They say timing is everything, and the maxim rings especially true when planning your next trip to a national park. Whether you’re looking to avoid crowds, mosquitoes, and extreme heat or to catch seasonal phenomena like Alaska’s northern lights (yes, in spring), consider this your cheat sheet to the parks that show off their best colors in the spring.
California and Nevada
The hottest place on Earth, Death Valley National Park often reaches temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit and higher in the summer. Happily, springtime highs hover in the 70s, 80s, and 90s—a much more comfortable climate for exploring the expansive salt flats of Badwater Basin or searching for Racetrack Playa’s mysterious “sailing rocks.”
Stay: The 91-year-old Inn at Death Valley is back in the bloom of youth after a multimillion-dollar refurb that wrapped up in February 2018. All 66 rooms were redone, and the historic spring-fed pool (naturally 85 degrees year-round) now features cabanas, a bar, and a café.
In the spring, gray whales and numerous species of bird migrate to Olympic National Park, bears come out of hibernation, and rain-forest creatures like banana slugs, frogs, and giant green anemones thrive in the heightened humidity. Also look for deer, bobcats, mountain lions, bald eagles, and elk on the park’s 611 miles of trails.
Stay: Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort reopened in March 2018 after a $1.5 million makeover of the lobby and restaurant. What hasn’t changed: A poolside massage is still a soporific complement to a soak in the hotel’s hot-spring pools.
Summer is peak season at Grand Canyon National Park, meaning heavy traffic on popular hiking trails and crowding at prime viewpoints. To avoid the masses, hit the sweet spot between spring break from late March to early April and the June start of summer vacation. Head for the growing Grand Canyon West area to peer down at this world wonder from the 4,000-foot-high Skywalk bridge.
Only found in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, the saguaro cactus flourishes in Saguaro National Park, which is home to 1.6 million of them. In addition to flaunting favorable weather, the month of April also presents the chance to see the cacti’s white blossoms (Arizona’s state flower), as well as a riot of other desert wildflowers.
Stay: Tucked in the foothills of the nearby Santa Catalina Mountains, El Conquistador Tucson, a Hilton Resort just unveiled a multimillion-dollar renovation in September 2017. Additions include an 18-horse stable, a salsa garden, and fire pits, as well as the redesigned and expanded Desert Springs pool deck.
Yosemite National Park is home to thousands of waterfalls, including Yosemite Falls (one of North America’s tallest waterfalls) and Bridalveil Fall. Horsetail Fall is famous for the annual “firefall,” when it glows electric-orange at sunset in mid- to late February. But in May, all the cascades are at their peak, thanks to melting snow.
Stay: The guest room–transformation of Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly the Ahwahnee) will be complete this spring. Expect upcycled furniture and an all-new design, including Yosemite-inspired botanical artwork.
In the summer, mosquitoes, rain, and high humidity are no joke at Everglades National Park, but the park’s dry season (December through May) equals fewer pests and prime weather for adventures in the country’s largest subtropical wilderness. A guided canoe or kayak trip is one of the best ways to spy tropical birds, West Indian manatees, and, of course, alligators.
Stay: The owners of the Ivey House have been leading excursions into the Everglades for almost 40 years. Book the Paddling Escapes package through April 29 for two nights’ lodging and two eco-paddle trips accompanied by a National Park Service–certified naturalist.
Sitting entirely above the Arctic Circle, Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve is a prime spot for northern-lights viewing. The spectacle occurs from late August through mid-April, but a visit between December and the end of April also can include snowy activities like dog-sledding and cross-country skiing.
Stay: Book a Jacuzzi room at Bettles Lodge, a fly-in outpost in the foothills of the rugged Brooks mountain range that is set directly underneath the Aurora Oval. Complete trip packages include complimentary transportation to the aurora-viewing cabin, a lakefront warming hut.