Which are the best national parks to visit in December? In this guide, we list 10 beautiful national parks in the USA. Whether you are planning a family getaway during winter break or a vacation before the holiday season rolls around, we have lots of great ideas for you. Go hiking in Utah, gaze across the Grand Canyon, or go snorkeling and sip tropical drinks while sitting on a white, sandy beach. Which one(s) will you choose?
About this National Park Series
This article is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year. More popular parks, like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, may show up in as many as four of these articles, but lesser known parks like Gates of the Arctic may only show up once.
These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and our personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, we picked out what we think are the optimal times to visit each park.
For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out our Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide has graphs that list each park and the optimal time to plan your visit. And at the end of this article, we have links to the other articles in our Best National Parks by Month series.
Visiting the National Parks in December
December is a unique month to visit the national parks. The month starts out quiet. Many people are shopping, decorating, and getting ready for the upcoming holidays at the end of the month. This makes early December a very quiet time to visit the national parks.
The week between Christmas and New Year’s is a very popular time for people to travel and the national parks get a big spike in visitors. It’s one of the biggest travel weeks of the year. It’s also quite expensive, and during this week, flight costs and hotels dramatically increase, and it can be considerably more expensive to travel the last week of December than the first week of December.
If you have flexibility for your travel dates, it’s best to plan your trip for early December, or wait until January.
Another thing to note is that in December, the days are the shortest of the year. In some places you may have less than 8 hours of daylight. If you are planning long day trips or long, busy days in the national parks, keep in mind that by 4:30 pm, it could be getting dark, giving you very limited sightseeing time. We provide the sunrise and sunset times for each park, a very important detail to note this time of year.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The information we provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures, since these dates are constantly changing. Roads can close in the national parks at any time, so I recommend getting updates on the National Park Service website while planning your trip.
Best National Parks in December
1. Zion National Park
If you have been reading these guides, you might notice by now that we recommend Zion primarily for the shoulder-season months (late fall through very early spring). Zion National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the US to visit, so for the best experience, we tend to recommend it for the months when crowds are at their lowest.
In December, the weather is chilly in Zion, but there are several advantages to visiting the park at this time.
Early in the month, not only are crowds low, but you can also drive on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive in your own car. For most of the year, private vehicles are not permitted on this road. December, January, and February are the three months that you can drive on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (with the exception of the time between Christmas and New Year’s).
Since visitation is low, scoring a permit to hike Angels Landing is also a lot easier.
For those of you who want to visit the park when it is the least crowded, early to mid-December is a great pick, as is January.
Why Visit Zion in December: To avoid the crowds. Early December is one of the quietest times to visit the park in terms of visitation (but crowds skyrocket between Christmas and New Year’s). You can even drive your car on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, since the park shuttle does not operate at this time (except for the week between Christmas and New Year’s).
Weather: The average high is 53°F (11°C) and the average low is 30°F (1°C), so Zion is chilly in December. But during periods of unusually warm weather, it can get into the 70’s.
Sunrise and Sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 5:15 pm.
Zion Narrows | Best National Parks in December
Trail to Angels Landing
Top Experiences: Hike Angels Landing, Observation Point, Hidden Canyon, Riverside Trail, Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, and Canyon Overlook. One of the best experiences in the park is hiking the Zion Narrows.
Ultimate Adventure: In December, you can hike the Zion Narrows from the bottom-up, just be aware that water temperatures are going to be very cold at this time.
How Much Time Do You Need? If you like hiking, plan to spend at least 2 to 3 days in Zion National Park. You can do three big hikes (one each morning) or use two of the days for a multi-day backpacking adventure. This also gives you time to explore Kolob Canyons at the northern section of the park.
2. Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park is one of the largest national parks in the contiguous United States. It’s third on the list, coming in behind Death Valley and Yellowstone. It’s also the most visited park in Florida, since it is easy to get to and easy to visit.
In just one day, you can hike a few short trails, spot manatees and crocodiles, and go on an airboat ride.
