Highlights: Elk, waterfalls, river
Where: Buffalo National River near Compton, Arkansas
Deep in the Ozark Mountains, the Buffalo River is flanked by tall, amber-colored bluffs and oak and hickory forest, while the open meadows in the countryside beyond are home to more than 400 Rocky Mountain elk. Most visitors here explore the waterway by canoe, passing through occasional rapids and long meandering pools in the company of Great Blue herons. But in spring, hikers can trek 3.8 steep miles from Compton to spot the seasonal Hemmed-In-Hollow Falls, one of the tallest wet-weather cascades in the Midwest, at 204 feet high.
Highlights: Migratory birds, wildflowers, canyon views
Where: Big Bend National Park, Texas
Audubon enthusiasts, this one is for you: A reported 446 species of birds flock to and fly through Big Bend National Park during the yearly spring migration. The Nashville warbler, Swainson’s hawk, yellow-billed cuckoo, and cliff swallow are just a few you might spot. One guaranteed sighting, however, is Texas’s signature bluebonnet wildflowers, which only bloom in early spring. The park has more than 150 miles of hiking trails that wend through Big Bend’s varied combination of river, mountain and desert terrain. The 6-mile round-trip Hot Springs Canyon Trail serves up a bit of everything, passing close to the Rio Grande in some places and along the rim of Hot Springs Canyon in others, all the while offering great views of the Chisos and Del Carmen Mountains.
Highlights: Sea turtles, empty beaches, wild horses
Where: Outer Banks National Seashore near Corolla, North Carolina
During summer, the tranquil, 200-mile-long string of barrier islands known as the Outer Banks, off the coast of North Carolina and Virginia, become clogged with throngs of vacationers. But there’s a sweet spot here in spring, after the Spring Breakers have returned to school and before the summer hordes descend. It’s the best time to meander along the islands’ beaches—kept pristine, in part, thanks to the area’s federal protection as the Outer Banks National Seashore. Turtles seem to think so, anyway. Spring is when Loggerhead and Leatherback turtles arrive to nest; they often stay through August, but by then the beaches will be so packed with SPF-clad sunbathers that it’s hard to spot much wildlife. Near the town of Corolla, you also have the chance to spot some of the Outer Banks’ famous wild horses. Some 140 call this strip of sand home, and in spring, you may even spot some newly-born colts.
Highlights: Waterfalls, wildflowers, long views
Where: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Few places have such a bounty of gorgeous, seasonal waterfalls as the Great Smoky Mountains. Come March and April, the park’s 2,100 miles of streams swell with springtime rain and high-country melt, and cascades flow larger than at any other time of year. One of the most scenic is Rainbow Falls, a misty 80-foot drop above the cold, clear waters of Le Conte Creek. To get there, access the Rainbow Falls Trail off of Cherokee Orchard Road. After 2.7 miles of low-grade elevation—you’ll climb about 1,700 feet, with occasional stretches of rocky switchbacks—you’ll reach the eponymous waterfall, which, in spring, is framed by bright red blooms of bee-balm and big yellow coneflowers. If you wish to hike on, the trail extends four miles further to the top of 6,594-foot-high Mt. Le Conte, with bird's-eye views of the Smokies.
Highlights: Baby bison
Where: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
The prairies of Yellowstone are home to between 2,300 and 4,500 bison—the largest concentration of these massive mammals in the country. From mid-April to mid-May, if you’re lucky enough, you have the chance to spot reddish-brown babies during the brief bison-calving season. The animals are found in two major herds in Yellowstone, with the largest one centered in the spectacularly scenic Lamar Valley. To get there, the 9-mile Frost Lake Trail is your best bet: Since it’s one of the least used paths in the park, thanks to its backcountry location, you’re more likely to find yourself in the company of bison—or wolves or bears—here than you are other hikers. You can access the trail at the park’s northeast entrance, near Cooke City.
Highlights: Wildflowers, farm country views
Where: Sleeping Giant State Park, Connecticut
Thirty miles of hiking trails traverse Sleeping Giant State Park, just a few miles north of New Haven, in south-central Connecticut. The quiet pocket of farms and low-rolling hills is dominated by a string of basalt mountains that resembleyou guessed ita sleeping giant. Its high point is just 739 feet, so no major climbing is required. Come spring, that giant gets shrouded with an explosion of wildflowers: pale pink and yellow corydalis, small white sarsaparilla, wild ginger, red trillium, dogwoods, and Dutchman's-Breeches, which look like small white pants dangling off their stems. The best part? This springtime bouquet is just 90 minutes north of New York City and two hours south of Boston.
