National Parks

From Beaches to Cactus: 15 Best National Parks to Visit in December

Once a spewing cauldron of lava, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is quiet. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Many of the U.S. National Parks are shuttered and socked in with snow. However, many of the parks are best experienced during the winter, especially the deserts of the Southwest. Always a wintertime treat, a beach getaway is top of many a list. For a beach trip paired with a national park trip, find a national park along the coast. Best of all, several are located on islands. Here are the best national parks to visit in December or anytime during the winter.

Table of Contents

15 Best National Parks to Visit in December

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Haleakala National Park
Padre Island National Seashore
Dry Tortugas National Park
Everglades National Park
Channel Islands National Park
Virgin Islands National Park
Biscayne National Park
Big Bend National Park
Death Valley National Park
Saguaro National Park
Grand Canyon National Park
Zion National Park
Joshua Tree National Park
Guadalupe Mountains National Park

1. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Hawaii 

This Hawaii Island National Park is one of the best places to see an active volcano erupting. Though the volcano is active sporadically, so check the NPS website before your visit. This is one of the Best National Parks to Visit in December. 

Red hot spewing lava is uniquely Hawaiian, though this park offers more to see. Visitors take the Crater Rim and the Chain of Crater scenic drives to see the effects of past eruptions. Hiking is another top activity at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. 

Located in a quiet corner of the island of Hawaii, visitors will find lodging and dining at the Volcano House, located next to the Visitor Center.

Cabins and developed campgrounds are reservable. I stayed in the cabin outfitted with linens, and it was a comfy night. 

To reach Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, it is about 100 miles east of Kona and 30 miles from Hilo. A car is needed to explore this park, and rentals are readily available at the airport. A 7-day pass is $30 to enter, and this park is cashless.

Planning Guide to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Best National Parks to Visit in December. 
A view of the Kipahulu District of Haleakala National Park. credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson

2. Haleakala National Park on Maui 

Located on Maui, Haleakalā National Park is another volcano park that features 30,000 acres of land. Divided into two districts, this is the best place to see the sunrise on top of its volcano.

Visitors can drive up to the moon-like crater of the Haleakalā volcano. Or it can be explored on foot. Perched high on the summit, watching the sun rise requires a special permit, available in advance and date-specific.

Along the Road to Hana, the Kīpahulu District is completely different than the volcano. It offers a lush rainforest with waterfalls and sacred pools, rich in Hawaiian history.

A car is necessary to visit Haleakalā National Park. A vehicle pass is $30 and is good for three days. Pack layers for visiting Haleakalā crater as it is colder on the top. 

Top Things to Do at Haleakala National Park 
padre island national seashore Best National Parks to Visit in December. 
The Padre Island National Seashore protects the largest barrier island in the world. credit: Catherine Parker

3. Padre Island National Seashore on the South Texas Coast

Flights are needed to reach Hawaii, though the Texas coastline is road-trip friendly. As the longest undeveloped barrier island in the world, Padre Island National Seashore is more than a beach. This is one of the Best National Parks to Visit in December. 

With its location a few miles from Corpus Christi, Padre Island National Seashore is 60 miles long and drivable. With that much space, visitors will have plenty of room to spread out.  Ao Migratory birds outnumber the people on the beach most days. 

Facing inland, the hyper-saline Laguna Madre is the Intracoastal waterway and part of the park. It’s a favorite place for fishing (get a license), birdwatching, windsurfing and kiteboarding. 

Visitors will find a visitor center with a small interpretive area. This area offers the only cell service along with flush toilets and rinse-off showers. Camping is available at two developed campgrounds or along the beach without services. 

Corpus Christi is only 30 minutes away, though Padre Island National Seashore feels like a deserted island. A one-day pass is $10, or use a National Park Pass to enter. Bring supplies for the day since not much besides potable water is available. 

Best of Corpus Christi 

4. Dry Tortugas National Park off the Florida Keys

Beaches make some of the best winter escapes. Dry Tortugas National Park offers a remote location with a white sand beach and the option to fly in on a float plane. This is one of the Best National Parks to Visit in December. 

