Great National Parks for Spring Vacations: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
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The Best U.S. National Parks to Visit in Spring

Spring can be a tricky time to go to the U.S. national parks. Some aren't fully open until the end of the season, while others batter visitors with wet, muddy conditions. But these national parks do the opposite—they're ideal in March, April, and May, blossoming with blossoms, flowing with waterfalls, and thriving with baby animals and other springtime delights.

Pictured above: wildflower at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great National Parks for Spring Vacations: The prairies of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.
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Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Serrated wind-sculpted cliffs, the U.S.A.'s largest collection of petrified wood, and critters aplenty (herds of bison, feral horses, elk, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, mule deer, porcupines, prairie dogs) are what make these badlands such good vacation material come summer camping season. We recommend the far less crowded springtime. In April, the first of some 400 species of wildflowers start to bloom, and by May a great rush of color washes across the park's floodplains, grasslands, prairie dog towns, buttes, and forests.

The park is divided into a North Unit and a South Unit that are looped together by the Little Missouri River and the Maah Daah Hey Trail. In the middle is Elkhorn Ranch, which Roosevelt purchased in 1884 to enjoy what he proudly called "the strenuous life." It was Roosevelt's time in North Dakota that inspired him to become a conservationist. He wrote, "I would not have been President, had it not been for my experience in North Dakota." Roosevelt's legacy certainly lives on in this wonderfully wild place, the only nature-oriented U.S. national park named for a person.

Great National Parks for Spring Vacations: A wild horse at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota
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Top activities: When they come to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, most people are surprised by how easy it is to spot wildlife—especially bison, the once-endangered species that Teddy protected (there are now over 300,000 of them in the United States, up from less than 1,000 in the late 1800s). Other activities include cycling, hiking, fishing, horseback riding, canoeing, kayaking, and stargazing (there's an astronomy festival here in September that takes advantage of the dark skies).

Getting here: People coming from out of state usually fly into Bismarck and drive east on I-94 about 130 miles to the park's South Unit. I-94 also serves the North Unit, which is 15 miles from Watford City.

For more information:
Click here.

Great National Parks for Spring Vacations: Capitol Reef National Park in Utah
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Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

In the 1880s, a group of Mormon homesteaders arrived in this area of zigzagging canyons and settled in the pastoral valleys. They built homes in what they eventually called the "Eden of Wayne County," founded the town of Fruita, and planted orchards that still bear fruit well over 100 years later. The upkeep of these orchards—the largest in the park system—is partially funded by selling the produce, which in late spring gives visitors the chance to nibble on rare, heirloom varietals of the most scrumptious cherries and apricots they've probably ever tasted. Some orchards allow self-picking for lots of family fun. In April, visitors get to see and smell the blossoms that precede the fruit—it's an ambrosial experience.

The park was named for the resemblance its sandstone domes are said to have to the rotundas of capitol buildings; the eastern end of the park is known as Cathedral Valley for its towering rocks. These are majestic sights, worthy of their names, and some of the rocks are covered with petroglyphs etched by the Fremont people between the years 300 and 1300.

Pictured above: Fruita district, Capitol Reef National Park

Great National Parks for Spring Vacations: Petroglyphs at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.
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Top activities: The 8-mile Scenic Drive is probably the most popular thing to do, but visitors who are willing to get out of their cars are rewarded with hiking, biking, horseback riding, rock climbing, canyoneering, and fossil and petroglyphn hunting (by eyesight only; you're not allowed to bring your finds home). Capitol Reef has also been designated as an International Dark Sky Park, so the stargazing is exceptional.

Getting here: Grand Junction Regional Airport is the nearest airport to fly into, but fares are usually better into Salt Lake City, 224 miles south of the park. Capitol Reef straddles Utah 24, which is accessible from I-70 from both the northeast and the northwest.

For more information: 
Click here.

