Try something new with your holiday routine—by checking out some old and cherished traditions from around the country. These fun celebrations offer great incentives to get out and enjoy the season in a national park.
Note: Modest fees apply for many of these events.
1. Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, Oregon and Washington
This relatively small park puts a big effort into recreating the look and feel of the Pacific Northwest in the 19th century, with full-scale replicas of historic buildings, interpreters and volunteers decked out in period costume, and regular living history programs for visitors, including evening tours by lantern. On December 13, join park staff to make wreaths, sip holiday beverages, sing carols, and party like it’s 1829.
2. Fire Island National Seashore, New York
In 1929, a floatplane pilot named William Wincapaw was so grateful to the lighthouse keepers and Coast Guard staff who made his journeys safe during treacherous weather, he began bringing simple presents like magazines and coffee to their remote outposts each December, brightening their holidays and earning him a reputation as the “Flying Santa”—a tradition later carried on by his son and family friends. Fire Island National Seashore now hosts an annual re-enactment of Wincapaw’s acts of generosity. Visit at noon on December 13 to see Santa appear atop the seashore’s historic lighthouse.
3. Yellowstone National Park, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming
Yellowstone’s geysers and thermal springs create magical winter scenery that is snowy … and steamy. Most of the park roads are closed to cars in winter, making way for travel by skis and snowcoaches in the less-crowded off-season. Enjoy a ranger-led tour on snowshoes, or attend an educational program to learn more about the park’s remarkable wildlife and geology. Private concessioners also offer special packages for guided winter tours, including cross-country skiing and wildlife-watching trips. Visitors can even go ice skating at the Mammoth Hot Springs outdoor rink for a fun holiday outing in one of the country’s most spectacular settings.
4. Kings Canyon National Park, California
At more than 267 feet tall, the General Grant Tree in Kings Canyon is the third-largest tree and one of the most massive living organisms on the planet. In 1924, a local man named Charles E. Lee was visiting the giant sequoia when he overheard a young girl remark that it would make a lovely Christmas tree. Lee was so inspired, he organized a holiday program the following year, and convinced President Calvin Coolidge to formally designate General Grant as the nation’s Christmas tree in 1926. The chamber of commerce in nearby Sanger, California, continues to host an annual “Trek to the Tree,” now in its 89th year. Attend this year’s event for singing and a wreath-laying ceremony at the tree at 2:30 p.m. on December 14.
5. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
The Grand Canyon is memorable any time of year, and a winter visit can mean spectacular, sometimes snowy vistas of the canyon with far fewer crowds than you’ll see in the warmer months. In December and early January, visitors also have a chance to ride a special holiday-themed Polar Express train, operated by park concessionaire Xanterra. Take a scenic ride through Arizona’s breathtaking landscapes, with caroling, cocoa, cookies, storytelling, and a visit with Santa himself. (Note: Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio offers a similar service on its historic railway.
6. Fort Pulaski National Monument, Georgia
During the Civil War, Union troops laid siege to this historic masonry fort, forcing Confederate soldiers to surrender. Now, each December, visitors can tour the Savannah-area fort by candlelight and oil lamps as park staff host a historic holiday party. The festivities include many of the seasonal treats you might expect, like caroling, cookies, and cider, as well as some more unusual activities … Ever kick off the holidays with a few rounds of canon and musket fire? Be part of this year’s event December 19 and 20.
7. Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, Iowa
Each year, the town of West Branch, Iowa, hosts an old-fashioned holiday celebration in honor of its most famous former resident, President Herbert Hoover. The events, which begin on December 5 this year, include a tree lighting, live music, ranger-led activities, and horse-drawn wagon rides through the historic site and the town. Check out the special holiday-oriented exhibits at the park site, which offers free admission during the event.
8. President’s Park, Washington, D.C.
If you love Christmas trees, the nation’s capital is the perfect place to visit in December. The president himself kicks off the holiday season by lighting an elaborately decorated, 28-foot Colorado blue spruce in front of a cheering crowd at the White House. A walkway known as the Pathway of Peace surrounds this enormous tree, featuring 56 smaller trees representing each U.S. state and territory and the District of Columbia. It’s too late to get tickets to the December 4 tree-lighting ceremony, but anyone can watch the event online and enjoy the weeks of free events that follow, including live music performances and a special workshop where children can visit with Santa.
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About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer writes, edits, and moderates online content for NPCA.