That big summer vacation may still be months away, but that’s no reason to stay indoors. This month, many of America’s national parks are just now shaking off winter’s chill and welcoming visitors with warmer temperatures, fields of wildflowers and blessedly few crowds.
The following 10 parks offer a wonderful array of seasonal experiences. Coincidentally, the National Park Service is celebrating National Park Week (April 19–27), with numerous events and activities. As part of the festivities, parks that normally charge admission fees will be free April 19–20, so the sooner you go, the better.
Biscayne National Park
Thanks to a winter that just won’t seem to quit, the desire to head south is understandable. With temperatures already in the 80s, Biscayne National Park in Florida offers an easily accessible getaway less than an hour outside Miami. Since the park is 95 percent water, the best way to experience it is by boat: Through April, the Park Service offers free canoe trips during which visitors may see ospreys, crocodiles and the occasional manatee.
Capitol Reef National Park
Dozens of national parks boast fields of wildflowers, but Capitol Reef in Utah is unique. Its blossoms are not on the ground but, rather, on the apple, peach and cherry trees that were planted by early settlers. Located in the Fruita Rural Historic District, the 3,100 trees in the park’s orchards flower from March to May and produce the fruit that ends up in the fresh-baked pies that are sold at the Gifford Homestead from March 14 (Pi Day) to Oct. 31.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Forests, farmlands and buildings rich in Ohio history — the charms of Cuyahoga Valley are more inviting than awe-inspiring, so it makes sense to slow down while exploring them. A great way is to bike some or all of the 20 miles of the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail in the park and then flag down the scenic railroad — wave both hands so they don’t think you’re just saying hello — for an even more relaxing ride back to your car (one-way: $3).
Death Valley National Park
The calendar may say spring, but it’s already early summer in California's Death Valley, where temperatures can hit triple-digits by early May. To stay cool (relatively speaking), head out in the early morning or evening, head for higher elevations and, of course, bring plenty of water. Chief of Interpretation Terry Baldino recommends Dante's View for sunrises, Zabriskie Point for sunsets and the slopes of Telescope and Wildrose Peak for current displays of wildflowers.
Denali National Park and Preserve
Spring may come late to Alaska, but warming temperatures and lengthening days make Denali well worth an early season visit. Snow-capped peaks tower over green meadows and without summer’s crowds, the sense of solitude is powerful. Currently, the Park Road is open to cars to Savage River (mile 15) but bicyclists are invited to cycle another 15 miles to Teklanika River, where “you can feel like you have the park all to yourself,” says Morgan Warthin of the National Park Service's Alaska Regional Office.
Grand Canyon National Park
Blistering hot and frustratingly crowded after Memorial Day, the Grand Canyon in Arizona is a much more inviting place in spring. Stroll historic Grand Canyon Village, hike or bike the trails along the rim or load up on food and water before dropping into the canyon itself. For a quick intro to the latter, take the South Kaibab Trail to Ooh Aah Point (1.8 miles roundtrip), which earns its moniker, says Bruce Brossman of park concessionaire Xanterra, “because that’s what everybody says when they get there.”
Great Sand Dunes National Park
The tall drifts that give Great Sand Dunes its name belie just how diverse this park is. From wetlands to forests to 13,000-foot peaks, this Colorado park comes alive in spring with wildflowers, wildlife and, it should be noted, windy conditions. Wind aside, the season is a great time to sandboard on the dunes (before the sand gets too hot) and, conditions permitting, wade in Medano Creek, a seasonal stream that flows around the base of the dunes between April and July.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains, which straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, is both the most-visited national park in the country (9.3 million visitors last year) and the most abundantly blessed with flowering plants (more than 1,600 species). The viewing window for the latter is brief — mid-April to mid-May in the forests, mid-June to mid-July on the higher slopes — so go sooner rather than later. Go right now and you can join the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage (through April 19), which includes natural history walks, photo tours, art classes and seminars.
Shenandoah National Park
Just 75 miles from Washington, D.C., Shenandoah in Virginia is no slouch in the flowering-plant department. From bluets and buttercups to wild bergamot and witch hazel, the park actually offers a seven-month calendar of color from April through October. For those seeking a more in-depth experience, the park’s 28th Annual Wildflower Weekend (May 3-4) will offer a variety of guided hikes and children’s activities.
Yosemite National Park
After an exceptionally dry winter, National Park Week offers the perfect time to visit Yosemite for two reasons. One, the road to Glacier Point, 3,214 feet above the valley floor, opened just this week, a month ahead of its average opening date, and two, the waterfalls that dominate Yosemite Valley will begin to dwindle much earlier than usual. “If you want to see them,” said park spokesman Scott Gediman, “come now.”