Summer is, without a doubt, the most popular season to explore the great outdoors – and for good reason. The weather is warm and sunny, the water is cool and inviting, and all parks, roads, and campsites are fully open.
But which season is the best for hiking?
As much as I love the endless waterfall splashes, swimming hole dips, and warm hikes through thick, green forests alive with the sounds of wildlife, summer isn’t the only time to strap up your boots and hit the trails.
There are advantages to hiking every season – yes, even winter – that I can’t wait to share with you in this blog post. I’ll be listing the pros and cons of hiking in each season so you can venture into the outdoors at whatever time of year works best for you!
By the end of this post, hopefully, you will be itching to lace up your boots, slide on your snowshoes, or slip on your sandals to hike the landscapes in each vibrant season.
Which Season Is Best For Hiking?
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Pros of Hiking in Autumn
Autumn brings crisp temperatures, which are a welcome relief to the scorching summer heat. Mild weather produces ultimate hiking comfort.
Personally, I enjoy the different conditions as the seasons change; I don’t mind the heat in the summer or the chill in the winter. But many people don’t like severe weather on either end of the spectrum, so hiking in between these two extremes in a shoulder season like autumn is more likely to yield an overall enjoyable experience.
Emerald leaves metamorphose into royal shades of aspen, crimson, and gold, spreading from north to south in a slow wave. A small peak window will reveal these stunning colors in full glory. (To see when fall color will be at its peak near you in 2023, click here.)
Many people will chase fall color without leaving the comfort of their car, but I encourage you to step onto a trail and wander around the forest with those vibrant colors splashing across your vision and sporadic fallen leaves crunching under your feet.
Since peak season has just passed in many places, the crowds will begin to thin.
Kids go back to school, parents have less time to venture outside, and some people just simply don’t want to spend hours in the woods or on the water when the temperature dips below 70 degrees.
But this short season is prime time when it comes to outdoor adventures. Trailheads will be empty, entrance stations won’t have long lines snaking miles down the road, and the woods will be quiet and colorful.
Spend less time dodging crowds and more time with nature in tranquil solitude.
Free Entrances (Potentially)
Depending on where you are in the country, some state parks, county parks, local recreation areas, and even some National Parks could potentially only charge admission during peak season.
Oftentimes parks won’t have a ranger stationed at the front in the off-season, allowing cars to move freely through the entrance at no charge.
If you’re planning on visiting more than two or three National Parks, be sure to snag an annual park pass. National Parks passes are only $80, and they give you free admission into all U.S. National Parks for one calendar year.
States have their own individual passes, so be sure to check your local DNR page to purchase those.
Cons of Hiking in Autumn
Depending on where you are in the country, nights in the fall have the potential to be chilly. But early fall often has periods of unseasonably warm weather, so this isn’t always a valid disadvantage.
Snow can start pretty early in the fall, especially in mountainous regions and higher elevations.
If you’re prepared for snow, this wouldn’t really be a con. It’s just worth pointing out that if you’re venturing into a park such as Mount Rainier in Washington or Rocky Mountain in Colorado, you could run into some unpredictable weather in the fall season, including snow.
Pros of Hiking in Winter
If you live anywhere in the northern half of the US, chances are you won’t see many other people out on the trails. Tourists avoid cold weather like the plague; instead, they prefer sandals, sunshine, and swimming over snowshoes, snow boots, and snowflakes.
The southern half of the country may see more activity in the winter months, but if you go somewhere where there is snow or cold temperatures, you will most likely find isolation.
Let me paint you a visual image of my ideal winter hike. 30 degrees. Fat snowflakes falling gracefully from a bright blue sky onto evergreen boughs, limbs bending with the weight of the powder. Snow-dusted trails mingled with crunchy leaves and cracking limbs. Silence so hushed that the shimmery powder can be heard falling softly onto the branches.
Though not every winter hike will look this picture-perfect, it doesn’t hurt to chase it.
Also, it’s amazing how much further your range of vision reaches in a bare forest. Who knew a bare forest could be so beautiful?
