Your National Park-a-Month Guide

From tropical paradises to stunning deserts and alpine mountain ranges, every national park has an ideal season. In this article we suggest a park to visit each month, and it wasn’t an easy task narrowing our selections down to one per month. Truth be told, for each month there are many parks you could visit and have the time of your life; our selections should be merely a starting point for planning your next year of travel.

Bison sharing the road with a snow coach in Yellowstone National Park

January – Yellowstone National Park

Looking for an escape from January’s frigid temperatures? We have the perfect suggestion: Yellowstone National Park, where the average daily high temperature is 24 degrees, Fahrenheit. Maybe that’s not the destination you expected but give us a minute to explain. Yellowstone, our country’s first national park and one of the largest, most wildlife-diverse areas in the lower forty-eight states, is unlike anywhere in the world. The combination of the world’s highest concentration of thermal features (geysers, fumaroles, hot springs, and mud pots), several feet of snow, and a herd of bison roaming through this winter wonderland, makes Yellowstone a unique and fascinating place to visit in January.

Most of the roads into the park are closed to car traffic in the winter, with a couple of exceptions. Highway 89 from Gardiner, Montana to Mammoth Hot Springs inside the park is open, as is the Grand Loop Road running east from Mammoth to Tower Junction. From there, continuing east on Highway 212 through the Lamar Valley, the road is open all the way to Cooke City just outside the northeast entrance to the park. At Cooke City you reach a dead end; the state doesn’t plow the road east of town in the winter. Visitors traveling to the other areas of the park, including guests staying at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, get around via snowmobile or snow coach.

Snowmobile concessionaires out of Gardiner, Jackson Hole, and West Yellowstone offer guided tours in the park. The Old Faithful area is a popular destination for snowmobile tours, as is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Other winter activities include stargazing, wildlife viewing, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing.

View from the summit at Haleakala National Park

February – Haleakala National Park

We know what you’re thinking, Maui in February? That’s more like it. Haleakala National Park is home to the dormant Haleakala Volcano, which last erupted about 500 years ago. At 52 square miles, this park has plenty of room for you to roam.

Since your flip-flops and swimsuit won’t take up much room in your luggage, you’ll be able to pack a sweatshirt for a day-trip to the summit. I ignored this advice when we visited there several years ago and had to stop at the Walmart in town to buy a hoody before our drive to the top of the island. The only one I could find in my size had a large University of Hawaii logo on the chest. Go Rainbow Warriors! While it may be balmy on the beach, the summit sits at about 10,000 feet elevation, and it’s usually windy up there.

Brave the nip in the air for a couple of hours and take a hike into the cinder desert. From the parking lot, trails lead down the east side of the mountain past several dormant cinder cones. As you hike the steady decline, you’ll have breath-taking views of the Pacific Ocean in the distance. If you’re tempted to keep marching toward the blue water, you might want to check with a ranger at the Visitor Center about backpacking permits and suggestions; from the top of Haleakala, you can hike all the way to the ocean, although a trip of that length typically takes several days to complete. Keep in mind while you’re hiking blissfully that however far you hike down in elevation, you’ll have to climb back out. This was another detail that slipped our minds while hiking the Sliding Sands Trail; the 3-mile uphill trudge back to our rental car in gale force winds just about killed us. The bonus, however, was we didn’t feel bad about ordering a large, deep dish pizza that night for dinner at the Lahaina Pizza Company.

A Joshua Tree in Joshua Tree National Park

March – Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park is 790,000 acres of protected desert ecosystems a couple of hours east of Los Angeles; it’s home to countless Joshua Trees—the ones that look like they came straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. It’s a good idea to visit this park early in the year before the temperatures get too hot. We camped there in February, and while the days were mild, it was still chilly at night; March may be the perfect month for this park. And it’s a great add-on destination if you’re already planning a trip to the area; Palm Springs is about an hour away by car, and Las Vegas is a three-hour drive in the other direction. That said, it seems everyone in Southern California knows that March is a great time to visit; try going mid-week when the crowds are a bit less.

If you’re planning to hike in the park—which we suggest you do—be sure to bring layers to wear. You might find yourself putting shorts and sunscreen as you get ready to explore the park or possibly digging through your backpack to find your long pants and windbreaker (especially if you plan on attempting Ryan Peak—it’s usually windy on the trail). Either way, take plenty of water with you.

