National park sites can provide an ideal adventure or an escape from the cold during the winter months.
See the 12 national park sites that hosted more than a million visits between December 2017 and March 2018, and why they deserve their popularity. Visitation statistics represent the number of recreational visits to each park between December 1, 2017 and March 31, 2018.
12. San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, California
This oceanfront park offers a variety of fun activities in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood. Visitors can tour a fleet of six historic ships built between 1886 and 1914 at the Hyde Street Pier, one of the park’s best-known and most popular attractions. To the west of the pier, the park’s maritime museum and research center feature one of the largest collections in the entire park system, with everything from maps and letters to parts of ships to extensive genealogy records. The outdoor area around the cove includes an aquatic park, a small beach with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, and short, scenic trails through a grassy open area along the water.
11. Joshua Tree National Park, California
Winter is the perfect time to visit many of the desert parks — the heat is milder, the starry nights are at their darkest and clearest, and a variety of flowering plants begin to bloom in vivid colors. Joshua Tree preserves a vast region where the Mojave and Colorado Deserts meet; most of the park’s best-known and frequented landmarks are in the Mojave, or “high desert” section of the park to the west, which is wetter and includes more of the park’s namesake trees. The eastern side of the park preserves the starker and more arid “low desert” ecoregion. Visitors can choose from numerous hikes of varying length and difficulty, climb the park’s towering and remarkably sculpted monzogranite rock formations, lay outside under the spectacular night stars, and enjoy a giant dose of sunshine in this bright, wild landscape.
10. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
This world-famous landmark is a bucket-list destination any time of year, and visiting in the off-season helps avoid the sizable crowds that arrive during the warmer months. The winter does mean colder temperatures and more extreme weather conditions, and the North Rim is closed for the season. But the trails, scenic drives and guided tours are less congested, lodging and restaurant reservations within the park are easier to make, and the calmer pace is a relaxing bonus for those who aren’t afraid to bundle up. Photographers also value the clearer light, vivid sunrises and sunsets, and dustings of snow on the canyon walls, which can add an ethereal quality to the already magnificent scenery.
9. Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida and Mississippi
This park protects a series of barrier islands along the Gulf of Mexico, offering many summer visitors places to swim, snorkel and soak in the sunshine on sparkling white-sand beaches. But the 12 separate units of this park offer more than beautiful coastlines for those who venture there in the cooler but still comfortable winter months. The park also includes opportunities to watch for rare birds and marine animals on wilderness islands, hike along bayous, marshes and coastal forests, and explore several remarkable brick forts and historic buildings.
8. George Washington Memorial Parkway, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
The National Park Service manages numerous scenic and historically significant roads, and in some cases, the roads themselves are the centerpieces of entire park units. The George Washington Memorial Parkway is one such road, and this surprisingly beautiful and biodiverse byway guides visitors along the southern curve of the Potomac River, connecting nearly two dozen historic sites around the greater D.C. region. Among the pieces of history preserved as part of this park site are Fort Hunt, a military base with a rich history dating back to 1897, and the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, featuring an iconic statue of Marines raising the American flag at Iwo Jima.
7. Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.
The grand structure honoring America’s 16th president is a popular tourist attraction year-round, offering visitors a meticulously constructed homage to one of the country’s most revered political figures. The imposing marble statue of the Great Emancipator sits within a 99-foot-tall temple-like building modeled after the Greek Parthenon. The president’s likeness alone took four years to carve — and if the statue were able to rise, it would stand a full 28 feet tall. Lincoln is deliberately represented with one hand clenched and one hand open, to symbolize his strength and compassion. The statue is flanked by 44-foot-tall Doric columns, elaborate murals, and inscriptions of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and Gettysburg Address.
6. Gateway National Recreation Area, New Jersey and New York
The three separate units of this recreation area cover more than 26,000 acres of beachfront, salt marshes, grasslands, forest and wildlife habitat around New York Harbor — much of it just outside New York City, the most populous urban area in the country. The park’s Jamaica Bay unit is one of the only wildlife refuges in the National Park System, and it’s just a subway ride from Manhattan. The park provides opportunities to hike, camp, swim, fish, bike, bird-watch and ride horses, among many other year-round activities. The park also offers ranger tours, an arts center and historic buildings, including the Sandy Hook Lighthouse in New Jersey, the country’s oldest operational light station.
5. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee
This beloved park protects one of the most natural and undeveloped settings in the southern Appalachians, yet the site is also surrounded by major roads and urban areas, making it simultaneously bucolic and easily accessible. It is one of the largest parks in the East and one of the most biodiverse in the country. In addition to its postcard-perfect misty mountains and its impressive old-growth forests, it has one of the largest collections of historic log homes in the United States, as well as mills, churches and archaeological sites that preserve the area’s cultural history.
4. Natchez Trace Parkway, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee
A drive on this 444-mile scenic parkway offers a leisurely route through Southern forests and riparian wetlands, and the area’s warm temperatures allow travelers to enjoy year-round recreational activities, including trails of varying lengths for hiking and horseback riding. Though more people tend to explore the parkway during the fall foliage and spring wildflower seasons, winter brings a calmer pace and open vistas through the bare trees. The route roughly follows a historic walking path used for hundreds of years by Native Americans and early settlers between Nashville, Tennessee, and Natchez, Mississippi.
3. Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia
This winding 469-mile byway connects Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks, giving visitors views of the tree-lined mountains and valleys, hundreds of miles of trails and scenic overlooks, and picturesque places to picnic and camp. This park also hosts a surprising variety of indoor activities that promote the history and culture of the Appalachian Highlands. A handful of sites offer a regular schedule of traditional music and dancing, including stringband and bluegrass concerts. Visitors can also see Mabry Mill, a historic working mill; Brinegar Cabin, an authentic 1880s homestead; a folk art center with daily craft demonstrations; and a museum devoted just to the area’s minerals, among other fun and educational stops.
2. Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Arizona and Nevada
This recreation area preserves two dammed bodies of water along the Colorado River near Las Vegas — the park’s namesake lake, which serves as the largest reservoir in the country, and the smaller and less-frequented Lake Mohave, further downstream. Visitors can boat over the clear blue waters and cast their lines for striped bass and rainbow trout. Concessionaires also rent houseboats at both lakes, allowing longer-term visitors to explore the less-visited nooks and coves within the area’s colorful desert scenery. An abundance of trails follow shorelines and wander into scenic stretches of the Mojave Desert; exploring the park in winter allows visitors to spend more time outdoors and less of it shrinking from the extreme desert heat.
1. Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California
This large and varied urban park encompasses more than three dozen distinct sites across San Francisco and Marin and San Mateo Counties, including Alcatraz and the Presidio, former military bases and forts, natural beaches and trails, towering redwood trees, and historic buildings and attractions. It is the only national park site that hosts more than a million recreational visits per month during the winter, totaling more than 15 million visits throughout the year. On any given day, the park attracts adventure-seekers hang-gliding and mountain-biking, families picnicking and hiking, school groups studying nature and history, and tourists enjoying the skylines and ocean views, reveling in the mild weather, and exploring the rich history of the City by the Bay.
- Blue Ridge Parkway
- Gateway National Recreation Area
- George Washington Memorial Parkway
- Golden Gate National Recreation Area
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Gulf Islands National Seashore
- Joshua Tree National Park
- Lake Mead National Recreation Area
- Lincoln Memorial National Memorial
- Natchez Trace Parkway
- San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park