Silence is almost tangible between the bare trees. Some wildlife and insects hibernate, and all of the sounds that accompany a summer hike vanish. Whispers echo, and every creak of a tree and every snowflake that melts on the ground is audible.
It’s as if the forest is holding its breath, waiting patiently for summer to breathe life into it once again. But if you look all around you and listen to all of the hushed sounds, you’ll find that winter truly brings the woods into a new light, one that just can’t be discovered behind the haze of humidity, lush green leaves, and noisy crowds.
Cons of Hiking in Winter
Some roads and trails are impassible during the winter months. Many National Parks roads and trails in high elevations close as soon as the first snowfall comes.
These roads and trails become buried in feet of snow, making them too dangerous to traverse and too deep to plow.
High-elevated National Parks, such as Rocky Mountain, Mount Rainer, and Yellowstone can get dozens of feet of snowfall each year, creating a daunting and virtually impossible task of plowing the already dangerous and windy roads.
All National Parks have their own park pages, and closures are always being updated on those pages by park rangers. Check those closures and important alerts before you venture into the park.
Winter brings cold temperatures, even into parts of the desert. Snow and cold weather are less and less likely the further south that you travel, but most areas are inevitably going to have at least a short, chilly season.
Cold weather also brings the risk of hypothermia if you aren’t properly prepared. More layers and more gear are required, which means your backpack will undoubtedly be heavier.
The daylight window becomes slimmer and slimmer the closer the days crawl from June to December. The days begin getting shorter in late June, and daylight decreases to about ten hours by December.
This means less time to hike and explore unless you plan on wandering with a headlamp in potentially subfreezing temperatures.
→ READ NEXT: Night Hiking Tips 🔦
Pros of Hiking in Spring
Again, hiking in the “off-season” has major advantages, the biggest advantage being crowds. The air still has a slight nip to it in the spring, which is a natural tourist repellent.
The forest is starting to come alive, and the snowmelt is rolling off cliffs in torrential waves. Wildflowers are beginning to pop up, and the trees start to wake up from their dormant rest. But still, tourists just won’t be out in full swing to witness all of this glory like they are in the summer.
High elevations are still buried in snow, attracting only those who can snowshoe and come prepared for the weather.
Hiking in 90-degree heat or 20-degree chill isn’t the most comfortable. Sure, I can adapt my gear and bring along items to make the experience more enjoyable, but nothing quite beats spring temperatures.
50-70-degree hiking is that sweet spot where I don’t feel too hot or too cold when I’m walking. The slight bite to the air is relieved by constant movement and high exertion.
I just had to add this as a pro because waterfalls are one of my favorite things in nature. Snow is beginning to melt, so the frozen falls are flowing – at least partially – again.
Some waterfalls flow year-round, no matter the temperature or weather conditions. But many reach their peak in the springtime due to the snowmelt and/or heavy rainfall. They will trickle or even dry up in the summer, or freeze in the winter, only to return to their full magnificence in early spring.
Cons of Hiking in Spring
Spring in many areas isn’t the most ideal time for camping because the nights can get pretty chilly.
The daytime hours usually generate comfortable hiking conditions, but the temperature could dip below freezing at night, depending on where you are in the country.
Many areas of the US, especially northern states and higher-elevated areas will see snowfall in the spring.
I included this as a con because it deters many from hiking in this season, but I honestly don’t view it as a negative. Early spring snow is the prettiest because the temperature is usually hovering right around or above that freezing point, and the snow that falls is fat, heavy, and breathtaking.
Snow in spring just has a different feel than winter snow. When you see snow in winter, you’re expecting it, and you can’t see the finish line to the brutal season. But in spring, you know that that snow will melt soon, so you want to enjoy it as much as possible before warm weather arrives in full swing.
Pros of Hiking in Summer
I love seeing colorful wildflowers on the trail. After a long winter season of browns and whites, late spring and summer bring a kaleidoscope of vivid colors.
