5 Top National Parks for Spring Blooms

Maximize your wildflowers per mile in these spring-vibrant national parks.

It’s not just park roads and entrance stations that start to open up come springtime. All across our national park system, flowers are beginning to bloom, stretching their delicate petals out toward the sun. In the Rockies, alpine wildflowers carpet the mountain slopes. Farther south, you’ll find tiny desert blooms turning barren rock into a riot of color. And all along the East Coast, blossoming cherry trees and dogwoods brighten the canopies overhead. 

Of course, some parks offer better viewing and more diverse plantlife than others. Here are a few of the best parks to get your spring bloom on.  

Shenandoah National Park, VA  

Shenandoah National Park, which protects a section of central Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, is one of the best national parks in the country for wildflower watching. Scientists have recorded about 860 flowering species within Shenandoah’s borders, a mind-blowing level of diversity that’s due, in part, to Shenandoah’s high annual rainfall in addition to the massive variety in ecosystems that these mountains host. 

To see the most flowers, roll down Skyline Drive, a 105-mile road that traces the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains from north to south. The route is lined with 75 lookout points. (Be sure to hit Hazel Mountain at Mile 33, Point Overlook at Mile 55.5, and Blackrock Summit at Mile 84.5 for the best flora.) Skyline Drive also winds straight through Big Meadows, a wide-open field known for its blooms.

Fancy a stroll instead of a drive? You can access more than 500 miles of hiking trail starting just off the road. Consider hiking a few miles of the Appalachian Trail, which parallels much of Skyline Drive and is accessible from several roadside trailheads. Be sure to keep an eye out for blossoms like wild geranium, mountain laurel, Queen Anne’s lace, and goldenrod. More info: nps.gov/shen 

Where to stay

Shenandoah National Park has five campgrounds with both tent sites and cabins. You can also stay at one of two historic lodges: Big Meadows and Skyland.  

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC & TN 

You might know that the Smokies are America’s most visited national park. But you might not know about its other record: Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) hosts more wildflowers than any other park unit in the country. More than 1,500 flowering plant species have been identified within its boundaries, giving rise to the nickname “Wildflower National Park.” 

GSMNP is particularly known for its postcard-worthy displays of mountain laurel, which begin to bloom in early May, and its rhododendron, which burst into a froth of pink come June. That said, you can see plenty of flowers even earlier. Trillium, lady slipper orchids, and crested dwarf iris all bloom in the spring before deciduous trees have time to leaf out and block sunlight. From February through April, also look for flame azaleas, flowering dogwood, and Fraser magnolia blossoms. 

To see the show, it’s best to visit during the annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, or to hit one of the park’s many trails. Favorites include the 3-mile round-trip Oconaluftee River Trail and the 0.75-mile Cove Hardwood Nature Trail. The Porters Creek Trail near Gatlinburg, Tenn., also flaunts spectacular wildflowers from late March through April. More info: nps.gov/grsm 

Where to stay

While Great Smoky Mountains National Park maintains 10 different car-camping campgrounds, it has no motels or rental cabins other than Le Conte Lodge, which requires a 5-mile hike in. If you don’t want to camp, consider staying in one of the surrounding gateway cities like Gatlinburg, Cherokee (N.C.), or Townsend (Tenn.). 

Joshua Tree National Park, CA 

Located where the Mojave and Colorado deserts meet, California’s 1,235-square-mile  

Joshua Tree National Park is known for its eponymous, palm-like trees and jumbled rock formations. But come spring, a variety of wildflowers blanket the landscape, adding vibrant colors to the pastel desert background. 

The park’s varied elevations foster a variety of blooms, with the viewing season running from February through March at lower elevations, and April through early June at elevations above 5,000 feet. Look for desert paintbrush, Utah firecracker, Mojave aster, and a variety of flowering cacti. 

To see the flowers up close, head off on any number of hikes within the park. Try the 1-mile Hidden Valley loop or the 7.5-mile Lost Palms Oasis for particularly good viewing. If you hit the park in time for the cactus bloom, carve out some time to visit the Cholla Cactus Garden and its easy, 0.25-mile trail. More info: nps.gov/jotr 

Where to stay

The only accommodations within the park are campgrounds. Among the best is Jumbo Rocks, a first-come, first-served site sprinkled with boulders and iconic Joshua trees. Like most of the park’s campgrounds, you’ll have to pack in your own water, but it’s an incredible place to experience real desert peace and solitude. For a bed, find motels in the surrounding towns of Twentynine Palms, Yucca Valley, or Palm Springs. 

Glacier National Park, MT 

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Glacier National Park is one of the best places for wildflower viewing in the country. This northern park has a short growing season—meaning that all its blooms come out at once in a fierce frenzy of color. At last count, botanists tallied nearly 1,000 different species of flower in the park. For the best shot at seeing them, visit June through August. That’s when the Indian pipes bloom along the lower elevations and lupines and glacier lilies begin to appear in subalpine zones.

In the higher alpine, look for tiny perennials that are evolved for harsh conditions. The flowers here are small and streamlined to survive the wind, and lie close to the ground to absorb the radiant heat of the earth. Some even have parabola-shaped petals to channel the sun’s warmth to their reproductive systems.

The best way to see all of Glacier’s riches is to take the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road. Known as one of the greatest mountain drives in the world, the Going-to-the-Sun Road generally opens in early July and closes by mid-October. While you can drive the whole thing in a couple of hours, we recommend spending a whole day (or two) to stop and hike amid the splendor. One favorite is the 9.2-mile Siyeh Pass Trail, which climbs to flower-filled Preston Park. For a little more altitude, try the 10.5-mile Grinnell Glacier Trail, which serves up views of Grinnell Lake and the treetops below. More info: nps.gov/glac 

Where to stay

Glacier offers a variety of campsites, as well as lodging on the lower sections of the Going-to-the-Sun Road (try the Apgar Village Lodge or the Lake McDonald Lodge for swanky digs and easy trail access). You can also stay in the nearby towns of Columbia Falls, Whitefish, or Kalispell.  

Saguaro National Park, AZ 

Arizona’s Saguaro National Park was the first national park created to protect a plant species—the saguaro cactus. The largest cactus species in the country, the saguaro can grow up to 50 feet tall and is native only to the Sonoran Desert. And there’s no better time to see it than during the spring bloom. 

While the duration and intensity of the flowering season varies each year, even just a few saguaro blooms are worth seeing. Their radial, white flowers are uniquely fragrant and bright against the backdrop of the desert. 

In general, the park has three flowering seasons: March, April through May, and June through August. Each one unveils different blooms and colors. Flowers to look for include saguaro cactus, ocotillo, prickly pear, desert verbena, desert lupine, and more. 

While there are a couple of short scenic drives in the park, hiking is the best way to get into flower country. The 2.5-mile Valley View/Wild Dog Trail offers views of the Avra Valley and Picacho Peak, and makes a great introductory hike to the park. If you’re looking for more distance, try the 7-mile round-trip King Canyon/Wasson Peak Trail, which ends with a summit and expansive views. More info: nps.gov/sagu 

Where to stay

Saguaro National Park doesn’t have any accommodations for RV or car camping within the park. You can secure a hike-to backcountry campsite with a permit (call the visitor center for the latest protocols on getting one). Otherwise, look for lodging options in nearby Tucson, which is just 15 minutes away.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.