If you plan to road trip through the Florida Keys, one day is all you need to add on Everglades National Park. You can also add on Biscayne and Dry Tortugas National Parks (also mentioned in this guide), for an epic road trip.
Why Visit the Everglades in December: December is a great time to visit Everglades National Park because the weather is just about perfect. Mosquitoes can still be present this time of year, so pack some insect repellent, but mosquito levels are much lower than they are in late summer through fall. Just be aware that December is one of the busiest months to visit Everglades National Park.
Weather: The average high temperature is 80°F (27°C) and the average low is 59°F (15°C). December is one of the driest months of the year.
Sunrise and Sunset: Sunrise is at 7 am and sunset is at 5:30 pm.
Everglades National Park | Best National Parks in December
Top Experiences: Walk the Anhinga Trail, visit the Flamingo Visitor Center and see if you can spot crocodiles or manatees, walk the boardwalk trail at Mahogany Hammock, take a kayaking tour, and bike through Shark Valley.
How Much Time Do You Need? One day is all you need to visit the highlights of Everglades National Park.
Plan Your Visit
3. Biscayne National Park
Biscayne National Park protects one of the largest reef systems in the world.
This park is 95% water, so the best way to explore it is by boat, which makes it very unique from many of the other US national parks. If you love snorkeling, scuba diving, swimming, or simply cruising around by boat, you will love this underrated gem of park.
We visited Biscayne National Park in early December. We had great weather, with the high temperature in the mid-70’s. It was a brilliantly sunny day with calm seas.
In December, mosquitoes are still out and about. While paddle boarding in Jones Lagoon, I got torn up by mosquitoes. We learned our lesson and used lots of repellent for the rest of our visit, but mosquitoes were also pretty bad on Elliott Key and Boca Chita Key. Even so, the mosquitoes can be worse in the summer and fall. The best time to go, to avoid mosquitoes, is February.
Why Visit Biscayne in December: December is a great time to visit Biscayne National Park because the weather is fantastic and the water is warm. Just be aware that brief periods of windy conditions can create swells of water, which could cancel boat tours. And bring your insect repellent!
Weather: The average high is 76°F (24°C) and the average low is 65°F (18°C). Rainfall is low and December is the driest month of the year. The water temperature is 79°F (26°C).
Sunrise & Sunset: Sunrise is at 7 am and sunset is at 5:30 pm.
Biscayne National Park | Best National Parks in December
Boca Chita Lighthouse
Top Experiences: Visit Boca Chita Key, go kayaking or paddle boarding in Jones Lagoon, snorkel or scuba dive along the Maritime Heritage Trail, visit Elliott Key, go snorkeling at Fowey Rocks Lighthouse, and cruise through Stiltsville.
How Much Time Do You Need? Just one day is all you need to take a boat tour of Biscayne and see the highlights. With more time, you can go camping or take several different tours of the park.
Plan Your Visit
4. Dry Tortugas National Park
The Dry Tortugas are the last group of islands of the Florida Keys, sitting 70 miles west of Key West. Most of the park is water, but it is also home to coral reefs, bird nesting grounds, and historic Fort Jefferson.
Most people visit this national park as a day trip, getting here either by ferry or seaplane. Once here, tour Fort Jefferson and walk the old fort walls, go snorkeling or swimming, and take a stroll on an empty beach. With more time, you can go camping and kayak out to Loggerhead Key.
We visited Dry Tortugas National Park in early December. This is a great time of year to visit Key West and the Dry Tortugas. Key West is decorated for Christmas, the weather is pretty much perfect, and crowds are low, at least early in the month. If you are looking for an early December getaway, a Key West + Dry Tortugas combo is great trip, for just a few days or even a full week.
Why Visit Dry Tortugas in December: In December, Bush Key is open. This small key sits next to Garden Key and it is closed from February through September for bird nesting season. This is a beautiful place to go on a stroll and one of our favorite experiences at Dry Tortugas, so it’s worth planning your visit for a time when this key is open.
Weather: In December, the average high is 76°F (24°C) and the average low is 67°F (19°C). During the winter months, brief periods of windy conditions can create large swells of water, which can cancel the ferry and make snorkeling difficult.
