Though many parks have year-round access, these are the parks we’ve found, from Maine to Florida, that have outdoor programs and facilities intended to draw folks to their sights during the colder months.
Located in “down east” Maine, this popular summer destination becomes a quiet wonderland (minus the massive waves that crash against portions of its cliff-lined shores) with winter’s snows. All the better; the park is stunning year round and those who love cold temperatures will be granted a version of the park that most have never seen.
While the “Loop Drive” around the park is closed, sections of roads are still open, allowing visitors to access backcountry skiing, groomed ski trails, ice climbing, winter camping, snowshoeing, and more.
For a downright cool experience, make your way to the top of the park’s Cadillac Mountain to watch the sun come up. Though most think of it as a year-round occurrence, viewing the sunrise during fall and winter truly allows visitors to claim they were the first in the nation to see the sun rise that day.
Be aware that many facilities are closed or are open on shortened schedules. To see more about what facilities are open during the winter, check the park site.
Step into the world’s longest cave system, located in south central Kentucky. During winter, the campsites are all free of charge, and winter hiking above ground will show off more of the geologic features once the trees drop their leaves.
But since 1816, it’s the underground that draws people to the area. Over 400 miles of its labyrinths have been explored, and in winter, you’ll feel like it’s all there for your personal adventure. And with temperatures hovering around 54ºF, chances are your time there will feel downright balmy compared to winter’s winds.
The park offers four tours throughout their winter season (November 1, 2015 – March 18, 2016) with most running daily. If you’re feeling like a true adventurer, the “Wild Cave Tour” is for you. Taken in small groups, visitors descend with a guide for six hours into the caverns, and “climb, crawl, squeeze, [and] hike” their way through the dark depths.
Reservations are strongly suggested for tours, and can not be made the day of, so make sure you reserve ahead online (check details for dates and times): http://www.recreation.gov/tourSearchResult.do?contractCode=NRSO&parkId=77817&tourId=0
Nicknamed “Home of the Champions,” this park preserves the “largest remaining stand of old growth bottomland deciduous forest in the southeastern United States.” Located in South Carolina, the park is also said to be home to some of the tallest trees in the eastern part of the country, and one of the “highest temperate deciduous forest canopies” in the world. It earned the distinction of being an “International Biosphere Reserve” before it joined the ranks of the National Park System in 2003.
Over 50% of it is also set aside as wilderness area, giving visitors plenty of space to explore the backcountry, and the two local rivers — the Congaree and Wateree — let water lovers enjoy time in their canoes and kayaks.
Designated a “Globally Important Bird Area,” all types of wildlife abound in this distinct floodplain ecosystem. Visitors are invited to learn more about the incredible diversity of flora and fauna every Saturday — through at least December — with a hosted “Nature Discovery Walk.” For an hour and a half, you’ll move through the floodplain via the park’s boardwalk, learning how local animals adapt to the ever-changing environment.
While there, check out the tallest Loblolly Pine in the States (16 stories tall)!
Looking for a warmer winter adventure? The dry season in southern Florida (which includes these final three parks) coincides with winter in North America, but sans snow. Those looking for a retreat from skiing and snowshoeing can head to the southern tip of the Sunshine State where they’ll be nearly guaranteed “shorts weather” (or at least, comparative to the rest of the continent).
Biscayne, in particular, is a water-sport enthusiast’s dream. 95% of the park is water, and that water is open to visitor use 24 hours a day, year round. Within Biscayne’s waters, visitors will find the Florida Reef, one of the largest coral reefs in the world, as well as the east coast’s longest mangrove forest. The waters are home to over 200 species of fish, whales, Florida lobster (and yes, lobstering is allowed in certain parts of the park) turtles, endangered species, etc., while the park, in general, is home for many birds and other wildlife. The park also has history: 10,000 years of human life exists in traces found on the island Keys and in underwater shipwrecks.
Programs include ranger-led “Manatee Walks,” “Jetty Walks,” canoe and kayak lessons and trips, shoreline snorkeling, and the park’s “Dip-net Program” where visitors are invited to wade into the water with rangers to discover the sea life along the shore. Families can check out the winter programs such as the park’s free “Family Fun Fest” on the second Sunday of the month through April, and two-hour guided family canoe trips.
While spontaneity is a virtue, with Biscayne, it is best to plan ahead because of access issues and other logistics.
Also known as “The River of Grass,” Florida’s most well-known national park protects the largest subtropical forest in the U.S. and vast numbers of wildlife, such as the endangered Florida Panther, migrating birds, and the American crocodile. This 1.5 million acre park has earned the international distinctions of a World Heritage Site, International Biosphere Reserve, and a Wetland of International Importance.
Canoers and kayakers can paddle and camp along the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway, cyclists and off-road bikers can push pedals on the park’s paved and unpaved network of 43 miles of trails, and hikers looking for a challenge can get into the “backcountry” area of the Everglades with slogging — a wet, off-trail guided experience with a park ranger into areas that most visitors never see. Or if you’re looking for evening entertainment, go along with a guide for the Starlight Walk along the park’s Anhinga Trail. More winter activities include geocaching, (dry) hiking trails, fishing, bird watching, and boat (including airboat) tours.
A trip to the Everglades is best planned in advance. The park is open every day of the year, but winter (dry season) is the busy time, so you’ll want to make sure that any reservations (if needed) are booked ahead during this time. Additionally, because of the expanse of the park and various entrances, it’s best to get an idea of where you’re headed; not all areas are easy to navigate or offer the same adventures.
Accessed only by boat or small aircraft, this remote national park encompasses the seven most western — and most isolated — Florida Keys. It also includes Fort Jefferson, a massive, and architecturally significant, fortress from the mid-19th century that nearly fills the entirety of Garden Key.
With exception to the seven small island keys, Dry Tortugas National Park is a water sanctuary. However, no fresh water can be found on the islands (hence the “Dry” portion of the name), so if you visit, make sure to come prepared. Instead, the plentiful salt water hosts shipwrecks, sea turtles, Florida lobster, and some of the most undisturbed coral within the Florida Reef. And with its incredibly clear water, the flora and fauna of the seas are easily observable.
Additionally, over 300 species of birds make use of the islands, mostly as migratory landing grounds, making this a great place for birders.
Snorkeling, diving, boating, fishing, geocaching, paddling, and camping are all activities that can be enjoyed while visiting this unique park. Make sure to plan ahead; getting to the park requires planning because of its remote location and limited avenues for access.
About the Author
Although she’s a Florida girl, exploration called her away after the final bell of her high school career. Over the years, she has been consumed with skiing, climbing, kayaking, mountain biking and getting lost on back roads. When she's not playing the part of a photojournalist, Gina can be found collaborating with women worldwide through her nonprofit, Outdoor Women's Alliance, and working to improve her outdoor skills and wilderness safety certifications.