National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide Winter 2013-14

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Traveler's Essential Park Guide, Winter 2013, offers ideas for making the most out of a winter's adventure into the National Park System.

It was a (hopefully not) one of those once-in-a-lifetime visits to a far off national park, and I was flat on my back.

That, however, was not all bad at Virgin Islands National Park on the Caribbean island of St. John, where basking under the February sun on the sugar-sand beaches in between snorkeling adventures is de rigueur. Preferably with a cool drink in hand and a rattan mat beneath you.

Not 20 feet from my mat the placid turquoise waters of Salt Pond Bay on the island’s west end teemed with sergeant majors, blue tangs, iridescent green parrotfish, the occasional barracuda, and even sea turtles grazing the seabed’s grasses. Winter, with its heavy snows and sub-freezing temperatures, was a few thousand miles distant. Thankfully.

Such is the width, breadth, and even depth of the National Park System, where winter offers you warm climes with colorful fish as well as far-below-zero settings that will freeze your flesh if you’re not careful. But as I grabbed my mask, snorkel, and fins, Old Faithful at 20-below-zero in Yellowstone National Park was the last thing on my mind. Not that a winter visit to the geyser’s apron is not also a once-in-a-lifetime experience, for it truly is.

And that’s the beauty and wonder of the National Park System. It extends from the palm-tree-lined beaches of Ofu Island at National Park of American Samoa far off in the Pacific, north to Noatuk National Preserve in Alaska, south to Big Bend National Park in Texas, and even farther south, and east, to Buck Island Reef National Monument just a boat ride from Virgin Islands National Park.

If you start categorizing visits to these far-flung locales as once-in-a-lifetime journeys, well, you’ll need a lot of lifetimes to explore them all. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take them one park at a time and see how many you’ve crossed off your list years down the road. And winter can be a perfect time to explore some of these parks.

Timing your visits to fall in the months between November and April does go against our traditional vacation cycles. But the wintry season in the parks shouldn’t be discounted. Benefits are many, whether you are enjoying the warm waters of the Caribbean, measuring yourself against the stamina-testing cold of the northern Rockies, or watching wildlife in the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States in Everglades National Park. You might find yourself struggling to get distance on your golf shot at Furnace Creek in the middle of Death Valley National Park, where winter is the season to visit if you really don’t want to test yourself in 100+-degree temperatures that rule there in summer.

Or you might visit Indiana and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan to help boil down maple syrup, or explore the “ice caves” in Wisconsin at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore one lake over, on the shores of Superior.

The reach of the park system can lead you into major cities, such as Boston, which can be nasty in winter with heavy dumps of wet snow, yet also offer warm, and fascinating, retreats into such places as Faneuil Hall where the kernels of American independence were cultivated. And it extends to the mid-winter warmth found across the nation in Joshua Tree National Park in southern California, where the less-than-blazing temperatures at this time of year lure climbers to the park’s rock gardens and hikers searching for Mojave Desert solitude.

A winter journey into the National Park System doesn’t lack for wonder, or beauty, or insights into the nation’s history or cultures. In the coming days we’ll offer suggestions on where you might want to find yourself. We’ll also explore, through Jane Schneider's cover story, the world of park artists, those hardy, talented souls who often take easel and palette into the parks to capture their beauty. Some of that beauty is also splayed across pages 12-17 in a collage of photographs capturing the season in some of its moods.

The takeaway message of our winter travel guide to the parks, of course, is that there is no down season in the National Park System, only seasons that might require a change of clothes.