Sunrise and Sunset: Sunrise is at 7:10 am and sunset is at 5:45 pm.
For Jefferson | Best National Parks in December
Fort Jefferson Moat Wall
View from Bush Key | Best National Parks in December
Top Experiences: Explore Fort Jefferson, go snorkeling or swimming, and take a stroll on Bush Key.
Ultimate Adventure: For the ultimate adventure, visit Loggerhead Key. To get here, you will kayak 3 miles one-way from Garden Key. In order to do this, you will need to spend two days at the park, camping overnight on Garden Key.
How Much Time Do You Need? A half to a full day is all you need to visit Dry Tortugas National Park. It’s possible to take an early flight from Key West, spend the morning at Dry Tortugas National Park, and be back in Key West for a late lunch.
5. Death Valley National Park
Death Valley…just the name inspires a sense of wonder and mystery. With barren salt flats, towering mountains, mysterious sailing stones, shifting sand dunes, rainbow-colored mountains, and canyons to explore, there is a lot to do here.
Drive out to Racetrack Playa and learn how the boulders slide across the desert landscape. Stand on the lowest point of the United States at Badwater Basin. Hike on hills of borax, explore twisting canyons, visit a desert oasis, and slide down the sand dunes.
Death Valley National Park is the cover photo for this guide.
We visited Death Valley in the week between Christmas and New Year’s. The days are very short, which is a disadvantage, but the weather is beautiful. During the daytime, it was in the mid-60’s and the nights were cool, but not freezing.
Death Valley can be visited on a day trip from Las Vegas, but for the best experience, spend at least two days here, because there are a lot of great things to do.
Why Visit Death Valley in December: In December, the daytime temperatures are perfect for hiking and exploring. The days are short, so you will have to plan your time well, especially if you plan to visit Death Valley on a day trip from Las Vegas.
Weather: In December, the average high is 66°F (19°C) and the average low is 41°F (5°C). Rainfall is extremely low.
Sunrise and Sunset: Sunrise is at 6:50 am and sunset is at 4:30 pm. The days are short, so get an early start here to maximize your time.
Zabriskie Point | Best National Parks in December
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes | Best National Parks in December
Badwater Basin | Best National Parks in December
Top Experiences: Visit Zabriskie Point, drive Artist’s Drive, visit Badwater Basin, enjoy the view from Dante’s View, visit Ubehebe Crater, hike to Telescope Peak, slide down the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, and view the night sky.
Ultimate Adventure: For the ultimate adventure, drive out to Racetrack Playa to see the sailing stones.
Death Valley Itinerary: Ideally, plan on spending at least two days in Death Valley. With this time, you can visit the highlights and drive out to Racetrack Playa. But if you have less time, Death Valley makes a great day trip from Las Vegas.
6. Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon National Park is wonderful in December. Yes, it is cold. And yes, it can snow, but that makes it even more beautiful.
We have been to the Grand Canyon many times, at different times of the year, but one of my favorite experiences in this park was watching the sunrise on Christmas morning.
Getting up early to watch the sunrise may not sound like the way you want to spend your Christmas morning, but on December 25 in the Grand Canyon, the sun does not rise until 7:30 am. We spent several wonderful hours visiting the South Rim viewpoints, and had most of them all to ourselves. It is one of our most memorable Christmas mornings.
December is also a great time to go hiking. The day before, on Christmas Eve, Tyler and I hiked the South Kaibab Trail to the Colorado River and hiked back up the Bright Angel Trail (the rim to river to rim hike). When we started the hike, it was below freezing on the South Rim, but by the time we made it to the Colorado River, Tyler was hiking in a T-shirt.
The Grand Canyon is a magical place to visit all year long, but around the winter holiday season, it becomes even more special.
Why Visit the Grand Canyon in December: Crowds are low early in the month and then really pick up between Christmas and New Year’s. The Grand Canyon makes a great winter break destination and you can combine it with Las Vegas or destinations in Arizona, such as Horseshoe Bend or Monument Valley.