Located 70 miles west off the coast of Key West, Florida. This park boasts turquoise water, sea turtles and one of the largest antique forts in the U.S. 

Accessible via ferry or small aircraft, day trippers pack their provisions for the day. Most tour Fort Jefferson, the main feature of Dry Tortugas National Park. Then head to one of the picnic tables for lunch then snorkeling, birdwatching or beach lounging.

Ferry and seaplane reservations are required. The ferry is $200 for adults and $145 for kids (4 – 16), and the $15 NPS entrance fee is included. The ferry is air-conditioned, and a small meal is included. Camping is available for those who want to spend the night. Visitors should bring a swimsuit and towel for beach time. 

5. Everglades National Park in Florida

This park might be in Florida, but it’s not a beach park. The Everglades National Park is actually the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S. 

With its 1.5 million acres of wetland, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve, a Wetland of International Importance, and a specially protected area under the Cartagena Treaty. Several endangered species call it home, like the manatee and the Florida panther.

With its immense size, a tour might be the best way to explore the Everglades. Visitors can arrange airboat tours. Or take one of its kayak or canoe trails, and there is a guided tram tour.

Located at the southern tip of Florida, Everglades National Park offers several visitor centers. Both are accessible from the Gulf Side and the Atlantic Side. For those camping, two developed campgrounds are located on the east side of the park. A 7-day pass is $30.

Start at the Channel Islands Visitor Center to see the tide pool with a touch tank. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

6. Channel Islands National Park in California 

Five distinct islands offer refuge to animals and plants off the coast of California. Over 2,000 species of plants and animals live on the islands, and 145 of those can only be found in the Channel Islands National Park.

Anacapa Island offers a small visitor center along with some historic Coast Guard buildings. Hiking and wildlife viewing are the top things to do at Channel Islands National Park.

National Park concessionaire provides ferry service to several of the Channel Islands. The trip takes about an hour and departs from Ventura Harbor. 

Reservations and tickets are required for the boat trip. Like Dry Tortugas, visitors need to come prepared with like food and water for their trip. Rustic camping is available on all islands, and campground reservations are required. The ferry to the islands starts at $31.50 for adults. This park is free to enter.

7. Virgin Islands National Park located on St. Johns Island 

With turquoise water and white sand, beaches are top destinations during the winter. Travelers head to the Virgin Islands National Park for its Trunk Bay, Hawksnest and Cinnamon Bay, all top beaches in the U.S. For those who want to see sea turtles, Francis Bay is the place in the Virgin Islands National Park. This is one of the Best National Parks to Visit in December. 

The Virgin Islands Islands National Park is located in the U.S. Virgin Islands (a U.S. Territory) on the island of St. John. St. Johns is a protected paradise that travelers must take a ferry to visit from St. Croix (another island in the U.S. Virgin Islands) 

Camping and cabins are available at Cinnamon Bay. Prices start at $170 a night for an outfitted site. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are available at the Rain Forest Cafe, located on-site.

To get to St. John, a 15-minute ferry ride departs from Red Hook on St. Thomas. Adult fare is $8.15 one-way and $1 one-way for kids (2-11). This park is free to enter. A taxi might be the best way to get around the island and arrange a pick-up time before the taxi departs.

8. Biscayne National Park in Florida

For snorkelers and divers, Biscayne National Park offers an underwater world to explore with shipwrecks and coral reefs. For those who want to stay on top of the water, kayaking, recreational boating and fishing are the top things to do at Biscayne National Park, the largest marine park in the U.S. 

As the northernmost key of the Florida Keys, the Boca Chita Key and its lighthouse are popular destinations on guided tours. Kiteboarding is another top activity at Biscayne National Park. 

There are boat excursions to Boca Chita, and prices start at $79 per adult. There is no fee to enter the park. Dante Fascell Visitor Center is located on the mainland at 9700 SW 328th Street, Sir Lancelot Jones Way, Homestead. 