Our preferred way to see the park is to enter from the north by going through the town of Twentynine Palms. You can reach Ryan Peak Trail and Lost Mine Trail from the north entrance; both are excellent hikes. On our most recent trip to Joshua Tree, we discovered another trail to add to our favorites list: The Panorama Loop Trail, home to some of the park’s largest Joshua Trees. It’s in the northwest section of the park and begins from the parking lot of the Black Rock Canyon Visitor Center. The trail is a 6.5-mile loop with an elevation gain of about 1,300 feet that leads to panoramic views of the park and surrounding areas.

The Needles in Canyonlands National Park

April – Canyonlands National Park

Moab, Utah is becoming more popular every year, and for a good reason; it’s the gateway to some incredible public lands including Arches National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park, and Canyonlands National Park. April is a great time to visit Canyonlands; the weather is usually sunny and 70’s this time of year. And while it’s typical to see cars lined up waiting to get into Arches, Canyonlands gets less than half the number of visitors.

The Green and Colorado Rivers divide Canyonlands into three, physically separated districts: The Island in the Sky in the north, The Maze in the southwest, and The Needles in the southeast. Each region has unique features and appeal.

The Island in the Sky is the most accessible district from Moab; it’s about a 40-minute drive from town to the visitor center. This wedge-shaped plateau has several hiking trails that lead to overlooks of the rivers that divide the park. To the west, trails around Upheaval Dome provide hikers with spectacular views of this unusual geological formation. The White Rim Trail is a 100+-mile, four-wheel drive only road that snakes its way below the plateau and above the rivers. Driving the trail requires applying for a permit, mostly so a ranger can assess the driver’s off-road abilities before letting them head out into the wilderness.

The Maze is the least-accessible district. Getting to areas in this part of the park requires long drives on rough roads in high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles. Most of the sites worth seeing in this district take many hours to reach and familiarity of the region to keep from getting lost, which is why most visitors exploring this area do so on multi-day, guided camping trips.

The Needles district is a 75-mile drive south and west from Moab. When we visit this area, we often stay in the small town of Monticello on Highway 191, rather than drive back and forth to Moab. The Needles has several bucket list-worthy hikes. The Confluence Trail is an out-and-back 11+-mile trail that ends at an overlook where the Green and Colorado Rivers join. The Chesler Park and Joint Trail Loop takes you through the incredible stone spire needles and a cool slot canyon (the Joint). And the Druid Arch Trail, which winds 10+ miles through the needles, turns around at a stunning natural arch.

View of the Grand Canyon from the South Rim

May – Grand Canyon National Park

At over a mile deep and nearly 18 miles wide in places, the Grand Canyon is considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Why visit in May? The daytime temperatures are not as hot as mid-summer, the monsoons are still a month or so away, and most schools haven’t let out yet for summer vacation. If you want to go the edge of the canyon and peer into its greatness, the South Rim has the most-established roads and facilities. A scenic drive, Desert View Drive, runs east/west along the canyon’s south rim for 25 miles, with six canyon viewpoints where you can park and look into the canyon’s deep abyss.

Once you find a place to park in one of the many lots surrounding Grand Canyon Village, you can walk the paved path that follows the edge of the canyon, stopping to view the magnificent scenery along the way. If the hordes of people with selfie sticks are too much for you, keep walking west on the rim trail and eventually the crowd thins considerably. You can continue west along this Canyon Rim trail for 8 miles (all the way to Hermit’s Rest) with very few other hikers keeping you company. Free shuttle buses run throughout the day to Hermit’s Rest, stopping at eight overlooks, so you could jump on and off the shuttle and hike as much or as little as you want.

The North Rim provides even greater solitude. It has a lodge and campground, and only ten percent of the park’s visitors. The lodge sits at 8,000 feet elevation—over a thousand feet higher than the South Rim. Contemplating a hike from one rim of the canyon to the other? Keep in mind that due to winter weather, the road to the North Rim is typically only open from mid-May to late November, with the lodge and all services closing mid-October.