Weather: The average high is only 43°F (6°C) and the average low is 18°F (-8°C). Snow is also a possibility this time of year. If you hike below the rim, the temperature gets considerably warmer the closer you get to the Colorado River.
Sunrise and Sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5:10 pm.
Powell Point on Christmas morning (and yes, Tim is wearing a Santa hat).
South Kaibab Trail
Top Experiences: Visit the South Rim viewpoints, watch the sunset, hike below the rim on the Bright Angel or South Kaibab Trail, take a flightseeing tour, visit the North Rim.
Ultimate Adventure: In the winter, hike the South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails as one big loop. This is a big day hike and only those who are very fit with lots of hiking experience should attempt it.
How Much Time Do You Need? We recommend spending two to three days on the South Rim, to visit the highlights. Three days gives you enough time to visit the best overlooks on the South Rim, go on a helicopter ride, and spend some time hiking below the rim.
7. Virgin Islands National Park
Virgin Islands National Park is located in the US Virgin Islands. If you want a warm, beach destination, this is our top pick for December. Wouldn’t it be nice to spend winter break snorkeling, swimming, and relaxing on one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean?
This national park is home to some of the most beautiful beaches we have seen. Spend some time in gorgeous Trunk Bay, sip tropical drinks on Honeymoon Beach, and see if you can spot sea turtles on Maho Beach. For those who want to be more active, there are plenty of hiking trails to choose from and places to go kayaking.
Why Visit the Virgin Islands in December: The weather is wonderful this time of year and for those who are looking for a beach destination, this is our top pick for December. Just be aware that December is one of the busiest months to visit Virgin Islands National Park.
Weather: In December, the average high is 85°F (30°C) and the average low is 75°F (24°C). Rainfall averages 3 inches (75mm). The winter months are the driest time to visit the Virgin Islands, and rainfall continues to decrease through March.
Sunrise and Sunset: Sunrise is at 6:40 am and sunset is at 5:45 pm.
Caneel Bay | Best National Parks in December
Hawksnest Beach | Best National Parks in December
Trunk Bay | Best National Parks in December
Location: US Virgin Islands
Top Experiences: Visit Trunk Bay and snorkel the underwater trail, visit Maho Beach, walk the Leinster Bay Trail and snorkel in Waterlemon Bay, visit the overlooks on North Shore Road, and visit beaches along the north shore of St. John.
How Much Time Do You Need? Ideally, plan on spending three days in Virgin Islands National Park. This gives you enough time to visit the highlights, spend some time at several different beaches, and hike a trail or two.
8. Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park is full of many wonderful surprises. With an amazing scenic drive, hiking trails that rival those in Zion, rugged, remote areas to explore by 4×4, short, easy slot canyons to hike, and historical landmarks, this is one of our favorite national parks.
Most people drive right through the heart of the park, visiting the sights along Highway 24, which are nice. But those who venture farther into the park, either on the hiking trails or the backcountry roads, are rewarded with incredible views of remote, rugged landscapes.
Our first visit to Capitol Reef was at the end of December. It snowed the night before our visit and this park was beautiful with a light cover of snow. If you don’t like cold temperatures, you might want to avoid this park (and visit Virgin Islands or Dry Tortugas instead), but this is a great time to road trip through Utah’s Mighty 5 and have lower crowds…just pack your hat and gloves.
Why Visit Capitol Reef in December: Crowds are low since the weather is so cool. Capitol Reef is a great place to add onto a Utah road trip throughout the month of December.
Weather: In December, the average high is 40°F (5°C) and the average low is 21°F (1°C). There is the chance that light snow can fall in December.
Sunrise & Sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5 pm.
Hickman Bridge in December
Scenic Drive | Best National Parks in December
Capitol Reef in December
Top Experiences: Drive the 16-mile round-trip drive along Scenic Drive, drive Capitol Gorge Road, hike to Hickman Bridge, and watch the sunset from Sunset Point, hike to Cassidy Arch, and Loop the Fold.
