National parks aren’t just for summer vacation. Many of the nation’s 409 parks and affiliated areas gear up for a festive holiday season with special events and programs, from cave caroling to star gazing. “Most parks have a year-round presence, and Christmas events are really a part of their communities,” says Will Shafroth, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation, a charity supporting the park system. He shares some favorite holiday events.
Luminaria Lighting, Mesa Verde National Park, Colo.
Visitors are dazzled every holiday season when luminarias decorate a Mesa Verde cliff dwelling built by the Ancestral Pueblo people. The small paper lanterns, popular in the Southwest, will line the path to the Spruce Tree House, and throughout the historic park interpretation area on Dec. 10. Guests are advised to dress warmly, and bring a flashlight. “This is something they’ve been doing for years,” Shafroth says. 970-529-4465; nps.gov/meve
National Christmas Tree Lighting, President’s Park, Washington
A few things have changed since President Calvin Coolidge lit the first National Christmas Tree in 1923. The tree now has a Twitter account, @TheNationalTree, and a concert celebrates the lighting. The Dec. 4 event features Fall Out Boy, Trombone Shorty and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Two days later, the park will host a menorah lighting for Hanukkah. “This is an amazing place, right on the White House grounds,” Shafroth says. 202-208-1631; thenationaltree.org
Cave Sing, Mammoth Cave National Park, Ky.
It’s hard to beat the acoustics in the world’s longest cave system, as local residents discovered in 1883 when they held the first Christmas celebration in the cavern. In 1980, the park service revived the candle-lit tradition, complete with decorated tree. This year, it’s scheduled for Dec. 6. “To take advantage of this special place and highlight its uniqueness is a really wonderful thing,” Shafroth says. 270-758-2180; nps.gov/maca
Raft with Santa, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Ariz.
St. Nick doesn’t limit his outings to sleigh rides. On Dec, 24, passengers are invited to join him piloting a raft down the Black Canyon of the Colorado River, below Hoover Dam. “It’s a very mild stretch of river,” Shafroth says. The trip ends with hot chocolate, cookies and Christmas gifts. 800-455-3490; blackcanyonadventures.com
Victorian Christmas, Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site, Buffalo, N.Y.
The home where President Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1901 after the assassination of President William McKinley celebrates happier memories every Christmas, decking out for an annual Victorian celebration. The event, which is open to the public Dec. 4-12, includes wine tastings, luncheons and plenty of historic trimmings. “It’s beautifully decorated,” Shafroth says. 716-884-0095; nps.gov/thri
Solstice Star Gazing, Pinnacles National Park, Paicines, Calif.
On one of the darkest nights of the year in one of California’s darkest spots, rangers will help visitors explore the heavens. The winter solstice star gazing event, scheduled for Dec. 22, will be held at Bear Gulch Reservoir. “It’s a perfect place. It’s a long way to the next town out there,” Shafroth says. 831-389-4486; nps.gov/pinn
Wreath laying, Andersonville National Historic Site, Ga.
A national cemetery, located at the site of a notorious Confederate prisoner of war camp, will participate in national Wreaths Across America Day on Dec. 12. Guests are encouraged to bring or sponsor a wreath to place on one of the 19,000 graves. “It’s an important part of the history to recognize,” Shafroth says. 229-924-0343; nps.gov/ande
Prairie Cultures Festival, Homestead National Monument, Beatrice, Neb.
The Homestead Act of 1862 opened huge swaths of federal land to settlement, attracting new immigrants — and their holiday traditions. The annual festival runs through Jan. 3, 2016, and in previous years represented groups have included Czech, Danish, French, German, Hispanic, Irish, Jewish, Polish, Scottish, Swedish and Welsh. “This is ground zero for the Homestead Act, and they are highlighting the diversity that America was at the time,” Shafroth says. 402-223-3514; nps.gov/home
Christmas at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, Vancouver, Wash.
This Pacific Northwest fur-trading and military outpost turns the clock back to the 1840s with its annual holiday celebration on Dec. 12. Activities include wreath making and a chance to build a toy top, along with caroling and dancing and servings of apple wassail. 360-816-6230; nps.gov/fova
Polar Express, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
Pajama-clad passengers line up every year for the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad’s “Polar Express” trip through the northern Ohio national park. The outing includes a reading of the storybook that inspired the hit holiday movie. “It’s a great old refurbished train and it goes through this lovely scenery as it chugs along,” Shafroth says. 800-468-4070; cvsr.com