Great National Parks for Spring Vacations: The Great Smoky Mountains at sunset.
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Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

National Geographic calls the Great Smoky Mountains a "veritable conservatory of plants," and that's what makes it so appealing in the spring. Among the flora are some 1,500 flowering species (more than in any other North American park) many of which colorfully erupt from the ground when the snows recede. Since 1950, Wildflower National Park (one of Great Smoky's nicknames) has hosted an annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, a week-long event featuring guided walks, photography and art classes, and science talks.

But flowers are just the start of the diversity here—the park is both an International Biosphere Reserve (since 1976) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 1983). Explore these mountains and you can find some 50 species of ferns, 80 types of reptiles and amphibians, 200 kinds of birds, nearly 70 native fish, and 65 species of mammals. Springtime is birthing season for some of the cuter large animals such as fauns, elk, raccoons, and bears (don't get too close!). Best of all, in the spring there are significantly fewer specimens of the type of mammal that can make the Great Smokies so crowded come summer: road trippers.  

Great National Parks for Spring Vacations: Mingus Mill at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
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Top activities: Snow melt gives the park's waterfalls their heft, so springtime is prime time for hiking or driving to them. In fact, hiking and driving are always two of the most popular things to do in the park, though visitors have a huge number of other pastimes available to them here, including fishing, horseback riding, cycling, visiting historic Appalachian sites (like Mingus Mill, pictured above) and graveyards, and classes and guided walks offered by local organizations.

Getting here: There are three principal entrances to the park: one near Cherokee, North Carolina; another within driving distance of Gatlinburg; and a third one on the western end of the park at Townsend, Tennessee. Asheville, North Carolina, is probably the easiest hub for air arrivals; from there, it is a winding 50-mile drive to the Cherokee gate.

For more information: Click here.

Great National Parks for Spring Vacations: Two boys sit at a high point, overlooking New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia.
Adventures on the Gorge
New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

The U.S.A.'s newest national park (designated in 2020) is a beaut. It's home to the New River, which despite its name is far older than the Appalachian mountains that surround it. Encompassing some 70,000 acres, this lesser-visited park is where you can find many species of wildlife including bald eagles, great blue herons, kingfishers, osprey, beaver, mink, muskrat, river otters, black bears, fox squirrels, aquatic turtles, and more.

The New River's elevation drops 750 feet in 50 miles, which is a wonderfully challenging terrain for white-water rafting, and spring is when the water is at its most swollen and swift, making conditions ideal. (The Gauley River, also in the park, is another top white-water destination, but it crests in fall, when water from a nearby dam is released.) In recent years, more rain has fallen here in the summer than in the spring—another big reason to go earlier in the year. 

Great National Parks for Spring Vacations: A dip in the New River in West Virginia's New River Gorge National Park
Adventures on the Gorge

Top activities: White-water rafting is optimal at New River, but that's just one of the outdoor activities that lure visitors. Others come for stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, canoeing, and catch-and-release fishing. Land activities include hiking, biking, and hunting.

Getting here: Charleston, West Virginia, is the nearest major airport. People who arrive by car take either Route 19 or I-64.

For more information: Click here.

Great National Parks for Spring Vacations: A close up of Great Sand Dunes National Park.
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Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Goldilocks weather—not too hot and not too cold—makes spring the moment to visit North America's tallest sand dunes (nearly 750 feet high). Set at the bottom of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and spreading some 30 square miles, the dunes are a startling sight: sand, sand, and more sand with no beach or desert anywhere in the vicinity. Powerful winds carve and shift the dunes nightly, so every morning the panorama is slightly different. This is another one of America's newer national parks (designated in 2004), so it tends to draw lighter crowds.

Great National Parks for Spring Vacations: Great Sand Dunes National Park with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains behind it.
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Top activities: Sandboarding and sand-sledding are the marquee diversions at Great Sand Dunes, and boy, are they fun! You'll need to rent gear outside the park, though, and to protect the boards, local businesses won't rent them when the sand is wet or snow-covered—so April and May are better options than March. Other activities include hiking, horseback riding, splashing in the river, photography, and stargazing.

