Winter is often a time when we hunker down and sleep off the dark evenings — but it can also be an ideal season to experience the sparse beauty of our parks. These 5 stories showcase the diverse experiences travelers can have during the colder, quieter days of the year.
Winter is often a time when we hunker down, shield ourselves from the cold, and sleep off the dark evenings. But it can also be an ideal time to visit parks, once we find a little motivation to turn off Netflix, put on a coat and venture outside.
In this episode, host Jennifer Errick turns to some of her favorite outdoor enthusiasts — her colleagues at the National Parks Conservation Association — for inspiration on where they love to travel in winter. She speaks with Michael Jamison, campaign director for NPCA's Northern Rockies Regional Office, on skating wild ice and finding meditative bliss on rigorous mountain climbs; Theresa Pierno, president and CEO, on the joys of toasting Yellowstone at negative-20 degrees; Miché Lozano, Arizona program manager, on the heritage area that changed their life and career; Cassidy Jones, senior outreach and engagement manager, on the romantic challenge that cleared up a misconception at Acadia National Park; and John Adornato on one of the most remote and idyllic stargazing excursions on the East Coast and how to plan a trip there.
This episode was produced by Jennifer Errick with help from Todd Christopher, Bev Stanton, Vanessa Pius and Linda Coutant.
Original theme music by Chad Fischer.
Special thanks to the staff who contributed their stories, including Southern Appalachian Director Jeff Hunter, whose story we ultimately did not include.
Learn more about this podcast and listen to the rest of our stories at thesecretlivesofparks.org
The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks.
Learn more and join us at npca.org
The Little Jewel Box
Jennifer Errick: How do you make it through the coldest part of the year? Do you explore the outdoors for the pleasure of it or do you hide under the blankets and dream of June?
For some, the sparse beauty of winter is an ideal time to travel. In this episode, my colleagues who welcome the darker quieter days of the season share a few choice adventures to inspire others to step out into the cold.
I'm Jennifer Errick, and this is The Secret Lives of Parks.
The National Parks Conservation Association has been advocating for America's public lands for more than 100 years. One thing I really love about working here is how my colleagues are always finding new creative ways to celebrate the many people across the country who devote themselves to our parks. Just last week, NPCA released a video series bringing advocates and artists together at three lesser-known national park sites. Showcasing the deep connection community members in Texas and California have to these beautiful places and capturing that connection in unique works of art. You can read the story behind the idea and check out the first video filmed at San Antonio Missions National Historical Park by going to npca.org/naturevalleyblog. I want to give special thanks to our corporate partner, Nature Valley for supporting our work in Texas and California. Nature Valley has been a proud partner of ours for more than a decade, and this innovative new series is, in my opinion, one of our most exciting collaborations yet. Please give it a look and let us know what you think. That's npca.org/naturevalleyblog.
In the winter of 1996, I went on my first cross-country road trip. It was a few months after my college graduation and from my frosty home in New England, I pointed my Dodge Neon South and cruised down the interstate for 1500 miles with a crinkled road atlas spread across the backseat.
Then I took a sharp right turn into the great vast middle of the country, wandering with curiosity through the sparse towns and wide-open spaces that felt so liberating and exciting to me after a life lived entirely on the East Coast. I reveled in the sight of my first tumbleweeds, which I had only experienced in cartoons. I waved to cows in rolling pastures, and I watched prairie grasses wave back to me. And I developed a lifelong love for the desert. One of my fondest memories is seeing Saguaro National Park in Arizona for the first time and experiencing that sense of smallness that comes from being surrounded by a bright blue, wide-open sky and miles of cactus-dotted hills stretched out as far as my eyes could see. I didn't know then that winter is the best time for stargazing due to the long nights, low humidity, and clear skies. I only knew that after the sunset, the universe sparkled at me like I had never seen before.
The British author Pico Iyer once compared travel to love, calling it, “A heightened state of awareness in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why,” he continued, “The best trips, like the best love affairs never really end.” For me, this January trip embodied that exhilarating kind of love and set me up for a career as an environmentalist and an advocate for public lands.