Explore Big Bend National Park is West Texas with your family.
Add Big Bend National Park to your West Texas road trip. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

9. Big Bend National Park in Texas

In the bend of West Texas, this desert national park offers endless blue skies with warm temps in the winter. Big Bend National Park has a bit of end of the road feeling because it is the end of the road. This is one of the Best National Parks to Visit in December. 

It’s a bit greener than the desert parks in Arizona and Southern California. One of the top places to explore in Big Bend, The Chisos Mountains are located entirely within the park’s boundaries. This area offers some of the top hiking trails, a lodge and a visitor center.

For those who packed their passport, a day trip to Mexico’s Boquillas del Carmen is possible via its tiny river ferry. Alternatively, many prefer to take a float trip down the Rio Grande. Paddling through the stunning Santa Elena Canyon is a top thing to do in Big Bend. 

Big Bend is remote, so visitors should pack in what they need, from food to water to gear. Reservations are a must for lodging. It is $30 for a 7-day NPS Pass, and this park is cashless. There’s a saying in West Texas: when you see gas, buy gas.

Top Things to Do in Big Bend National Park 
Discover Furnace Creek for you Death Valley hotel.
The spring-fed pool at The Inn at Furnace Creek offers a luxurious getaway in the Death Valley. Credit: Xanterra Parks and Resorts

10. Death Valley National Park in California

While this might be the hottest, driest and lowest spot in the U.S., Death Valley National Park is lovely during the winter. The sun allows for warm days and cool nights across its 3.4 million acres.

Visitors should pack those layers, especially if checking out the stars. It is a Dark Sky Park in the U.S. Hiking and scenic drives are the top things to do in Death Valley National Park. Visitors might even catch a superbloom if the area got rain. This is one of the Best National Parks to Visit in December. 

Death Valley National Park sports a glamorous side as well. The legendary Inn at Death Valley is a secret winter hideaway for Old Hollywood that features a sparkling pool. Lodging and camping are both available. Reservations are a must since the winter is high season.

To enter Death Valley, visitors will need to secure a 7-day NPS pass for $30. The park is about 200 miles north of Los Angeles. 

Guide to a Death Valley National Park Trip 
Sonoran Desert Landscape Tucson
Sonoran Desert landscape around Tucson, Arizona. credit: Catherine Parker

11. Saguaro National Park in Arizona

As an iconic symbol of the desert southwest, this is the only national park dedicated to one species of cactus. It’s also an easy road trip stop for those driving along Interstate 10 through Tucson, Arizona. 

Located on opposite sides of Tucson, Saguaro National Park is divided into two units. Worth noting the majority of the saguaro live on the east side of the park. Many a visitor (myself included) have missed the side with the cactus. Visitors might even spot a road runner, though visitors will definitely see one of the iconic symbols of Arizona. 

Saguaro National Park is less developed, so there is no lodging or dining inside the park. Tucson offers everything a traveler would need, about 20 minutes from the visitor center. It is $25 for a 7-day vehicle pass. 

Best of Saguaro National Park 
Grand Canyon Winter
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon remains open year-round. Credit: Pixabay

12. Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona

With fewer visitors, winter is a great time to visit Grand Canyon National Park. The mile-deep canyon is an American icon, and the South Rim is open year-round. It might even sport a coat of billowy snow on the south rim.

Seeing winter sunsets is one of the top things to do at the Grand Canyon. Visitors gather at Mather Point for the daily event. Another top activity is hiking, and the Trail of Time offers interpretive information about the geological layers of the Grand Canyon. It is part of the Rim Trail that connects many of the top sites on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. 

Most of the lodging and dining are open on the South Rim. However, reservations are required. 

To enter the Grand Canyon, a $35 seven-day National Park Pass is required. There is a seasonal shuttle available at the main parking lot that serves the main South Rim Visitor Center. The Visitor Center is about four hours east of Las Vegas. 

Remember, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is closed during winter. 

