9 Best National Parks to Visit in December

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Looking for the best national parks to visit in December?

Since we live in the Southwest, December is the perfect time to explore nearby National Parks. Some parks in the US turn into winter wonderlands, while others are finally bearable with cooler temps. Minus the holidays, you also get to enjoy the parks with fewer crowds.

best national parks to visit in december

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Last Updated: November 10, 2022


Before we get into it, we want to remind everyone to explore the parks responsibly using the 7 Leave no Trace Principles. Have a plan, stay on established trails, carry out anything you carry in, leave what you find, minimize campfire impact, respect wildlife, and be considerate of others.

About the National Park by month Series

To put together this list, we’ve combined our personal experiences and tips we gathered from locals and cross-referenced them with the weather, accessibility, local forums, seasonal attractions like fall foliage or wildflowers, and special events happening in the area. We also considered any unique adventures only offered at certain times of the year to find the most optimal months to visit each National Park. Phew! that was a lot!

It took me a whole week of research, but since I’m a maximizer, it was worth having a year-round calendar of adventures (publishing that soon!). Also, check out our complete list of all the national parks and national park units that include soon-to-be national parks.

We also chose to leave out the hardest-to-access national parks in this series.

National Parks By Month – Aug | Sep | Oct | Nov | Dec | Jan | Feb | Mar | Apr | May | Jun | Jul

Is December a Good Time to Visit National Parks?

Yes! Though summer is the most popular time to travel, and fall usually has the perfect temps, certain national parks are ideal for visiting in December.


Plan on visiting more than two national parks this year? Pick up an America the Beautiful annual pass to save money (entrance fees to each park are, on average, $30-35 per vehicle). Plus, you are helping support the Parks that always need funding.

19 Best National Parks to Visit in December

To Escape the Cold

1. Biscayne National Park, Florida

9700 SW 328th St, Homestead, FL 33033, map

Average Temperatures: 68°F / 62°F

Why Visit: The best weather in Biscayne National Park starts in December, which will make it busier, but the mild temperatures are worth it. Since 95% of the park is in the water, get ready to spend time in a boat or the water. Don’t forget to look out for manatees!

Best For / Top Activities: Swimming, Snorkeling, Fishing, Hiking

Don’t Miss:

To Do – Boca Chita Key, Fowey Rocks Lighthouse, Snorkeling, Jones LagoonWildlife – Sea Turtles, Manatees, Spiny Lobster, Snapper, GrouperHow many days do you need? 2-3

Pro Tip: 90% of visitors enter the park via boat, so plan accordingly!

See Related – 7 Remarkable Things to Do in Key West Florida

Biscayne National Parks in Florida

2. Everglades National Park, Florida

40001 State Hwy 9336, Homestead, FL 33034, map

Average Temperatures: 78°F / 60°F

Why Visit: December is the dry season in Everglades National Park. You get cooler temps, and you’ll find fewer mosquitos, and wildlife will be more active and abundant.

Best For / Top Activities: Boating, Camping, Kayaking, Bicycling, Fishing, Hiking, Tours

Don’t Miss:

To Do – Shark Valley, Anhinga Trail, Eco Pond, Snake Bight, Nine Mile PondWildlife – Alligators, Raccoons, Opossums, Bobcats, Gray Fox, Leopard Frogs, Roseate Spoonbill, ManateeHow many days do you need? 2-3

Pro Tip: Since visiting during the dry season is popular, make advanced reservations for camping, lodging, and tours.

See Related – 7 Fun Things to Do in Sarasota Florida

things to do in everglades national park

For the Cooler Temps

3. Death Valley National Park, California

36.4799715,-118.1707461, map

Average Temperatures: 65°F / 39°F

Why Visit: Maybe it’s because we get enough of the scorching heat in Vegas, but I will not touch Death Valley until winter. December is one of the best times to visit Death Valley, with warm temperatures during the day for hikes. At night, temperatures drop significantly, so pack layers. It’s the desert way.

Best For / Top Activities: Hikers, Backpackers, Scenic Drive, Photography

Don’t Miss:

To Do – Badwater Basin, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Zabriskie PointWildlife – Western Pipistrelle Bat, Desert Kangaroo Rat, Desert Cottontail, Coyote, Kit Fox, Badger, Bobcat, Mountain LionHow many days do you need? 1-3

Pro Tip: The park is enormous. We were surprised at how long it took to drive from one spot to the next. Give yourself plenty of travel time. Also, keep in mind that the days are shorter in December.

