Once spring has sprung, it’s time to get out and enjoy the great outdoors. And what better way to experience nature than in some of our magnificent national parks? This year, plan a trip for April 15-16 or 22-23, when all park entry fees are waived in honor of National Park Week. We’ve handpicked the 10 best national parks for springtime revelry, from Tennessee to Alaska to California. Now it’s your turn to start planning a trip.—Jayme Moye
Yosemite National Park
The spring thaw rapidly melts the snow, fueling Yosemite National Park’s peak waterfall season. By April, even the smallest creeks gush with water, and the park’s iconic waterfalls flow at full throttle. Mirror Lake fills to the brim, offering a stunning reflection of Half Dome that can’t be seen during drier times of the year. Visit in late April or early May to catch the eruption of dogwood blossoms, which some would argue rival even the waterfalls.
Insider Tip: Tioga Pass and Glacier Point Roads typically remain closed until late May, but there’s still plenty to see in Yosemite Valley and Wawona.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Yosemite National Park Guide
Kenai Fjords National Park
Located on the edge of the Kenai Peninsula, the ice fields, icebergs, and glaciers of Kenai Fjords National Park are spectacular in any season. But the park is perhaps the most awe-inspiring in the spring when gray whales return to Alaska to feed, and millions of birds begin their annual journey to the rookeries of the rocky coasts. It’s also a likely time to observe black bears in their natural habitat.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Kenai Fjords National Park Guide
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
With 1,500 types of flowering plants, more than any other North American park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is often referred to as “Wildflower National Park.” The milder temperatures and reduced haze in spring make for ideal visiting conditions, but don’t expect fewer people. As the most visited national park in the US, Great Smokey is popular year-round.
Insider Tip: April 11–15 is the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage at Great Smokey National Park. The annual event showcases a variety of wildflower, fauna, and natural history walks, as well as art classes, photographic tours, and seminars.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Great Smoky Mountains National Park Guide
Joshua Tree National Park
There’s nothing quite like desert flowers in the spring. While Joshua Tree National Park’s namesake are mesmerizing in their own right, the ocotillo, or vine cactus, steals the show. With enough spring rain, the tall, spindly plant busts into unexpected crimson flowers. Springtime visitors also appreciate the more humane temperatures than in the summer, ideal for rock climbing and bouldering, along with crisp, campfire-worthy evenings.
Insider Tip: The 18 species of lizards residing in Joshua Tree National Park are most abundant in spring. Look for them basking atop boulders or other elevated sites.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Joshua Tree National Park Guide
Zion National Park
Easily one of the most dramatically beautiful landscapes on the planet, Zion National Park’s cooler spring temperatures make for more pleasurable hiking along its many exposed (read: scorching hot) trails. Spring visitors to Zion enjoy fewer crowds, spectacular high-volume waterfalls courtesy of the snow melt, and rare glimpses of green contrasting against the sun-drenched orange rock. And the canyoneering is just as good, if not better, as in the summer and fall.
Insider Tip: Heat exhaustion is still a risk in Zion in the spring, when temperatures can reach 90 degrees. But dress in layers because spring’s variable temps can drop as much as 30 degrees in the evening.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Zion National Park Guide
Death Valley National Park
The hottest place on the planet in the summer (temperatures soar to 120 degrees), Death Valley National Park in the spring provides a warm and welcome reprieve from the chill of winter. And the scenery borders on otherworldly with vast sand dunes and towering peaks. Spring break and Easter can get crowded, but seeing the blankets of desert wildflower blooms in this stark landscape is worth it.
Insider Tip: Keep tabs on how the wildflowers are coming along on the park’s website. Peak season usually lasts about two weeks, typically in late March and early April.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Death Valley National Park Guide
Arches National Park
With the highest density of natural stone arches in the world (more than 2,000 of them), and driving through Arches National Park is a surreal experience. In March, and even early April, you’re likely to have it to yourself. Temperatures are a mild 60 degrees, and the La Sal Mountains are still snow-capped, which makes for startling photos of the orange sandstone arches and clear blue sky.
Insider Tip: Stargazing in and around Arches is world-class thanks to minimal light pollution. In spring, the sky is particularly clear.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Arches National Park Guide
Shenandoah National Park
With nearly 200,000 forested acres (almost all of which are open to backcountry camping), Shenandoah National Park is most popular during the fall foliage. Spring sees some of the fewest visitors, but perhaps the most unique beauty thanks to park’s 850 species of flowering plants. Visitor facilities and services re-open for the year in March, and the wildflower display begins in late March, continuing to summer.
Insider Tip: Take a ride on Skyline Drive, the 105-mile road that winds through the park, in May, when the pink azaleas bloom in the forest alongside the road.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Shenandoah National Park Guide
Glacier National Park
Northern Montana can be chilly in the spring, with temperatures in the 30's and 40’s, but that just means fewer visitors at Glacier National Park, making for an unforgettable wildlife experience. In the spring, you’ll see more critters than people at Glacier, including bears, moose, elk, and sheep. Most of the park’s 1 million acres are accessible in the spring, with only a portion closed on the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Insider Tip: In late May, after the Going-to-the-Sun Road is plowed, and before it’s opened to cars, Glacier encourages cyclists to bike the engineering masterpiece that weaves 50 miles though the park’s wild interior.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Glacier National Park Guide
Great Sand Dunes National Park
It’s no secret that spring is the best time of the year to ski in Colorado, but the mountains aren’t the only slopes of note. Great Sand Dunes National Park serves up 30 square miles of enormous sand dunes—the biggest in North America. Visitors can hike them (some peak as high as 750 feet), sled, and even snowboard down them. The best time for sand dune down-hilling is in the spring, before the sand gets too hot to touch, and preferably right after a rainstorm, which gives the sand the most stability.
Insider Tip: The San Luis Valley can get windy in spring, so plan for morning outings before the wind kicks up.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Great Sand Dunes National Park Guide