But despite the joy of travel, winter is often a time when we hunker down, shield ourselves from the frosty days. I still shrink from snowy landscapes and complain about temperatures under 50 degrees. I often need a little motivation to turn off Netflix, put on a coat and rekindle that expansive love of parks this time of year.
So, I turned to some of my favorite outdoor enthusiasts, my colleagues at the National Parks Conservation Association, for inspiration on where they love to travel in winter and why this season can be an ideal time to experience a park.
Of all the people I spoke with, Michael Jamison, campaign director for NPCA's Northern Rockies Regional Office was most fervent about not just enduring but embracing the cold.
Michael Jamison: When I think about the summertime parks out here, the ones in my backyard, I actually think about heat and humans and wildfire smoke and crowds and lines and cues and no parking.
Winter is empty, and it is completely silent. The bones of the place come out. It's stripped down so you can actually see the shape of things and you get out there and all the news of the world that you need for the day is actually just written on the snow. You can see the brush strokes where the owl’s wings stirred the snow, and you see the little feet of the vole leading to that spot and then no feet leaving, and you realize somebody had breakfast there, right? There's such a clarity to winter.
Jennifer Errick: Michael frequently finds this clarity in and around Glacier National Park where he spent decades of his life working and playing and where each winter, he relies on a network of friends to alert him to a short-lived seasonal ritual.
Michael Jamison: Skating on wild ice, back country skating is, its just this wonderful little moment in time. It's this gift that mother nature gives. It only lasts for sometimes a few days. If you're lucky, a couple weeks. It's usually around Thanksgiving or a little bit before Thanksgiving where it starts getting cold at night down around zero and it'll stay cold all day. So the ice comes on, but the snow hasn't arrived and so there's no worry for shoveling. There's no worry for clearing the ice. The hockey rink is ready made by mother nature, and if it comes on without wind and if it comes on in clear nights, it is just as clear as a window and in the shallows you can see the fish underneath and you can chase them on your skates. You can chase the trout and they're darting around. We've followed rivers for miles and miles and miles up to lakes, just skating on the rivers.
We have a whole network of people here who for the last 30 years I've been involved in it that the phones start ringing sometime in late October, early November that the ice is on at Smith Lake or the ice is on at Avalanche Lake or the ice is on the Stillwater River, and we've been known to play a game with hockey sticks, and we'll have these hockey games eight miles up into the back country, somewhere where the boards, in an ice rink you have the boards. The boards are just these beautiful big peaks surrounding you.
And it's a different ice too. It's not that domesticated, zambonified, ice-rink ice that's super hard with the bad music pumped in that you have to skate in one direction. It's not that at all. It's a softer ice. Your edges can really get into it. There's something about that wild freshwater ice that has a different consistency.
Jennifer Errick: I ask Michael how long the season for wild ice lasts.
Michael Jamison: So, wild ice moves downhill. It starts way up high in the highest lakes because that's where winter comes first and eventually those lakes, you can't skate them anymore because the snow piles up on them. So you have to catch this after the cold, but before the snow. But the lower lakes, that snow that comes, comes on top of open water because those lower lakes haven't frozen yet, and if you can get a good January high-pressure system, then those lower lakes they freeze over and now you have clean ice on them until they get snowed in. And if you're lucky, you can get two or three or four little windows of a week in each month to be able to skate throughout the whole winter.
Jennifer Errick: Michael doesn't just wait for those few magic days to get out his skates. He loves taking to the slopes as well. And Glacier and Grand Teton are his favorite landscapes for skiing, though it requires more precautions for wilderness safety.
Michael Jamison: Back country skiing is, it's a little more of the roll of the dice in terms of what the snow pack is like. Heading into the back country in winter in mountain country has some inherent risks and avalanche is probably foremost among those. There are certain tools that you need to stay safe, certain equipment and gear. There's certain knowledge like how to watch the weather and the wind and understand the snow pack of their foot. There's certain precautions we take traveling with a trusted group of people who you know and have a similar risk tolerance and who they're expert in being in the back country in the winter as well.
Jennifer Errick: Michael talks about two kinds of trips he enjoys emphasizing that he loves them equally in different ways.
