Winter’s cooler weather may make you want to find a cozy nook and hibernate. But before you do, consider that many state parks get fewer visitors this season, and perhaps there’s time for both enjoying nature and a nap. You don’t have to be a hardcore outdoorsperson—even a little bit of adventure is enough for personal discovery. Whether snow camping, ice fishing, cross-country skiing, wildlife spotting, ice sailing, hiking, or snowshoeing are your jam, there’s room at these eight destinations in the West to shed the crowds and venture into the wild.
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
The milder temperatures are ideal for hiking among the more than 40,000 acres of vivid red Aztec sandstone outcrops of Valley of Fire State Park. Spring and fall draw the most visitors, and the summer heat can be too intense for a prolonged stay. Nevada’s first state park, Valley of Fire is most beautiful at sunset, when the stunning landscape glows red. Easier trails include Mouse’s Tank (where you can spy prehistoric petroglyphs) and White Domes (which include the namesake white sandstone rock formations). Bring water and a jacket for colder days.
Año Nuevo State Park, California
While Año Nuevo State Park is worth a visit in every season, winter is perhaps the most dramatic time. From mid-December through the end of March, it’s breeding season for up to 5,000 Northern elephant seals. Watch bull seals engage in battles for access to females, pregnant females come ashore to pup, mothers nurse their babies, and pups bask in the sun and learn to swim in intertidal zones. During this season, the only way visitors can view the elephant seals here is on daily docent-guided walks over 3-4 miles of varied terrain, including sand dunes. Reservations are strongly recommended.
Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park, California
The largest of the state parks at Lake Tahoe, Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park is 2,000 acres of dense pine, fir, aspen, and cedar forests set behind nearly 2 miles of lake frontage. It’s the only Tahoe-area park where camping in the snow (first-come/first-serve) is possible. Nordic events of the 1960 Winter Olympics were held here, and free snow trail maps are available at park entrance stations. The park grooms cross-country ski trails from 1 to 3 miles long for both beginner and experienced enthusiasts.
Wasatch Mountain State Park, Utah
Winter season at Wasatch Mountain State Park gives outdoor sports fans plenty to do. The 23,000-acre preserve played host to the 2002 Olympic Winter Games at Soldier Hollow, and the Olympic Legacy Foundation maintains biathlon courses, cross-country skiing trails, and a tubing hill. Don’t have the gear? You can rent cross-country skis, snowshoes, and fat tire bikes at the visitors center. Get an early start on the fun by staying the night in campsites (some with full hookups, some with power and water) or one of the two cabins that can house groups of up to six people.
Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona
Wake to see the Superstition Mountains from your front porch when you rent a camping cabin at Lost Dutchman State Park. The park is named after the fabled lost gold mine, and there are five one- to two-room cabins available, as well as 135 campground sites. Staying here gives you extra time to hike trails that lead into the Superstition Mountain Wilderness and surrounding Tonto National Forest. Visit during the monthly winter star parties (through March) to view the moon, planets, star clusters, and galaxies.
Cooney State Park, Montana
A popular spot in summer, 300-acre Cooney State Park gets warm Chinook winds in winter, making the season surprisingly mild. The park is known especially for great rainbow trout and walleye fishing year-round, and dedicated anglers camp at Cooney Reservoir for ice fishing. The park only takes walk-up reservations for its campsites during the winter months. Enjoy the views while cross-country skiing or snowshoeing on the trails that remain open. During the winter, snow drifts on the road may cause difficulty driving, so be sure to check road conditions before your journey.
Curt Gowdy State Park, Wyoming
The winter chill doesn’t keep visitors away from having fun at Curt Gowdy State Park, near Cheyenne. Fans of ice boating (boats modified to glide on thin blades across the ice) flock here, especially to Granite Reservoir, to race across the frozen water using windsurfing sails and masts to harness the wind. Once used only for walking, the park’s trails are available for a variety of winter activities like cross-country skiing, fat-tire biking, sledding, snowshoeing, and tubing. Stay cozy at night in one of four heated camping cabins (two of which are ADA accessible), with a queen-sized bed and two twin bunk beds in each.
Seminoe State Park, Wyoming
South of Casper, Seminoe State Park is considered by many Wyoming residents to be among the state’s treasures. Seminoe Reservoir is stocked on an annual basis (even in winter), drawing anglers throughout the year to catch ample numbers of brown trout, cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, and walleye. The 5,000-acre Morgan Creek Drainage, a forested area near the north end of the reservoir, is a winter range for elk and bighorn sheep—ideal for wildlife viewing. The park’s 89 campsites (for both tents and RVs) don’t require reservations in winter; fee kiosks are available at campground entrances.