Winter Vacation in the National Parks | Best Places to Visit in December
Growing up with my parents, it was pretty common to go on a family road trip for Christmas break. This was a fun opportunity to spend quality time with my family while enjoying God's creation.
My family loves the outdoors, so naturally National Parks were regular stops for us on family trips any time of the year.
Of course, winter isn't the ideal time to visit a majority of the parks. There are, however, several parks that are worth making a trip to this holiday season.
Whether you're looking for a winter wonderland or somewhere to escape the cold, the National Parks System has lots to offer this time of year.
Notice: Since Christmas Day is a National holiday, National Park visitor centers and offices will be closed for the day. Additionally, some roads and parks will be closed alltogether for winter. Always check the updated information of the NPS website for accurate planning.
I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas!
In my opinion, winter is one of the best times to stay in a cabin up in the mountains. Imagine playing outside in the snow, sledding, or snowshoeing before huddling around a fire in the lodge with some hot chocolate listening to Christmas carols. Sounds like a blast to me!
Here are three National Park lodges that are perfect for a snowy winter vacation.
National Park Inn - Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier is a beautiful and popular destination for snow lovers. With 640 inches of snow annually, Mount Rainier transforms into a winter wonderland with lots of snowy activities to entertain everyone in your family.
At the nearby snow play area of Paradise, you'll find activities such as tubing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing.
National Park Inn is a cozy place to plan your stay if you enjoy snowy activities and mountain views.
The Ahwahnee Hotel - Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park is a beautiful place to explore, and winter is no exception. With views of the wintery landscape and dramatic cliffs, The Ahwahnee Hotel provides a peaceful environment to enjoy the holidays.
When you aren't keeping warm by the fire, be sure to take in the views while skiing, snowshoeing, or ice skating.
Yellowstone is such a large park and has many different elevations. Because of that, some areas get a lot of snow while others don't. In December, day time highs can range from 40 to 50 degrees with night time temperatures getting closer to freezing.
Old Faithful Snow Lodge - Yellowstone National Park
At Yellowstone, a white Christmas can move from your dreams and into reality.
Here, snowfall begins in late October which marks the beginning of season closures for some of this park. It snows an average of 72 inches just in December alone. The North entrance is the only entrance to remain open year round due to its lower elevation and warmer temperatures. I know I just said the North Entrance is open during the winter, but there is just one thing. Its only open to commercial snowcoaches and snowmobiles.
That's right. You have to snowmobile your way in!
This can be made easy by booking a tour with a company that takes care of the details and helps you plan your trip. To make this trip yourself, you would need to obtain special permits.
Once you are there, you will be able to enjoy the peaceful pace and get views of the geysers without all the crowds in your way.
Havin' A Tropical Christmas
For some of you, the reason you are taking a family trip is to escape the cold! I can't really blame you, the cold can get quite tiring sometimes.
These two parks make for a great winter vacation for all you sunshine lovers.
Biscayne National Park
Located in Florida, this park is a snow bird's paradise. On an average December day the temperatures hover around the high 70s. You'll also have smaller crowds this time of the year which always makes these trips better.
At Biscayne, the water is the main attraction since that's what makes up 98% of the park. Boating, kayaking, and snorkeling are among visitors' favorite activities. There are also guided boat tours available so you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the view.
I'm most excited to visit this park so I can take a scuba tour of some of the shipwrecks found there. In total, there are over 50!
Everglades National Park
This National Park is also located in Florida which means comfortable temperatures for you.
December through April is generally concidered the best time to visit this park because of the lower humidity, lack of downpours, and there aren't as many bugs.
Known for being the US's largest subtropical wilderness, the Everglades wetlands create a wild habitat for animals such as manatees, crocodiles, and panthers.
Of course Florida has panthers. Why wouldn't they have panthers?
You can enjoy paddling around in the water, cycling along scenic trails, and get your feet wet by slogging (off-trail hiking) to get a better feel for the park.
Who doesn't want to go to Hawaii for Christmas? I would love to decorate a palm tree with lights and play in the sand.
There are two National Parks in the Hawaiian islands and both are worth a visit. Winter is a great time to visit the islands because the temperatures will be a bit lower and the crowds will be smaller. Spring break and summer are the busiest time of year for these parks.
Haleakala National Park
December marks the beginning of peak season for this park. Lower temperatures ranging from mid fifties to low seventies bring more visitors this time of year but offers a great opportunity to fully enjoy the scenery.
While temperatures will be comfortably warm in Hawaii, temperatures decrease dramatically at summits. If you plan on visiting these peaks, make sure to bring layers and check the current weather reports.
You can enjoy the warm Hawaiian sunshine and a brisk mountain top both in the same trip.
In 2019, my family had a large family reunion for Christmas in Hawaii. We were there for two weeks and were pleasantly surprised by the weather. Walking around in shorts was comfortable and we spent a lot of time in the water. The views from atop mountains were stunning! We did have a small storm that brought in some rain for one night but that was about as bad as the weather got.
We did not make it to either of the National Parks is Hawaii, but I can tell you from experience that Hawaii in general is a wonderful place to be this season.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
From scenic drives and hikes to trying to decipher petroglyphs, Hawaii Volcanoes has many activities to keep you busy.
In December, the temperature ranges from mid 50s to 70 degrees which is plenty comfortable for exploring the National Park trails. This time of year is also less humid and receives less visitors which adds to the list of Pros.
If staying in the resorts isn't for you, consider renting an AirBnB or local lodge.
There is nothing worse than showing up somewhere just to be met with a massive crowd that ruins the whole experience. Unfortunately, this can easily happen at National Parks during their busy season. Matthew and I prefer to visit in the off seasons to get a little peace and quite during our stay.
Visiting these next couple parks in December is great for those looking to ditch the crowds this season.
Gateway Arch National Park
The main reason why visiting this massive arch in December should be on your list is because of the smaller crowds.
This is the smallest National Park, covering only 91 acres. Compare that to Arches which covers 76,518 acres and isn't even the biggest park. Because of its small size, it fills up fast.
Being a quick day trip, you should at least see more park than people. That's what is so nice about visiting in winter.
The Gateway Arch is the tallest monument in America at a towering 630 feet. For scale, the Statue of liberty is about half that height at 305 feet.
I imagine that the city of St. Louis looks quite a bit different from way up there. You can take a 4 minute tram ride to the top and see for yourself!
There is also a museum where you can learn about westward expansion and what the Arch monument represents.
Mammoth Cave National Park
This National Park is a great destination any time of the year. However, visiting in the off season will typically make the trip more enjoyable. There will be less visitors in December which means more space for you while you tour this impressive cave.
While the temperatures outside will be cold, inside the cave is always 54 degrees no matter what.
Even though it is cold in December, you can still enjoy backpacking or biking on the parks trails.
If you'd like to stay close to the park for you stay, there is a Lodge at Mammoth Cave, though availability is limited during the off season so you will have to book ahead.
I'll Be Home For Christmas
Matthew and I will be spending this holiday season in Washington with our family. It will be nice to spend Christmas together this year before we hit the road. Maybe we will spend next Christmas in a National Park.
We certainly have gotten in the Christmas spirit! We decorated a little tree to put in our skoolie and are counting down the days with our Lindt chocolate advent calendar. Yum!
All the decorations on our tree are made from scrap odds-and-ends laying around in our garage that would have otherwise been thrown away. It was fun to find a new purpose for these items to decorate our tree.
We hope you enjoy this holiday season and take advantage of some of the great opportunities that the National Parks have to offer! It's never too early to start planning next year's winter vacation.