Michael Jamison: Going-to-the-Sun Road, which is Glacier's signature highway — in the winter, it's completely empty. They don't plow it. It's just a rivet of white through the trees and just to go up and cross country ski on the road with the kids and the families, it's a great way to spend a day. Sit on the frozen river and watch the ducks and drink some cocoa and maybe build a snowman. That's one kind of ski day.
Jennifer Errick: Then there are the longer, more rigorous adventures that require more time and effort to plan, but that bring their own special benefits.
Michael Jamison: I love Teton National Park more than anything for skiing, and those are bigger kind of days where you don't generally have the kids and the family with you, but you might have harnesses and ropes and you might have a whole different kind of crew of people. When I first started back country skiing 35 years ago or something, it was all about the down. Right. The climb was the thing you had to do, get to the down. It was all about the adrenaline and the loops and the hoops. But now actually I like to climb for the sake of the climb.
That first couple miles out of the chute, it's very much your brain is on, oh, I got to send an email to so-and-so and oh, I need to send a thank you card and your brain's doing the thing it does. And then after a while it falls into sort of that longer term planning mode. Is this really where I want to be in five years, and what am I doing with my life? And then eventually, if you're lucky, you'll find yourself at whatever the destination of the day was, some high ridge or some high peak and you'll have no recollection of the last hour. Your mind just went to white noise. It's the only place my brain slows down enough to do that, and it's the most rejuvenating feeling.
Jennifer Errick: Just North of the slopes where Michael finds his white noise, NPCA president and CEO Theresa Pierno got to experience Yellowstone National Park with a more celebratory vibe, enjoying the company of new friends and the benefits of guided excursions. She joined an NPCA small group tour several years ago with about a dozen other people to ring in the new year among the parks famous wildlife and geysers.
Theresa Pierno: My husband went with me, Bob, and we packed all the heavy gear because we kept hearing that it was going to be very, very cold. And so we definitely prepared for it, which was important. And we arrived at Mammoth Lodge and spent the day there and the next day hiking and snowshoeing and people were doing cross-country skiing and it was just absolutely beautiful. It was just gorgeous and lots of snow on the ground.
Jennifer Errick: Though Theresa was prepared for the cold and enjoyed being out in the heavy snows, having a heated vehicle was a big plus, too.
Theresa Pierno: A couple days before New Year's Eve snow coach pulled up and these very old fashioned, they've been around for decades, snow coaches is what we went on. So it's really an amazing experience just to be in one of these little coaches where it's heat and it's a little chilly, but you have blankets and you're dressed warm and we had spectacular weather. The sky was blue. It was just beautiful and we started our journey into the park. We went in this coach all the way to Old Faithful and stayed at the snow lodge. So pretty deep into the park, but it was so spectacularly beautiful and every once in a while we would stop and get out and take pictures and talk and the bison just were all over and you could just see them so well. It was just so much easier viewing the wildlife. It was spectacular.
Jennifer Errick: Once Theresa got to Old Faithful, it was a perfect place to enjoy the frosty weather.
Theresa Pierno: We were just amazed we got to cross country ski and when you cross country ski out there at Old Faithful and you're on the trails and going around all these geysers and wildlife. You see bison trying to stay warm and they're kind of hanging around and coyotes and it's just very magical and very peaceful and quiet because you don't have many people there.
Jennifer Errick: One of the biggest highlights for Theresa was getting a few perfect moments outdoors on New Year's Eve.
Theresa Pierno: It was dipping down to negative 20, so it was very, very cold. So we bundled up as much as we could for the weather and they brought champagne out and we had glasses and we were literally going to be out there for maybe 10, 15 minutes max because it was just so cold. And we went out there and our champagne was poured into our glass and within minutes it got very slushy like an ice drink that just it kind of started to freeze. And then of course Old Faithful erupted, but just before Old Faithful erupted, we could hear a lone wolf howling. It was just magical. And then there we were toasting and drinking our slushies. It's just a memory I will never forget.
Jennifer Errick: Theresa recommends seeing the steaming geysers, as well as the frozen waterfalls of Mammoth Hot Springs and the wildlife in the Lamar Valley where the wolf packs are still active. But really, she and her husband were wowed by the whole experience.
