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Spring In the National Parks: Where Can You Find Wildflowers?


Spring! Time to get on the road to the national parks and smell the flowers! Roadside color at Milepost 79 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Photo by Randy Johnson.

Spring is showing up in more and more corners of the country, which means it's a perfect time to check out what's blooming in the National Park System. Here's a quick list of some reliable sites to catch wildflowers in the weeks ahead.

* Acadia National Park

The woodlands of this park come to life in spring with Bluebead lily, which actually has a yellow flower, but deep blue -- and poisonous -- fruit, according to park officials. Bunchberry also is a spring bloomer, with white, four-petal flowers, 

* Appalachian National Scenic Trail

Hike the length of the trail from south to north and, if you're fast enough, you can keep pace with the bloom as it moves north. Columbines, which start blooming in April, are a good flower to watch for all along the way, as it blooms from Georgia to Maine into mid-summer. Delicate bluets, which show similar colors as those found on mountain asters -- blue petals around a yellow eye -- grow in clumps and bloom into July. For a great rundown on what to watch for, check out the Appalachian Trail Conservancy's wildflower webpage.

* Arches and Canyonlands National Parks

These southeastern Utah neighbors typically bloom in May, though some April bloomers include some varieties of yucca, parsleys, and biscuitroots. Come May, keep an eye out for showy Hopi Blanketflower along with common sunflowers.

A great trail for blooms is th Elephant Hill Trail in Canyonlands, while in Arches the hike down to Landscape Arch offers lots of color. For help with knowing what to watch for, check out this wildflower page from Arches' website; it not only provides photos of flowers, but a month-by-month listing of what to look for in the two parks.

(To help with identifying Southwestern wildflowers, consider picking up a copy of Common Southwestern Native Plants, an Identification Guide)

* Blue Ridge Parkway

The entire 469-mile Parkway is a gardener's dreamscape, with a variety of rich botanical areas. Doubt that? Check out this video from Randy Johnson, Traveler's travel editor.

* Glacier National Park

This alpine park is no slacker when it comes to spring blooms. The Glacier lily is a testament to spring, poking up through the snow to bask in the sunlight. The difficult growing conditions in the park produce some unusual flowers. Park staff note that "Northern eyebright, three-flowered rush and false alphodel are examples of plants usually found in places like Greenland."

So intriguing, and important, is the Logan Pass area of the park that it's been dubbed an "Important Plant Area" in the state of Montana because of its diverse and profuse collection of wildflowers: glacier lilies, beargrass, spring beauties, paintbrush and wandering daisies. Beyond that, there are more than 30 different rare plants and mosses in an area that covers less than 3 percent of the park.

* Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Late-April is the time to head to Great Smoky, both to enjoy the bloom on your own and to attend the park's Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, which marks its 62nd year this April 25-28. You can register to attend at this website. Check out the following video for a taste of what to expect!

If you can't make the Pilgrimage, no worries, as there park's wildflowers put on an incredible display for months. During the spring months, watch for white trilliums, lady slipper orchids, fire pink, jack-in-the-pulpit, and violets. If they've already bloomed along the park's floor by the time you arrive, hike uphill and you might catch some still in bloom higher up.

You can find some great wildflower hikes recommended by park staff on this page.

* Natchez Trace Parkway

Color from Tennessee to Mississippi will greet you along the 444-mile-long Parkway. Among the white and green flowering plants that bloom in May are White baneberry (Jackson, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee), Ox-eye Daisy (the entire length of the Parkway), and Japanese Honeysuckle (entire length of the Parkway).

Those splashes of red, orange, or pink you'll see could be Fire pink (Tupelo, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee), Woodland pinkroot (the entire length of the Parkway), or Crimson clover (the entire length of the Parkway).

For blues and purples, watch for skullcap (entire length of the Parkway), Wild blue phlox (Jackson, Mississippii to Nashville, Tennessee), Dwarf crested iris (Jackson, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee), or tiny bluets (entire length of the Parkway).