Long House in Mesa Verde National Park

June – Mesa Verde National Park

Summer officially kicks off in June, and it’s the perfect time to explore Mesa Verde National Park, an area of southwestern Colorado with thousands of Puebloan Indian archeological sites, hundreds of which are cliff-dwellings. The park has some of the best-preserved Puebloan ruins in America. Because it sits at an altitude ranging from 7,000 to 8,500 feet, summer is when the most sites are open and the park is in full swing. In addition to their regular ranger-led cliff dwelling tours, every summer they offer additional tours to some of their more remote sites. The group sizes for these tours are usually small, and the tickets sell out quickly. Seasonal rangers often lead these special tours; many are school teachers on summer break. Visiting Mesa Verde in June, you’ll have a chance at some unique tours, the weather is usually pleasant, and the crowds are not yet at their peak.

Getting to the park requires a drive no matter which direction you’re coming from: it’s 400 miles from Denver, 360 miles from Salt Lake City, and 250 miles from Santa Fe. If you’re making the trek to Mesa Verde, you might as well visit some of the other fantastic public lands in the area. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is 150 miles north of Mesa Verde, and Hovenweep National Monument is 55 miles to the west in Utah.

Bumpass Hell in Lassen Volcanic National Park

July – Lassen Volcanic National Park

It seems like few people outside of northern California have ever heard of Lassen Volcanic National Park, fifty miles west of Redding. In the shadow of Yosemite—a few hours to the south—this hidden gem draws a fraction of the visitors. Its lack of notoriety could also be due to its short visitation season. At 6,700 elevation, the park’s southern visitor center gets an annual average snowfall of over 400 inches. At higher elevations in the park, the average snowfall can exceed 700 inches. With that much snow, the park is white until at least late spring. And winter comes early. Several years ago, we visited Lassen in early September and found ourselves driving through a couple of inches of freshly fallen snow. July is the time to visit the park if you want to leave your snow gear and winter coat at home.

The focal point of the park is Lassen Peak, a semi-dormant volcano that had a major eruption in 1915. The peak reaches 10,457 feet above sea level and is an impressive sight, especially when imagining what it must have been like to see it blow. If you want a workout, you can hike to the peak: five miles round trip with an elevation gain of 2,000 feet.

Lassen is now quiet, but there are other indications that the earth is still grumbling beneath the surface of the park. Not far from the peak is an area called Bumpass Hell, a cluster of active thermal features. The park built boardwalks through the area so visitors can get close to the steaming pools and fumaroles without being boiled alive. With the mountains in the background and the steam coming up from the ground, this beautiful park reminded us of a mini Yellowstone—without the bison and the crowds.

Iceberg Lake in Glacier National Park

August – Glacier National Park

Winter storms start rolling through Glacier National Park in Montana around the last week of September. We’ve experienced snow showers as early as Labor Day on our past visits to the park. And Going to the Sun Road, a spectacular 50-mile road that connects the west and east sides of the park doesn’t usually open until late June or early July. Unless you’re OK dealing with winter weather, give yourself a margin for error and try visiting Glacier in August. Accommodations will be more difficult to reserve for dates in August; it’s a good idea to book well in advance.

While you’re there, make sure to visit the Many Glacier area in the northeast section of the park; you can stay in one of two lodges (Many Glacier Hotel or Swiftcurrent Motor Inn), or camp in the Many Glacier Campground if you’re lucky enough to get a campsite. Two of our favorite hikes in that region are Grinnell Glacier and Iceberg Lake; both have stunning views along the trails, and you’ll have a good chance of seeing wildlife. Every time we’ve been to that area of the park in August, we’ve seen moose, bighorn sheep, black bears, and grizzly bears. At the risk of sounding like your mother: always have bear spray with you when hiking in Glacier National Park.

A Sequoia Tree in Sequoia National Park

September – Kings and Sequoia National Parks

These two parks sit side by side in California’s Sierra Nevadas and are managed jointly by the National Park Service. Their claim to fame, the giant sequoia trees, are stunning any time of the year, but in September you have a better chance of seeing them without a crowd following you wherever you go. Both Sequoia’s Giant Forest and Kings Canyon’s Grant Grove are about 7,000 feet above sea level. At that elevation, there’s always a chance of wintery weather in September, but it usually holds off until later in the year.

