National Park Tips

Park rangers and outdoorsmen reveal the inside scoop on some of America’s most stunning public lands.

By Kathryn O'Shea Evans

Most people visit national parks at the height of summer, but spring, with its generally temperate weather, wildflowers and fewer crowds, can be an even better time to go. We asked national-park experts for their favorite things to see and do this season, from exploring flower-lined hiking trails to finding an unexpected place for top-notch fish tacos.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Tennessee and North Carolina

Recording more than 10 million annual visitors, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, an 800-square-mile swath of the Appalachian Mountains, is the most visited national park in the United States. (One reason for its popularity: It’s just a three-hour drive from Atlanta and Nashville, so it’s an ideal weekend getaway). “Spring is a magical time in the Smokies,” says Dana Soehn, a park ranger and spokesperson. “In some areas the ground almost appears to be snow-covered, because of the abundance of white-fringed Phacelia flowers.” March through June is the time to find more than 1,500 types of plants in bloom, according to Soehn, who suggests walking the nearly mile-long Cove Hardwood Self-Guiding Nature Trail (nps.gov). “You’re likely to spot trilliums, trout lilies, Dutchman’s-breeches, showy orchids and wild ginger,” she says. Keep an eye out the park’s newer residents as well: Late spring is often birthing season for elk and deer in the Cataloochee and Cades Cove valleys.

Yosemite National Park

California

“I love visiting Yosemite in spring, simply because you get a head start on the madness of summer,” says Ian Shive, the photographer behind the best-selling book The National Parks: Our American Landscape. “Hordes of people come ogling for a view of El Capitan. Going in spring lets you avoid the post-Memorial-Day-weekend traffic!” Locals often skip the tourist-laden Yosemite Valley and head for Tuolumne Meadows, where they can hike two miles to Gaylor Lakes, taking in eye-popping vistas of the snow-dusted granite mountains, then tuck into fish tacos with mango salsa at Tioga Gas Mart’s Whoa Nellie Deli (Believe us: They’re legendary for a reason). Although it’s too early for many summer wildflowers, spring is a prime season for waterfalls, as the warmer weather starts to melt the snow.

Crater Lake National Park

Oregon

Any park lover knows that the memories you make are reason enough to go. Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, took his family to Oregon’s cerulean Crater Lake National Park several springs ago. To the uninitiated, the lake can seem otherworldly: At nearly 2,000 feet to the bottom, it’s the deepest lake in the United States, and the ninth-deepest in the world. It’s often too cold in spring for swimming, so hiking and cross-country skiing are the top activities. “Following an afternoon of cross-country skiing in 10 to 15 feet of the snow that winter left behind, we sat outside under a glorious sun, enjoying warm weather and each other’s company,” Jarvis recalls. “I hope that all Americans and their families take the opportunity to find their parks and experience special moments together.”

THE DETAILS
Crater Lake National Park
Crater Lake, Oregon; 541-594-3000; nps.gov/crla
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
107 Park Headquarters Rd., Gatlinburg, Tennessee; 865-436-1200; nps.gov/grsm
Tioga Gas Mart’s Whoa Nellie Deli
22 Vista Point Rd., Lee Vining, California; 760-647-1088; whoanelliedeli.com; lunch for two, $27*
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite Village, California; 209-372-0200; nps.gov/yose
  • *Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: May 2015