See Related – 15 Incredible Things to Do in Death Valley National Park

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley

4. Joshua Tree National Park, California

6554 Park Blvd, Joshua Tree, CA 92252, map

Average Temperatures: 61°F / 37°F

Why Visit: We love Joshua Tree in December for the climbing. For those who don’t climb, it’s still a great time to get photos of Joshua trees, rock piles, and epic sunsets. There isn’t as much to do in this park if you’re not into climbing, but it’s worth visiting at least once. When the temps drop at night, it’s perfect for sitting around the campfire if you are lucky enough to get a camping spot.

Best For / Top Activities: Hiking, Backpacking, Stargazing, Camping, Scenic Drives, Climbing

Don’t Miss:

To Do – Arch Rock, Cholla Cactus Garden, Halls of Horror, Skull RockWildlife – Bobcat, Mountain Lion, Coyote, Gray Fox, Desert Kit Fox, Black Bear, Bighorn Sheep, Desert CottontailHow many days do you need? 1 or 2-3 if you climb

Pro Tip: The park gets busier during the cooler seasons, so book your site early if you’re hoping to camp.

See Related – 11 Amazing Things to Do in Joshua Tree National Park

Belle Campground Joshua Tree

5. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

37.1879181,-86.1028107, map

Average Temperatures: 49°F / 38°F

Why Visit: Winter is the low season at Mammoth Cave, making December the best time to avoid crowds. The cave stays the same temperature year-round (54° F or 12 °C). You’ll get to explore the caves in smaller groups. It will be chilly if you plan on exploring any surface trails, but if you have the appropriate gear, you’ll be good to go.

Best For / Top Activities: Hiking, Bicycling, Cave Tours, Kayaking

Don’t Miss:

To Do – Mammoth Cave, Doyel Valley Overlook, Sunset Point, Green RiverWildlife – Bats, White-Tailed Deer, Coyote, Black BearHow many days do you need? 1-3

Local Tip: They offer fewer cave tours during the winter but don’t book up quickly like they do in the summer.

See Related – Complete National Parks List by State

6. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

2700 N Kinney Rd, Tucson, AZ 85743, map

Average Temperatures: 65°F / 39°F

Why Visit: Cool days make December one of the best times to explore Saguaro National Park. If you visit in early December, the crowds are manageable, but the park’s busiest time is between Christmas and New Year.

Best For / Top Activities: Hiking, Scenic Drive, Photography, Camping, Ranger Programs

Don’t Miss:

To Do – Valley View Overlook Trail, Cactus Forest Drive, Bajada Loop Drive, Signal Hill Trail, Desert MuseumWildlife – Bats, Bobcats, Javelina, Mountain Lions, Gray Fox, Coyotes, RingtailHow many days do you need? 1-3

Local Tip: The park has an East and West portion separated by the city (roughly 30-45 mins). When you plan your trip, take into account where each trail is.

See Related – 11 Beautiful Things to Do in Saguaro National Park

Saguaro Cactus in Sunset + 11 Beautiful Things to Do in Saguaro National Park Arizona

7. White Sands National Park, New Mexico

19955 US-70, Alamogordo, NM 88310, map

Average Temperatures: 57°F / 22°F

Why Visit: December is a great time to visit White Sands National Park since it’s a much quieter time of year. You can even camp under the stars but be prepared with cold-weather camping gear since temperatures are freezing at night.

Best For / Top Activities: Hiking, Bicycling, Backcountry Camping, Photography, Stargazing, Sledding

Don’t Miss:

To Do – Sledding, Dune Life Nature Trail, Alkali Flat Trail, Playa TrailWildlife – American Badger, Apache Pocket Mouse, Black-Tailed Jackrabbit, Bobcat, Coyote, Kit FoxHow many days do you need? 1-2

Local Tip: Keep your eye on trail markers when you’re hiking. It can get disorienting very quickly. We found our way back using the direction of the sun setting. It also helps to download an offline version of google maps of the area.

See Related – 5 Incredible Things to Do at White Sands National Park

Popular White Sands in New Mexico

For Winter Activities

8. Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

11999 CO-150, Mosca, CO 81146, map

Average Temperatures: 36°F / 12°F

Why Visit: We need to go back to see the great dunes covered in snow during the winter. The park completely transforms, and instead of sandboarding, you can sled or snowboard on the dunes. Snow typically falls once per week on the dunes and mountains in December.

Best For / Top Activities: Hiking, Sand Boarding, Off-Roading, Stargazing, Photography

Don’t Miss:

To Do – High Dune, Sand Boarding, Medano Creek, Zapata FallsWildlife – Mule Deer, Ord’s Kangaroo Rats, Black Bears, Abert’s Squirrels, Pronghorn, Pikas, ElkHow many days do you need? 1-3

Pro Tip: Even though it snows once a week, they clear the roads quickly. Plan your visits during the afternoon for the warmest weather.

