The leaves were glowing with the copper, gold, and yellow of late fall when I caught my first sight of Natural Bridge at Natural Bridge State Park in Lexington, Virginia. Winter was already inching in, and the crisp clean air of the forest held a bit of a chill. Perfectly shaped red and orange maple and oak leaves littered the path from the Natural Bridge State Park visitor center that followed the sing-song flow of a little creek, and I could see how so many people would flock here when the weather cools.
Turning a corner on the hiking path, I stopped dead in my tracks and gaped in wonder. Ahead, towering 215 feet in the air was a limestone stone arch over the picturesque Cedar Creek. I had expected a little stone arch, but this cathedral-looking natural formation was so much more majestic than I could have imagined.
I was in love. During a hosted visit to Lexington, I was stunned by the sheer beauty of the natural areas around the town.
While gorgeous any time of the year, some state parks really come alive during the winter months. From winter sports like snowshoeing and skiing to hiking and stargazing, these parks seem to shine even brighter when the temperatures and the leaves drop. In many cases, the parks are less crowded, especially these seven gorgeous state parks that come alive in the winter.
Many of the locations on this list were discovered during hosted trips, but all opinions are the writer’s alone.
Natural Bridge State Park is a stunning natural area that is just as pretty in the winter.
Photo credit: Heide Brandes
1. Natural Bridge State Park
Natural Bridge State Park near Lexington, Virginia, is the state’s newest state park, having been owned privately until Virginia dedicated it as an official park in 2016.
In addition to the stunning natural stone arch that attracts visitors to its glory, the 1,540-acre park showcases the rolling meadows and dense forests amongst the limestone karst terrain. The 7 miles of hiking trails are rated easy or moderate, though the path from the visitor center to the arch does include a pretty steep set of stairs.
The hiking and arch aren’t the only attractions at this little state park. During the winter, visitors can see ice form along Lace Fall’s 30-foot cascade, and seasonal living history programs are held year-round.
Natural Bridge State Park is also a recognized Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association, and the park offers numerous Dark Sky events. For instance, in December, park rangers lead excursions to the top of Jefferson Point — one of the highest points in the park — to observe the Geminids meteor shower. But you don’t need a celestial event to learn about the night sky and the effects of light pollution as rangers offer numerous programs throughout the year at night.
Winter hikes are also a draw for visitors to the park, and on January 1, Natural Bridge State Park rangers lead the annual First Day Hike along the panoramic views from Skyline Trail, which is a 1.6-mile, easy-to-moderate hike. As for any hike, dress according to the weather, wear close-toed shoes, and carry water.
Pro Tip: During the winter months from Thanksgiving to the second weekend in March, the park is open from 9 a.m. to dusk but is closed on Christmas Day. The paths are natural, so be sure to wear appropriate footwear and be aware of steep inclines on some of the trails.
2. Natural Falls State Park
West Siloam Springs, Oklahoma
The Natural Falls State Park, located on the border of Oklahoma and Arkansas on Interstate 40, is one of the most peaceful and beautiful state parks in my home state. The towering falls are majestic to witness, and the surrounding landscape is so stunningly beautiful that it has been the setting in several movies.
Tucked within the highlands Ozark region of northeast Oklahoma, the park’s 77-foot waterfall flows down rock formations into the bottom of a narrow V-shaped valley. It’s a serene place, peaceful in a way that only hidden waterfalls can be.
In the winter, you don’t have to hike down the steep path to the base of the waterfall; instead, the park offers an observation platform with seats to view one of the most scenic wonders in the state. The wild and lush scenery was also the setting for the 1974 movie, Where the Red Fern Grows, which was filmed in the park.
Pro Tip: For a full experience, book an overnight stay in one of the park’s five yurts, which can be reserved online. Staying at the yurts is truly a glamping experience, complete with heating and air and other amenities. Each yurt sleeps between four and six people, and restrooms and showers are a short walk away.
Newport State Park at the tip of Door County in Wisconsin has almost 30 miles of hiking and biking trails.
Photo credit: Heide Brandes
3. Newport State Park
Ellison Bay, Wisconsin
Another stunning Dark Sky Park, Newport State Park in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin, is tucked along the wild and lovely shores of Lake Michigan. Located at the far tip of the Door Peninsula, Newport State Park is one of the darkest spots in the state, and everyone from casual stargazers to astronomers flocks to the park at night to take in the universe’s splendor.
During the day, the park continues its outdoor activities in the winter with almost 30 miles of hiking and biking trails that weave through meadows, 11 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, boreal forests, wooded uplands, and peaceful meadows. Boating, canoeing, and kayaking are also popular activities at the park, as is fishing along Lake Michigan and Europe Lake in the northern part of the park.
Open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily year-round, visitors flock to the park for cross-country skiing, winter fishing, and hiking. Luckily, you don’t even have to pack your own gear as Door County has several places to rent snowshoes and related equipment.