Getting here: Most people fly into Denver and drive the 234 miles south to the park on either a twisty mountain route or via I-25 across flatter land. Whatever you do, map out your route well in advance. In this part of the country, GPS systems are notorious for leading drivers down dangerous detours along old mining roads that chew up rental cars.

For more information: Click here.

Great National Parks for Spring Vacations: Flower on a Joshua Tree, at Joshua Tree National Park
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Joshua Tree National Park, California

In the spring for just a few weeks, these Seussian trees sprouting neon-colored flowers—hello, Truffulas from The Lorax!—look even more like they belong in a children's book. We're talking purple, bright red, vivid blue, and yellow petals that pop against the mostly dune-hued landscape. Oddball science underpins these blossoms: They generate some of the hardiest seeds known to botany, some of which are coated in a resinous substance that can only be removed by heavy rains, ensuring that adequate moisture is available to germinate them. In this desert, Joshua Tree seeds can lie dormant for years before producing a plant.

The park service has a dedicated web page that alerts folks to the timing of blossom season, which can change from year to year. In general, plants at lower elevations flower at the end of February but the lion's share of the Joshua Trees burst into full color (pictured above) in March and April. It's a dazzling sight.

Great National Parks for Spring Vacations: Joshua Tree National Park at night.
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Things to do: It's not all about the trees at Joshua Tree, although they are a big attraction. This is also a top destination for climbing, including high-lining, slack-lining, and bouldering. The park hosts a "climber coffee" group on Saturday and Sunday mornings from October to April so that rangers and climbers can share safety tips, strategies, and advice on the best climbs. Other activities include mountain biking, four-wheeling, horseback riding, and stargazing.

Getting here: Palm Springs International Airport is the nearest major hub, although depending on your origin city, prices might be lower if you fly into Los Angeles and make the three-hour drive from there. Most people access the park via the West Entrance Station, right off California State Route 62.

For more information: Click here.

Great National Parks for Spring Vacations: A baby bison follows her mother in Yellowstone National Park.
Cody Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and Montana

Baby animals! That's the big reason for a spring visit to the U.S. national park with the greatest density of wildlife in the lower 48 states.

Usually the baby bison make their debut first, in March. Within two hours of birth, they're on their feet following their mothers. Baby bears actually arrive in winter, but they spend their first months hidden in their dens; they emerge by spring and spend the next 16 to 18 weeks being taught by their moms how to survive in the wild. Wolf pups tend to be born in March and April and they're so playful that they are a joy to watch—if you can catch sight of any with your binoculars. Bighorn sheep produce one to two lambs annually, most commonly in May or June.

And if you spot moose with their young, you'll see extreme sibling rivalry in action. When a moose cow gives birth, she unsentimentally chases away her previous season's offspring. Don't get too close: Moose are very protective of their youngest calf. Eagles, river otters, and elk also give birth in the spring.

Great National Parks for Spring Vacations: A bubbling mud pot surrounded by wild flowers at Yellowstone National Park
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Top activities: Beyond wildlife-watching, geyser-gazing is a top draw at Yellowstone year-round. In spring, though, you'll sometimes see tender blossoms fringing the sulfuric pools (pictured above). The park is roughly the size of Connecticut, with a number of different ecosystems, so the options for exploration are endless: fishing, hiking, biking, horseback riding, boating, and more. 

Getting here: The park is huge, so there are many ways in via several states, including Idaho. You can fly to Yellowstone Airport (on the park's western border) in the summer, but not usually in the spring and not always at the best rates. For better airfares, you'll need to fly to Montana's Billings Logan International Airport (about 65 miles north of the park); Jackson, Wyoming (60 miles south); or Salt Lake City (a 300-mile drive). We have detailed driving directions here.

For more information: Click here.

Great National Parks for Spring Vacations: Blossoming flowers in Death Valley National Park
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Death Valley, California

In Death Valley, not every spring is witness to superblooms, an occasional phenomenon involving a huge number of wildflower seeds germinating and blossoming in the desert after unusually wet weather. But even in normal years, the spring blossoms are super, softening and brightening the landscape in one of the most forbidding places on earth.

