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Best national parks to visit during winter

Lots of folks know about Yosemite’s festive lodges in the winter, the excitement of viewing buffalo in the snow at Yellowstone or alligator spotting in the Everglades. Emphasis on lots of people. But there are a number of other lesser known national parks that are gems in the winter, when crowds are down, stargazing is amazing and temperatures range from temperate to pretty terrific.

“Some of the beauty of going to any of the parks in the wintertime is that you’re not going to encounter the crowds you would in the summer or fall,” said Kurt Repanshek, editor of National Parks Traveler, a website devoted to the national parks.

Slideshow: America's lesser-known national parks

Repanshek, who has had a lifelong passion for preserving and protecting national parks, says some of the most memorable visits he’s made to many of the parks happened in the off-season. One of his faves: Virgin Islands National Park on the island of St. John. The park includes 5,650 acres of submerged lands that protects beautiful coral gardens and seascapes.

“Ideally, visit in the wintertime if you’re sick of the slush and snow and all that,” said Repanshek, who loves to snorkel the park’s waters and hike its trails. “It’s 75 to 80 degrees in the winter, no humidity, with beautiful turquoise water.”

Other notable parks to visit in winter:

Death Valley


Late winter or early spring is a good time to see wildflowers in Death Valley National Park, Calif.

Yes, you could visit during the park's hottest season — summer (it hit 134 degrees here once) — but winter, when temperatures can average from the 50s to the low 70s, is when the park's 3.5 million acres really allow fun. “I went to Death Valley in (the winter) about three years ago and it was almost a little chilly — 55 degrees,” Repanshek said. “It’s just nicer to have those milder temperatures to enjoy the sand dunes and hiking in some of the canyons.”

Death Valley has great stargazing in winter, but later in that season or early spring, visitors may be lucky enough to come following one of the park’s brief rainy periods, which unleashes cactus blooms and wildflowers, he said.

Biscayne Bay

Copyright Thomas M. Strom / National Parks Conservation Asso

Biscayne National Park near Miami has the third largest coral reef ecosystem in the world.

National parks also include underwater ocean wonders such as those found at this treasure near Miami. This park obviously offers lovely weather in winter, plus abundant water sports. Just 5 percent of this park is land, so it’s all about the ocean, including the third largest coral reef ecosystem in the world. It’s possible to view the reef’s plants and animals by glass-bottom boat, including a chance to glimpse fish, shrimp, crabs and lobsters. “It is incredible to see the marine world at Biscayne National Park,” said John Adornato, Sun Coast regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. “The coral reef and reef fish are absolutely spectacular.”

Channel Islands National Park

National Park Service

Channel Islands National Park off the Southern California coast has plants and animals found nowhere else, including the island fox.

Amazing marine animals are on offer in the waters around these Southern California islands in winter: whales, dolphins and porpoises. (Possibilities: gray, blue, humpback, minke, sperm and pilot whales, orcas and dolphins.) The park, accessible by park concessionaire boats and planes from Ventura, is made up of five separate islands, all with varied terrain, wildflowers and views. “It’s called the Galapagos of the United States,” said Neal Desai, Pacific Region associate director for National Parks Conservation Association. “(Each island) has unique plants and animals found nowhere else. If you’re out there, you may well have the opportunity to see an island fox, which is the size of a house cat.”

Even though it’s only an hour’s drive from Los Angeles, plus the boat ride to get to the islands, it can be very peaceful, Desai said. “It’s so close to Los Angeles, but not so many people know about this national park. I like it a lot — it’s a complete package. There’s everything from hiking to bird watching to sea activities like kayaking you can do, even snorkeling.”

Lewis and Clark National Historical Park

National Park Service

At Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, visitors can learn about how the explorers lived and worked.

Visitors may contend with rain in the winter, but it’s still very temperate and mild compared to much of the country, minus the traffic and crowds of summer. Visitors following the trail of the famous explorers can experience rain forest, the Columbia River and the drop-dead gorgeous Pacific Coast. A highlight: visiting a replica of Fort Clatsop, the fort built by the explorers to winter over in. Fort Clatsop also features interpretive costumed rangers and trailheads for some amazing hikes.

“It’s probably one of the hidden gems of the national park system,” said Sean Smith, Northwest policy director for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Fort Clatsop is a great destination for families, because it can teach so much about how the explorers lived and worked, Smith said. “It was built using period tools and techniques. They had detailed notes that Lewis and Clark made, including the number of logs used. Trees aren’t as big now, so they but had to use more logs.”

The park overall incorporates some state parks, with sites on both the Oregon and Washington side of the river as well as the Pacific Ocean, he cautioned, so driving can take some time between stops.

Winter is a great time to visit, he added, to truly get a sense of conditions the explorers experienced. “(Lewis and Clark) would have spent their time on the Oregon and Washington coasts in the winter months, so they would have been seeing a climate and winter much like a current visitor does.”

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