It is an art to visit our national parks and nature reserves at the right time of year. You don’t want to screw it up by arriving at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in the summer, amid the scorching heat and crowd of tourists in Arizona, or trying a hike in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park in March without proper snow gear. When you show up in the right place at the right time, you can see wildflowers in bloom or in bloom at their peak, enjoy ideal temperatures, and beat the crowds. We recommend the following.
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In Arizona Saguaro National Park, see the cacti – especially the largest in the country, the saguaro, which grows as tall as a tree. It blooms between late April and June, but then it gets hot in the Sonoran Desert. So go in January to meet fewer people and to bask in the 65-degree daytime temperatures. The park has 150 miles of hiking trails and some excellent backcountry camping sites.
(Photo: Shukai Zhang / iStock)
Yosemite National Park is stunning year round, but this California landmark is significantly less crowded in the colder months. In mid to late February – if you are lucky and the snowpack delivers – catch the horsetail fall, which only flows over the eastern flank of El Capitan in severe winters. Lit by the sunset, it looks like it’s on fire.
(Photo: Tim Speer / iStock)
What is the best time of year and the best place to catch a field of blooming Texas bluebonnets? Mid-March to early April in Big Bend National Park, where these tall purple lupins can be spotted by the wayside or along the park’s more primitive River Road.
(Photo: Cheri Alguire / iStock)
Pinnacles became a national park in 2013, making it one of the newest in the country. It doesn’t get nearly as much traffic as in California’s most popular parks like Yosemite or Joshua Tree. Spring is the best time for wildflowers, and this is the month when patches of poppies and lupines are discovered. Hike the four-mile Juniper Canyon Loop for a good lookout point.
(Photo: Cheri Alguire / iStock)
The joy of tobogganing or sand surfing in the highest dunes in North America in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park is unbeatable. It is sure to be a sight to see every month of the year, but spring brings milder temperatures. (Make sure to rent a sand sled or sand board before entering the park.) Plus, kids love to swim down tubes down the surging Medano Creek, and the peak flow occurs in May.
(Photo: 4nadia / iStock)
Washington State Route 20, better known as the North Cascades Highway, is closed all winter for heavy snowfall and reopens in late spring, usually through May (check conditions before you set off). It’s ideal for anyone looking for a breathtaking, scenic road trip through North Cascades National Park, or for rugged cyclists ready to climb approximately 7,000 feet and cover more than 70 miles.
(Photo: Grant Wylie / iStock)
The peak of summer can mean hordes of visitors to almost any national park. And yes, a number of cars will pull into Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park in July, but that’s why you should show up then: The 33-mile Rim Drive that circles the crater is finally open after a snowy winter. Ride your racing bike the entire lap early in the morning or get into the parking car for a tour.
(Photo: BlueBarronPhoto / iStock)
The Perseid meteor shower will be most active on the night of August 11, 2021, when only a piece of the moon comes out. The best place to see it? Somewhere like Nevada’s uncrowded Great Basin National Park, a designated international Dark Sky Park that hosts its own astronomy festival every September. The Great Basin offers both guided astronomy programs and night walks, plus plenty of vantage points for you to explore on your own.
(Photo: Christian Sander / iStock)
A Little Known Fact: There are thousands of flowering fruit trees on the edge of Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park. The orchards were planted by early settlers from the nearby town of Fruita in the late 19th century and are still producing abundant crops, from apricots to peaches. Come in September and pick your own apples from designated orchards with self-service pay stations.
(Photo: Courtesy Virginia Tourism Corporation)
Fall in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia is a busy time of year for good reason: the foliage is top notch. Go there in early October – and show up during the week to avoid the herds of leaf scouts – and you’ll be treated to densely packed orange and yellow maple trees. There’s even a two-day fall foliage bike festival, usually held in mid-October, that organizes group road rides through the Shenandoah Valley.
(Photo: Wilsilver77 / iStock)
Thousands of monarch butterflies migrate from North America to central Mexico each fall and typically fly over Florida in late October or early November. Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida is as good a place to see the butterflies as any other. Hike the five mile Fire Prairie Trail off the park’s Turner River Road to find them.
(Photo: Courtesy Martha Shuff)
In the winter, you can drive on ice-covered lakes throughout Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park. Or bring your skates and slide over the ice at the ice rink at Lake Kabetogama. (Be sure to check the ice conditions before you set off.) If you’re lucky, you might even catch the northern lights in the night sky at this time of year.
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Main photo: BlueBarronPhoto / iStock