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Essential Park Guide, Spring 2014: Spring Into The Parks

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The Cactus Forest at Saguaro National Park comes alive in April. Marcelle Shoop photo.

Little more than a month after I was dazzled by the yellows and pinks dappling the landscape along the Douglas Spring Trail in Saguaro National Park, the red and orange blossoms throughout Canyonlands and Arches national parks were equally stunning.

It was April when we walked the trail at Saguaro, a stroll that led us past ocotillo, their orange-flowered tips glowing like fireplace pokers, and by violet-bloomed hedgehogs, patches of pink Fairy dusters, and bluish-petaled Scorpionweed. When I hiked in Canyonlands and Arches in May, red blossoms were sprouting from Claret-cup cactus and Desert Indian paintbrush. Orange globemallows and Western peppergrass, with their white petals in full bloom, also helped paint the canyon country.

But the Southwestern parks claim no monopoly on brightly hued spring landscapes. Acadia National Park in Maine boasts woodlands with Bluebead lilies, which actually have a yellow flower, but deep blue'”and poisonous'”fruit. Spring in Montana means Glacier lilies poking through the snow at Glacier National Park, while white trilliums, Lady slipper orchids, Fire pink, Jack-in-the-pulpit, and violets are flecking the forests and meadows at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which sprawls across the Tennessee-North Carolina border.

Wildflowers are indeed a strong spring calling card for the national parks'” festivals blooming with the flowers can be found in both Shenandoah National Park (in early May) and Great Smoky Mountains National Park (in April). And they definitely enhance your hikes.

While spring in some parks (mostly those in the Rockies, Sierra, and Pacific Northwest) is rightfully described as 'œmud season,' there are some great early season hikes'”and some wonderful camping'”to be found across the National Park System. Here'™s a rundown of some of the highlights: 


Acadia National Park, Maine

Late May brings the 16th Annual Acadia Birding Festival to Bar Harbor. With field trips to Sieur de Monts Spring, the Schoodic Peninsula, and even Bass Harbor Marsh, you have ample opportunities to explore and enjoy the national park.

Prefer a hike? The Ocean Path that runs along the park'™s eastern edge leads past Otter Cliffs, Thunder Hole, and Sand Beach, and in spring it'™s not likely to be as crowded as it is in summer.

Blackwoods Campground, though the only one open in spring, offers campers more than 300 sites.

Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts

Being at sea level helps the national seashore enter spring more easily than, for instance, Glacier National Park. But sea breezes can be chilly, and the water definitely will be cold. But there are some great trails for hiking.

The Beech Forest Trail at Provincetown offers a roughly mile-long walk through a remnant Beech forest typical of what once was commonplace in the Province Lands area of Cape Cod. A companion loop wraps around two dunes ponds that nurture red maples, laurels, swamp azaleas, even tupelo trees.

Strolling Race Point, Head of the Meadow, Marconi, Nauset Light, and Coast Guard beaches also provides an opportunity to see what winter storms tossed out of the Atlantic and onto the sands.

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Visit the Friendship of Salem this spring./NPS

Salem Maritime National Historic Site, Massachusetts

Though this national historic site covers just 9 acres, it provides a wonderful window into the 1700s and 1800s when Salem was a major port for sea-going ships that plied the oceans to the East Indies and elsewhere in the world.

Time your visit to the site'™s schedule and you can tour both the Custom House that dates to 1819 when the U.S. Customs Service collected taxes on cargo, as well as the Friendship of Salem, a replica of the tall ships that once sailed the oceans blue and docked here.


Assateague Island National Seashore, Virginia/Maryland

Like Cape Cod National Seashore, Assateague can be chilly, but also gorgeous, in the spring. Bike paths help you explore this seashore. A paved path along Bayberry Drive in the Maryland section shows off island vegetation, and a similar path in the Virginia portion can take you from Chincoteague to Assateague.

