How to Navigate a National Park Visit During the Holidays

I am not an expert on travel or national parks by any means, but having traveled around the holidays for the last 4 years, I wanted to share an observation that we made. That is, the days before the major holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, the parks are very sparse. Like ‘everyone is busy getting ready for the holidays so no one has time to visit the national parks’ kind of sparse. I remember we walked the popular Rim Trail at Grand Canyon National Park and saw only a handful of people for the whole 1.3 mile stretch of our hike. To have such an awe-inspiring place like the Grand Canyon to yourself and to be able to feel so connected with nature was an incredible experience. We always assumed the national parks were crowded because, well, it’s the holidays, but we never knew there was this magical time before the actual day of the holiday that leaves the parks so free from crowds and ready for peaceful exploration.

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Grand Canyon view from the Rim Trail

The same happened in Death Valley National Park the week before Christmas, we explored large areas of the park in solitude with my requisite breathing space during what is considered their peak season (Death Valley part 1, Death Valley part 2, Death Valley part 3, Death Valley part 4). Easy parking, no lines, and people were just very relaxed and mellow. Breathing space is necessary for me to be able to get my “one with nature feeling.” You know, when you can take that deep breath from the depths of your soul and know that everything is right with the world and experience complete satisfaction knowing you are right where you are supposed to be. People have their own ways of describing this feeling, but you know what I mean, right? That’s why we keep coming back.

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Death Valley, popular Salt Creek boardwalk

Although the days leading up to the holiday were truly special, both of these places completely changed the day after the holiday. On Thanksgiving day or Christmas day you could sense that more people were arriving at the park, but it still felt pretty relaxed. The day after the holiday is when it no longer felt like the same place anymore. At the Grand Canyon on the day after Thanksgiving, we were planning on walking the Rim Trail one more time before we left, but just looking at the parking situation and the sheer number of people, we decided against it and drove out of the park passing by the masses of people at the shuttle stops and the long line of cars that were waiting to enter the park. Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, any national park really, will always be a special place no matter when you visit, but the difference we observed from one day to another was an eye-opener for us. In Death Valley we left the park again on the day after the holiday, Christmas, and for the first time on the trip saw many tour buses, all coming into the park. Such a difference a day makes.

We’ve observed this same pattern in California state parks during Thanksgiving and ski resorts in Lake Tahoe during Christmas as well. This pre-holiday time, the days right up until the holiday is a great time to travel and you can get great deals on lodging (except for most National Park lodges, they are too popular). One thing you do have to keep in mind when traveling this time of year is the weather. Although we’ve lucked out with our trips (except for the winds at Red Rock State Park!), weather is a factor that can’t be controlled and unfortunately, the chances for inclement weather is higher this time of year. Having the proper gear and/or vehicle definitely helps here, even if it’s just to give you peace of mind. Some regions like the desert seem to fare better, so researching predicted weather patterns/average temperatures is a good idea when picking a park to visit.

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Mesquite Springs campground, Death Valley (12/23/15)

Why travel during the holidays?

I understand that some people travel during the holidays because work/school allows you to have time off, but if you can somehow manage to take the days off before Thanksgiving or Christmas, you can experience the parks during the calm before the storm, the golden hour if you will. During Thanksgiving week (for the Grand Canyon trip), we took Mon, Tues and Wed off from work/school and had a whole week to travel thanks to the 2 additional holiday days. To be able to get an entire week of traveling from just taking 3 days off was a big pro in our book. Also, the days we took off have historically been “slow” days when work/school is winding down for the holidays (at least for us), so it made it that much easier to leave. We used the front end of the trip to explore the park, then celebrated Thanksgiving with a dinner at the El Tovar Lodge, and finally used the tail end of the trip to make our way home with a couple of more stops.

I loved celebrating the holidays in national parks not only because of the special time before the holiday, but both the Grand Canyon and Death Valley had lodges that served a special holiday dinner which we took full advantage of. Yes, it was a splurge, but one that was well worth the price. The food was amazing served by exceptional staff who made us feel very special. For us, the dinners at El Tovar Lodge at the Grand Canyon and Furnace Creek Inn at Death Valley was a highlight, and elevated the trips to holiday trip status. I do have to add though that even though we thoroughly enjoyed our meals at the lodge, we equally loved our Thanksgiving meal at Salt Point State Park that we prepared ourselves at our campsite. Bottom line for a good holiday meal – good food, good company…and nature!

