Your National Park Guide to Hiking in the Winter
National parks in some parts of the country are already locked under snow and ice, and many more soon will be. Your chance to enjoy the outdoors doesn't end with the arrival of cold weather, though. Winter offers a unique opportunity to experience your national parks, so consider this your national park guide to winter hiking.
A word of caution
The landscapes of many national parks are simply stunning in winter, offering spectacular views and an unmatched sense of solitude. That being said, there are also risks. In winter, all the perils that come with an ordinary hiking trip are amplified, from difficult terrain to severe weather exposure. The chances of becoming lost are greater when trails are covered in snow, and rescue is likely to take longer.
Don't let the difficulties of winter hiking discourage you, but be prepared and take all necessary precautions. Know the trail before you go, never hike alone, and pack all the supplies you'll need for a variety of conditions. A well-planned winter hike could easily be the best adventure of the year.
Winter hiking guide
Pack wisely for your winter hiking trip. Leaving non-essential items at home will help make your pack lighter, but be sure to bring the following:
- Food: Especially salty foods and high-energy snacks. Plan on eating more than you would on an average day at home.
- Water: Just because the temps are cooler doesn’t mean you won’t sweat! Plan on drinking at least 2 liters during a day of easy hiking. Bring more if you plan on tackling slightly more strenuous treks. A water filtration system (such as iodine tablets or and filters) are good to have on hand as well, in addition to the water you bring with you.
- Map: Even on well-marked trails, a map is an essential tool. Bring printed maps, especially in areas where GPS and cellular service may not be available.
- Pack: A sturdy, mid-sized pack with a waterproof fly to carry the essentials.
- Sunscreen and sunglasses: The snow and ice make perfect reflectors for the sun’s rays, so be sure to apply sunscreen and pack sunglasses before hitting the trail.
- Flashlight/Headlamp and spare batteries: With the less sunlight during the day in the winter, make sure you bring a light source so you can hike at night, if necessary.
- Waterproof and warm clothing: Dress in layers for changing conditions, including a waterproof outer layer. Leave cotton clothing at home in favor of wool and synthetics and be sure to take warm socks, mittens, gloves, a hat, and a scarf.
- Appropriate footwear: Bring waterproof boots and gaiters to keep snow and water out. Some areas may also require snowshoes or over-the-shoe traction devices.
- Hiking poles: Poles will be helpful for maintaining footing on icy trails. Be sure to take your pole’s snow baskets too for navigating over unpacked snow.
- First aid kit: Make sure that your basic first aid kit is fully stocked and includes Band-Aids, bandages, gauze, antiseptic, and electrolyte tablets. An emergency blanket wouldn’t hurt, too.
- Whistle and signal mirror: For emergency use.
- Plan on driving to the beginning of your hike? Make sure you prepared for driving in any conditions. Double-check that you have your windwhield scraper, that your fluids are topped off, and that you also have your shovel, chains, and road salt in the case you hit any unplowed roads. It would be wise to pack blankets and extra food and water in case you get stuck for a while.
National parks for winter hiking
Many parks across the country offer excellent winter hiking opportunities and during a very special time of year! Not only are you likely to encounter fewer people, but you’re also likely to get a special glimpse of wildlife. Look for outstanding trails in these parks during the colder months:
- Grand Canyon National Park: Though easy access to the North Rim is closed in the winter, the South Rim provides ample opportunities for beautiful day hikes. There, the Hermit Trail receives less snow and ice than most other trails, making it ideal for day hikes.
- Yosemite National Park: Marked winter trails around the Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area in the Valley provide lots of hiking options.
- Rocky Mountain National Park: The Pool and Cub Lake trails offer easy to moderate winter hiking conditions with outstanding views. Both trails are under 3 miles.
- Mount Rainier National Park: Ranger-guided snowshoe walks in this Washington park are a great introduction to winter hiking, and there are also many trails where you can strike out on your own.
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park: The 71-mile section of the Appalachian Trail that traverses this park offers some of the year's best views once the leaves are off the trees. Three-sided lean-to shelters are spaced roughly a day's hike apart along the trail. Be mindful of snow and ice on the trails.
Hiking in the winter offers a unique perspective on our national parks, with scenery that few people ever experience. Stay safe this winter, and plan a winter hike in a national park that you will remember for a lifetime.
Want more great ideas on where to go to enjoy the season? Download our free Owner’s Guide, “Winter Wonderlands” – it’s filled with winter activities to enjoy in 15 national parks across the country!