Campers have a handful of sites amid the dunes in the Maryland portion of the park to choose from. You'™re not permitted, however, to bring in wood from out of state, a prohibition intended to prevent the spread of non-native insects such as the Emerald ash borer, which poses a threat to Maryland'™s forests.

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Winter can linger into spring along Shenandoah'™s crooked spine, but the warming days make for great hiking. Wildflowers erupt across the forest floors, some pointing out the locations of old homesteads. The park'™s 28th Annual Wildflower Weekend, May 3-4, is a great event to hone your wildflower identification skills while enjoying some great hikes.

Birders are not at a loss in Shenandoah, which has been visited by more than 200 species. Show up early in spring and you might be lucky enough to spot a Lapland Longspur before it heads north.

Campers have four front-country campgrounds to choose from -- Mathews Arm, Big Meadows, Lewis Mountain, and Loft Mountain. Lewis Mountain is the first to open, on April 2.


Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee/North Carolina

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Look for

Trillium grandiflorum blooms in the Great Smoky Mountains this spring. / NPS

Spring in the Smokies can be surprising with snow squalls, but usually by the end of March all roads and facilities are open for business. As the season wears on and warms up, wildflowers start their dazzling displays, slowly growing in profusion from the lower elevations like Cades Cove up to the ridgeback of the Appalachians. The 64th Annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage is set for April 15-19.

These months can produce impressive waterfall displays. Hen Wallow Falls, at the end of a roughly 2.2-mile hike through a beautiful forest of hemlock and rhododendron, falls down a 90-foot tall slope. Nine other waterfalls in the park ensure plenty of options for visitors.

Campers can choose from 10 front-country campgrounds.

Canaveral National Seashore, Florida

Midway down the state'™s Atlantic coastline, this national seashore occupies 25 miles of undeveloped barrier island perfect for birding, boating, and simply kicking back on the beach. Fortunate birders might luck out and spy a wood stork, an endangered species. If you prefer marine life, look for West Indian Manatees (also endangered) in Mosquito Lagoon.

There are no front-country campgrounds; diehard campers focus on the seashore'™s backcountry campsites.


Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri

Paddlers descend on this unit of the National Park System throughout the year, though spring can be more peaceful than the high summer season that draws campers to the riverbanks. With 134 river miles between the Jacks Fork and Current rivers, you can plan a multi-day trip.

The scenic riverways offers seven front-country campgrounds, all accessible from the rivers.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

Snow typically is gone from this national lakeshore by late March, and with the warming days of spring lining up, the season can be perfect for a visit. And with a brand new wilderness area to explore, one with 32,500 acres, it shouldn't be hard to find something to do.

With its gorgeous beaches, towering sand dunes, and hardwood forests, Sleeping Bear offers a landscape so diverse and spectacular that back in 2011 Good Morning America viewers voted it the "most beautiful place in America."

Front-country campers can choose from the Platte River Campground, which is open year-round, or the D.H. Day Campground, which is open from the first Friday in April through the last Sunday in November. 


Saguaro National Park, Arizona 

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Watch where you step while hiking at Saguaro, home of gila monsters./Kurt Repanshek

April is arguably the peak blooming season at Saguaro. Take in the sweep of colors -- with an emphasis on yellows -- in the Cactus Forest located in the Rincon Mountain District. Watch where you step, though, as this area is home to both gila monsters and rattlesnakes and they both can blend into the landscape. 

There are no front-country campgrounds in the park, though there are backcountry options available, and a number of U.S. Forest Service, state and county parks, and private campgrounds in the area.

Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Utah

May brings the reds of claret-cup cactus and Indian paintbrush to life in Arches and Canyonlands. Spectacular wildflower displays can be found along the Elephant Hill Trail that leads to Chesler Park in Canyonlands, as well as along the Primitive Trail found in the Devils Garden area of Arches.

