Spring is one of the best times to book a trip to our national parks, as is summer, fall and winter.
Every season offers extraordinary perspectives at our national parks. Although some of the best experiences happen in spring – from the budding of diverse vegetation to the mass migration of wildlife to the celebration of National Parks Week., celebrated every spring at national parks and nationally designated sites across the country.
Spring is a relative term, however. Nature knows no calendar. It expresses the seasons in its own terms. Nevertheless, here are few national parks best seen in spring.
Death Valley National Park, California
Spring is fleeting in the parched-earth landscape of Death Valley. And it comes much earlier than in the Northeast.
If your timing is just right and weather conditions have been conducive, you might catch a “super bloom” of wildflowers over large swaths of the Mojave Desert. I wasn’t so lucky on my visit in spring 2020 (just before the pandemic), but it was still an ideal time to view the bizarre and breathtaking vistas before summer’s extreme heat.
The mountains, hills and cliffs are arranged in an assortment of shapes and painted in spectacular colors. The 9-mile Artist’s Loop drive reveals shades of yellow, turquoise, pink and other hues.
Badwater Basin, a 200-square-mile salt flat, is the lowest point in North America, 282 feet below sea level. From a distance, it shimmers in the sun like an enormous frozen lake. Up-close its salt deposits resemble snow – highly unlikely where average spring temperatures are 80-90 degrees. However, you can view snow-capped peaks in the far-off distance. For some perspective, turn toward the facing cliff where a small sign high above your head marks sea level.
On this trip, my fiancé and I also visited Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in Las Vegas and Zion National Park in Utah (see below), Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Hoover Dam and Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada. Staying in Las Vegas gave us a great hub for all of our activities.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Nevada
Want to catch a show in Las Vegas? Red Rock might be the best entertainment in town. There is glitz in the way the sun sparkles on the vibrant-colored stone. There is magic and illusion in the way the rocks cast shadows across the landscape. There is aerial acrobatics as climbers scale the faces of the enormous rock faces.
Given its proximity (17 miles from the Strip), we visited Red Rock a few times on our trip in early spring 2020. We went at midday at the beginning of our trip, when vegetation was still mostly dormant. We almost missed the large pack of wild burros among the brown brush.
We returned around sunset a couple of days later. The shadows had moved, completely transforming the environment. Then, a quick-moving, heavy rainstorm passed through, and the sun’s rays broke through the clouds spotlighting the land. The next day, the whole scene was transformed into various shades of green.
Everglades National Park, Florida
Everglades National Park is a waterlogged wonder – in most areas. However, some parts are dry, rugged and rocky. There is a diversity of terrains and fragile ecosystems supporting all types of wildlife from resident and migratory birds to panthers to … alligators, of course.
On our visit earlier this spring, we spent most of our time in the southeastern section. We watched various aquatic creatures ply the shallow waters. We walked along the Coastal Prairie Trail through a wooded area of moss-laden trees that opened to fields as far as the eye could see. We experienced a shimmering sunrise over Freshwater Marl Prairie at Par-hay-okee Overlook with only birds, including vultures, in our company.
The park is still in its dry season at this time of year, before summer’s humidity. Wildlife is more easily seen around smaller communal waters. Insects, particularly mosquitoes, are relatively inactive, though dragonflies and butterflies are out and about.
We also went snorkeling and kayaking at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo. We stopped at Biscayne National Park, which is almost entirely underwater.
You may think if you’ve seen one red rock, you’ve seen them all. But depending on the lay of the land, their material makeup, the intricate shapes formed by erosion and the various hues, they all seem brand new.
At Zion, the towering cliffs are a shade closer to pink ornamented by bright white. And the experience extends for many miles outside the park borders. We approached from the southwest along Route 9, stopping several times along the Virgin River to take pictures. We had no idea how much more intense the setting would get.
We arrived at the park at a perfect time of year to avoid large crowds, but just a little too early to experience the explosion of foliage and flowers that comes later in the spring. Taking the riverside walk leading to the Narrows, we found cascading pools of turquoise waters. It turned out to be a magnificent place for a marriage proposal.
We left– engaged – heading east on Route 9 (Zion Mount-Carmel Highway). It is a twisting scenic drive through the center of the park, and behind every turn there was yet another fantastic sight to behold.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana
Much of Yellowstone is currently closed to visitors because of damage from massive flooding. Updates are available on the National Parks Service website.
If Yellowstone is your once-in-a-lifetime trip, be sure to save enough time to see it all. We were a little too rushed when we visited in summer 2021.
We entered Yellowstone through the south gate, at the junction with Grand Teton National Park. Our carefully planned itinerary got thrown off at the Denver airport. And, maybe we stayed just a bit too long in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Maybe we stopped too many times in Grand Teton. And maybe, as copilot, I wasn’t paying close enough attention to road signs (distracted by the amazing mountain vistas).
We were pressed for time to get to our hotel in Gardiner, Mont. So, we made the sad decision to forgo most of the major tourist attractions, including geothermic features like the multicolored Grand Prismatic Spring. We also avoided large crowds, as COVID-19 was still a significant concern. We stopped at Old Faithful just to check it off our list. The next day, we got back on our original schedule, spending a good amount of time in Lamar Valley.
Living in the Northeast, it was hard to imagine such vast wilderness exists. In Lamar, bison and elk populations far outnumber humans. Coyotes, wolves and bear prowl almost in plain sight. It’s best to watch from afar with binoculars or a telephoto lens. Park rangers advise keeping a safe distance – 25 yards from most wildlife and 100 yards from predators like wolves and bears. Even if there are elk hanging out in your hotel parking lot, don’t assume they are tame.
Even with prolific hot springs and super volcano status, Yellowstone warms up to spring temperatures later in the year. In Yellowstone, animals large and small arrive with newborns in their midst. (Absolutely do not approach!) The landscape turns vivid greens speckled with wildflowers. For the full experience, take a deep breath. The sweet fragrance of wild sage blanketing the ground is unforgettable.
Yellowstone, our country’s first national park, is celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2022. The National Park Service and surrounding communities have special events and programs planned. Our trip to Yellowstone was just a segment of a whirlwind 30,000-mile loop through five states in 10 days. We also stopped at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota, and Mount Rushmore National Monument, South Dakota, among other places.
Interested in any of these experiences? Talk to a AAA travel advisor about guided and self-guided options.
Closer to Home
You don’t have to travel so far to enjoy the wonders of spring at a national park. There is plenty to see and do at National Parks in the Northeast.
Have you been to any of these parks? Use the comments section to share more information or suggest another National Park to visit in spring.