One of my worries when we first traveled during the holidays was that we would miss out on all the family get togethers and holiday celebrations, but our families have been very understanding about scheduling get together times and we make it a priority to spend time with people before and after the trips. We celebrated and enjoyed the heck out of Christmas up until the day before we left on our Death Valley trip, and the trip itself became the best Christmas gift we ever gave ourselves, filled with memories that will last a lifetime and experiences that have brought us closer as a family.

Why am I writing about traveling during the holidays now?

Just to clarify, although the parks were sparse, they were not empty by any means. You still needed a reservation for lodging inside the national parks which are hard to come by. If you are even considering going to a national park during the Thanksgiving holiday, you can start making campground reservations now (it is 6 months ahead, recreation.gov). Making a hotel reservation now would make it that much easier to get the room that you want as well. The good thing about many of the hotels is that you can cancel your reservations for a full refund up until pretty close to the day of your reservation (definitely check this though since all hotels are different). So, even if your plans change or if you just change your mind, you can always cancel. With campgrounds there is a small cancellation fee ($10), so it’s not going to break the bank if you have to cancel. It is better to put something on the books now, otherwise it just becomes harder to get a reservation and eventually the possibilities will be gone.

This last section is just for those of you who may need a starting point to get you on your way to planning a fabulous holiday trip. I know it seems daunting to make plans so far ahead, but if enjoying a national park during the Thanksgiving holiday might be something you want to do, just follow the points below to get you on your way.

1. Pick a national park that you’ve been dying to visit (look at the Find a park index on the National Park Service website)
– Make sure the park is open at that time of year
– Determine if the national park has a lodge which prepares special holiday meals if that is important to you (NPS and Google is your friend)

Here are a few parks that have lodges that serve special holiday meals:
Grand Canyon – El Tovar Lodge
Death Valley – Furnace Creek Inn
Yosemite – The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly Ahwahnee Lodge), Big Trees Lodge (formerly Wawona Hotel)
Sequoia – Wuksachi Lodge
Zion – Zion Lodge

2. Look up the predicted weather patterns and average temperatures of that region (is it within your comfort level?) AccuWeather has weather predictions that go out that far.
3. Think about travel logistics (driving or having to fly), Google maps is a great tool to help determine drive times.
4. Decide on the number of days for your visit factoring in travel days/time (hopefully you can use the days before Thanksgiving to visit your park)
– trip itinerary could include 2-3 days of exploring the national park before Thanksgiving, having a special holiday meal at the lodge on Thanksgiving, leaving the park the day after and returning home or exploring somewhere else.
5. Choose your form of lodging (campground vs hotel/lodge), go to the Eating and Sleeping page of the NPS website for the specific park (use other travel sites such as expedia.com if you want to find other lodging)
6. Make reservations soon
7. Decide if you need to stay anywhere else on the way or on the way back (make reservations)
8. If something comes up later and you can’t make it OR you just changed your mind, no worries, just cancel.
9. Most Important: Have fun researching and dreaming up ways to enjoy your park visit.

 

 


6 thoughts on “How to Navigate a National Park Visit During the Holidays

  1. This is such an eye-opener; thank you so much for sharing! Love your line, “the best Christmas gift we gave ourselves.” I totally want to do this now, especially after hearing that the parks are less populated prior to the holidays. Completely agree about booking ahead (and canceling if need be). Been sad to miss out on some great campgrounds just by hemming and hawing too long.

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  2. I usually avoid traveling during holidays, but I will definitely give it a try before the actual holiday. Thank you for the tip. For a couple of years we spent New Years at Yosemite and because of the weather and everyone going to Tahoe for skiing and parties for New years it was very nice time to visit the park. We went to Yosemite one memorial day weekend and it was crazy busy. We brought our bikes along that way we used those to travel the valley floor instead of having to park at each different place. Thank you for sharing,

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    1. New Years in Yosemite sounds intriguing! I’m always looking for ways to visit the parks without the crowds so thank you for this tip as well. You were very smart about biking in Yosemite when it’s crowded, I personally think it’s the best way to see the valley. I just wish they would extend the bike trail westward (I have my fingers crossed), so we can see all of it without having to get in a car.

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