When to go to the national parks of the Western USA

When to go to the national parks of the Western USA
By Stuart Thornton

Month-by-month

The seasons greatly affect travel in the national parks of the western United States. During the summer months between May and September, temperatures in desert parks like Death Valley can soar to 110 degrees and higher. These months are also the busiest times for visitors to national parks like Yosemite National Park and Crater Lake National Park.

Meanwhile, winter snowfall in mountainous parks (Yosemite National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park) results in facility closures and limited access, particularly between November and March. Destinations including Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows and Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road are closed during this time of year.

January and February are ideal times to visit Death Valley National Park. Daytime temperatures in the park hover around 60 degrees (15.5 Celsius), while nighttime brings cool but not freezing temperatures around 40 degrees (4.5 Celsius). February is when the desert’s many wildflowers begin to bloom, painting the park with colour.

Nearby Joshua Tree National Park is prime for visiting in March due to that month’s mild temperatures and wildflower displays. It’s also the best time to go hiking or rock climbing on the park’s granite rock formations.

With snow on the peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains melting, April and May is when Yosemite’s famed waterfalls roar to life. Though the park’s higher elevation areas will still be closed, visitors are treated to Yosemite Falls and Vernal Falls at their grandest along with blooming wildflowers and smaller crowds.

Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the highest national parks in the country and ranges from 7,680 feet (2,396 metres) to 14,259 feet (4,346 metres) in elevation. The park’s popular Trail Ridge Road, which gives visitors access to alpine tundra, is only open from June to September. Likewise, the summer months of July and August are the best times to visit Olympic National Park due to less rainfall in the region and the park offering more activities to the public.

September and October are prime visiting times for Grand Canyon National Park, when there’s both cooler temperatures and smaller crowds. The autumn months also offer a window to visit rugged Channel Islands National Park off the coast of California. Before the winter rains come, the islands are warm and dry.

November and December bring cooler temperatures out west and snow at high elevations. For the unique experience of ice skating in a national park, head to Yosemite to glide around on the Curry Village Ice Skating Rink. Or, wait until mid-December to enjoy skiing or tubing at Yosemite’s Badger Pass Ski Area.

Festivals and events

In the summer months, western US national parks have a full schedule of guided hikes, talks, campfire presentations and more. The offseason find the parks hosting more specialised annual festivals and events meant to draw people into the parks during less busy times.

Spanning six sessions in January, Chef’s Holidays brings world-renowned chefs to Yosemite National Park’s Majestic Yosemite Hotel for cooking demos and multi-course meals. In February, Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park puts on a Winterfest, where visitors can explore the park in moonlight while being warmed up by hot chocolate and hot cider.

At the height of summer, Grand Canyon National Park throws the Grand Canyon Star Party in June, one of the best times of the year to see the night sky in all of its glory. Throughout the park, volunteer astronomers set up telescopes to bring stars, planets, and more into focus for visitors.

Celebrate the old, wild west at the Death Valley 49ers Encampment and Western Music Festival at Death Valley National Park in early November. Expect music, scenic horseback rides, blacksmithing, and gold panning at Furnace Creek inside the park.

Step back in time for the holiday season at Yosemite National Park’s Bracebridge Dinner, which has been going on since 1928. The December festivities in The Majestic Yosemite Hotel are meant to evoke Christmas Day in England in 1718 with song and a seven-course feast.

When to go to the national parks of the Western USA

By Stuart Thornton

Stuart is a California-based travel writer and guidebook author. His books include Moon California Road Trip, Moon Coastal California and the forthcoming Moon Northern California Road Trips. For more about Stuart and his books, visit his website.

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