From folklore to fairytales, beautiful wooded sceneries help paint a picture for fantasy and adventure – particularly during the colder months, when the snow and ice can transform any outdoor locale into a winter wonderland. Our real-life national parks and wildlife sanctuaries might not feature ogres, unicorns or Elsa from Frozen, but they are home to snowy mountain peaks, outdoor skating rinks, and plenty of opportunities for cold-weather adventures. Adding to the appeal, while you can visit most of the nation’s parks all year, winter offers a quieter, less crowded experience, so you can fully indulge in the picturesque serenity.
Top wooded places to explore in the United States during winter
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located in the heart of Southern Appalachia, along the North Carolina-Tennessee border. It encompasses more than 800,000 square miles in wooded, mountainous terrain. Commonly referred to as the Smokies, the park is mostly forested and therefore produces an excess of natural gas released from the area's vegetation. The Cherokee used to call this phenomenon shaconage, or ‘the place of blue smoke.’ It is home to 19,000+ documented species and believe it or not, your chances of catching a glimpse of wildlife actually increase once winter sets in. Visitors can also try cross-country skiing or hiking in the snow along Clingmans Dome Road, which is closed to vehicles in the winter. Before visiting the park, we recommend calling the number listed on the National Park Service website for updates on temporary road closures.
Yosemite National Park
Situated at the heart of central California, Yosemite National Park is an international treasure. Known for its striking granite cliffs, particularly its skyscraping summits such as El Capitan, Glacier Point, Half Dome and Mt. Lyell, the park is an Instagrammer's dream. During the winter, the park is decorated with snow, frozen streams and wildlife that gathers near the hot springs for food. Visitors can ice skate in an outdoor rink, snowshoe through trails, and access the Badger Pass ski area via the Glacier Point/Badger Pass Road. The park gets more than 4 million visitors every year, but fewer than 100,000 visit during the winter, making it a (relatively) quieter scenic escape.
Olympic National Park
Perched off the Strait of Juan de Fuca, along the Canadian border, Olympic National Park is a 922,000-acre park with snow-capped mountains and beautiful, temperate rain forests. The park’s ominously-named Hurricane Ridge is a hub for snow and winter recreation, where visitors can take part in snowshoeing, skiing, snowboarding and tubing, weather permitting. Like many of the parks listed here, Olympic is a UNESCO-recognized World Heritage Site and is one of the Pacific Northwest's many treasures. It is easily accessible from Seattle, Portland and Vancouver.
Acadia National Park
Beautiful Acadia National Park is located off the coast of Maine on Mount Desert Island, encompassing more than 47,000 acres of the Atlantic island. With a rocky coastline, imposing mountains and rich marshlands, Acadia National Park is a diverse space ideal for backpackers and adventurists. The activities don’t cease in the winter, during which the 27-mile Park Loop Road remains open for visitors to take advantage of cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and dog sledding. Ice fishing is also permitted on the park’s larger ponds.
Maquoketa Caves State Park
The Maquoketa Caves State Park is a unique site home to Native American artifacts, intricate caves and sparse stalactite structures – and it's not far from Des Moines or Chicago, making it a quick day-trip destination. The park gives Midwesterners and visitors a chance to escape the region’s long, harsh winters; regardless of the season, the caves are a constant 48 degrees. As you follow the snowy trail connecting the caves, you can observe the tracks of various animals that have passed through, such as whitetail deer, bobcats and squirrels. The park is part of what's known as the Driftless Area, or Paleozoic Plateau. Essentially, this area was skipped over by glaciers during the last ice age, which explains the park's unique, non-glacial interlinking cave systems. With just over 100 acres of protected parklands, but less of a spotlight, the Maquoketa Caves get fewer visitors on average than most of the other parks listed here.