Arches has one front-country campground, with sites you can reserve, while Canyonlands has two front-country campgrounds that can be difficult to land a site in due to their first-come, first-served policy.

A bonus of visiting in spring is you'™ll avoid the high heat of summer! Still, pack plenty of water.

Northern Rockies

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Winter'™s snows draped over the Teton Range make it hard to believe spring visits Grand Teton, but stay in the valley floors and come late spring you'll enjoy wildflowers, frolicking wildlife, and mild temperatures while the snow-coated mountains stand high overhead.

Oxbow Bend on the Snake River near Jackson Lake Junction is guaranteed to produce American white pelicans, green- and blue-winged teals, bald eagles, osprey, and possibly Trumpeter swans.

Campers have five front-country campgrounds in Grand Teton, and one in nearby John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway to pitch a tent in.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Spring comes slowly, very slowly, to Rocky Mountain, but that doesn'™t mean you should avoid it. The eastern side of the park tends to get less snow than the western side. Good spring hikes include the 1.7-mile Arch Rock and Pools (kid-friendly both for its relatively level grade and water features) and the 3.2-mile one way walk to Bridal Veil Falls.

Rocky Mountain offers five front-country campgrounds, though some don'™t open until late May.

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Plenty of boardwalks make spring days a joy in Yellowstone, where you can wander from geyser basin to geyser basin and walk the planks to view the thermal displays.

From mid-March into the middle of April, the park'™s roads are closed to vehicle traffic, making them ideal for bicycling, jogging, roller blades, and roller skis between the West Entrance and Mammoth Hot Springs as conditions allow.

Yellowstone boasts a dozen campgrounds with more than 2,000 sites, though only the Mammoth Campground is open year-round. The others don'™t start to open until early May.

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Spring months preceded by fall and winter rains can produce gold in Death Valley./ NPS



Death Valley National Park, California/Nevada

Spring just might be the best season in Death Valley. Temperatures are reasonably mild (compared to the 100-degree-plus readings of summer), and if the preceding winter and fall seasons have been wet, the wildflower blooms are spectacular. But as spring wears on, you'™ll need to go up in elevation to catch the show. From early April into May the favored elevations are between 3,000 and 5,000 feet, and from early May all the way into mid-July you'™ll need to range from 5,000 feet all the way up to 11,000 feet.

Campers have nine front-country campgrounds to pick from, though a few close in May.

Yosemite National Park, California

Though the Tioga Road crossing Yosemite'™s roof doesn'™t typically open before late May or even June, the Yosemite Valley is open year-round. Time your visit for late spring and you'™ll see the valley'™s waterfalls at full throttle plummeting out of the high country.

Been there, done that? Head to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias near the park'™s south entrance where you can walk through a forest of roughly 500 sequoias.

There are 13 front-country campgrounds in Yosemite, but only six are open in the spring.

Joshua Tree National Park, California

The short walk through Joshua Tree'™s Cholla Cactus Garden shows off these thorny cacti (teddybear, silver, pencil, and matted varieties) that seem particularly greenish-yellow in April and May as new spines appear. To time your visit with the bloom, check the park'™s website for weekly wildflower updates.

Campers have nine front-country campgrounds to choose from, some with sites that can be reserved.

Olympic National Park, Washington state

Spring months offer verdant beauty in the Hoh Rain Forest of Olympic. The Hall of Mosses Trail (0.8 miles) and the Spruce Nature Trail (1.2 miles) are perfect for both young and old, and showcase the mosses, ferns, and towering Bigleaf maple and Vine maple trees in this temperate rain forest. Keep a sharp eye out, though, for Roosevelt elk cows and their newborn calves. These are wild animals, and the cows will defend their young.

The park'™s beaches, some with camping possibilities, also are popular destinations to enjoy the mild spring weather. Campers have 16 front-country campgrounds, though some don'™t open before May.

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Come down to the Smokies. The spring flowers are out, even though we've had a frightful winter.


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National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide