Florida's Everglades have miles of canals great for canoeing, while Hawaii's Volcanoes and Haleakala parks are known for spectacular sunrises.
Masses of people head to Hawaii, Florida, and the Caribbean over Christmas and New Year's simply because that's when it's convenient for work and school schedulesnot because the weather is better then. Travelers who are flexible with their vacation time don't have to cope with either the end-of-year crowds or the peak-season airfares and hotel rates.
Summer and early fall in Florida's Everglades can be brutal, with overwhelming humidity, giant mosquitoes, and fierce storms. November marks the end of hurricane season and the beginning of dry, pleasant days--but tourism doesn't hit its stride until Christmas. (More than 80 percent of visitors come between December and March.) As the swamps slowly dry up, the bugs are less of an annoyance. Alligators, herons, egrets, warblers, and pelicans gather around remaining lakes and become easier to spot. Traveling by canoe or hiking is the best way to poke around the Everglades' 1.5 million acres, with miles of canals and hiking trails that lead to hidden nooks and backcountry campgrounds.
Information Officer Linda Friar recommends a series of connected waterways known as the Nine Mile Pond Loop. "You have three ponds right at the beginning, and you'll see cormorants, terns, white-crowned pigeons, maybe alligators," she says. "The trail has mangrove tunnels and also some open areas. You get some variety." Look for piles of snail shells under trees--a sure sign that the rare snail kite is roosting above. It's a forked-tail bird that feeds on freshwater snails, extracting them from their shells with a hook-shaped bill.
More than 100,000 people visited Hawai'i Volcanoes in December 2008. The park service doesn't break down visitor statistics by the week, but it's safe to say that things are always busier at Volcanoes during the Christmas and New Year's rush. That means early December is quiet compared to, say, Junewhich saw 109,000 visitors in 2008.
Weather at the Big Island's 333,000-acre park is always unpredictable. There's no especially good or bad time to come, and visitors should always be equipped with rain gear, sunscreen, and a sweater. The park's main attraction is Kilauea, the volcano that's been spewing out lava in a mellow fashion for more than 25 years. To find out about the latest volcanic activity, check out the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory's website (hvo.wr.usgs.gov), or call park information (808/985-6000). Both sources are updated regularly and tell exactly where lava is flowing.
The weather at Haleakala, the 10,000-foot-high volcano on Maui, is just as variable as its Big Island counterpart. At any time of year it can be 80 degrees on the beach at Kaanapali but in the 40s at the Haleakala summitand it often feels colder because of the strong winds. A paved road literally snakes through the clouds to the edge of a dark, otherworldly, 19-square-mile crater. (It's safe: Haleakala hasn't erupted in more than 400 years.) The sunrise views are phenomenal, but if you're not an early riser, watching the sunset or star-gazing are nice alternatives.
Temperatures in December and March are virtually identical on the Caribbean island of St. John, more than half of which is preserved as U.S. Virgin Islands National Park. Highs are in the upper 80s, with lows in the 70s, though it does tend to rain slightly more in December. Yet last March the park's campgrounds and beaches saw nearly 61,000 visitors, compared to less than 37,000 in December. This leaves plenty of space for hiking through lush tropical forests and swimming, boating, and fishing in the park's turquoise waters.
That's a Whole Lot of Nature for $10
For seniors, the newly named America the Beautiful-National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass-Senior Pass goes way beyond the usual senior discount: If you're 62 or older, $10 buys lifetime entrance to national parks, wildlife refuges, and historic sites across the country. If there's a per-vehicle charge, everyone with the passholder is covered. Buy it at any park that charges an entrance fee. Folks under 62 who are visiting several parks should consider getting an annual pass, good for 12 months from first use ($80).