Splashes of purples, oranges, pinks, and blues pop up along many trails during the summer, giving the woods radiant diversity.
You can see wildlife year-round, depending on the species, but many will hibernate during the winter. When the woods begin to come alive again, so does the wildlife.
Depending on where you are in the country, you may spot elk, deer, bears, mountain goats, wild horses, coyotes, or even mountain lions galloping along the trails. Birds chirp and insects hum, constructing a beautiful symphony in the forest.
Longer days mean longer hikes! When I’m planning a winter hike, I have to take into consideration that daylight begins to wane by 5 PM, but in the summer, daylight stretches to 9:00-10:00 PM some nights.
This allows you to spend more time outdoors doing what you love.
Summer isn’t just for hiking. You can also drag out your canoe, SUP, or kayak and paddle along a river or lake.
You can backpack, camp, climb, and venture into high-elevated areas that are only snow-free for a short window every year.
Opportunities in the summer are endless, which is why I suppose crowds are the thickest.
Cons of Hiking in Summer
Bugs can be a major nuisance in the summer. Mosquitoes, flies, and other pesky insects are attracted by the sweat beads clinging to your skin, making them even more annoying.
Add a recent rainstorm to the mix and an attractive blood type, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for a bug disaster.
Carry bug repellent and a head net to put the bugs at bay.
Heat and Humidity
When you’re exerting a high amount of physical energy, heat and humidity can feel suffocating if you’re not properly hydrating.
Take multiple breaks, drink plenty of water, and don’t push yourself more than you can handle. Heatstroke kills thousands every year.
You probably won’t find as much solitude in the summer. Everyone is outdoors when it’s warm and sunny, so there are more people and noises wherever you go.
But don’t give up hope; you can find plenty of solitude along longer trails, more difficult trails, and lesser-known trails that people don’t or can’t venture to.
Wildfires wreak havoc in the desert and mountains in the summer. Many roads and trails are at risk of getting scorched, and oftentimes, closures follow in these places. In response to these wildfires, campfires are always banned.
Make sure to check the DNR page of the park or forest that you will be exploring to see what bans are currently in place and what trails or roads are closed.
Tips for Reversing Some of the “Cons”
For winter, try planning shorter hikes. Shorter days don’t have to equate to less fun. Plan hikes that fit into the current daylight timeframe so that you can be back before it gets dark to avoid getting lost in the woods in the cold.
To shake things up, try new activities such as snowshoeing, skiing, or cross-country skiing.
To avoid frozen extremities, slip electric hand warmers in your boots or rub one between your hands periodically. Invest in excellent cold-weather gear like gloves, hats, ear wraps, and heavy outerwear.
Cold weather may seem daunting, but if you’re layered up and you’re exerting any form of physical energy, your blood will pump and your internal body temperature will compensate for the external chill. You will warm up if you just keep walking! Give it a try.
For summer, spray your body and/or clothes with bug spray and wear a head net over your hat.
If you overheat, carry instant cold packs that you can crack, dip a bandana in cold water to wrap around your neck, or jump in a waterfall or a chilly alpine lake.
In regard to crowds, there are plenty of opportunities for solitude even in the height of summer. Seek out those longer trails or less popular hikes where crowds are thin or nonexistent. I promise trails like those are out there! Even in the most popular parks.
So what’s the best season to hike?
Overall, summer is the most attractive to hike due to the perfect temperatures and snow-free trails, but I’d encourage you to venture onto the trails in every season!
Don’t be afraid to venture into the backcountry or frontcountry in each of the beautiful seasons. The adventures that are unique to each time of year make hiking and adventuring all the more exciting. And even if you hike the same trails, the same forests, the same mountains, and the same parks each season, you will still see and experience new things.
The leaves in the forests will change colors in the fall and drop to the ground in the winter before coming alive again in the spring and summer. The mountains will be coated in a heavy blanket of snow in the winter and could be at least partially passable in the summer. A winter desert will look juxtaposed with red rock and white snow while a summer desert promises hot, dry heat.
Come find out for yourself!