Many of America’s national parks are at their best in the winter. At some of them, a magical layer of snow adorns the scenery and serene trails are have far fewer — if any — people. One of the best ways to take in these natural winter wonderlands is on cross-country skis. While you can do so in just about any park where it snows, these nine are the cream of the crop.
Planning your epic national park cross-country journey
One reason there aren’t more skiers in these parks is that you have to pay to get in. But the biggest factor is that most people don’t think of national parks when doing they’re winter trip planning. This means you can leg-up just about everyone you know, with the added bonus of having your photos of the most popular sights look totally different from theirs. Here’s a quick rundown on how to prepare for the best skiing experience.
- First, visit the National Park Foundation, the non-profit arm that supports the parks. The website has information on what else to do in the parks beyond skiing, including where to winter camp for those willing to brave the weather. The NPF is also a resource for supporting the parks and staying current on developments within them.
- Next, do a rundown on your gear checklist. Skis and boots, pants and jacket, goggles and gloves. If you don’t have cross-country gear, lots of parks rent it out for reasonable prices.
- Last, consider the ability of everyone in your party, remembering that while many trails listed here are loops, some are out-and-back so you can definitely call it quits before reaching the end of the line.
Crane Flat Area, Yosemite National Park, California
There are eight trails in the Crane Flat Area of Yosemite National Park, ranging in difficulty from quick morning warm-up to a full-day cardio excursion. If you happen to catch a good snow year, the Rockefeller Grove Trail is a gorgeous 4.5-mile round-trip jaunt through the woods to its namesake grove. The trail is challenging, but you’ll get most of the hard work done on the way in. For a long journey, the Gin Flat Loop Trail takes you three miles up to Gin Flat and rewards you with a gentle glide back down past views of towering sequoias and peaks. On the easy side, try the Crane Flat Lookout Trail, a three-mile round trip with great views of the park. You can rent cross-country skis from the Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area.
Rim Drive, Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
If you’ve been to Crater Lake in summer, you’ve undoubtedly heard the siren call of return. A winter trip is the right way to optimize that second voyage because the crowds are far thinner and the lake and surrounding landscape look totally different. West Rim Drive, a busy thoroughfare for vehicles during the warmer months, is closed to motorized traffic during winter and becomes your best bet for taking in the park’s highlights on a pair of skis. Stop to take a photo at Discovery Point — noting how great your photo looks with that fresh powder on the hill encircled by crystal blue water. You can squeeze in up to 30 miles of cross country here, but there’s no reason to push it too far. Plenty of famed views can be seen within eight miles, making for a solid morning or afternoon session. You can rent gear in the park from the Rim Village Gift Shop.
Wild Basin Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Rocky Mountain is another park that tends to draw a crowd in winter due to the hordes of people that fly into Denver on ski trips and the popularity of the park among backcountry skiers and snowboarders. Even so, it’s desolate compared to what you’ll find during the summer months — the perfect chance to soak in the wilderness without anyone beeping their horn behind you or flying by on the side of the trail. A 5.4-mile round-trip journey from the trailhead to the second of two waterfalls, the Wild Basin Trail gives you the chance to take in the jaw-dropping mountains of the park without having to drive over Trail Ridge Road, which is closed in winter. You’ll also cross a picturesque wooden bridge that is among the best photo ops of the trip. If it’s a clear day, you might spot some wildlife and can even plan on doing a bit of birding. The park is home to gray jay, white-tailed ptarmigans, and others. You can rent from the Teton Pines Nordic Center.
