When we came back from our tropical trip to the National Parks in Hawai’i and American Samoa, we came face to face with a bitter winter. The inescapable cold was something we — born and bred Floridians — were unfamiliar with and not at all ready for. Who knew that snow could literally blockade you from enjoying park trails?
Some of our visits were cut short due to inclement weather, but we adapted. We also learned that, even with our sleeping bags in the van, it was too cold to “camp” if the temperature dropped below 25 degrees Fahrenheit.
This is the second of a six-part series of articles chronologically describing our trip to every National Park in the United States. You can read the other parts of this series by clicking the links below:
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six
You can also use these links to jump to a particular park within this article:
Grand Canyon | Petrified Forest | Carlsbad Caverns | Great Sand Dunes | Black Canyon of the Gunnison
Arches | Canyonlands | Zion | Pinnacles | Great Basin
11. Grand Canyon National Park near Williams, Arizona
Quick Overview: Most people know what the Grand Canyon is; it’s one of the natural wonders of the world. The canyon was carved by the mighty Colorado River flowing through the area over the course of millions of years, and today the canyon measures 277 miles long, 18 miles across at its widest, and over a mile deep. It’s difficult to understand its magnitude even when you’re staring right into it.
When We Visited: We arrived at the Grand Canyon mid-February with plans to stay a couple of days. It was pretty cold because of the altitude, but with a good jacket, it was bearable during the day. We spent a couple of freezing midnight hours working on the star trail photo above, and then we got ready for a night of camping in the van. It was then that we learned van life isn’t really enjoyable at 11 degrees Fahrenheit, and at the same time, Steven came down with a stomach bug, so we bolted at 5 am, grabbed a hotel in Flagstaff, and didn’t look back.
Our Top Tip: As you can imagine, this park gets CROWDED. There were still a lot of people during our off-peak visit in February. Based on climate data and our experience, we suggest visiting in April, May, October, or November for limited crowds and better weather.
What was Unforgettable: The endless canyon views.
What Sucked (other than getting sick): The Grand Canyon is amazing, but honestly, there are plenty of other impressive sights in the same area, without the crowds. Make sure you take time to explore the broader Glen Canyon Recreation Area.
12. Petrified Forest National Park close to Holbrook, Arizona
Quick Overview: It’s important to note that there are no forests in Petrified Forest National Park. The name comes from the historical aspect of how the petrified wood found in the area formed. Trees from an old forest fell into the river channels and were covered by volcanic ash and other sediment during the Triassic period. Eventually, the minerals dissolved in the water made their way to the trees and turned the wood to stone. Today, you’ll be able to see pieces of logs that look just like wood but are actually solid rock!
When We Visited: It was still mid-February when we went to Petrified Forest. Since the park doesn’t have as much elevation as the Grand Canyon, there wasn’t any snow, and it wasn’t too cold. I’d probably recommend going just slightly later in the year though so it’s warmer. It can get windy.
Our Top Tip: Start from the southern entrance and drive up through the park to end at the visitor center. This is one of the few parks that closes, and we ended our visit in the south at closing time and were forced to exit rather than go back through to get to the interstate.
What was Unforgettable: While the petrified wood itself pretty much just looks like a bunch of stumps, this park had a surprisingly beautiful landscape and interesting features.
What Sucked: It’s pretty unusual for an outdoor National Park to completely close at a certain time. We didn’t really understand that a cop car would chase you out of the park at sunset until it literally happened to us.
13. Carlsbad Caverns National Park next to Carlsbad, New Mexico
Quick Overview: This. Park. Was. Dope. The cave was vast and otherworldly. Maybe it’s because this sort of place couldn’t possibly exist in Florida, where we’re from, but something about being so deep underground among the stalagmites and stalactites was so foreign — and exciting.
When We Visited: We finally got to go to Carlsbad Caverns in late February! On our first lap out west in January, the visitor center was closed due to the government shutdown, and that’s actually the only way to get down into the caverns, so we had to skip this park then. Coming back to visit Carlsbad during this segment of our trip probably added an extra 20 hours of driving, so we had to find ways to entertain ourselves on the road while we backtracked. If you’re planning a trip to Carlsbad, remember that you can visit any time of year because the main attraction is underground and at a constant temperature of 56ºF.
Our Top Tip: While ranger-guided tours deeper into the caverns cost extra, the self-guided tour along Big Room Trail is included in your park admission (or park pass if you have one). There are no reservations needed, and the self-guided tour is plenty exciting on its own. We highly recommend skipping the elevator if you can and hiking down through the natural entrance.
