8 national parks that are spectacular in spring
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Deserts ablaze with lupine, yarrow and paintbrush; rivers surging with snowmelt; high meadows lush with columbine and alpine sunflower; elk, moose, bear and deer venturing out of their winter hideaways, new babies in tow. These are just a few of the many reasons to make a springtime pilgrimage to one — or many — of America’s national parks.
Here we highlight eight national parks that are particularly special to visit in the spring.
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Joshua Tree National Park
Few national parks strut their stuff as showily as Joshua Tree in spring, when the park’s namesake trees send their enormous, space-age blossoms reaching for the sky, their heady scent perfuming the desert landscape. Those aren’t the only blooms, of course — visitors pour into the park to see the desert sands awash with colors so bright you’ll have trouble putting away your camera to explore.
But explore you must, because Joshua Tree’s otherworldly rock formations must been seen to be believed; there’s a reason Hollywood directors have set everything from westerns to sci-fi classics in these eerie landscapes.
You can come at Joshua Tree from two directions, the greater Palm Springs area to the south or from the adjacent towns of Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree to the north. Between them you’ll find a great stay in every price range, from the friendly and affordable SureStay Plus by Best Western and other budget options in Twentynine Palms to expansive luxury resorts in the desert town near Palm Springs such as the JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa in Palm Desert; the Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa, Indian Wells; and the La Quinta Resort and Club, a Waldorf Astoria Resort in La Quinta.
Yellowstone National Park
The second most visited national park in the entire system, Yellowstone needs no introduction, yet the park’s spring beauty remains far less well known. To see all the park’s highlights, you’ll want to plan your visit for mid-April when the main roads reopen. For those who want to go earlier, however, Mammoth Hot Springs and its historic hotel remains open year-round and is a popular destination in winter. April is also when the bears emerge from their dens, many with their ridiculously cute cubs in tow, and migrating birds bring the woods and meadows alive with their song. Love baby animals? May is calving season for bison, moose, elk and pronghorn.
Travelers wedded to loyalty programs will find many major brands from Holiday Inn in West Yellowstone, Montana, half an hour northwest of the park, to the Four Seasons in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a little more than an hour from the south entrance. But considering the sheer number of sights strung along the 142-mile Yellowstone Loop, along with the need to catch an eruption of Old Faithful and sunset over the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, it’s much more convenient to stay in the park itself.
The good news is that park concessionaire Xanterra offers a wide variety of in-park lodging options, from elegant columned Lake Yellowstone Hotel to woodsy Canyon Lodge and Cabins, popular for its central location and woodsy vibe.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Colorado offers an unusual variety of national parks, from the Sahara-like landscape of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve to the craggy majesty of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, but many would argue that Rocky Mountain National Park is the state’s crown jewel. Located in Northern Colorado, The 265,807-acre park is a must-visit for nature enthusiasts.
If wildlife-watching is high on your list, you won’t be disappointed with RMNP. There are 67 diverse mammal species that you have an opportunity to spot inside the park, including grizzly bears, grey wolves, bison, and bighorn sheep which start lambing in the spring. Plus, you’re almost guaranteed a chance to watch herds of elk graze (and possibly play) in Beaver Meadow and moose chow down along the streams of Moraine Park.
Estes Park, which calls itself the Gateway to the Rockies, offers a few loyalty program hotels, including a Best Western and a Quality Inn. Also located here is the historic (and possibly haunted) Stanley Hotel, a Colorado landmark since 1909 that has lost none of its turn-of-the-century grandeur, yet offers numerous surprisingly affordable room options. Those who prefer quiet may choose to stay in more rustic Grand Lake, just outside the park’s western gate, where Coyote Valley affords some of the park’s best elk viewing.
Arches National Park
Photographers know to visit Arches National Park in spring, when the ochre and vermillion formations of eroded sandstone are made even more vivid by the surrounding greenery. Temperature is another reason to visit now as summer can be brutal in the southern Utah desert, with temperatures heading north of 100 degrees starting in mid-May.
At just 80,000 acres, Arches is one of the most manageable of the southwestern red rock parks, with its most popular features such as Delicate Arch, Double Arch and the Windows Section accessible from the park’s main road. Temperatures in the spring are low enough to make longer hikes like the 2-mile out-and-back to the rock towers of Park Avenue and the 7.2 Devils Garden Primitive Loop perfectly comfortable.
The hip little town of Moab is best known for its cute cabins and lively restaurant scene, but it also offers numerous affordable points hotels including Hyatt Place, La Quinta and Homewood Suites by Wyndham, Holiday Inn Express and Best Western Plus. For those who can’t get enough of red rock country, Canyonlands National Park, Arches’ larger but less-visited sister, is just 40 minutes south of Moab.