The Cedar Grove area of Kings Canyon looks like Yosemite Valley with its towering, granite walls rising above the canyon, yet it’s not nearly as built up or crowded. This area of the park is lower in elevation—about 4,000 feet above sea level—therefore the temperatures are a little warmer than where the sequoias live. In September, many of the campgrounds in the canyon are only partially filled, and the place has a relaxed, laid-back vibe. Note that the road to Cedar Grove Village closes from mid-November to mid-April each year.

Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse in Acadia National Park

October – Acadia National Park

New England has to be one of the best places in the U.S. to view the fall colors, and that includes Acadia National Park, situated on Mount Desert Island just off the coast of Maine. Add to that its stately carriage roads, rocky Atlantic coastline, and iconic lighthouse, and Acadia becomes the perfect autumn destination.

The peak season for color is usually the first few weeks of October, and that’s when the “leaf peepers” show up in droves. We’ve visited Acadia in October, but we had no trouble getting hotel reservations a few months in advance in the nearby town of Bar Harbor. And while busloads of tourists packed the park’s Jordan Pond House Restaurant enjoying their world-famous popovers and tea, we found solitude hiking to the top of Cadillac Mountain, exploring the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, and walking sections of the 45 miles of car-free carriage roads.

Big Bend National Park
Rio Grande flowing through Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park

November – Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park, on the southern border of Texas five hours from El Paso, offers visitors in November a final blast of summer. The park is a 1,200-square-mile expanse of Chihuahuan Desert, with a mountain range in the middle. Temperatures in the lower elevations of the park can still reach the nineties during the day in November, so plan accordingly and take plenty of water if you’re hiking one of the trails through the desert or by the Rio Grande. If you want a break from the heat, drive into the Chisos Mountains, where the elevation at Emory Peak is 7,832 feet—about 6,000 feet above the desert floor below. If you plan on hiking one of the many trails in the mountains, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife; you might get lucky and see one of the elusive mountain lions that live there.

Maybe the best reason to visit the park in November is to attend the annual International Chili Championship in Terlingua, Texas just minutes outside the park to the west. Each year during the first weekend in November, participants compete in the granddaddy of all chili cookoffs. The four-day event is open to the public; in 2018, the entrance fee for spectators was $40 for the entire event.

Everglades National Park

December – Everglades National Park

Breaking icicles off your eyebrows and digging a snow cave into the side of a mountain to make a place to sleep is not for everyone. That’s what makes Everglades National Park in Florida a great choice for a December destination. Everglades has two very distinct seasons: a dry season (Nov.-March) and a wet season (April-November). Not only is the dry season drier, it’s less buggy, and the warm winters attract the largest variety of wading birds and their predators.

The park is massive at over 2,300 square miles and boasts a wide-variety of activities for visitors including wildlife viewing, hiking, kayaking, canoeing, camping, boating, bicycling, and ranger-led boat tours.
One of our favorite memories of the park is when we biked the 15-mile Shark Valley Bike Trail. It was a pleasant day in December, and both sides of the trail were thick with alligators of all sizes sunning themselves. Some were lying motionless with their mouths open. We weren’t sure if that was just something alligators do while enjoying a peaceful afternoon, or when they’re getting ready to snatch a park visitor by the leg as they pass by. We made it through without incident but we’re still not sure.

While you’re in southern Florida, we highly recommend you visit one of the most unusual national parks in America: Dry Tortugas National Park. The park is a region of shallow water in the Gulf of Mexico about two hours by boat west of Key West, Florida. Several small keys dot the area within the park’s boundaries. One of the largest, Garden Key, is the site of Fort Jefferson, a Civil War-era military base that takes up nearly the entire footprint of the small island. The main activity in the park is a ranger-led tour of the historic fort although swimming, snorkeling, diving, camping, boating and fishing are also popular activities.

4 Replies to “Your National Park-a-Month Guide”

  1. In your November newsletter you listed a holiday gift ideas….I did read it but would like to go back and look at items you use or recommend while hiking. When I cliked on it, it said the page was no longer available. Is there a way I can? Thanks in advance.

  2. Planning a East to West coast train trip in late June. My plans are to go to Theodore Rosevelt Nat’l Park and Glacier Nat’l Park. Will have limited tI’m at T.N. P. and would love your recommendations of must sees there. Will probably have 3 days at G.N. P. and hoping to do the Sun Highway and see Lake McDonald. I would love to do a few short hikes too.

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