Best of a Winter Trip to the Grand Canyon 
Zion National Park. Utah National lPark Itinerary from Las Vegas Best National Parks to Visit in December. 
Carved by the tame Virgin River, Zion National Park’s sandstone takes centerstage. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

13. Zion National Park in Utah

Another top national park in the U.S., Zion is open year-round and offers far fewer visitors. Southern Utah boasts some glorious winter days with bluebird skies. Zion’s signature red sandstone pops against the dusting of billowy snow. This is one of the Best National Parks to Visit in December. 

The top thing to do in Zion National Park is hiking. Zion’s hikes range from to Pa’rus Trail along the Virgin River to the iconic Angels Landing (permit required). For hikers, check in with Park Rangers or the Zion NPS website to see if some trails are closed to icy conditions (especially at higher elevations). The temperatures fluctuate a lot in winter from day to night, so layering is key. The morning might require a puffy jacket, and a flannel shirt might be enough in the afternoon.

For lodging and dining, the Zion Lodge is open for the winter season, and reservations are always recommended. The roads are plowed, and the Zion Canyon Shuttle runs daily through New Year’s.

A 7-day vehicle pass is $35, and reservations are not needed to enter the park. Zion is about 150 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

Top Things to Do in Zion National Park
Discover Joshua Tree National Park with kids.
Joshua Tree National Park offers a quick pitstop. credit: Catherine Parker

15. Joshua Tree National Park in California

The desert is not all the same. At Joshua Tree National Park, two different desert ecosystems converge. It is another park that is named after a desert plant species, and it can be explored in a few hours. Located outside Palm Springs, visitors take its scenic road to see the desert scenery. This is one of the Best National Parks to Visit in December. 

Cactus rule the southern part of the park, like the cholla cactus, which looks soft and snuggly. Hint: They aren’t, and pups routinely make this mistake. The Joshua Trees live in the northern portion of the park, along with the boulder stacks that climbers love. 

Joshua Tree is more primitive, so it only offers camping. For lodging or dining, visitors should look in Palm Springs, less than an hour away from park entrances. To enter Joshua Tree National Park, a 7-day pass is $30. 

Top Places to See in Joshua Tree National Park
Discover the National Park Sites of Texas, like Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park offers a trail to the high point of Texas. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

15. Guadalupe Mountains National Park 

Located in West Texas, Guadalupe Mountains National Park features the highest point in Texas at 8,751 feet on Guadalupe Peak, accessible by a trail. High-pointers might prefer a winter hike with comfortable blue skies and little chance of monsoon afternoon rains. Most winter days top out in the 60s.

Hiking is the top thing to do in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Hikers will find routes from short nature trails suitable for most to backpacking trails. This park is particularly popular in the fall color season, and scenic drives are also popular. 

Located in West Texas, it is close to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. Big Bend National Park can be added for a Texas road trip. The Guadalupe Mountains National Park is more primitive (including its campgrounds), so travelers need to pack what they need.

To enter, a $10 7-day pass is required per person. Guadalupe Mountains National Park is located about 110 miles east of El Paso.

Loreto Mexico Beach
The beach at Loreto Bay National Park. credit: Catherine Parker

Bonus Park: Bahia de Loreto National Park in Baja Sur California, Mexico

Loocated off the coast of Loreto, the Loreto Bay National Park protects five uninhabited islands, known for its marine ecosystem. Open for day trips, most hop a panga (a small boat) for the day to the explore the main island, Isla Coronado. Since the island is a protected area, several marine and bird species can easily be spotted, including Sea Lions, Wild Dolphins and Blue Footed Boobies.

A guided tour is the best way to explore the Loreto Bay National Park. Most excursions include a time at the island’s white sand beach, perfect for snorkeling.

Top Things to do in Loreto Mexico

Catherine Parker has a passion for travel and seen all 50 U.S. States. As a former flight attendant with one of the largest airlines, there isn't a North American airport that she hasn't landed in at least once. Since clipping her professional wings after 9/11, she combines her love of the open road with visiting architectural and cultural icons. She is based out of Central Texas dividing her time between writing and restoring a pair of 100-year-old houses. She shares her life with her three kids and her husband.

Comments are closed.