Theresa Pierno: Everything just is different, right? Because you don't have quite as much foliage and things are covered with snow, and so it's that background against the white and then the icicles hanging and the blue, the bright blue skies. I couldn't get over how crisp and clear it was. I'll tell you, I've been to so many parks now in these many years and traveled all over and it is one of the top trips and something that both my husband and I talk about how it really was so magical and so unique.
Jennifer Errick: For those who prefer to avoid snow and ice, Arizona program manager Miche Lozano is quick to note something special about the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area that sets it apart from everywhere else on Earth.
Miché Lozano: I want to advertise this: Yuma, Arizona, is the sunniest place in the world.
Jennifer Errick: That means winter is an ideal time to visit this Southern Arizona town, when the triple-digit temperatures finally cool off and the days remain bright. The national heritage area preserves seven square miles of nature and history along the Colorado River.
Miché Lozano: The heritage area is right next to the Colorado River, and it includes the Yuma Territorial Prison, which was one of the most notorious prisons in the Wild West, and it also contains the Juan Bautista de Anza Trail, which is a historic national trail of one of the first Spanish colonizers. It also contains the Yuma wetlands. In a way that's kind of a historic place because it used to be Giant River Delta. It was a restoration effort that I was actually a part of.
Jennifer Errick: Miché has a special relationship with Yuma because they moved there with their family when they were just a toddler.
Miché Lozano: Yuma is my hometown, and we arrived there when I was about two years old as immigrants from Mexico. It's a very agricultural town. If you're living in Yuma, there's a high likelihood that you're somehow connected to the agricultural business, either as a farm laborer, which is what my family was, or you maybe own a farm.
Growing up, I think I had that small town frustration of feeling like my hometown was kind of boring and wanting to go explore. I kind of didn't appreciate the thing that Yuma later on taught me and ended up kind of changing the path of my life, my career, and that was specifically the nature that can be found in Yuma.
Jennifer Errick: In their teenage years, Miché had a transformative experience that deepened their relationship with the land.
Miché Lozano: What happened was I got an internship with the Arizona Game and Fish Department getting as much experience doing field work as possible. It meant working with fisheries, working and doing fish counting and population and going on the Colorado River up to the Kofa Wildlife Refuge and capturing these big enormous fish.
Jennifer Errick: But it was the reptiles that really changed Miché’s life.
Miché Lozano: We were studying a very special lizard called a flat tailed horn lizard, and these species are endemic to that region. They can't really be found anywhere else. So I learned to track those lizards. They have a very unique footprint in the sand, and I learned to read the sand and I'd be hiking off trail in the middle of the desert and looking for these little footprints and these little markings that are specific to flat tailed horn lizards and unlike anything else. When you really look closely at the sand and you see all the trails of all the creatures that have been active at night, it starts to create this story. It was like reading the lives of the animals in the sand. The desert is a reptile heaven. If you're into herpetology, Southern Arizona is pretty lit.
Jennifer Errick: After becoming attuned to the natural world around them and starting out on their path as a conservationist, Miché volunteered to help restore the wetlands in the national heritage area.
Miché Lozano: Back in my day growing up, that place was a dangerous tamarisk overgrown dump basically, and there was all kinds of problems that they created. And I remember people, I was really small and I'd be playing in the river and they'd say, don't go too far because it's dangerous over there. So it was like this, it was a health risk.
Jennifer Errick: Miché got involved in the ambitious project through a program at their college.
Miché Lozano: The collaboration between the Quechan tribe, the Arizona Western College in Yuma. It's a community college that I went to and the city of Yuma was like this massive undertaking to basically rip out all of the invasive salt cedar and bulldoze the entire thing, only leaving native plants. I was cloning trees for a nursery. I was cloning cottonwoods, mesquites and other native trees that are local.
Jennifer Errick: The program didn't just help the environment.
Miché Lozano: This was one of my favorite stories about conservation was that as they were clearing this area full of invasive tamarisk to do a restoration project, they found these homeless people and one of the guys that they found, they were like, hey, we recognize this is your home, but we need to do this restoration project and everything's going to get bulldozed. And he asked for a job, and they hired him. And so he got to help with this restoration project, creating a wetland.
Jennifer Errick: Miché left Yuma and didn't return for about 10 years, but when they did, their visit reinforced their love for the town.
