Few people think of visiting national parks during the winter months, and that's unfortunate for a variety of reasons. Not only does this season present an entirely different view of the parks than the one you normally experience during spring and summer, but lodging typically is less expensive, as the following offers demonstrate.
Mammoth Cave National Park
Since most visits to Kentucky's Mammoth Cave center on going underground, whether it's spring, summer, fall, or winter doesn't really matter. Now, the park does alter its tour schedule somewhat during the winter months in response to declining visitation, but there still are plenty of options. You can find the Mammoth Cave winter tour schedule at this page.
If you want to stay right in the park, the Mammoth Cave Hotel (http://foreverlodging.com/lodging.cfm?PropertyKey=71) is ready for you and stands literally steps from one of the cave's entrances. From November through February, though, the hotel is open only on Friday and Saturday nights. Rooms start at $89 per night. Within the hotel is the Travertine Restaurant as well as the Crystal Lake Coffee Shop and TrogloBITES, a short-order grill stand where you can get burgers, fries, and the like.
Zion National Park
Zion is a great park in the winter. Not only do crowds vanish, but so does summer's high heat. However, you do need to be careful negotiating some of the trails due to the potential for ice and snow. And you're probably not likely to do hiking up the Virgin River into the Narrows without some good rubber boots on. But the landscape is even more in your face, thanks to the denuded trees. While the temps can get down into the 20s at night, during the daytime they frequent rise up into the 60s, making for perfect hiking weather.
Zion Lodge's (www.zionlodge.com) winter rates begin December 1 and run through March 31. The nightly rate for a Sunday-through-Thursday stay is $89 for a standard room, $99 for a western cabin (The western cabins will not be available January through March as they undergo an interior remodel featuring new furniture and hardwood flooring) and $119 for a suite. On Fridays and Saturdays, the rate is $99 for a standard room, $109 for a western cabin and $129 for a suite. The rates are $10 higher than weekend rates during the holiday periods of Dec. 23-30, 2009 and Feb. 12-14, 2010. The "Zion in Winter" rate is based on double occupancy and does not include taxes or gratuities. Each additional person in the room is $10. The offer is not available on Dec. 31, 2009. Guests should use the promotion code "WNTR" when making reservations online or by calling tel. 888-29-PARKS.
Grand Canyon National Park
Much of what I said about visiting Zion in winter can go for the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, there are no winter lodging options on the North Rim. Some years ago there was a cross-country resort in the Kaibab National Forest just outside the park on the North Rim, but financing problems led sadly to its closure.
The South Rim, though, is open for business year-round and is great to visit during the winter months when traffic loads are greatly reduced from those in summer.
At the South Rim, winter visitors pay significantly less than summer-season rates by choosing the "Winter Value Rate" at Maswik Lodge (tel. 888/29-PARKS; www.grandcanyonlodges.com). The Winter Value Rate is $82 per night plus tax at Maswik South, and $105 per night plus tax at Maswik North. The Winter Value Rate is available from Nov. 29, 2009, through March 4, 2010, excluding Dec. 19, 2009 through Jan. 2, 2010 and Feb. 12 through Feb. 14, 2010. The rates are good for single or double occupancy. The cost for each additional person in the room is $9. Children 16 and under stay at no extra charge. Lodge and room type are subject to availability and seasonal closures.
The "El Tovar Romance Package" at the elegant El Tovar -- a national historic landmark -- includes one night in a standard queen room, a bottle of California sparkling wine and fruit basket in the room, and dinner for two with a bottle of Grand Canyon label wine in the El Tovar Dining Room. The base package cost is $365 plus tax subject to availability. Guests may upgrade to a deluxe room or suite, based upon availability, for an additional charge. The Romance Package is available Nov. 29, 2009 through Feb. 14, 2010, excluding Dec. 12, 2009, Dec. 19, 2009 through Jan. 2, 2010 and Jan. 6, 2010. For reservations, visit www.grandcanyonlodges.com. Guests should use the promo code "ROMANCE." Grand Canyon Railway rates drop twice during the winter season -- on Nov. 1, 2009 and again on Jan. 3, 2010. The rates for packages -- which include train travel, accommodations and more -- drop as much as 26 percent during the historic train's winter season. The "Railway Getaway Plus" features roundtrip coach-class train travel, two nights of lodging at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel and two breakfasts and two dinners per person. The rate is $262 per person beginning Nov. 1, 2009, through Jan. 2, 2010 and $202 per person Jan. 3 through March 14, 2010. The Grand Canyon Railway also offers packages featuring overnight accommodations inside the park at the South Rim. Travelers can book packages online at www.thetrain.com or by calling tel. 800/THE-TRAIN.
Death Valley National Park
Unlike most Western national parks, California's Death Valley is visited by far more travelers in the winter than in the summer. Why? Because it's soooo much cooler, temperature-wise. This makes it more enjoyable, and safer, frankly, to explore the dune systems in the park. About the only downside is it gets darker earlier in the day than during the spring and summer months, meaning your time out exploring the park is shortened a bit.
The Furnace Creek Resort offers a variety of special travel packages during the winter months. The "Stay &" Play package, for example, includes overnight accommodations at either the Inn at Furnace Creek or the Ranch at Furnace Creek, unlimited golf for one day, golf cart and club storage. At the Ranch at Furnace Creek, rates start at $214 from Nov. 29- Dec. 17, 2009, $207 from Jan. 1-Feb. 11, 2010 and $266 Feb. 12- Apr. 18, 2010. At the Inn at Furnace Creek, rates start at $360 from Nov. 29-Dec. 23, 2009, $341 Jan. 10- Feb. 11, 2010 and $442 Feb. 12- Apr. 18, 2010. Rates are for two people based on double occupancy and do not include taxes. Rates may be higher on weekends and some blackout dates apply. For reservations online visit www.furnacecreekresort.com and use the promo code "GOLF." Or call tel. 800/236-7916 and request the Stay & Play package and mention the promo code "GOLF."
Kurt Repanshek is the author of several national park guidebooks, including National Parks With Kids. You can get a daily dose of national park news, trivia, and commentary by visiting www.nationalparkstraveler.com, which tracks "Commentary, News, and Life in America's Parks." Follow National Parks Traveler on Twitter at www.twitter.com/parkstraveler.