Think of the national parks in the West, and crowds and congestion come to mind. But that's true only in summer. In winter, when the number of visitors plummets, you can savor all the majesty of the landscape in solitude and serenity.
A winter day in a National Park can seem almost surreal. "It's very dramatic to have these huge geysers popping out of nowhere amid two feet of snow, and the animals coming through the fog," says Holly Parker, who visited Yellowstone National Park with three friends last winter. Parker, executive director in Denver of Amstar Group's resort unit, wants to return this winter with her boyfriend. Yellowstone in winter is "a fabulous, well-kept secret," she says.
Well, almost. Some 200,000 people visit Yellowstone during the winter, but that's only a fraction of the year's nearly 3 million visitors. At the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the number of monthly visitors in winter plunges to about a quarter of July's 700,000. And at Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado, famous for its ancient cliff dwellings, "a busy winter day is 100 people," says ranger Will Morris.
Of course, planning a winter trip means risking foul weather. Also, the parks close off some areas and scale back on the activities and services they offer. But these are small inconveniences for the experience of having all that unspoiled scenic beauty almost to yourself. And what could be a more beautiful setting for winter sports?
At Yellowstone, geysers and hot springs send out billows of steam against the blue sky; the steam clings to trees and creates natural ice sculptures. The steamy thermal deposits and foul-smelling pools so impressed trapper John Colter in the winter of 1807-08 that the nation's first national park was originally dubbed Colter's Hell.
Colter probably came alone. You can, too, or you can arrange for a guide. Amfac Parks & Resorts (307 344-7311, www.TravelYellowstone.com), the company that operates lodging and all other concessions at Yellowstone, offers a range of packages. Four days of cross-country skiing or snowshoeing with a naturalist-guide, plus four nights' lodging, starts at $549. Board a "snow coach"--an over-the-snow vehicle, like a small bus with tractor treads--to visit popular spots such as Old Faithful, and take guided day trips to see wildlife, including a "winter wolf discovery" package that provides a naturalist to lead you in wolf-spotting.
SNOWMOBILES BANNED. Except for roads leading to Mammoth Hot Springs, just inside the north entrance that is about 80 miles from Bozeman, Mont., Yellowstone's roads are closed to autos in the winter. You can reserve a snow coach through Amfac to take you through the West or South entrances and on to lodging and visitor centers. You can snowmobile in, too--though unless the law is changed, this coming winter will be the last you'll be allowed to snowmobile on your own. During the winter of 2002-03, you'll need a guide, and the machines will be banned altogether starting the winter of 2003-04.
Lodging is available inside the park from mid-December to early March at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel (room with bath is $89, without bath $63) and Old Faithful Snow Lodge (rooms $131, cabins $65 to $111).
Tourists who visit the Grand Canyon in winter say the park is even more magnificent under a blanket of fresh snow. The Grand Canyon National Park's South Rim, about 80 miles from Flagstaff, Ariz., is open all winter, but December, January, and February are the only months you can drive on Hermit Road, which extends west along the rim from Grand Canyon Village. All other times, you must park your car and take a free shuttle bus. From Hermit Road, you get spectacular views of the canyon and can visit a stone pyramid dedicated to John Wesley Powell. A Civil War hero with only one arm, Powell in 1869 was the first to lead a boat expedition down the Colorado River through the canyon.
The North Rim is closed to auto traffic in the winter months but is open to cross-country skiers, who must get back-country permits (928 638-7875). You can cross-country ski and snowshoe in adjacent Kaibab National Forest, too. Many trails are open to hikers, but the park recommends that you take along crampons for use on trails below the rim.
Commercial bus tours and the well-known guided mule trips operate in winter. Day trips by mule take you to Plateau Point, halfway down to the Colorado River, for about $120 per person. Or you can book a mule trip to Phantom Ranch, a remote outpost a mile in elevation below the rim on the canyon floor. An overnight package costs about $335 for one person, $600 for two (Reservations: 303 297-2757). In winter, you follow trails that are blissfully free of tourists. On the rim, rangers lead hikes, such as a geology walk, and give talks on a range of topics, including fossils and cultural history.
You can also go on aerial tours, which take off from Grand Canyon Airport near Tusayan, Ariz. Helicopter flights run $90 to $165 per person, airplane rides, $55 to $100 for up to 90 minutes.
Except during holidays, you have your pick of lodges and can even get last-minute reservations. Rooms at the 1905 log-and-stone El Tovar Hotel, on the canyon rim, run $118 to $286. The 1935 Bright Angel Lodge, designed by Mary Colter, the renowned architect who contributed to a style now known as National Park Service rustic, is open, too. Rooms range from $48 to $286 a night. A dorm room at Phantom Ranch is just $22 a night; individual cabins are also available. (Reservations: 303 297-2757.) Book rooms a year ahead for Christmas, when El Tovar puts up a 20-foot tree, and Phantom Ranch hands decorate the rustic rooms and prepare holiday meals.
At Mesa Verde in winter, absent the hordes of tourists, visitors see the landscape much as the original inhabitants did 1,000 years ago, with cliff dwellings scattered across the still, snow-covered land. The park is a photographer's dream, with white snow against blackened juniper and pinon trunks that were burned in a wildfire last summer. Spruce Tree House is the only cliff dwelling open in winter, with tours at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. daily. Reservations aren't necessary; just meet at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, 21 miles from the park's main entrance. The rangers there have plenty of time to answer questions. The Mesa Top Loop Road is open, so you can drive to the many viewing areas.
Roads may be closed after storms but usually reopen in a couple of hours because the park is in the high desert, so snow melts quickly. Mesa Verde's lodge and campgrounds are closed in winter, but accommodations are available in nearby Mancos and Cortez, Colo., both about nine miles from the park entrance. You can get information about lodging at 800 253-1616.
It's much easier to see all three parks' wildlife in the winter because cold weather drives animals down from the higher elevations. More wildlife and fewer tourists: How can you beat that?
By Sandra Dallas