Miché Lozano: They were just planting grasses, they had just started planting the saplings that we had cloned. The last thing I saw was some migratory cranes coming in to do mating dances, and that's a really good sign, and that was about 10 years ago. So I left Yuma and I did not come back for about 10 years. So when I came back, it was one of the first things I wanted to do.
All of the mesquite trees that we had cloned and that had been planted, they were all growing really tall. We had tall cottonwoods that were all starting to turn yellow, and I was seeing wood packers. I was seeing all these waterfowl coming in and there was jackrabbits everywhere. One of the most exciting things that I found when I was out on my hike was I actually saw a kingfisher for the first time, and I'm really proud that that's like something that I could come back to. I didn't get to see the fruits of my labor till a decade later, but it was that restoration work, it was the looking for flat tailed horn lizards, it was getting to ride on a boat in the Colorado River and all of that really stoked my flame for conservation work. And I think it really changed the trajectory of my life and my career and what mattered to me.
Jennifer Errick: Senior Ooutreach Manager Cassidy Jones is also a Southwest native, hailing from the Salt Lake City region of Utah. But when she ended up getting a job in New England nine years ago, she planned a special winter trip with her boyfriend based on what I can only describe as a misconception.
Cassidy Jones: We're outdoorsy people in the mountains, skiers, snowboarders, avid outdoors folks. But at the time I had an internship with the National Park Service. I was working at some national historic sites in the Boston area, and my boyfriend, who I was dating long distance, shared that he didn't think there was any wilderness on the East coast, so he didn't see much of a reason in visiting for an outdoors based trip. He thought we should just do city things. And I said, well, you've never really been here before, and I want to show you that there are things that are different about the East coast, but there's still some really amazing wilderness and mountains and landscapes to enjoy. So I challenged him to come out and we would have a winter adventure.
Jennifer Errick: Cassidy's boyfriend accepted the challenge and they headed north.
Cassidy Jones: I had been to Maine a couple of times, and I thought that he might really be convinced that the East Coast had a lot to offer by visiting that state. So he visited in early February and we rented a teeny tiny Fiat. It was bright red, it was like this brand new tiny car, and we just got in it and we started driving North. We stopped in Portland on our way up. He looked around as we drove these small roads kind of along the coast through all these little towns that were pretty closed up and they were quite charming. There'd be a couple businesses open that we could go in or get a little food.
Jennifer Errick: Their ultimate destination was Acadia National Park, and the off season proved an ideal time to experience the wildness of that place.
Cassidy Jones: We had a wonderful day in the park, and I think we saw next to no one. I look back at photographs from this trip and we spent a lot of time by the water on the beaches picking up kelp and other just interesting things, all the muscle shells and things that collect, all these little artifacts on the beaches and have beautiful sunset photos, photos of boats, fishing boats that are kind of left in the water. And what really just sticks out in my memory is how truly alone we were, able to just basically pull over on the side of the road and take a photo of this kind of frozen waterfall coming onto the main park road because there was no big deal. There was nobody else there. I feel like that kind of park experience of solitude, the wildness of the coast there, I think really, really convinced him as well as just all the trees when you go through Maine. And so, yeah, I think it became very clear to him that there are many open spaces in Maine with lots to explore.
Jennifer Errick: Though Cassidy and her boyfriend were both familiar with the vast beauty of the Southwest, even Cassidy was surprised to find a similar kind of beauty along Acadia's rocky coast.
Cassidy Jones: Both of us are big mountain people, and the ability to appreciate the ocean for kind of its wild nature is something that I think was kind of new for both of us in that park. I think he'd had a lot of experiences with the ocean that were resorts, and really lovely, but very different from the ocean in Acadia.
Jennifer Errick: The trip was a huge success, but there's an even happier ending to Cassidy's story.
Cassidy Jones: This memory and this park trip really stands out as kind of evidence about how much fun we could have together even in these very different settings and going on a very different kind of adventure than we had ever done together before. And it was an important, I think, kind of rekindling and reminding; long-distance relationships are not so fun. And certainly, it's born itself out. We still have a lot of fun and adventures together as folks who have been married now for three and a half years.
