Winter provides some wonderful photo opportunities in our national parks. But some national parks look much better in the winter than others. So if you haven’t gone into hibernation for the winter, here are the best national parks to go photograph this winter, grouped by state from the west to the east. There are a few bonus locations thrown in too. At the end I give you my “best of the best” list.
Posted January 17, 2017. Updated and re-posted December 26, 2020.
COVID-19 Travel Alert. Now is not the best time to be traveling in the United States. While photography inside a national park is relatively safe so long as you stay 10 feet away from other people, travel to a national park can involve a number of health risks. Be sure to check the CDC travel advice, and check the web site for any national park you intend to visit for any park related COVID-19 closures or restrictions.
After you read this article, be sure to read the companion article: One Photographer and Nine Outdoor/Travel Writers Pick the Best Winter National Parks.
Travel Safety in the Winter
It can be quite cold in the winter and people do get stranded in remote locations, so be prepared. Stock your car with the safety essentials, and keep your gas tank well above half full.
California – Yosemite, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Anza-Borrego Desert
California has an abundance of national parks, and Yosemite is a must see in the winter. Snowfall varies and there are times when there is no snow at all. Yosemite is a magical place right after a snow fall which is when I captured this image.
Don’t put your camera away after sunset, especially when moonlight shines on the landscape.
Death Valley is horribly hot in the summer, so winter is a great time to photograph this fascinating high desert landscape. It is also quite remote and like other places it can be quite cold in the winter, so be prepared and keep your gas tank well above half full.
Joshua Tree is another great park to visit in the winter.
Washington – Mount Rainier
Mt Rainier is spectacular in any season of the year, and there are a number of classic views from the park roads.
Arizona – Grand Canyon, Saguaro
The Grand Canyon is amazing any time of year, but especially nice after a winter snow.
The giant saguaro cactus in southern Arizona are impressive. If you are lucky enough to catch them covered with snow, so much the better.
Utah – Bryce Canyon, Arches, Zion, Canyonlands, Dead Horse Point
Oh my! Southern Utah is amazing! Any of the desert parks are well worth your while. Temperatures can range from quite pleasant to bitter cold (especially Bryce). I am all for quite pleasant.
Not surprisingly, Bryce Canyon is the most recommended national park to photograph in the winter. It is one of my most favorite places. If you haven’t been there already, put it at the top of your travel list.
Zion is known for its huge rock walls and unusual sandstone formations.
Arches is right up there with Bryce Canyon as an amazing place! Just get there!
Arches is just outside of Moab Utah. While you are there you should also see Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park which is one of the most stunning viewpoints on the planet.
Colorado – Rocky Mountain, Great Sand Dunes
Rocky Mountain National Park is one of my most favorite places on the planet, no matter the time of year. Winter comes early to the high country and lasts well into spring. Lots of time to photograph the dramatic, snow covered peaks.
When you aren’t doing landscapes there are usually elk scattered about.
I am surprised the Great Sand Dunes aren’t more popular in the winter. Maybe because the San Luis Valley can be really cold in the winter. But the low light of sunlight raking across the dunes can be very impressive and you pretty much have the place to yourself.
When it gets really late in the day the normally light toned sand dunes darken to almost a chocolate brown.
Wyoming – Yellowstone, Grand Teton
I haven’t been to Yellowstone and Grand Teton since I was a teenager, but I remember I was blown away. I must go back and create some images. Yellowstone is an amazing mix of fascinating landscape and wonderful wildlife. So much wildlife that it has been called America’s Serengeti. The Tetons are a spectacular mountain range. This pair of parks in northwest Wyoming are a terrific destination.
New Mexico – White Sands, Carlsbad Caverns
White Sands National Monument isn’t on most people’s radar in the winter, but it should be. The low angled sunlight can turn the white gypsum sand into wonderful colors. It can be very cold at White Sands but it can also be quite pleasant. The high was 56 degrees the day I took this picture.
While you are in southern New Mexico you should also go to Carlsbad Caverns, one of the most impressive cave systems in the United States. And if you are tired of the cold above ground, the temperature down in caverns hovers around 56 degrees year around.
Texas – Big Bend
Like everything else in Texas, Big Bend National Park is seriously BIG. I generally prefer mountains to deserts, but Big Bend and White Sands are the exceptions. Like the rest of the desert parks in the southwest, winter temperatures vary widely. I’ve experienced high 80s in February (carry lots of water), but it can get really cold.
I recommend you go to Santa Elena Canyon in the morning, Boquillas Canyon for late afternoon light and sunset, and go everywhere else in between.
North Carolina /Tennessee – Great Smoky Mountains
I love the Great Smoky Mountains in the summer and fall. Winter is on my to do list. It is highly recommended as a winter destination
Florida – Everglades
I haven’t been to the Everglades yet, but it is on my list and highly recommended as a winter destination.
Maine – Acadia
Acadia National Park is an amazing place in the fall, and it may be the best national park to visit in the fall. I’ve not been there in the winter but the experts say it is highly recommended as a winter destination.
The Best of the Best
Of the 22 best places to go in the winter, which are my most favorite? Here they are. These are really close together on my priority list. Ask me tomorrow and the order might be different.
Now it is time for you to plan your next trip and work on your own favorite winter places list!
Want to go on a road trip to several national parks? Check out the map above and the link below.
This article is also part of the winter photography series. Links below. It is also part of the National Parks Series. Go to the overview to see the rest of the articles in this series.
The National Park Series: Where to Go and When – An Overview
Nature Photography Books: The Three Essentials. If you only read three nature photography books, put these on your “must read” list.
My Two Favorite Introductions to Landscape Photography. If you only get two books on landscape photography, these are the books to get.
The Winter Photography Series
“How To” Series: Winter Photography – An Overview with article links