Usually, there's a reason this place is known as Death Valley: Mountain storms can cause sudden and dangerous flooding, and in the summer of 2021, the heat rose to 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54.4 degrees Celsius), the highest temperature ever certifiably measured on our planet. But in the spring, when the blooms pop out of the ground, the park named for the Grim Reaper can seem downright cheery. This massive national park, which is the largest in the contiguous U.S.A., is also a place of surprising diversity, with salt flats, badlands, sand dunes, valleys, canyons, and mountains to explore, plus a few well-preserved ghost towns sprinkled just outside its borders.

Great National Parks for Spring Vacations: Death Valley National Park in California.
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Top activities: Since Death Valley has more roads than any other U.S. National Park, tooling around its backcountry is popular here. People who decide to road trip into the park are advised, however, to always bring lots of drinkable water—crucial in this region of extreme temperatures and landscapes. Other popular reasons to come include hiking, biking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Death Valley was designated a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park, the highest rank, by the International Dark Sky Association, so the stargazing here can be epic.

Getting here: The nearest major airport is in Las Vegas to the east, requiring a 2.5-hour drive over some pretty impressive mountains. Many visitors also take the mountainous route up from Los Angeles (usually a 4.5-hour drive).

For more information: Click here.

Great National Parks for Spring Vacations: El Capitan peak at Guadaloupe Mountains National Park.
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Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

Marking its 50th anniversary as a national park in 2022, Guadalupe is a geologic wonder. Originally the bottom of a shallow sea, the park protects a 12-mile exposed stretch of the fossilized remains of a mostly buried, 400-mile reef dating to roughly 250 million years ago—it's the largest such relic on the planet. Its limestone mountains, like El Capitan (pictured above), have the look of the Dolomites in Italy, include four of the highest peaks in the state, and are beloved by trekkers. This remote wilderness is barely affected by light pollution (the nearest city, El Paso, is more than 100 miles west), making it yet another sublime location for some of the country's best stargazing.

Great National Parks for Spring Vacations: Smith Spring in Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas.
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Top activities: Smith Spring, pictured above, is a green oasis in the desert that's relied upon by birds, including white-winged doves, northern mockingbirds, and other migrating species. Guadalupe Mountains National Park is an important destination for birders, especially in the spring, when they come to spot warblers and orioles winging their way through. Hiking and horseback riding are two of the other big things to do.

Getting here: El Paso International is the nearest major airport. From there, it's a 110-mile drive east on US 62/180.

For more information: Click here.

Great National Parks for Spring Vacations: Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky.
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Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Mammoth Cave, the longest mapped cave system on the planet, is pleasant year-round because the air inside is consistently comfortable and dry (a big reason it was once used as a tuberculosis ward). But Kentucky's neighboring delights are in peak form in the spring.

As for the caves: They're so weird and wonderful that they were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 for the 130 cave-specific species found here, from bats to salamanders to an alien-looking, inch-long translucent shrimp. Fourteen of the species here can be found nowhere else on the planet.

The caverns' human history is fascinating, too. Artifacts and rock drawings show that prehistoric people started using these tunnels some 5,000 years ago, and Native Americans mined the site for minerals about 1,200 years ago, although no one knows exactly how they used what they excavated.

In the early 18th century, enslaved African Americans were forced underground to dig for saltpeter, a critical ingredient in gunpowder. After the War of 1812, use of the caves switched to tourism. The most important early guides included Stephen Bishop, Mat Bransford, Nick Bransford, and Alfred Croghan. All of them were enslaved when they started guiding but got their freedom after the Civil War—and together, they developed the tour routes visitors still use today.

Great National Parks for Spring Vacations: A frog near Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky
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Top activities: Not all of the experiences at Mammoth Cave National Park are underground. In fact, some 30 miles of the Green and Nolin Rivers snake above ground, making for excellent fishing, canoeing, kayaking, and boating. And when you're underground, not all of the tours are physically strenuous—in fact, some of the things to see are fully wheelchair-accessible.

Getting here: Mammoth is 100 miles south of Louisville, which has a well-connected airport.

For more information: Click here.