by Erin Kirkland
Perhaps no other agency moniker is as familiar as that of national parks. Providing access, protection, and valuable historical information, national parks are considered sacred ground by many as hallmarks of family vacation destinations. Sharing of a legacy, if you will.
In the United States and Canada, at least, most national parks see the highest number of visitors during summer months, thanks to school schedules and decidedly more favorable weather patterns. Bustling with activity between May and October, national park visitors scarcely have time to breathe for the number of opportunities to hike, swim, boat, climb, fish, or tour millions of acres set aside for their use by federal governments.
When snow begins to blanket the landscape, however, the hordes depart, leaving behind a fresh, new way to explore. From snowshoeing to skiing, dog mushing to photography, winter in a national park provides unique perspective, perhaps in the way it was first intended. For children, winter visits to a national park will go above and beyond the usual family vacation. Even arriving and setting up camp or locating accommodations can be a challenge, requiring teamwork, flexibility, and a sense of humor. Rewards, however, can be great: Following a set of snowshoe hare tracks across a powdery meadow, spying a bison breathing out great clouds of smoky mist as he stands with herd mates under a Ponderosa pine, or glimpsing the aurora borealis sweeping across the starlit sky, nature’s theater. These are reasons to go. And, perhaps, reasons to stay.
Still not convinced? Try this rationale for making tracks to a national park near you this winter, along with a few tips for savvy parents.
Affordability. In general, most national parks suspend entrance fees during the winter months, and, for those inclined to camp, most overnight fees as well. Hotels and resorts, if open, often reduce rates to a shockingly low amount after the holiday season, making a mid-winter escape surprisingly affordable.
Accessibility. Ever visit a popular national park during the summer and find a line for popular attractions stretching back to the entrance area? While high-season vacations are busy for all the right reasons, an off-season trip means fewer crowds and unique opportunities to glimpse natural landscapes and official landmarks without elbowing your way toward the front for a group photo.
Activities. Winter opens wide a door to amazing outdoor recreation, including snowshoeing, sledding, Nordic skiing, snowmachining, and even winter camping. Miles of trail and unplowed park roads are at your disposal, making for a quality family adventure without too much effort. Of course, for those families wanting a hard-core backcountry experience, national parks offer that, too. Nothing says teamwork like hauling a tent, stove, sleeping bags, and shovel into the inner sanctum of mother nature’s backyard, and most kids will never forget it. Do check in at the appropriate Park Service winter headquarters, however, prior to departure. Many national parks have strict regulations about notification by visitors during the sparsely-staffed winter months, and some require permits.
Where should you go? Luckily, the U.S. and Canada sport a wide range of winter outing options, ranging from semi-urban to strictly wilderness, and all feature different means of providing kids with a truly authentic outdoor experience.
In Canada, try Parks Canada’s helpful search tools for locating a park and planning trips. Parks are divided into regional areas for easier planning, and provide detailed descriptions of experiences by featured contributors, year-round.
In the United States, the National Park Service provides a comprehensive website for each park, with planning tools, resources, and activities for kids. Many parks have a whole section dedicated to winter visits.
Other resources in the U.S. include the National Parks Travel Guide, a clearinghouse of national park trips, activities, itineraries, and wildlife information, and the National Park Foundation, an advocacy-based website dedicated to supporting the efforts of national parks.
Erin Kirkland is managing editor of Outdoor Families Magazine, author of Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th state with children, and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to Alaska family travel. She lives in Anchorage, Alaska.