Ultimate Adventure: For the ultimate adventure, drive the Cathedral Valley Loop. This rugged, remote district of Capitol Reef National Park is one of the best backcountry experiences in the national parks if you like exploring by 4WD.
How Much Time Do You Need? Plan on spending two to three days in Capitol Reef. This gives you enough time to explore and hike the trails in the core of the park (along Scenic Drive and Highway 24) and venture into the backcountry, either in Cathedral Valley or by looping the fold.
9. Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is made of up several districts. Island in the Sky, which is located west of Moab, is the most popular district to visit. This is the place to see Mesa Arch, hike to Upheaval Dome, and enjoy the many viewpoints with sweeping views from the top of the Island in the Sky mesa.
The Needles is an awesome place to go hiking. Located farther away from Moab than Island in the Sky, fewer people venture here. But with zebra-striped sandstone spires and a cool slot canyon to explore, this is a unique, less crowded area of the park to visit.
We have visited Canyonlands National Park several times and on one of these visits, we were here at the end of December. It snowed during our visit, making this beautiful national park even more spectacular. It was cold, so we needed winter coats, hats, and gloves, but that didn’t take away from the experience, and the snow made it even more special.
Why Visit Canyonlands in December: If you have plans to visit Arches National Park (mentioned next), Canyonlands is well worth adding on to your visit. It will be colder here, due to its higher elevation, but this is a beautiful park to see with a dusting of snow. For warmer temperatures, spend your time at the Needles District, rather than Island in the Sky (it will be about 5 degrees warmer at the Needles than Island in the Sky).
Weather: The average high is 37°F (3°C) and the average low is 23°F (-5°C) at Island in the Sky. Precipitation is low and typically falls as snow. Even though Canyonlands sits next to Arches National Park, it is at a higher elevation, so the temperatures are a bit lower here.
Sunrise & Sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5 pm.
The Needles District | Best National Parks in December
Grand View Point
Hiking the Gooseberry Trail in December
Top Experiences: Visit the overlooks on Island in the Sky, watch the sunrise at Mesa Arch, go hiking in The Needles, drive Shafer Canyon Road, and hike below the rim of the Island in the Sky mesa.
Ultimate Adventure: Drive or mountain bike the White Rim Road. This is a 100-mile unpaved road that makes a loop around the Island in the Sky mesa. It takes 2 to 3 days to do this drive. It can be done in the winter, but snow can close Shafer Canyon Road and cold temperatures will make camping uncomfortable for some people.
How Much Time Do You Need? Ideally, you need at least two full days in Canyonlands National Park. Spend one day in Island in the Sky and one day in the Needles. But even more time is better if you want to venture deeper into the park.
10. Arches National Park
Arches National Park, with its iconic arches and unique rock formations, is one of the most recognizable parks in the USA. Delicate Arch is the #1 landmark to see inside of the park, but lots of other wonderful adventures await.
Drive Scenic Drive for beautiful views of the park, gaze up at Balanced Rock, hike through Park Avenue, and photograph the Windows Arches and Turret Arch.
The best hike in the park is Devils Garden. You can keep the hike short and sweet, turning around at Landscape Arch. But for those who want to venture farther, you can see eight arches in just one hike.
We have visited Arches National Park twice in the week between Christmas and New Year’s. On our first visit, the high temperature got up into the 50’s and the park was relatively empty, but this was way back in 1997. During our more recent visit in 2018, it was colder and snowed a little bit, and crowds were higher than 1997, but not crazy. We were also here in November 2021, and November is another fantastic month to visit Arches National Park.
So, in December, you will need a hat and gloves, but you can keep your fingers crossed for an unusually warm day.
Why Visit Arches in December: For low crowds, at least early in the month. However, I think Arches and Canyonlands makes a great winter break destination, since these are fun parks to take the kids. If you have warmer than average days, that’s great, but to see the parks with a little bit of snow is magical around the holidays.
Weather: The average high is 42°F (5°C) and the average low is 24°F (-5°C). On warmer than average days, it can get into the 60’s. There is a chance a few inches of snow can fall in December.
Sunrise and Sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5 pm.