Shenandoah National Park
In Shenandoah National Park, the spring bloom is not limited to the slopes and meadows, but paints the forests with watercolors as well, with azaleas, trilliums and wild geraniums blanketing the forest floor. In fact, wildflower spotting is such a draw that in a typical year the park hosts its own Wildflower Weekend in early May.
The earliest blooms tend to be along the lower-elevation valleys of the Rose, South and Hughes rivers and along Mill Prong, while May is peak time for pink azaleas and June sees the arrival of mountain laurel. Further south, head for Linville Falls or hike the Linville Gorge Trail to fully immerse yourself in nature’s rhododendron garden.
The spring bird migration brings its fans, too, who come looking for scarlet tanagers, cerulean warblers and other colorful transients along Pocosin Trail. The Passamaquoddy Trail and Lewis Mountain are other popular spots for flowers, birds and wildlife.
There are no fewer than 75 scenic overlooks along the 105 miles of the Skyline Drive Scenic Byway, offering every possible angle from which to view the spectacle.
Spanning 6,000 acres in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, Massanutten Resort is located in the town of McGaheysville, Virginia. The all-season resort allows visitors to take part in an active retreat along the 30 miles of mountain biking trails, hiking trails, a mega zip line and inner tubing lanes.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
America’s most popular national park doesn’t just draw the most annual visitors, it’s also home to the largest number of flowering plants, more than 1,500 different species. So don’t forget your wildflower guide when you visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park — from March through June you’ll find spectacular displays moving from lower elevations to the mountaintops. Among the highlights are the dogwoods, their huge white and yellow blooms showering the ground with petals and the air with a heady fragrance. More delicate but even more dramatic are the redbuds, which spray their blooms of neon pink and lavender through the park’s verdant valleys.
Some of the best wildflower walks are along the Porters Creek, Little River, Schoolhouse Gap and Kanata Fork trails and on the Cove Hardwoods Nature Trail. Greenery is another highlight of spring here — almost all of the parks more than 100 species of trees are deciduous, so it’s a dramatic sight to see them leafing out in delicate clouds of lime and emerald green. Like Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is proud enough of its wildflowers to celebrate them with a special event, the week-long Wildflower Pilgrimage in May.
For an outdoor lover’s glamping experience, The Ridge Outdoor Resort in Sevierville, Tennessee, has luxury tiny home cabins available to rent, along with RV sites and glamping tents. The custom-made Canvas Glamping Tents each feature full bedrooms, kitchens, private bathrooms, a charcoal grill and deck for watching the stars at night.
Zion National Park
Spring is waterfall season in Zion, when the Virgin River roars through the canyon and seasonal tributaries tumble down the canyon walls. The famed Emerald Pools are a wonder at any time of year, but in spring the misty 110 foot cascade widens into a curtain of water that catches the light in a halo of rainbows. More waterfalls plunge from the 1,000-foot walls of Parunuweap Canyon. Hiiking is ideal this time of year, when temperatures are in the 70s and the ochre and crimson cliffs are particularly photogenic against the bright green foliage of freshly budded cottonwoods.
Zion’s gateway town of Springdale has plenty of lodging options including the Springhill Suites by Marriott, while the larger town of St. George, centrally located to all area parks, is packed with name-brand hotels as well as the design-forward and luxurious Advenire, a Marriott Autograph Collection property. Just north of St. George, don’t miss the lava flows and Snow Canyon State Park where you’ll see the desert painted with wildflowers like desert chickweed, buttercup and sand verbena.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Yellowstone isn’t the only national park where you can watch baby bison wobble along on their spindly new legs; Theodore Roosevelt National Park is bison central, charged with the mission to protect one of America’s most beloved — and most hunted — species from going extinct.
In addition to bison and other wildlife sightings, the park celebrates all aspects of prairie life, including the prairie crocus, abundant across these high plains just after snowmelt. And don’t forget the prairie dog — these highly social animals have their own gigantic “town” sprawling across acres of the park where they pop from their burrows to look curiously at visitors and call to their neighbors with dog-like barks. Late May and early June is when prairie dog babies first come out to play in the springtime sun.
If you’re a U.S. history buff, then the Rough Riders Hotel is where you should stay. The hotel is named after Theodore Roosevelt’s volunteer cavalry unit, and boasts an expansive library both written by and about the 26th president. Some of the rooms are even replicas of historic 1880s accommodations.
You’ll find plenty of the three W’s — wildflowers, wildlife and water — when you visit these national parks in spring.
Featured image of Yellowstone National Park by Lane Erickson/Adobe Stock
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