8 national parks with epic holiday celebrations

Twinkling lights, sightseeing with Santa, and a heavenly chorus are just some of the seasonal celebrations that await this holiday season

Banff National Park. | Photo: Orange Girl Photography

The holiday season is a wonderful time to visit North America’s national parks, which offer cooler temps, lighter crowds, and a peaceful serenity that comes during this relatively quiet time of year. Those looking to visit these stunning destinations during the holidays will find that some even transform into winter wonderlands bursting with special themed activities to help make the season bright.

Whether you’re seeking family-friendly entertainment and a visit from Santa, rousing celebrations featuring time-honored traditions, or a tranquil getaway that allows you to further immerse yourself in the beauty of nature, these national parks make the perfect destination for your holiday getaway.

An elaborate light display depicts a frog with an illuminated tongue.
Holiday Lights at Garvan Woodland Gardens | Photo: Garvan Woodland Gardens

1. Cherish time-honored customs at Hot Springs National Park

Those looking to relish treasured customs at the country’s national parks will find a lot to love during the classic celebrations found at Hot Springs National Park. Downtown Hot Springs bursts to life with holiday light displays from November to early January. The charming Garvan Woodland Gardens shines extra bright during the Holiday Lights event, featuring displays of nearly 5 million lights, glowing gingerbread houses, glimmering Christmas trees, and more.

Related A city within a park: Arkansas’ Hot Springs National Park turns 100

And the steamy springs create a picturesque backdrop for the region’s annual Hot Springs Christmas Parade, held in early December, which is dedicated to “keepin’ it lit” each holiday season.

A dimly lit cave is the setting for a gathering of people listening to a concert surrounding a Christmas tree.
Mammoth Cave Sing | Photo: National Park Service

2. Enjoy awesome acoustics at Mammoth Cave National Park

For a holiday tradition that dates back to 1883, take in a joyous choral performance during the Mammoth Cave Sing. Annual Cave Sing events have taken place within a cavern at Mammoth Cave National Park since 1980, offering performances by singers and musicians from local colleges and other groups.

This 1-hour melodic experience takes place in early December, and though the cave offers a soft glow from the centerpiece Christmas tree, visitors should be prepared for low lighting and chilly temps in this natural concert setting.

On a dark night, children look in awe at a huge lighted sculpture of a moose.
Cascade of Time Garden | Photo: Banff & Lake Louise Tourism / Kelly MacDonald

3. Savor a traditional holiday atmosphere at Banff National Park

From carols to candles, cookies, and cocoa, the holiday season is full of robust rituals passed on from generation to generation. And at Alberta’s Banff National Park you can honor treasured traditions in an awe-inspiring snow-covered setting.

Events held throughout the season include European-style Christmas markets filled with handcrafted wares and delicious treats, a delectable hot chocolate trail through Banff and Lake Louise, and a live Christmas story told through illuminated puppets, dazzling sculptures, and clever sound effects at the park’s Cascade of Time Garden. 

Related 11 national parks with incredible winter experiences

Santa stands with outstretched arms as he greets passengers on a train.
Cuyahoga Valley North Pole Adventure | Photo: Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad

4. Travel to the North Pole at Cuyahoga Valley National Park 

Families looking for kid-approved experiences this holiday season can enjoy appearances by Saint Nick at Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Here you can see Santa in his natural habitat when you set off on a scenic train trip to the North Pole as part of the Cuyahoga Valley North Pole Adventure

This special event, taking place in the weeks leading up to Christmas, allows travelers to see Santa’s workshop up close as all the elves are hard at work making presents for all the children on the “nice” list. Savor hot chocolate and cookies while you draft your wish list to be delivered directly through the North Pole postmaster.

Related Top 10 things to do in Ohio

Santa waves from the caboose of a train as it passes an illuminated town marked "North Pole."
Grand Canyon Railway’s Polar Express | Photo: Xanterra Travel Collection

5. Hop aboard the Polar Express to Grand Canyon National Park 

Fans of the man in the red suit can also ride the rails for a different Santa-themed adventure, taking visitors from Williams, Arizona, to Grand Canyon National Park. A nighttime excursion on Grand Canyon Railway’s Polar Express offers a peaceful, 90-minute journey complete with seasonal snacks.

Travelers will have the honor of mingling with Santa and his reindeer before heading back to Williams with a keepsake present in hand. It’s a popular journey that fills up fast, so making reservations for this experience is a “must.”

A white riverboat sails past the St. Louis skyline, which is dominated by the sight of the soaring Gateway Arch.
Gateway Arch River Cruise | Photo: Gateway Arch

6. Cruise with Santa past Gateway Arch National Park

Still searching for a unique chance to meet Kris Kringle? Then don your pajamas and join Santa on a river cruise past the iconic Gateway Arch National Park. On the weekends leading up to Christmas, you can dress in ultimate nap time comfort as you come aboard a festively decorated riverboat for the PJs and Pancakes with Santa event. Here cruisers will enjoy a kid-approved breakfast, holiday-themed crafts and games, and plenty of photo ops with the big man himself.

Adults looking for a more grown-up getaway will find that a rousing celebration awaits on the special New Year’s Eve Party Cruise.

A red and black finch sits alert on a tree branch.
Christmas Bird Count House Finch | Photo: Luke Franke/Audubon

7. Seek out songbirds at Zion National Park (and beyond)

Each December, natural areas throughout the country take part in the longest-running citizen science survey in the world during the Christmas Bird Count. This century-old, far-reaching effort allows bird watchers and avian enthusiasts to join in the efforts to identify, count, and record the bird population as part of what’s considered to be the most significant citizen-based conservation effort. 

The events at Zion and Bryce Canyon allow participants to join with family and friends to conduct their count throughout a designated zone within the park. Those who can’t make it to Utah for this endeavor can locate Christmas Bird Count events at nearby national, state, and other parks throughout the holiday season by visiting the National Audubon Society’s website.

A geothermal pool sits at the center of a snowy landscape.
Winter at Yellowstone National Park

8. Ring in the New Year at Yellowstone National Park 

Yellowstone National Park offers a bounty of seasonal traditions, including a holiday dinner at Old Faithful Snow Lodge, complete with cheerful carols and live piano music. However, it’s the park’s New Year’s Eve event that offers the most unique way to usher in the year ahead.

At midnight on New Year’s Eve, visitors gather to wait and watch as Old Faithful bursts to life for the first eruption of the New Year. This longtime holiday tradition makes the perfect, peaceful alternative to a typical New Year’s party blowout.