What was Unforgettable: Of all the caves we’ve seen, this one is most spectacular. It was much larger and taller than we had imagined, and it makes you feel like you’re on another planet.
What Sucked: This is a very popular park, so expect crowds. Since the most interesting part is underground, the outside weather is less important, which means year-round admittance and year-round attendance.
14. Great Sand Dunes National Park in Alamosa, Colorado
Quick Overview: The tallest dunes in North America are found here at Great Sand Dunes National Park. As you drive toward the visitor center, the dunes seem contained as they contrast with the Sangre de Cristo Range that border the dune field, but this is only an optical illusion. The dunes are huge, and despite having been beaten by high winds for tens of thousands of years, they have remained in the valley nearly unchanged. But the best part of these dunes is that you can play on them!
When We Visited: Even toward the end of February, when Florida would be warm again, Colorado is still cold. Despite the sun being out, the windy conditions and generally cool air temperature forced us to stay bundled. It’s important to note that this early in the season, the creek is not flowing, and there could be snow flurries and patches of ice on the dunes.
Our Top Tip: We agree that the best time to visit the park is during that sweet spot of nice weather and fewer crowds — typically around April and May or September and October — especially since that’s the time vendors will also be renting dune sleds. Yes, you can climb up to the sandy peaks with your sled and slide all the way down.
What was Unforgettable: When you’re making your way across these dunes on foot, you feel like you’re in the middle of an Arabian desert — it feels entirely out of place in Colorado.
What Sucked: We weren’t expecting the hike up the dunes to be so challenging. It’s harder to go up the steep sand then to get down. Pace yourself.
15. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park by Montrose, Colorado
Quick Overview: We didn’t know what to expect with this park, and when we arrived, a thick cloud of snow kept the canyon hidden from view. We watched the park film and learned that the canyon is best known for being extremely unforgiving to explorers. The film described the canyon as impenetrable, and once the snow let up we quickly realized why: Steep granite walls surround a rushing Gunnison River. While the roads were mostly closed, you can typically drive along the north and south rims or take the East Portal Road down to the river bank.
When We Visited: This was the last park we were able to visit in February (we tried to go Mesa Verde, which is also in Colorado, but a recent snow storm had the road completely closed), so it was cold. And snowy.
Our Top Tip: Definitely do not visit when visibility — and accessibility — is low.
What was Unforgettable: To hike any of the trails in the park, we had to borrow snowshoes from the visitor center, which was a new experience for both of us. But the most interesting part of the park was getting to finally catch a glimpse of the canyon and the river from the rim hike.
What Sucked: Most of the park was inaccessible due to winter conditions. Plus the weather was mostly unforgiving.
16. Arches National Park outside Moab, Utah
Quick Overview: We finally got to see, in person, the famed Delicate Arch that graces the license plates of Utahns across the state at Arches National Park. While you can get a clear view of it from some shorter trails, you have to hike quite a bit further to get close to the iconic arch. There are plenty of other great vistas in the park, but the overall size of the park was smaller than we expected. You can spend one day and check off everything on your must-see list.
When We Visited: We went to Arches in early March, and there was still snow on the tops of the rocks. During the day, the weather was sunny, cool, and pleasant, but as soon as the sun dipped below the mountains, it was very cold. Like 20-something-degrees cold.
Our Top Tip: Rent or bring a bike, and enjoy the park and its surrounding recreational areas on two wheels. Biking Moab was something we regret not being able to do.
What was Unforgettable: We really enjoyed the contrast…between the red rock and the blue sky, between the delicate formations and the history of their fortitude, between the warmth of the sun and the biting cold of its setting.
What Sucked: For us, this park is pretty overhyped. There are plenty of great views, but you could just as easily enjoy that part of the country — its look and feel — without being the third car at a roadside overlook in the park.
17. Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah
Quick Overview: We weren’t sure what to expect with Canyonlands because we hadn’t really heard much about it before venturing into the park. Honestly, we were absolutely blown away by the vast views and serene solitude we found. It was better than the Grand Canyon. I said it.
When We Visited: It was early March when we came through Moab, so the days were cool with below freezing temperatures at night. In fact, there was still snow on the ground at high elevations, but no actual snowfall or flurries.
Our Top Tip: Experience Canyonlands from above and below. We weren’t able to go down because of ice, but we saw trails and roads along the canyon floor.
What was Unforgettable: Driving and hiking along the rim gives you the unique perspective of looking down into deep ravines and out across the carved landscape. Get yourself to any rim view in the park and just take it in.
