Celebrate the Holidays in These 6 National Parks

Christmas in Yellowstone? Thanksgiving in Shenandoah National Park? See our top 6 National Park picks for your next family holiday vacation.

America’s national parks don’t just celebrate our nation’s geographical and ecological treasures; they honor our diverse cultural heritage, especially during the holiday season. In November and December, parks across the country light up, quiet down and host events that give us a chance to reflect on what’s important in life, such as time with family and friends.

With work and school schedules often more flexible during the holidays, consider making your time together even more memorable by scheduling a trip to attend one of these national park events. To help get you started, we’ve put together a list of six national parks where your family can make memories while experiencing the magic of the season.

National Christmas Tree Lighting and Pageant of Peace

President’s Park, Washington, D.C.

National Christmas Tree National Christmas Tree Lighting; President’s Park, Washington D.C. Photo courtesy of the National Park Foundation.

The National Christmas Tree lives right next to the White House at the Ellipse in President’s Park. Traditionally, in early December, the president flips a switch to light the tree and dignitaries including the first lady and performing artists join in to read Christmas stories and sing carols with their festive audience.

The celebration continues on-site throughout December with the Pageant of Peace, which features daily holiday-themed performances by dance, musical, theatrical and other creative groups from across the nation. Travelers can also walk around the site to see decorated Christmas trees for each U.S. state and territory, giving visitors an America-wide celebration with local flavor from wherever they call home for the holidays.

Luminaria Holiday Open House

Mesa Verde National Park, Mesa Verde, Colorado

Luminaria Holiday Open House Luminaria Holiday Open House; Mesa Verde National Park. Photo courtesy of NPS / Cristy Brown.

America’s history predates the founding of the 13 colonies, and each holiday season, the staff at Mesa Verde National Park celebrates the heritage of those who lived here nearly 1,500 years ago by lighting up the park’s cliff dwellings with luminaries and candlelight. The free open house also features live music and stargazing opportunities under some of the darkest skies in the nation. This year will mark the first time Cliff Palace — the largest and one of the best preserved and restored cliff dwellings in North America — lights up in a decade. This illumination celebration, paired with the history of the site and the backdrop of the stars, offers an opportunity to quietly reflect amid the flurry of the holiday season.

Polar Express Train Rides

Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Brecksville, Ohio

Polar Express Train Rides Reading of The Polar Express; Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Photo courtesy of NPS.

Many people will jump at the chance to climb aboard a vintage train in Cuyahoga Valley National Park for a ride to the North Pole and a bedtime reading of holiday favorite The Polar Express. Park staff members encourage young visitors to wear their coziest pajamas for this evening event, and they provide cookies and hot chocolate to round out the magical experience on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, one of the longest-running, top excursion railways in the U.S. Tickets go on sale Oct. 3. Do you hear sleigh bells?

Hanukkah Party and Synagogue Tours

Touro Synagogue National Historic Site, Newport, Rhode Island

Synagogue Tours Synagogue Tours during Hanukkah; Touro Synagogue National Historic Site. Photo courtesy of NPS.

Since the mid-1600s, faithful Rhode Island Jews have congregated in Newport to take advantage of the religious freedoms offered by the New World, and Touro Synagogue has been serving as their home since 1763. Today, the temple continues to welcome Jews and visitors alike, and it also serves as a historic repository of Jewish heritage. On Jan. 1, visitors can take tours of the synagogue and join in on the synagogue’s Hanukkah party. Call 401-847-4794, ext. 207 in advance to make reservations.

Kwanzaa Celebration

African Burial Ground National Monument, New York, New York

African Burial Ground National Monument Kwanzaa Celebration; African Burial Ground National Monument. Photo courtesy of NPS.

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of Kwanzaa, a holiday celebration of African-American heritage and the cultural effects of the western African diaspora. At African Burial Ground, where free and enslaved Africans were buried from the late 1600s to the late 1700s, participants celebrate Kwanzaa with music, dance, spoken word performances, educational lectures on African spirituality, crafts workshops, libation ceremonies (honorary drink pourings) and the lighting of the kinara candleholder.

Rafting with Santa

Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Boulder City, Nevada

Rafting with Santa Raft with Santa; Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Arizona. Photo courtesy of Black Canyon River Adventures.

Santa Claus doesn’t spend all his time at the North Pole; on Christmas Eve, he’s in the Nevada desert piloting a raft down the Black Canyon of the Colorado River below Hoover Dam. You can join Santa on the 4.5-hour Christmas Eve ride and tour, offered by Black Canyon/Willow Beach River Adventures, before he climbs in his sleigh. Wrap up your adventure with hot chocolate, cookies and gifts.

Festival of Christmas Past

Sugarlands Visitor Center, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg, Tennessee

  • December, 2016 (official date not yet announced)
  • Drive 23 miles southeast from McGhee Tyson Airport.
Festival of Christmas Past In costume at the Festival of Christmas Past. Photo by Warren Bielenberg, courtesy of NPS.

Experience and reflect on the spirit of the holidays in the Smoky Mountains at the Festival of Christmas Past. The event includes not only live musical entertainment, carols and hymns, but also hands-on workshops, art and food demonstrations and storytelling. Basket makers, wood workers and other artisans will share their crafts with festivalgoers, and park volunteers will be on hand to help families create their own holiday decorations and keepsakes.

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About the Author

Danielle Taylor is a freelance writer whose work covers outdoor recreation, conservation, public lands and travel. She's spending much of 2016 on a road trip to America's national parks. To learn about her work and travels, follow her on Twitter and Facebook, and visit her website