4. Montana De Oro State Park
Los Osos, California
Highway 1 through California’s Central Coast, nicknamed The Discovery Route, is a gorgeous drive any time of year, but in winter, the outdoor activities don’t stop… and neither do the views. On the central coast in the charming little boutique town of Los Osos, the Montana de Oro State Park features some of the prettiest views of the Central Coastline.
For those who yearn for the cool coastal breeze while exploring the rugged cliffs that hug the Pacific Ocean, the hiking at Montana de Oro includes the 3.4-mile out-and-back Bluff Trail that rewards hikers with views of the impressive coastline and high bluffs. The trail starts at the visitor center, and it’s one of the best spots for ocean views.
In addition to hiking, biking, and exploring the coastal tidepools, this state park butts up against Morro Bay State Park, which is a perfect spot to go out on whale-watching excursions or kayak with Central Coast Kayaks (ask for Sandy!) for a great flatwater paddling experience with sea otters and sea lions.
While the winter temperatures are moderate — usually in the 50s and 60s during the day — you’ll still want to dress in layers. The breezes can be much cooler than you expect and the water in the bay is colder than the rest of the coast.
Also, Los Osos itself is a great central location to call home for a few days and is an easy drive to other nearby attractions like Hearst Castle, the Elephant Seal Rookery and Viewing Vista, pretty little Moonstone Beach, and the more than 27 tasting rooms in nearby San Luis Obispo. The Baywood Inn was our home base for the days we were there, and it was a perfect little place to call home.
A unique geological formation in central Texas, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is one of the best spots for winter hiking in Texas.
Photo credit: Heide Brandes
5. Enchanted Rock State Natural Area
Near Fredericksburg, Texas
Long held as an almost mystical place in the heart of the Texas Hill Country, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area draws thousands of visitors during the summer months. But winter will give you a less crowded experience and a stellar view of the massive pink granite dome rising above the Central Texas landscape, the surrounding scenery, and the unique rock formations.
In the winter months, nearly 11 miles of hiking trails remain open, though the Summit Trail may close in wet weather due to its slick inclines. Rock climbing at the park is also weather dependent, but all year round, visitors can participate in biking, geocaching, and enjoying the abundant nature throughout the park.
Stargazing is a treat at Enchanted Rock too, thanks to the natural geology and its rural location, making it one of the best places for stargazing in Central Texas. Pretty much any place in the park can be fantastic for viewing the stars.
Pro Tip: During wet weather, some of the trails and higher spots in the park may close due to the slickness of the rock. It’s always best to check with the park office for closures.
6. Chugach State Park
One of the largest state parks in the nation, Chugach State Park spans roughly 495,000 acres of land and is among the most rugged and wild of the parks listed here. Surrounded by the Alaska Range to the north and west and the Chugach and Wrangell Mountains to the east, the views in Chugach State Park are unrivaled.
This massive state park with its abundant lakes, massive glaciers, and icefields really knows how to enjoy winter. The Alyeska Resort at the gateway of the park is famous for its skiing and snowboarding, but other activities include dog sled rides with an Iditarod veteran by day or even by moonlight, a scenic 7-minute winter tram from the Hotel Alyeska to the top of Mt. Alyesk up to seven “hanging” glaciers and endless views deep into the Chugach Mountain range.
In addition to ice skating on the numerous lakes, snow machining through the backwoods trails, and snowshoe hiking, the park hosts a special New Year’s Eve Luminary Ski that is free to the public and starts at the Divide Ski Trails at Mile 12 of the Seward Highway. With candlelit trails, visitors can view the expansive winter skies and bid farewell to the old year by walking, snowshoeing, or skiing the trails to its end where cider, hot cocoa, and a warm campfire await.
Pickett CCC State Park is one of the prettiest parks on the list, and in the winter, the weather is mild enough to take advantage of its 58 miles of hiking trails.
Photo credit: Heide Brandes
7. Pickett CCC State Park
When I visited Pickett CCC State Park in Eastern Tennessee one January, the weather was mild enough to wear a light jacket, but even when it’s coated in snow, it’s one of the most picturesque parks in Tennessee. The cozy cabins at Pickett State Park are nestled within miles of jaw-dropping rock formations and jungles of wild rhododendron.
It also has plenty of winter hiking trails to explore and is within a few minutes of nearby Pogue Creek Canyon, a 3,000-acre natural area full of majestic bluffs, arches, waterfalls, and caves.
Though you won’t find traditional winter sports here like skiing, the winter hikes at the park are second to none. With more than 58 miles of hiking trails that vary in length and difficulty, it’s one of the best parks to breathe in that cold winter air and explore the forests, sandstone bluffs, and views of the massive 125,000-acre Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.
Pickett State Park is also another International Dark-Sky Zone, and its dedicated stargazing field is one of the best places in the southeast to view the stars.
Pro Tip: Get a trail map if you are hiking at this park. My friend and I got turned around and a little lost during our hikes at this park, mainly because many of the trails intersect.