Spring is vastly underrated as a time to visit America’s national parks. Anyone who’s ever driven around a packed national park overlook in July, desperately hunting a parking space, knows summer is the peak time. And fall also sees a deluge of visitors, with bumper-to-bumper traffic on scenic roads at the height of leaf season. Spring, however, brings its own wonders in the parks: spectacular wildflower blooms, thundering waterfalls fueled by melting snow, abundant wildlife … and lighter crowds. Here are five parks well worth a visit during the spring.
5. Yosemite National Park
Any season is a good time to visit this iconic national park in central California. But less than 20 percent of the park’s annual visitors visit during the spring months of March through May. That’s a shame, because the park’s waterfalls tend to reach peak runoff beginning in May, and even minor creeks and cascades all around the valley rush with water from melting snow. Although the Glacier Point and Tioga roads are usually closed until late May due to snow, Yosemite Valley and Wawona are accessible by vehicle throughout the year. You’ll pay lower rates for lodging in nearby towns than during the peak season, and you won’t have to fight for a parking space at popular overlooks.
4. Saguaro National Park
The saguaro cacti that give this Arizona national park its name are otherworldly at sunset, standing like alien soldiers stretching to the horizon on the desert terrain. But they don’t look so menacing on a beautiful spring day, surrounded by blooming wildflowers and their own blooms (the saguaro blossom is the official state wildflower of Arizona). Toss in 165 miles of hiking trails, spectacular sunsets, and close encounters with desert wildlife such as the javelina … you could do a lot worse on your next spring weekend trip in the Southwest.
3. Shenandoah National Park
Each May, this national park in Virginia hosts Wildflower Weekend. But the peak flower season usually begins in late March. Many people shy away from the park at that time of year because many amenities, such as visitor centers, restaurants, lodges and campgrounds, don’t open until April or even May. But if you don’t mind “roughing it” for a ride down picturesque Skyline Drive, you’ll find plenty of wonders in an early spring visit.
2. Death Valley National Park
If you’ve ever been through Death Valley on a summer day when the temperature toped 115 degrees or more, you understand where the park got its name. Temperatures are much more amenable in the spring; not surprisingly, this is the most popular time of year to visit this park. The most popular Death Valley attractions, such as Zabriskie Point, draw crowds, but the most surreal spring sight is wildflowers blanketing the normally barren desert. (This is all dependent on rain over the winter; check the park’s website for details.) If there’s a knock on visiting Death Valley in the spring, it’s that everyone else had figured out that’s the best time of year; if you’re planning on staying in the park or even nearby, reservations are highly recommended.
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
More than 1,600 species of flowering plants can be found in this park, more than in any other national park. No wonder Great Smoky Mountains National Park is dubbed the “Wildflower National Park.” So it should come as not surprise that no other national park celebrates the advent of spring — and the blossoming of wildflowers — quite like this park straddling the Tennessee and North Carolina border. Each spring, visitors flock to the park for the five-day Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. Events held in the park include photo tours, art classes and guided nature walks. Or you could skip the organized events and head out on your own on a trail. In addition to many great Smoky Mountains N.P. park trails, the Appalachian Trail runs through the park.
If you’re pressed for time and don’t want to get out of the car, just take a drive through the heart of the park between Cherokee, N.C., and Gatlinburg, Tenn., on U.S. 441 (Newfound Gap Road). Finally, one more good reason to visit this park in the spring: melting runoff from any late-season snows boosts the flow of the park’s most popular waterfalls.