December 9th 2011
Many national parks turn into tourist traps in summer, when the roads become gridlocked, the restaurants rammed and the best hotels booked months in advance. But come winter and the elements reassume control, allowing the intrepid traveller to explore these wilderness all to themself. Best in Travel gives the lowdown on the five most stunning national parks to visit at this time of year.
Banff National Park, Canada
Banff is renowned for its jaw-dropping scenery and roaming wildlife, but in winter the UNESCO World Heritage Site provides an additional attraction: world-class winter sports. This stunning corner of the Rockies is home to the fine champagne powder snow of Norquay, Sunshine and Lake Louise, where you could quite easily spend your entire holiday skiing daily from dawn to dusk. Make sure you take time to get off the beaten track. Snowshoe to remote backcountry lodges, and spend an evening or two relaxing by a log fire and wallowingin steaming hot-spring pools while gazing at the starry night-sky. Away from the resorts also improves your chances of getting closer to the wildlife – elk, bald eagles, moose, coyote and, if you’re lucky, cougars in the spruce forests. It it’s also worth taking time out to drive the Icefields Parkway, one of the world’s great scenic drives.
Sarek National Park, Sweden
Sarek National Park is a majestic untouched wilderness, and its remoteness 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle is matched only by the overwhelming beauty of its scenery, which includes 100 glaciers and six of Sweden’s highest peaks. Even in summer the trekking is no Sunday stroll and without any marked trails, cabins or amenities. Winter is even more hardcore as the average temperature plummets to -30°C. But the upside is eternally blue skies and stark snowy landscape by day and the dazzling northern lights dancing by night. Brave the arctic temperature and try out husky riding, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing or sledging. For those wanting something less adventurous there is yoga, massage, cooking and trips to visit Santa. The region is also close to Sweden’s Ice Hotel, the first and the largest in the world, and built from scratch at the start of every winter.
The first national park in the States and its finest, Yellowstone is home to a bewildering collection of geysers and hot springs, as well as sparkling alpine lakes, rugged peaks and an incredible array of big game. Summer sees the frustrating popularity of Yellowstone rear its head as thousands of SUVs and lumbering motor homes crawl along the park’s main roads like a scene from National Lampoon’s Vacation. In winter, however, this volcanic wonderland takes a fairy-tale atmosphere as heavy snow keeps the crowds well away. Cross-country skis, snow mobiles and snowshoes become the main modes of transport, and you can enjoy famous sites like Old Faithful geyser all to yourself. Much of the wildlife – including elk, bison, bighorn sheep and the rare grey wolf – spend the winter in low elevation valleys, where they are easier to spot against the sparkling snow.
Stay at the sumptuously opulent Amangani, some 2,135m above sea level, which affords magnificent views of the Grand Tetons and Snake River Valley below.
Torres del Paine, National Park, Chile
Patagonia’s Torres del Paine is an unrivalled landscape of mad jagged peaks, impossibly blue lakes, deserted pampas and the Southern Patagonian Ice Field - a sea of ice the size of Hawaii. Its climate is notoriously unpredictable throughout the year, but we’re now entering its summer season, when sunny days, less rainfall and more than 16 hours of sunlight are the norm. The incredible granite spires of Torres del Paine are the main lure but also spend time exploring the trails that meander through emerald forests and over thundering rivers, past glaciers and azure lakes. You can hike into the vast openness of the steppe, heading to less-visited lakes and glaciers, all the while keeping an eye on the looming peaks. Hotel Salto Chico is the only property inside the park, affording boutique exclusivity amid a truly spectacular setting.
The Lake District, England
The Lake District is breathtaking in any season, however in winter and with a dusting of snow capping its fells, England’s finest national park is undoubtedly at its most romantic. The cold season also attracts far fewer visitors, meaning more space on the hills and in the pubs and hotels. Fell walking here in winter is a profoundly powerful, almost spiritual, experience, and somehow inspires our innate desire connect with high and wild places. The foreboding Helvellyn is Lakeland’s winter mountain – England’s very own alp – and offers a classic scramble up Striding Edge. And, snow permitting, there is also one of England’s only ski resorts, complete with a tow, a selection of blue, red and black runs, plus lift passes costing a very reasonable £25 for the entire season. If that sounds too much hard work then take a hot-air balloon flight for unrivalled views over Lake Windermere and the surrounding fells.