Jennifer Errick: John Adornato, deputy vice president for regional programs, also loves the wilderness of the East Coast, though his go-to winter spot is in a very different, even more remote part of the Atlantic.
John Adornato: They say that you've got to get out west to see the amazing stars of our galaxy and universe. But you can do that on the East Coast. You can do that 70 miles off the coast of Key West in Dry Tortugas National Park at Fort Jefferson. It is an absolutely stunning place that in the middle of the night, there is nothing and no one around. It's hard to find wilderness, quote, unquote wilderness in the east, but Dry Tortugas is a known place for their dark skies and stars. We went, my husband and I, and a couple of other friends, we've been there three or four times to enjoy just the most amazing place on earth, really.
This little itty bitty island in the middle of the ocean, on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico with no electricity, no road. And occasionally there are private boats that do come up and they'll anchor for the night, come over on a dinghy and spend the evening watching the sunset with us. But even they leave to go back to their boat for the night. So in the morning, beautiful sunrise, get your snorkeling equipment, walk into the water from the beach and enjoy what the marine world has to offer.
Jennifer Errick: In addition to the beach, the ocean and the stars, the park is also home to Fort Jefferson, the largest brick masonry structure in the country.
John Adornato: The fort itself is absolutely amazing, how it was constructed, who lived there. And the human history on this island and in this fort is really incredible in just an absolutely stunning natural environment. Coral reefs, fisheries, beaches, wading birds and overwintering birds.
Jennifer Errick: Because it takes so long to get to Dry Tortugas, planning to have enough time on the island is, in John's opinion, crucial.
John Adornato: We were lucky, smart enough, really, we were smart enough to know that we needed to be there for three nights, which left us two full days to be there. But when you go there on a day trip, it's a two-hour catamaran ride, really beautiful. You get there, some people will start with lunch, go and get a tour of the fort, and then have a little snorkeling trip.
But when you're there overnight, everyone leaves on the boat at about three o'clock, and that's when we reemerged from the tent and have a snorkeling trip enjoying the peace and quiet of the beach. The fish coming back after being scared off by all the kids and people who've been in the water. And I have seen 800 pound grouper and eight foot long tarpon swimming around the docks. It's absolutely unbelievable.
Now, the best thing to do when the sun starts setting, take your bottle of wine, go into the fort, climb up the stairs, pour a glass of wine and cheers to your friends and family that are with you and watch one of the most amazing sunsets you've ever seen.
Jennifer Errick: Not everyone can fall in love with winter the way some of my colleagues have, but Michael Jamison has a reason we could all learn to be at least a little more appreciative of this time of year.
Michael Jamison: I live in winter's house. Its own little jewel box, this little glittery jewel box that you only get to open for a little while. And then the summer crowds return. And winter in my backyard is a month shorter than it used to be.
Winter, it's this wonderful gift that we get, and it's disappearing. Everything about winter is changing. Really what we're doing is we're just eroding away this wonderful little gift that we get. It starts later, it ends earlier, it gets softer in the middle, and it brings me an incredible amount of joy. It's this little blanket I can curl up in. Summer is such an extroverted time. And winter is this introverted space where you can just pull winter around you, pull the clouds and the cold around you like a little blanket and just curl into it.
It's a very soothing place for me, winter is, and we're not going to have it forever.
Jennifer Errick: The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. Episode 15, The Little Jewel Box, was produced by me, Jennifer Errick, with help from Todd Christopher, Bev Stanton, Vanessa Pius, and Linda Coutant.
Original theme music by Chad Fischer.
Special thanks to all my colleagues who shared their stories with me, including Southern Appalachian Director Jeff Hunter, whose adventure in Death Valley we ultimately chose not to include. I really appreciate you all.
Learn more about this podcast and listen to the rest of our stories at thesecretlivesofparks.org.
For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America's national parks for present and future generations. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation's only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks.
And we're proud of it too.
You can join the fight to preserve parks for everyone in every season. Learn more and join us at npca.org.
Did you know that NPCA was just named one of the best places to work — and that we're hiring? Check out why so many of us love building our careers as advocates for national parks. Visit us at npca.org/topworkplace to learn more about our four-day workweek, our generous benefits and our inclusive work culture. That's npca.org/topworkplace.