During the winter months, several National Parks close down for the season, while other remain open for distinctly cold weather activities but there are a few parks located in warmer locales that enjoy moderate to downright hot conditions throughout the year. Here are our five favorite parks to thaw out in this winter.
1. Dry Tortugas National Park (www.nps.gov/drto) is a combination of a marine national park, seven tiny islands, and a historic preservation area for the mid-19th century, hexagonal shaped Fort Jefferson -- the U.S.'s largest coastal fort. Originally built to protect important shipping routes in the Gulf of Mexico, Fort Jefferson was also used as a military prison during the Civil War. The park is located less than 70 miles west of Key West, FL and is therefore only accessible by boat or seaplane, depending on your budget. The area is only open during the daylight hours but you can camp there overnight at Garden Key, located just south of Fort Jefferson, for $3 per person per night. Winter brings sunny days in the mid 70s and, apart from taking a self-guided tour of the historic Fort, the Dry Tortugas are really a spot to take in swimming, snorkeling, bird watching, and fishing.
Day tours run by Sunny Days (tel. 800/236-7937; www.drytortugas.com) depart daily at 8am from Key West. Sunny Days charges $135 for adults, $90 for children under 16 and $125 for seniors, students, and military personnel. That price includes round-trip fast cat transportation (two hours each way), a continental breakfast on board, buffet lunch, drinks, snorkeling gear, and a guided tour of the fort. There is also an additional $5 entry fee per adult for accessing the park. For those who wish to camp (a maximum of three nights is permitted), Sunny Days charges $165 per adult, $160 for seniors and students and $125 for children two to 16, plus the $5 per adult entrance fee. There are similar day trips, albeit slightly more expensive through Yankee Freedom (tel. 800/634-0939; www.yankeefreedom.com). Seaplanes of Key West (tel.800/950-2FLY; www.seaplanesofkeywest.com) offer half day trips priced at $229 per adult, $179 for children six to 12 and $129 for children two to six or a full-day excursion for $405, $325 and $270 respectively. They supply drinks and snorkeling gear only, so you need to provide your own food. There are no flights on Christmas Day.
2. Haleakala National Park (www.nps.gov/hale) on the island of Maui, is home to the dormant Haleakala Volcano, which hasn't erupted in over 200 years and the coastal Kipahulu area. The park is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year (although the Visitor Centers are closed on Christmas and New Years Days). The volcano summit can be accessed from Kahului in 90 minutes, whereas the Kipahulu coast part of the park is a three-hour drive from Maui's main city. A recreational use pass is required for entry and costs $10 per vehicle or $5 per person. By day, the park offers exceptional hiking opportunities, streams, waterfalls, rocky coastlines and a variety of native flora and fauna. By night, the summit of Haleakala is one of the best places in the world to observe the night sky. There are two primitive wilderness campsites, at Paliku and Holua, which are accessible only by trail. A camping permit is required for overnight stays. There are also three wilderness cabins that are accessible by trail, but these must be reserved at least two months in advance at a cost of $75 per night. Although the daytime weather is likely to be around 80 degrees in the winter months, evenings can be cool, especially on the summit.
3. Virgin Islands National Park (www.nps.gov/viis) is as the name suggests situated in the beautiful Caribbean Virgin Islands and covers approximately 60% of the island of St. John, plus a few remote sites on St. Thomas. Winter boasts temperature in the mid 80s so it is an appealing destination for those seeking sunshine and warm sultry weather. Known for its scuba diving and snorkeling opportunities, the park also has miles of hiking trails in tropical forests and through former sugar plantation areas including the Cinnamon Bay Nature Trail, Bourdeaux Mountain Trail, and Reef Bay Trail, leading to some of the most pristine beaches in the Caribbean. There are also historic petroglyph rock carvings to discover, archaeological sites, spring-fed waterfalls and reflection pools. You can enter the park in St. John using public buses that run to and from Cruz Bay or you can take a ferry from St. Thomas, from either Red Hook ($3; 20 minutes) or from Charlotte Amalie ($7; 40 minutes). Tour the park by bicycle (www.arawakexp.com/biketrips.htm), rent a jeep at the ferry dock in Cruz Bay or join a jeep or safari bus tour without having to book in advance. At Cinnamon Bay beach, you can rent sailboats, kayaks and windsurfers plus you can camp in tents or basic cottages. There is also a private camping area and eco resort within the park at two locations -- Maho Bay and Estate Concordia (tel. 800/392-9004; www.maho.org). Here you can stay in an eco-tent or tent-cottages with winter rates ranging from $80 to $155 per night, although they can only be booked a maximum of 30 days in advance. Entry to the park is $4 per adult and children under 16 are free. There is a $15 overnight mooring and anchoring fee for boats.
4. Channel Islands National Park (www.nps.gov/chis) consists of five of the eight Channel Islands -- San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara and Anacapa, located off the coast of southern California, in the Pacific Ocean. The park headquarters and the Visitor Center are located on the mainland in the city of Ventura. One of the least visited parks in the country, only about 30,000 people make it out to the islands each year, primarily during the summer to watch migrating whales. Although not technically hot, the temperatures in winter are mild (in the 60s) and days are usually sunny with exceptionally clear water conditions, making it the perfect season for diving among the kelp forests. There are also other water based activities like kayaking to see marine life, nature walks, bird watching, lighthouses and historic buildings to discover plus numerous sea caves to explore (especially on Santa Cruz). Entry is free for day trips but a $15 per night reservation fee applies for camping. From Ventura harbor, take an Island Packers (tel. 805/642-1393; www.islandpackers.com) boat trip for $45 to $75 per adult ($28 to $58 per child) depending on which island you are visiting. You will get to spend two to six hours on the island (unless you are camping, in which case the boat fees are higher). Boat shuttle service between the various islands ranges from $6 to $58 per adult ($4 to $43 for children). From Santa Barbara, you can also visit the Channel Islands on a three to five-day Truth Aquatics (tel. 805/963-3564; www.truthaquatics.com) live-aboard diving trip.
5. Volcanoes National Park (www.nps.gov/havo) is located on the Big Island of Hawaii, 30 miles from Hilo and is open 24 hours a day throughout the year. A seven-day entry pass is $10 per vehicle or $5 per person. Kilauea is considered the world's most active volcano so there is a chance that you may get to see lava flowing during your visit but it is also for this reason that caution needs to be exercised and at times you will find that certain areas and roads are closed to the public for safety reasons, like excessive sulfur dioxide omissions. It is also one of the few locations where you may get to witness lava flowing directly into the ocean. There are trails, back country hikes, guided ranger walks, and opportunities to drive or walk to scenic lookout points, as well as an abundance of flora and fauna. Two campgrounds are accessible by car and camping is free. You can also stay at the historic Volcano House (tel. 808/967-7321; www.volcanohousehotel.com) near the Kilauea crater. Originally built as a house of worship to Pele, the volcano goddess, its famous visitors have included Mark Twain and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Rooms have crater, forest or mountain views ($100 to $230 per night) plus rustic cabins ($55) that sleep four people with communal bathroom facilities located a few miles from the main hotel at a 4,000 feet elevation.