Thawing snow, rousing animals, and bluebird skies have a way of beckoning us outdoors. When the temperature finally warms up, nature stirs from hibernation—but it feels the same for us, too. Spring reinvigorates. It makes you want to move and explore. If you’ve been itching to pay a visit to one of the country’s national parks, but haven’t discerned where you want to go or which is best this time of year, we’ve got some insider info.
After all, a trip to the national parks shouldn’t be executed without some pre-planning. Some areas—Rocky Mountain National Park’s Trail Ridge Road or Going-to-the-Sun Road (one of Glacier National Park’s star attractions)—remain covered in snow through spring. Roads in Yellowstone close, and trails can be wet and muddy, too.
A well-thought-out visit to one of our nation’s wide-open lands will reward you with spectacular hikes, including an eruptions of flora and fauna; streams swollen with meltwater; and, in many places, resplendent peace and quiet.
Here’s where to head this spring, according to experts. Click through the slideshow above.
1. Yosemite National Park
Visiting Yosemite is “absolutely mandatory” in the spring, says Marty Behr, founder and chief development officer of Revealed America. Not only do the country’s two tallest waterfalls, Yosemite and Sentinel Falls, reside there, but peak flow takes place just as winter thaws, he says. Plus, you won’t have big crowds until early June. “This year, we’ve had immense snowfall in California, so the falls are going to be over-the-top unbelievable.”
2. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Synchronous fireflies, just one of 19 species of fireflies that live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park between North Carolina and Tennessee, put on a unique annual event just before summer, says Michael Joseph Oswald, author of Your Guide to the National Parks. “Each year, typically in mid-June, fireflies light the night in the park’s Elkmont Area,” he says. The park’s popular campground, on the Tennessee side, goes dark besides the flicker of their light. The spectacle runs on the fireflies’ biological clocks, he says, so to see it, you’ll have to monitor the park’s website. (Usually, it’s between the end of May and the end of June.)
3. Big Bend National Park
Too hot in the summer, this far-west Texas national park is best seen in the springtime when hiking trails aren’t as crowded (watch out for spring break weeks, though) and the desert ecology (e.g. road runners, cactus) is on prime display, says Behr. You can also river raft on the Rio Grande, which boasts some of its best water flow in the spring, he says.
4. Point Reyes National Seashore
It might not be a national park, per se, but this protected stretch of California coast will beat your average left coast beach trip. “This year is great for wildflowers in the midsection of California, all along the coast,” says Behr. Hiking (there are 150 miles of trails to explore) is always a draw at Point Reyes—The Earthquake Trail explores the San Andreas Fault Zone, for example. But the wildflowers promise to be overwhelming (in a good way) this year; they’re the real draw. Chimney Rock Trail, overlooking Drakes Bay and the Pacific, is one of your best bets.
5. Grand Canyon National Park
While the North Rim doesn’t open until mid-June, by late March there’s no more snow at the open-year-round South Rim. Since summer can be unbearably hot, take advantage of cooler temperatures and hike down (or part of the way down) into the canyon, suggests Behr. Or let someone else do the hard work for you: Stay at a hotel, like the Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock in the desert town of Sedona, about two hours away. They’ll plan an outing for you via tour group company Pink Adventure Tours. Luxe L’Auberge de Sedona takes things a step further to celebrate the Park’s centennial year, offering an aerial adventure of the Grand Canyon for those who want to take in the sights from above.
6. Great Sand Dunes National Park
Don’t skip Colorado after ski season. “In spring, snowmelt from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains fills Medano Creek, which runs right alongside the park’s impressive dunes,” says Oswald. “The creek’s seasonal flooding is a real treat, creating a beach-like atmosphere in the middle of the mountains.” It’s worth seeing now: The sand is often too hot to bear with bare feet in the summer, he says.
7. Bryce Canyon National Park
Utah is home to five of the country’s most spectacular national parks, including popular Zion and Arches, which you might recognize from the state’s license plates. Temperate weather makes spring a popular time to visit any of them, says Oswald, but Bryce Amphitheater, a series of hoodoos (tall, thin spires of rock) makes his list of top national park attractions. “It’s one of the most indescribable sites in the world.” Explore it on foot or via a horseback tour, he suggests.
8. Isle Royale National Park
Want some solitude? You’ll likely find it at Isle Royale, which opens in April. “Visitor transportation begins in May, but if you catch one of those first boats over, you’ll pretty much have the island to yourself; there won’t be any bugs; and you’ll have a pretty good chance of spotting moose sheds—just leave them behind for others to see,” says Oswald. The downside: It can be cool and trails (other than the Greenstone) will be muddy, too, he says. Elevated boardwalks make for easier hiking.
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