Double Arch | Best National Parks in December
Landscape Arch | Best National Parks in December
Delicate Arch through the Twisted Doughnut
Top Experiences: Hike to Delicate Arch, see Balanced Rock and the Fiery Furnace, visit Double Arch, Turret Arch, and Windows Arch, hike Park Avenue.
Ultimate Adventure: Hike the Devils Garden Trail. To reach Landscape Arch, one of the most iconic arches in the park, it is only 1.6 miles round trip. But for the ultimate adventure, continue past Landscape Arch to Double O Arch and Dark Angel and return on the Primitive Trail.
How Much Time Do You Need? One day in Arches is all you need to see the highlights, but it will be a very busy day and you will need to get started at sunrise, since the length of the day is so short in December. With two days, you can visit the park at a more leisurely pace or go off the beaten path.
Bonus! 5 More Parks to Visit in December
Joshua Tree National Park
Temperatures are mild in Joshua Tree National Park in December, with the average high coming in about 58°F (15°C). This is a great park to escape the cold, wintry conditions and makes a great add-on to a visit to Las Vegas, Death Valley, Palm Desert, or San Diego.
Yellowstone and Grand Teton
In December, if you want to explore a winter wonderland, you can combine Grand Teton and Yellowstone into one trip. Many of the park roads will be closed this time of year. In Yellowstone, you can get around by snowmobile and in Grand Teton, you can go cross-country skiing.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon did not make our December list since it is so cold this month. In December, the high temperature struggles to get above freezing, with the average high in the mid 30’s and the average low in the teens. Snowfall is likely.
If you don’t mind the cold weather and like the idea of seeing Bryce Canyon with a dusting of snow, December makes a great time to visit this park. It also completes the road trip to Utah’s Mighty 5, since the other four parks made our December list.
Mammoth Cave National Park
Mammoth Cave stays a constant 54°F all year, so weather makes very little impact on the experience here. December is a good month to visit this park since visitation is low.
December Road Trip Ideas
#1 The American Southwest
Spend 7 to 10 days road tripping through the American Southwest, visiting the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon (if you don’t mind the very cold temperatures here). This road trip also includes Sedona, Monument Valley, and Antelope Canyon. We have visited most of these spots in December. It can be chilly/cold, particularly in the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon, but some places warm up very nicely midday (such as Monument Valley).
#2 Florida Keys Road Trip
Escape the cold weather and road trip from Miami to Key West, visiting Everglades, Biscayne, and Dry Tortugas National Park. We did this in early December and it was a fun way to spend a week, stay warm, sip on tropical drinks, and visit the beach.
If you have any questions about the best national parks to visit in December, or if you want to share your favorite national parks to visit this month, let us know in the comment section below.
More Information about the US National Parks:
NATIONAL PARKS: In our Guide to the US National Parks, get the full list of national parks with important travel planning information, such as things to do in the parks and sample itineraries.
NATIONAL PARK ITINERARIES:For ideas on how to plan a national parks road trip, visit our National Parks Itinerary page. This has lots of road trip ideas and sample itineraries for many of the US national parks.
BEST US NATIONAL PARKS:Looking for your next big adventure? Read our post Best National Parks in the USA, where we narrow down the long list into 15 must-see parks.
MORE GREAT HIKES IN THE NATIONAL PARKS: From hikes to the tallest peaks to beautiful coast trails, read our Guide to the Best Day Hikes in the US National Parks. If you prefer to keep your hikes short and sweet, read our guide to the Best Short Hikes in the National Parks.
Best National Parks to Visit by Month:
JANUARY: Best National Parks to Visit in January
FEBRUARY: Best National Parks to Visit in February
MARCH: Best National Parks to Visit in March
APRIL: Best National Parks to Visit in April
MAY: Best National Parks to Visit in May
JUNE: Best National Parks to Visit in June
JULY: Best National Parks to Visit in July
AUGUST: Best National Parks to Visit in August
SEPTEMBER: Best National Parks to Visit in September
OCTOBER: Best National Parks to Visit in October
NOVEMBER: Best National Parks to Visit in November
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