We like to ski at Badger Pass (Northern California’s oldest ski area!), snowshoe and cross-country ski over traditional summer trails, and sidle up to the empty bar at the Ahwahnee Hotel for an après ski.
Olympic National Park has no shortage of amazing camping destinations, with five camping destinations that are open year-round. Chances are, if you camp in Olympic National Park in the off-season, it will rain on you. Off-season camping isn’t something everyone will enjoy, but for the foolhardy and the fearless, it is life-changing. Pack warm clothes, a waterproof tent, and a sense of adventure and determination, and Olympic National Park is your gateway to an unforgettable time in the wild. We like Graves Creek Campground in the Quinalt Rainforest and Kalaloch Campground on the bluffs of the Pacific Ocean.
Arches National Park is breathtaking any time of year, but when the low winter sun illuminates the snowy white icing atop Moab’s velvety red rocks, you get a scenery that is unlike anything else on this planet. It’s a photographer’s dream, whether you’re a pro or just adding some brag-worthy shots to your Instagram feed. And because it’s winter, you can expect to share the entire park with only a handful of people, rather than the endless parade of visitors that Arches sees during summer and fall.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of those places that you can visit a million times and never see the same place twice. We suggest Porter Creek Trail this time around. Porter Creek’s low elevation and gentle slopes make it especially wonderful in the spring, when some of the higher elevation trails are still unpredictable due to snow and ice. This gentle, peaceful 4-mile trail mixes beautiful wildflowers and lively waters with some notable historic sites – the old stone walls of the Elbert Cantrell farmstead and the tombstones of Ownby Cemetery, both from the early 20th Century.
For those looking for a feeling of solitude, winter beauty and adventure, February is one of the best times to visit Glacier National Park. Don’t expect to find the usual restaurants and lodges in the surrounding towns – they’ve long been boarded up for the winter. But throw some extra blankets in your car, grab some hand warmers and just pick any old campground – most of them are wide open and free for car camping in the winter. If you’re not super gung-ho about camping in Montana in February, head out for a long day trip. Stand on the shores of Bowman Lake and let the silence crash over you, spot wildlife from your snowshoes on McDonald Creek trail, or strap some chains on your car and drive the gorgeous Going-to-the-Sun Road on the west side of the park. Be sure to check the current road status before your weekend getaway.