Beat the Crowds in March
Voyageurs in Minnesota is open to cars only in the winter, along a seven-mile road made of ice. Opt for snowshoes instead at Washington's Mount Rainier.
The summer is brief and brilliant at Mount Rainier in Washington, when wildflowers cover the meadows, temperatures reach into the 70s and 80sand the vast majority of the park's 2 million annual visitors crowd trails and campgrounds. "The weekends are a zoo," says Mike Bradford of guest services, which operates the National Park Inn at Longmire (360/569-2275, rainier.guestservices.com). "It's like you have to stand in line and get tickets to see nature."
For quietly communing with the outdoors, however, there's no beating Rainier in deep winter. Because such a staggering amount of snow falls herenearly 100 feet in one record-setting season in the early '70smuch of the park is closed off during winter months. But visitor stations in the southwest corner of the park, at Longmire and Paradise, remain open. Trucks have to plow so many times that snowbanks are 15 feet high. Driving in is a bit like navigating an oversize bobsled run. (Bring chains, even if it's sunny.) By March, daytime temperatures reach into the low 40s, and lightweight winter gear is usually sufficient. Twice a day on the weekends, rangers at Paradise lead free two-hour snowshoe walks, with rentals only a $1 donation. The National Park Inn also rents sets of snowshoes for $15 a day, a limited amount of gaiters (to keep your feet and lower legs dry) for $6 a day, and cross-country skis, boots, and poles for $19 a day. Beginners should feel comfortable on either the 3/4-mile Barn Flats route or the slightly longer Nisqually Vista Trail, which offers a peek at one of the park's 76 glaciers.
After playing in the snow, go for a hot chocolate on the front porch of the National Park Inn, which looks out at the peak of 14,410-foot-high Mount Rainier. This is where you'll usually find manager Bradford, with his hiking boots propped up on the rail and a mug of tea in his hand. "I take a deep breath and just look out at the mountains and all the snow," says Bradford. "I don't think I'll ever get sick of this."
Likewise, serenity comes easy during chilly days at Voyageurs in Minnesota. Oddly enough, winter is the only time the park is accessible to cars. There are basically no roads inside the park, so people get around in summer by boat and/or walking shoes. In January a boat launch turns into the start of Rainy Lake Ice Road. Cars under 7,000 pounds are allowed to drive on the seven-mile road over the ice. The visitors center rents cross-country skis ($5 per day, kid-size equipment is free), loans out snowshoes for free, and most Sundays hosts programsice-fishing clinics, cross-country skiing lessons, talks on animals native to the park. This is Minnesota, so expect January to be frigid, with temperatures that dip below zero most nights. "In late February and March the days are longer and warmer," says Kathleen Przybylski, the park's management assistant. "You can snowshoe or ski more comfortably by then, without the cold wind whipping under your helmet."
Warm up Deep in the Mountains
Yosemite has the Glacier Point Ski Hut, but the Mount Rainier area has a system of three backcountry lodges. The Mount Tahoma Trails Association (skimtta.com) maintains the huts, each with floor space for 6 to 14 sleeping bags. After buying a snow-park permit ($10/day; parks.wa.gov/winter/permits.asp), park at the trailhead 8 miles up the road from Ashford. Anyone is welcome to ski or snowshoe on the trails and stop in at one of the huts to get warm or heat up a meal in the kitchen. To stay overnight, inquire about availability (email@example.com) and mail in a reservation form with a check or money order. There's no lodging charge, but there is a nonrefundable booking fee of $10 per person, plus a weekend deposit of $15 per person. Guests are encouraged to donate part or all of their deposit.