The groundhog and his shadow are long gone, birds are chirping, and flowers are beginning to bloom. It's time for a trip to the great outdoors -- or is it? Many of the country's phenomenal national parks are encased in ice and snow until July, or else a muddy quagmire as they defrost. But not all of them: The spring is the perfect time for the wildlife habitats that come alive in the Rockies and the desert parks of the Southwest -- as Goldilocks likes it, not too cold and not too hot.
1. Canyonlands National Park, Utah (www.nps.gov/cany)
For backpackers and hikers, spring is ideal for a Canyonlands walkabout, thanks to mild weather and a relative abundance of water. On the west side of the park, the Maze District is one of the most remote spots in the lower 48. It's also one of the most beautiful, a multihued labyrinth carved into the sandstone over the eons by the unrelenting elements of water and wind.
2. Big Bend National Park, Texas (www.nps.gov/bibe)
With average highs in the 80s and lows in the 50s, April and May bring ideal backpacking and river-rafting weather to Big Bend in far West Texas. The park, centered on the Chisos Mountains and bounded on the south by the Rio Grande -- yes, that's Mexico on the other side -- offers the best of both recreational worlds and spring represents the usually languid river's fastest days. Backpackers take to the South Rim of the Chisos and -- on a clear day -- can see for miles and miles to the Mexican horizon. For civilization, look no further than the funky lodgings and eateries in Terlingua Ghostown, just west of the park.
3. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming/Montana/Idaho (www.nps.gov/yell)
While the high country remains below snow until summer's onset, spring in Yellowstone is a time of birth and awakening -- and nature's spectacle at its bloodiest. The spring is calving season for Yellowstone's bison, elk, deer, and moose, and the winter has weakened the eldest ungulates. This means spring represents a smorgasbord for the park's carnivores. Wolves triangulate calves, bears search for carrion, coyotes feast on elk calves, and mountain lions and wolverines hunt well beyond road's end. The best place to spot wildlife is the Lamar Valley, in the northeastern corner of the park. For a deeper look, take a class with the Yellowstone Association Institute (www.yellowstoneassociation.org/institute) -- my dad and I are taking a wolf class in May.
4. Death Valley National Park, California (www.nps.gov/deva)
Death Valley can get oven-hot, even in the spring, when the mercury sometimes tops 100°F on any given day. But if you rise at dawn and hike until the heat overwhelms, you can spend the afternoons in the air-conditioned sanctuaries and idyllic pools at the lodgings in Furnace Creek (www.furnacecreekresort.com).
5. Saguaro National Park, Arizona (www.nps.gov/sagu)
Perhaps the most urban national park in the West, Saguaro blends nicely with the fringes of Tucson, offering visitors a chance to hike during the day and explore the city at night. Hike up Wasson Peak in Saguaro West, and then descend for dinner at the landmark El Charro Café (www.elcharrocafe.com) and a night's sleep the historic Hotel Congress (www.hotelcongress.com), home to one of Tucson's best music venues.
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