Winter in the Parks

Mon Jan 16 2017

In 2015, the total visitation to all national park units was 305 million. And yes, while those numbers are spread out among 59 national parks, 87 national monuments and 19 national preserves, there are still some parks where a lot of those visitors are concentrated. In 2015, Great Smoky Mountain National Park alone had over 10 million visitors. The remaining nine of the top-ten visited national parks (Yellowstone, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Grand Canyon, Zion, Olympic, Grand Teton, Acadia and Glacier) received an additional 33 million visitors in 2015. With the exception of the national parks in Hawaii, peak visitation for these parks is typically in the summer and fall.

So, what if you wish to enjoy a visit to your national parks while avoiding huge crowds? That's why winter is such a great time to head to the parks. And while it can definitely be a bit cold at some of these parks in the wintertime (a recent trip to Arches National Park yielded temperatures as low as -13F), you can also avoid some of the extreme heat found in the summer (Death Valley National Park reaches temperatures of 120F in the summer). Fewer visitors means better parking, less-crowded trails, fewer lines, and a much better opportunity to enjoy the quiet silence of open, wild spaces.

As a photographer, I can greatly appreciate the reduced crowds when trying to photograph at iconic locations. The Mesa Arch sunrise in Canyonlands National Park in Utah is one of the iconic photo locations in the southwest, and I have heard that there can be more than 40 photographers there at sunrise at peak season. And the area to set up for photos is not very wide - about twenty feet. When I was there in early January, there were only 5 other photographers and plenty of room to move about and try different compositions.

Aside from fewer crowds, the quality of light and the addition of snow in the landscape helps in the creation of images that differ from others. The winter sun is lower in the sky for more northern latitudes, it comes up or sets at different points on the horizon. Snow and frost, especially on clear days in the desert southwest with its red rock formations, create beautiful contrasts with a blue sky. These differences matter when trying to capture something that distinguishes your work from the many thousands who have captured the scene before. For areas accessible by road, it is increasingly difficult to create unique images in our national parks. You need to take advantage of what conditions might help make your photo more unique.

Finally, for Alaska's national parks, there is one more thing you can get in the winter that you can't in the summer - the aurora borealis. Three of Alaska's national parks are directly accessible by the road system (Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias, and Kenai Fjords). And, if you are up for some snowshoeing or backcountry skiing, you can access Gates of the Arctic National Park from the Dalton Highway. But, how far you can get will depend on the amount of snow fall. In a low snow year, you can drive at least 14 miles into Denali National Park on the road, but in heavy snow years, as little as three miles. Accessibility in the winter is also a consideration for several parks in the Lower 48. For Yosemite, you often cannot access it from the east - the mountain passes in the Sierra Nevada make vehicular access impossible in heavy snow years. Other parks will have limited access after a snowfall, so check the main page of the park's website for road condition updates.

white sands