* Ozark National Scenic Riverways

If you're determined, you just might find some Marsh Blue violets blooming in wetlands in this Missouri park unit. Showy lady slipper, another rarity, begins blooming in May and can sometimes be found "at the base of north facing limestone bluffs along small streams, and in fens and wet swales," according to area botanists.

Royal Catchfly is harder to miss, as it has bright red flowers, dark green foiliage, and can grow to 5 feet tall!

A wildflower found only in the Ozarks is the Ozarks Wild Crocus, which blooms in April and May in "heavily forested areas along the Current River," according to park staff.

* Redwood National and State Park

The moist environment at this coastal park ensures plenty of variety and a long season for wildflowers. Indeed, some species -- milkmaids -- bloom as early as January. California poppies start to bloom in February and continue on into September.

What's on tap for spring? Look for those two species, as well as buttercups, Giant trillium, delicate Redwood violets, Mission bells, Nine spots, Blue blossoms and more. For a longer list, check out the park's website.

* Saguaro National Park

April is the month to find yourself in Saguaro if you want to see the cactus forest come to life with blooms. Already there are reports of gold poppies and penstemons showing off their colors. Check out this website for status updates.  A great trail for enjoying spring color in Saguaro is the Douglas Spring Trail in the Cactus Forest in the park's Tuscon District.

* Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah holds its wildflower festival a little later than Great Smoky. This year it's scheduled for May 5-6. During this weekend there will be wildflower hikes, workshops to connect kids with bugs and blooms, and even birding walks.

Flowers to look for include bloodroot, sunflowers, Dutchmans breeches, and wild geraniums.

More than 850 species of flowering plants are found in Shenandoah National Park.  About 70% of them are native.  Many native woodland wildflowers thrive in the dappled forest sunlight of springtime.  They race to bloom and attract pollinators before overhead trees become fully leafed out, and shade engulfs them.  Hot summer sunshine is too strong for them.

You can check out the weekend schedule at this page. And for general information on Shenandoah's wildflowers, visit this page.

* Voyageurs National Park

This park straddles the southern boreal forest and the northern hardwoods forest. As a result, you'll find a pretty good mix of wildflowers.

In May, you often can find Blue Flag iris in color along shorelines, columbines in uplands, Red baneberry in moist forests, and a host of wildflowers in drier forested areas: Canada anemone, Rose Twisted-stalk, Blue-beard lily, Star flower, Twinflower and big leaf asters.

Wild strawberries also could be blooming in the park's drier uplands regions.

* Zion National Park

Just because the park is known for its redrock doesn't mean it doesn't flower in spring. Indeed, slickrock paintbrush adds its reddish hues to the background early in April, and the desert marigold splashes some gold across the landscape.

Visit Weeping Rock or hike to the Emerald Pools area to catch some gorgeous wildflowers that benefit from the moisture and shade, as well as hanging gardens. 

In more arid sections of the park, look for the burgundy blooms of Claret cup cactus.

As you can see, there are countless areas of the National Park System where you can find flowers in bloom in April and May. And this list just scratches the surface. No doubt your favorite national park will have something blooming to justify a day hike in the coming weeks.

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In some years, Joshua Tree NP, Mojave National Preserve, and Death Valley NP have wildflower blooms from mid-March at lower elevations until mid-April at higher elevations, and later for shrubs and cacti.  This year, not so much: almost nothing blooming at the south entrance of Joshua Tree, and I haven't heard reports of much blooming elsewhere, either..

I wouldn't wait until late April to go to the Smokies this year....spring wildflowers are already peak at the Middle Elevations.

The rhodora of Acadia National Park create a profusion of pink this time of year on trails and mountaintops, while smaller blooms like bluets dot the trails and sides of the Park Loop Road. See our latest blog post, highlighting the history and science of rhodora, and featuring a variety of wildflower photos:


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