Highlights: Waterfalls, old-growth forest
Where: Boulder River Wilderness, Washington
The 49,000-acre Boulder River Wilderness, stretched across upper Washington state, is home to one of the last remaining large, low-country, old-growth forests in the North Cascades and well worth a trip any time of year. But it’s particularly pleasant right now, when the twin Feature Show Falls appear along the 8.6-mile Boulder River Trail. The trailhead is located along Forest Road 2010 (also known as French Creek Road), just off of State Route 530. You’ll reach the cascades about a mile and a half in, but it’s well worth continuing on through the virgin forest.
Highlights: Wildflowers, desert views
Where: Colorado National Monument, Colorado
The windswept Liberty Cap Trail is hands-down the signature hike of the Grand Valley, in Colorado National Monument, just outside of Grand Junction. The seven-mile path winds past sheer-walled canyons and rising plateaus to the topor capof a sandstone monolith. Be ready for steep ascents at the outsetin all, the trail climbs from 4,800 to 6,550 feetbut as you enter the pinyon-juniper forest and sagebrush flats, Liberty Cap Trail flattens out. In March and April, bright red Indian paintbrush, purple sego lilies, and other wildflowers color the desert. Be sure to stay on past sunset to see the evening primroses, which only bloom in the cool that sets in around dusk.
Highlights: Pristine white-sand beaches and—offshore—spouting whales
Where: Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and Cape Cod National Seashore Park, Massachusetts
Just off the coast of Massachusetts, not far from Boston, lies the 842-square-mile Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, a federally protected ocean zone in the stretch between Cape Cod and Cape Ann. In springtime, hundreds of humpback, Minke, fin, sperm, pilot, and beluga whales, along with bottlenose dolphins, harbor porpoises, and critically endangered North Atlantic Right whales, migrate through these waters, drawing countless tourist-packed whale-watching boats. Thankfully, you don’t need to shell out for an expensive sighting cruise and brave seasickness to catch a glimpse of these creatures. From Provincetown, just six miles southwest of the Stellwagen sanctuary, hikers can often spy breaching whales just offshore. The resort town is surrounded by the ocean on three sides, so there are plenty of oceanfront trekking opportunities, and since the beaches here lie within Cape Cod National Seashore Park, they’re startlingly clean and white as a result.
Highlights: Wildflowers, waterfalls, desert views
Where: Zion National Park, Utah
Against such a stark backdrop of sandstone cliffs, Zion’s bounty of wildflowers often takes visitors by surprise. Despite the seemingly harsh conditions, the park is full of blooms in early spring, when seasonal rains provide a quick respite from the desert’s aridity. Watch for red slickrock paintbrushes; the orchid-like, pink-and-yellow Western columbines; and buttery yellow Bridge’s evening primroses. Zion is threaded with hundreds of miles of hiking trails, but you needn’t go far to find blooms. The 1.2-mile Lower Emerald Pool Trail, for instance, rewards with wildflowers and waterfalls.
Highlights: Wildflowers, elk, baby cattle, long mountain and bay views, old-growth forest
Where: Mission Peak Regional Preserve, California
Just outside of San Francisco, 2,516-foot Mission Peak looms over the South Bay. Three trails lead to its summit: the Peak Trail is the least steep but also, as a result, often the most crowded. If you’re physically able, the 6.8-mile out-and-back along the quieter Hidden Valley Trail offers regular panoramas of the Bay Area and, at the top, views of Mount Hamilton to the south, the Santa Cruz Mountains to the west, Mount Tamalpais to the north, and Mount Diablo and the Sierra Nevada to the northeast. In April and May, Mission Peak’s old-growth oak forest is carpeted with a bright array of native wildflowers. Tule Elk are often spotted, and free-range cattle graze in the reserve, as well. In spring, you may even happen upon some newborn calves. All together now: Awwww.
Highlights: Wildflowers, solitude, daylight (as opposed to the cave)
Where: Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Of course, it’s the park’s eponymous attraction—the world’s longest known cave system, at 400-plus miles—that’s the main attraction here in Kentucky. But come spring, the park’s wildflowers give that cave a run for its money. More than 60 species of wildflowers bloom here this time of year, including yellow corydalis, violets, bluebells and phlox. The 2.5-mile White Oak Trail, off of Ugly Creek Road, leads visitors through the park’s lesser-visited north side.