See Related – 9 Things You Can’t Miss at Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park Sandboarding

9. Acadia National Park, Maine

25 Visitor Center Rd, Bar Harbor, ME 04609, map

Average Temperatures: 34°F / 14°F

Why Visit: If you love having a National Park to yourself, December is the time to go. The frigid weather keeps people away, but as long as you dress appropriately, it’s a fantastic time to explore. You also can enjoy winter activities like snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.

Best For / Top Activities: Scenic Drive, Hiking, Snowshoeing, Skiing, Snowmobiling

Don’t Miss:

To Do – Ocean Drive, Jordan Pond Road, Thunder Hole, Sand Beach, Beehive, Cadillac North Ridge TrailWildlife – Moose, Whitetail Deer, Beavers, Seals, Harbor PorpoisesHow many days do you need? 1-3

Pro Tip: Visitor Centers will be closed during the winter, but they do share visitor hours with the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce. Check what is open before visiting since the park is more limited.

See Related – 15 Breathtaking Things to Do in Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park Things to Do

Map of the Best National Parks to Visit in December

Want to See More NATIONAL Parks to Visit in December?

If you’re a national park lover like us and have done many of the above, here are some more ideas for National Parks to visit in December. While December may not be the most ideal month of the year to visit these parks, it’s still worthwhile.

Great Basin National Park, NevadaCrater Lake National Park, OregonMount Rainier National Park, WashingtonSleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, MichiganYosemite National Park, CaliforniaRocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Tips for Visiting the Best National Parks in December

Explore the parks responsibly using Leave no Trace principles. Stay on established trails, carry out anything you carry in, etc.Pick up the National Park Annual Pass if you plan on visiting multiple parks within the year. It saves you a lot of money.It’s always a good idea to pack layers wherever you go. Some parks are warm during the day and cool at night. Pay attention to the elevation change too! Some parks will be warm on the valley floor and cold at higher elevations.You may need a reservation. See national parks that now require reservations here. Always check the park’s site and Visitors Center for the most up-to-date information on closures.Remember that wildlife is wild. Be familiar with how to interact with animals and how much space you should have between you and them. Balcony House Tour, Mesa Verde National Park CO

What to Pack

How you will pack depends on which park you visit and the activities you plan, but here is a general guide on items we always try to pack.

Camera GearTravel BackpackCamping / Backpacking EquipmentNational Park Annual PassNational Park PassportLayers (The Best Travel Jackets)Solid Hiking Shoes

Wanna know what to wear at the airport? These are my airport outfits.

FAQs

Are national parks crowded in December?

December is one of the best times to visit a majority of National Parks because they are less crowded than in the summer, but a select few get busier if they’re unbearably hot in the summer.

What time of year is best to visit national parks?

September and October are generally the best times to visit since most parks are less crowded, but this depends on the region or specific activities like leaf-peeping. Plus, it’s usually cheaper, the weather is mild, and the animals are more active.

What national park is best to visit in December?

We just made a list of this! Check it out here.

What is the best national park to visit in the winter?

All the parks on this list are good for one reason or another, but our vote goes to Death Valley National Park for its diversity in the landscape and weather.

What is Zion like in December?

Cold and wet! Temperatures are typically 50-60°F during the day and well below freezing at night. Half of the annual precipitation in Zion falls between December and March.

How is Yellowstone in December?

Yellowstone in December is cold and snowy. The park also has limited access, which takes more planning.

What is Yosemite like in December?

The high country is closed for the winter, but you can still visit Yosemite Valley. It’s typically cold and snowy, but sunny and warmer days happen too.

Is Glacier park open in December?

Glacier National Park is open all year, but some trails and portions of the park are closed, including Going-to-the-Sun Road and Logan Pass.

How hot is Grand Canyon in December?

On the South Rim, the highs are usually around 45 degrees Fahrenheit, and the lows are about 18.

Recap of the 9 Best National Parks to Visit in December

December is a wonderful time to explore the National Parks. You get to take advantage of good weather, and most schools have started back up, so it will be a bit less crowded than in the height of summer. Here is the list of parks we recommend visiting.

Biscayne National ParkEverglades National ParkDeath Valley National ParkJoshua Tree National ParkMammoth Cave National ParkSaguaro National ParkWhite Sands National ParkGreat Sand Dunes National ParkAcadia National Park

Can you think of others that belong on this list of best national parks to visit in December? Which ones are we missing?

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