Come winter, an average of 44 feet of snow dump on Crater Lake, turning the 30-mile, tourist-choked loop of the Rim Road into a deep and wild backcountry playground. Adventurous souls can embark upon a three- or four-day ski tour of the caldera's rim, soaking in the impossible blues of the nation's deepest lake at a civilized pace. Most parties go in March or April and head clockwise from Rim Village to Park Headquarters, taking advantage of longer days, fewer storms and a 700-foot net loss in elevation (though it still includes 4,850 hard-earned feet of climbing). Be sure to bring winter camping gear and sound avalanche training.
While it's best known for being hot and dry (and, of course, really low), Death Valley is really pleasant in the winter. Daily high temps are in the upper 60s and lower 70s, which means hikers, mountain bikers and backpackers can explore all 3.4 million acres of this massive backcountry playground without risking heatstroke. Embrace the long winter nights, when stargazing is at it's peak. Soon, the first blossoms of the spring wildflower bloom will show, hinting at the explosion of reds and yellows to come in March and April.
Acadia is, admittedly, a summer park. In winter, the Park Loop road, as well as all unpaved roads, close to traffic, a blanket of snow settles over everything and the park falls into a deep slumber. But there's still access via local highways, and plenty of opportunities for outdoor fun. Our favorite is ice climbing spray ice above the crashing waves of the Atlantic on the famed granite sea cliffs at Great Head (called “the biggest, baddest sea cliff in America” by Rock and Ice) and Otter Cliffs, where the park maintains dedicated top-rope anchors. But spray ice can be unreliable here, so local experts Acadia Mountain Guides tend to take clients to frozen waterfalls in the park. As a bonus, the 50-plus-mile carriage road system, which winds through forests and along cliffs, makes for excellent—and ridiculously scenic—Nordic skiing.
Late winter is perfect for exploring the Rio Grande as it meanders its way 118 miles across the Chihuahuan Desert in Big Bend, cutting through the spectacular canyons of Santa Elena, Mariscal and Boquillas. At this point, the scorching, 100-degree days of May and June are still far away, and winter rainfall makes the river runnable. The Far Flung Outdoor Center offers fantastic al fresco dining within the 1,500-foot walls of the Santa Elena on its laidback three-day gourmet raft trips, which are run in association with San Antonio-based Crumpets Restaurant and Bakery. Sample menus include goose liver pâté with truffles and herb-and-Dijon mustard-encrusted New Zealand rack of lamb, and the views from river's edge can't be beat.
And it's true what they say: The stars at night are big and bright, down in the heart of Texas. Last year, Big Bend was named a gold tier International Dark Sky Park after it retrofitted every single outdoor light in the park, making them shielded LEDs. Now, when you gaze up into the night sky, you can clearly make out the Milky Way and, on any given night, faint meteors streaking across the great big West Texas sky.
Winter is the best time to visit Grand Canyon. The same trails that are scorching hot and choked with hikers during the high season are cool and virtually untrammeled. The famed reds and oranges and pinks of rock strata laid bare by the 5,000-foot-deep canyon are all the more brilliant against the bright white canvas of snow. As with any time, the best way to experience the enormity of the canyon is to hike down inside it, a much less daunting task this time of year, when buzzards aren't circling overhead, waiting for the heat to overtake you. Be warned, though, that ice persists close to the rim on some trails throughout the winter (read this before you head out). As you work your way deeper into the canyon, though, the snow and ice gives way and the winter sun is a body-warming blessing rather than a heatstroke-inducing curse. Look around you at the deep, ancient geology of the earth and realize that, yes, you are tiny in nature, but all of this is yours.
With hurricane season past, mosquitoes clear out and migratory birds and mild temps settle in, making the wildlife-rich, waterlogged Everglades the perfect winter sanctuary for canoe campers. Set out along the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway, which weaves through mangroves from Everglades City to Flamingo and is lined with 40-plus backcountry beach and chickee campsites. This is not the alligator-riddled swamp you imagine the Everglades to be, but the brackish bays and tidal waterways of the Gulf Coast. Plan on spotting manatees, dolphins, crocodiles and pelicans as you make your way through this subtropical wonderland.
Olympic in winter is three parks, really: at low elevations, it's a lush, green temperate rain forest ripe for hiking; high on Hurricane Ridge, it's a winter wonderland where skiers seek out hidden stash and snowshoers find solitude on 20 miles of trails; and out on the coast, the Pacific tosses giant driftwood logs noisily against the rugged shoreline and tidepools serve as mini laboratories, brimming with sea life. All of this is within a three-hour drive, so, with a bit of planning and good luck, you can enjoy it all in a single trip.
There are a lot of good things to say about Maui (Hawaii's second biggest island) in winter: temps are cooler; big-wave surfing kicks up along the North Shore and whale watching is at its best, as humpbacks winter in the warm, shallow waters just offshore. What's more, at 10,000 feet, near the top of Haleakala volcano, Haleakala National Park has some of the best night sky conditions in the world. The visual horizon stretches away as far as 115 miles out to sea, offering a nearly 360-degree view of the sky. And, with hardly any cities (not to mention the black expanse of the Pacific Ocean) within a 2,300-mile radius, there's almost no light pollution, allowing you unfettered views of the heavens. Rent binoculars from an island dive shop, pick up a star map from one of the park's visitor centers and you may be able to spot the moons of Jupiter.
Wolves, reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995 and 1996, have made a well-documented—and, to some, controversial—comeback in the park. From just a few dozen released back then, their numbers have swollen to include roughly 480 wolves in 75 packs across the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Still, canis lupus can be pretty elusive from spring through autumn. But bare trees and a permanent blanket of snow make winter the best time for spotting the top dog, especially in Slough Creek and the Lamar Valley. Wildlife biologists Nathan Varley and Linda Thurston—aka The Wild Side—offer a full day of wolf trekking, including transportation, entrance fees, hot drinks and breakfast, from $480 (1 to 5 people) to $680 (6 to 14 people).
And, If the wolf watching isn't too hot, there are always bubbling mud pots, erupting geysers and gem-colored mineral pools, which, set against the white canvas of winter snow, look all the more spectacular.
The Channel Islands, often called the "Galapagos of the north," are home to more than 2,000 species of plants and animals, 140 of which are endemic to the five islands. From late December through March, though, one species steals the show here: gray whales. The huge mammals swim past—first south and then back north—on their annual migration to the calving grounds along Baja.
You can get a close-up view (though not closer than 100 yards, unless the whales approach you) of these gentle giants from a sea kayak. Santa Barbara Adventure Company offers short sea kayak tours of the islands, but experienced paddlers should plan on longer trips that include backcountry camping for maximum opportunities at spotting wildlife. Dolphins are frequent visitors, and many other species of whale—sperm, minke, blue, humpback and pilot—and even orcas ply these waters at different times of year. All of that lies just 50 miles off the coast of Los Angeles (which gives you a good idea of how mild the climate is).