The Best National Parks to Visit in the Off-Season

Visiting the country’s most popular national parks doesn’t have to mean fighting traffic and paying peak prices. During their off-seasons, crowds thin, prices often drop and it’s far easier to find a bit of solitude among some of the U.S.’s most celebrated landscapes. It can actually be a great time to visit.

Take a journey through three popular national parks during their off-peak seasons. This guide will take you from the spectacular granite monoliths of Yosemite to the awe-inspiring Grand Canyon, then east to the bubbling streams of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Yosemite National Park

Best Off-Peak Time to Visit: November to March

Yosemite Valley’s summer traffic jams and shoulder-to-shoulder crowds can be overwhelming. Avoid the stress by traveling to one of the country’s busiest parks in winter and early spring, when famed Yosemite Falls slows to a trickle along with the influx of visitors.

Because these seasons often bring snow and average daytime temps in the upper 40s and mid-50s, be aware when driving to and around the park that high-country Glacier Point Road and Tioga Road typically close for the winter starting in mid-November. However, access to Yosemite Valley is open year-round. Though crowds are light, it’s always a good idea to book hotel rooms in Yosemite Valley a few months in advance.

Getting There

Merced River In winter, see the Merced River glisten in a snow-covered Yosemite Valley.

What to Do in Yosemite National Park

In winter, hiking boots give way to snowshoes and cross-country skis as many park trails are covered with the white stuff. Rent equipment at the Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area on Glacier Point Road, just before the route’s winter closure point. It’s a fun place to spend the day downhill skiing, snowboarding or snow tubing.

Rather lace up ice skates? Glide around the outdoor Half Dome Village Ice Skating Rink. With the Yosemite Valley’s granite monoliths and pines as a backdrop, it’s a contender for most beautiful rink in the West.

Plan a mid-February trip for a chance to see the Yosemite “Firefall.” As temperatures climb and the snowpack melts, water flows from the 1,570-foot-high Horsetail Fall. For 10 minutes around dusk, the sun sets at a certain angle and illuminates the cascade in fiery shades of red and orange, creating the illusion of flowing lava.

Warm up with a firefall in cocktail form at the Majestic Yosemite Dining Room. Made with hot chocolate, tequila and Creme de Cocoa Brown, it’s a sweet treat to end the day. The dining room is located inside of the historic Majestic Yosemite Hotel, which was known as the Ahwahnee Hotel until March 2016.

Horsetail Fall In February, when conditions are just right, travelers can watch Horsetail Fall transform into a glowing red and orange Firefall.

Grand Canyon National Park

Best Off-Peak Time to Visit: December to February

Thanks to its high elevation in northern Arizona, the Grand Canyon can see more than 200 inches of snow during winter. In fact, the canyon’s North Rim facilities, including the access road, close from November to mid-May. That means off-peak travel is limited to the South Rim, open year-round and host to the majority of park activities and lodgings.

While crowds are thin, it’s still wise to reserve a room at least a month in advance if you want to stay inside the park at one of the Grand Canyon Village hotels.

Grand Canyon The Grand Canyon’s red rocks make a strikingly beautiful wintertime contrast to the season’s white snow.

Getting There

What to Do in Grand Canyon National Park

Daytime highs in the mid-40s and the low 50s can be nice weather for strenuous hikes into the canyon, as long as trails aren’t icy or knee-deep in snow. Your best bet for good trail conditions is the Hermit Trail, which has a lower elevation (about 7,000 feet) and sees less snow and ice than popular summer hikes, like the Bright Angel Trail.

Most winter visitors are content to confine their activities to the canyon rim. If you’re lucky and arrive just after a snowfall, the canyon’s white-capped buttes and mesas make for majestic vistas from overlooks like Mather Point and the Desert View Watchtower.

Desert View Watchtower Catch a glimpse of some of the Grand Canyon’s most sought-after views from the Desert View Watchtower when there are fewer tourists around and the park’s terrain is blanketed with fresh snow.

At the South Rim’s Grand Canyon Village, head indoors to warm up and check out museum exhibits for free at the historic Kolb Studio or the Yavapai Geology Museum. Have lunch or dinner next to the crackling fireplace in the elegantly rustic El Tovar Dining Room.

If you want to saddle up for the Grand Canyon’s famed mule rides, you’re in luck. Weather permitting, rides along the canyon rim are offered once daily from December to mid-March.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Best Off-Peak Time to Visit: December to February

Firmly No. 1 on the list of America’s most-visited national parks, Great Smoky Mountains draws more than 10 million visitors annually. And you’ll find the heaviest traffic on park roads and hiking trails when the majority of people visit the park from early spring to late fall.

In winter, the foliage bordering rivers and waterfalls may not be as lush, but mountain views are still incredible and the weather isn’t bone-chilling; average highs are in the 50s and sometimes climb into the 60s. At the lower elevations, heavy snowfall is rare and major roads are usually open. However, you may find temporary winter weather closures and far chillier temps at higher points along the park’s main route, Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441). Check the park’s Smokies Road Info Twitter page for current conditions.

Getting There

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Stop at a scenic overlook and take in the snowy landscape at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

What to Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Cades Cove offers an 11-mile, one-way loop road passing sublime mountain scenery, historic log buildings and cabins, and opportunities for wildlife viewing. Keep your eyes peeled for deer and black bears. Up for a hike? Try the moderate, 5-mile round-trip trail to Abrams Falls. The signed trailhead is just past stop No. 10 on Cades Cove Loop Road.

If you’re a fan of winter sports, check weather conditions and then drive Newfound Gap Road to 5,046-foot-high Newfound Gap. Here, you can snowshoe, cross-country ski and sled along typically snowbound Clingmans Dome Road, which is closed to vehicles in the winter. To check on other seasonal and temporary road closures, visit the park’s website and Twitter account for up-to-date information.

Clingmans Dome Road Ski, sled and snowshoe in the Smoky Mountains on the winter wonderland that is Clingmans Dome Road.

When winter weather chases you indoors, the park has three visitor centers that are open year-round. They house excellent museum exhibits and a collection of log structures, including a barn, corn cribs and an apple house, that tell the story of life in the mountains.

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About the Author

Eli Ellison is a travel writer who specializes in the American Southwest. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Los Angeles Times, and