@tripofalifestyle We ranked EVERY National Park after visiting them all ourselves: tripofalifestyle.com/nplist — #utah #lifeelevated #nationalparks #grandcanyon #canyon ♬ original sound – Trip Of A Lifestyle
What Sucked: The park roads had recently been reopened for the season, so while we could drive the main drag, we couldn’t take many detours due to icy conditions. We also weren’t able to go down into any of the canyons where many trails lead.
18. Zion National Park next to Springdale, Utah
Quick Overview: Zion is such a popular destination that it actually runs out of parking within the park boundaries. Wild. On extremely busy days, you have to park within the town of Springdale and take the free shuttle into the park. Don’t worry; the shuttle goes to all the hot spots. We got lucky and were able to drive in and park wherever we wanted throughout our visit.
When We Visited: It was early March when we visited Zion, and the weather was cool but comfortable (definitely sweater weather in the shade, which is a lot of the park). There were parts of the park still closed due to ice.
Our Top Tip: Despite the high number of visitors, the infrastructure seemed somewhat lacking. Like, we hiked the (very “basic”) Canyon Overlook Trail which required you to take some sketchy bridges and walk along sheer cliff edges, and there wasn’t much to hold onto (handrails were inconsistently available, and the bridge wasn’t super stable). Don’t push yourself to do things that feel unsafe here because there’s plenty to enjoy without risking your life for the ‘gram.
What was Unforgettable: The feeling of being so small next to the towering rock faces in the park. They’re less intimidating than granite, probably because the rock is red instead of dark gray, but looking up and seeing the dots of trees on top of the cliffs really gives you a different perspective on your human life here on Earth.
What Sucked: This park was pretty crowded, even in the off season. I’m not sure going later in the season when more of the park had melted would have been better unless we planned to hike further out into the backcountry.
19. Pinnacles National Park by Soledad, California
Quick Overview: Every time we told someone about this park, no one knew what it was or where it was. To be fair, it’s not really near anything — it’s inland between San Francisco and Malibu. It’s a great place to wander, but check to make sure you can actually get to some of the cave areas (rain, rock slides, and bat colonies can cause closures).
When We Visited: When the sun was out, the weather was pretty perfect. However, it rained both days that we tried to visit, cutting our exploration short since the park is farther than we’d like from a Planet Fitness.
Our Top Tip: There’s not much of a visitor center, but you should still stop by for a map (and the latest on cave closures) so you can plan the hikes you want to take. There are a lot of maintained trails, and it’s worth just getting wandering among the giant boulders. Don’t forget a flashlight!
What was Unforgettable: The trails around and through Bear Gulch Cave will have you sneaking between small spaces and marveling at how the cave looks from different perspectives inside and out.
What Sucked: Pinnacles is pretty out of the way with zero cell service or wifi for at least an hour outside the park. It was cool, but kind of a one-day adventure if you ask us.
20. Great Basin National Park in the Middle of Nowhere, Nevada
Quick Overview: You have two options to get to Great Basin — you can drive about four hours up from Las Vegas or you can drive about six hours from Reno. We wanted to cover more ground since our only experiences in Nevada center on Las Vegas. That was a mistake. There is pretty much nothing in the entire state of Nevada except those two cities, a bunch of casinos, and apparently this park.
When We Visited: Here’s what was unfortunate for us: It started snowing…and it didn’t stop. We were an hour from Great Basin when we stopped in the small town of Ely for a bite to eat. We stayed at the Carl’s Jr./Love’s Travel Stop/Casino hybrid all night because of the weather. It was mid-March.
Our Top Tip: Book the Grand Palace tour of the Lehman Caves. It was $11 per person when we did it, and the experience was a lot more intimate than the more grand caves in the park system. If we hadn’t booked this tour, we wouldn’t have been able to experience anything this park had to offer because there was zero visibility with the snow storm (which was forecasted to take several days to blow over).
What was Unforgettable: In the cave, our guide had a black light, and we were able to see the cave in a whole new…uh…light. Seeing color in what’s normally a dismal beige really stuck with us.
What Sucked: It really sucked that we didn’t get to see the rest of the park. We watched the park film, and it seems like a pretty cool place to visit when you can actually see the terrain go from a desert in the basin to an alpine forest as you make your way up Wheeler Peak Drive into the Snake Mountains.
Want to know more? On our National Parks page, you can browse a list of all the parks in this series (plus some more parks that were added after we took our original trip).You’ll also find info on the converted van we traveled in and how much it all cost.