Brown Mountain Station, Acadia National Park, Maine
Acadia National Park has arguably the most well-organized cross-country ski trail system of any national park. Friends of Acadia makes it super easy to plan your expedition with this comprehensive trail map. Brown Mountain Station offers two loop trails, the Hadlock Loop and the Amphitheater Loop, with a connector trail offshoot from each that takes you across the park to Eagle Lake and eventually Hulls Cove Station. The park’s non-profit arm also, along with a group of local diehards known as the Acadia Winter Trails Association, fundraise for grooming and trail maintenance. This means that while you’re dreaming of pushing your way through this stunningly beautiful park, sun poking through crystal-covered tree branches under a bluebird Maine winter sky, you can smile knowing the powder from that last Nor’easter is being packed into a nice, well-marked path just waiting for your arrival. Acadia recommends renting winter gear from Cadillac Mountain Sports.
Paradise Valley Road, Mt. Rainier National Park, Washington
This high-elevation, snow-drenched winter recreation area puts you right on Mt. Rainier. Park at the Jackson Visitor Center or the Paradise Inn and make your way up the marked trail to Narada Falls. You can drive there, too, but you’ll feel much better about yourself by skiing. Another option is to head up the unplowed road and after the third switchback (see this trail map) turn right onto the cross country trail towards inspiration saddle. This part is a bit more difficult for the final 0.3-mile push. You can go another 1.5 miles further up the Mazama Ridge Route and at the trail’s end either take a left to head back to the parking lot or a right onto the Skyline Route to loop all the way around to Panorama Point. Rentals are available at the White Pass Nordic Center.
McDonald Falls, Glacier National Park, Montana
Round trip, this trail is four miles of scenic bliss with a hefty dose of cardio mixed in. Depending on snow cover, you’ll spend most of that time on an unplowed, ungroomed road. Fortunately, this is a popular run, so odds are you won’t be breaking trail. Lake McDonald is to your left, and you’ll see an obvious point to turn left towards the falls, crossing over the creek and proceeding until the viewpoint. Take it a step further by looping back to the main trail and heading up to Sacred Dancing Cascades and, if you have all day, Avalanche Point. Check out the trail map from the NPS here. Rent from Glacier Cyclery & Nordic.
Death Canyon Trail, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Grand Teton is one park that conjures images of pushing through the snow on two planks, shiny mountain vistas in the background and nothing in your way but a pile of deer scat. The Death Canyon Trail packs the most peak porn into one shot though it does get a bit steep by cross-country standards — there are 730 feet of climbing involved. Despite the elevation gain, it is generally an enjoyable out-and-back excursion that is as rich in open skies and solitude as anywhere in the contiguous US. Follow the trail 2.6 miles up to the Phelps Lake Overlook and bring a picnic lunch because you’ll want to settle in for a while. The views of the lake and surrounding Tetons are tough to look away from.
Cliff Palace Loop Trail, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Mesa Verde, home of some of the largest Puebloan ruins in the southwest, looks completely different in winter when the rock outcroppings and forested hills are covered in snow. Add the park’s star attraction to the mix and you’re looking at the perfect setup for a day of adventure. Even if a big snowstorm just pounded the San Juans, this trail is easy to find. From the parking lot at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, ski along a well-worn trail along the Cliff Palace Loop. You’re essentially skiing the main road through the park and will hit a number of awesome sights and viewpoints, highlighted by the Cliff Palace itself. The ski track is flat, and you’ll find easy pull-off stops every time there’s something of note, so keep your phone handy to snap plenty of photos. You can’t rent cross-country skis in the park, but call Slavens True Value Hardware.
Tower Ski Trails, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Like Acadia and Yosemite, Yellowstone National Park has a well-trodden and organized series of cross-country ski trails. Park near Tower Junction and head out on the Tower Falls Trail, which within a couple miles joins with the Chittenden Loop Trail. If you’re up for a challenge, follow the loop all the way around and find yourself back on the Tower Falls Trail back towards the parking lot. Another option is to take the Lost Lake Trail past the famed Petrified Tree towards Crescent Hill and the Blacktail Plateau Trail. You can take this one nearly as far as you’re game for — just be aware that it’s an out-and-back trail and won’t loop back around. Both options here are a good workout, so bring lunch and plenty of water, and check out this trail map for exact routing. Free Heel & Wheel rents cross-country skis.
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