Blog Post Jennifer Errick Feb 2, 2015

Dreaming of Spring? 9 Great Spots to See Wildflowers

Soon, national parks in some of the warmest regions of the country will begin blooming with a new season’s worth of wildflowers. What better way to shake off the winter doldrums—or charm your Valentine—than with the promise of a front-row seat at a national park to watch the landscape come alive with color?

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Great Smoky Mountains has such a wealth of flowering plants and shrubs that enthusiasts nicknamed it “Wildflower National Park.” More than 1,500 different types of flowers bloom over the course of a long and vibrant season, offering visitors plenty to see from late winter all the way to late fall. Fast-fading woodland flowers known as ephemerals begin opening as early as February, including lady slipper orchids, iris, columbine, trillium, and violets. In summer, cardinal flowers, bee balm, jewelweed, rhododendron (shown here), and other varieties bring deeper colors to the landscape. Asters, coneflowers, and monk’s hood are among the many flowers that peak in late summer and fall. During the park’s annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, which will run from April 21 to 25 this year, visitors can take guided tours, history walks, seminars, art classes, and more.

2. Death Valley National Park, California

Wildflowers in the desert can be a gamble—it’s impossible to predict just when the season will begin or how many blooms will appear. Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks all offer a surprising quantity and diversity of flowers, but which of these parks will have a “good” year depends on the temperature, rains, and other factors. Death Valley is often a good bet because its low elevation results in blooms that begin opening earlier than they do in other California desert parks. Its carpets of flowers then gradually spread uphill into the higher elevations of the park, offering a particularly long flowering season, generally from February into August. When conditions are just right, roughly every five to ten years, the flowers bloom so profusely that the effect is simply staggering.

3. Glacier National Park, Montana

Glacier is home to nearly a thousand different kinds of flowering plants, although a few varieties in particular capture the essence of spring and summer at this landmark park. In April, the lower elevations of the park start showing the first bright-yellow hints of glacier lilies, which bloom at higher and higher elevations as the season progresses. In late summer, purple asters dot the park’s eastern meadows, especially in the Two Medicine region. But perhaps best-known are the park’s profusions of beargrass (the taller white flowers here, shown with pink mountain spirea). These beloved plants are not actually grasses—or bears—but they do cover the landscape in curious spikes of white blossoms at the height of the park’s wildflower season, roughly late June through August.

4. Martin Luther King, Jr., National Memorial, Washington, D.C.

Technically, they are not wildflowers: The Japanese government sent thousands of cherry trees to the United States in the early 1900s as a gift of friendship, and D.C. natives and tourists alike have flocked to the city’s Tidal Basin to celebrate the trees’ prolific, ethereal blossoms for decades. Visitors can enjoy this distinctive annual spectacle in late March and early April as the trees turn the banks of the Potomac and the pathways around the National Mall a delicate pink. Nowhere is the vision quite as meaningful as it is at the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Memorial, where the trees are usually (though not always) in full bloom during the anniversary of King’s death on April 4, 1968. The memorial designers planted an additional 182 cherry trees as part of the four-acre site, with the significance of this peak blossom time in mind.

5. Mount Rainier National Park, Washington

Mount Rainier receives so much snowfall during the winter, its wet valleys—fertilized by centuries of ash from this once-active volcano—burst with thousands upon thousands of blossoms during the magnificent late spring and summer seasons. A settler gave the Paradise region of the park its name in the late 1800s after seeing the blanket of flowers along the mountain’s southern slope. There are almost too many kinds to name—asters, columbine, lilies, lupine, paintbrush, phlox, and much more. The display is particularly impressive in the subalpine regions of the park, where the flowers work overtime between mid-July and mid-August to reproduce in the few short weeks before the snows return to the mountain.

6. Big Bend National Park, Texas

Texans take their bluebonnets very seriously. State legislators made this foot-tall lupine the Texas state flower in 1901—then engaged in a simmering 70-year debate over which species should take the official honor. Ultimately, they couldn’t decide, and now five different types of bluebonnet all represent the Lone Star State and can be found blanketing roadsides and cattle pastures in March and April. After a wet winter season, Big Bend offers profusions of this beloved flower in lower elevations of the park; in drier years, sparse blooms dot the vast landscape in striking contrast with the park’s mountains and canyons. Visitors can also see many other flowering plants in bloom throughout the season, including cacti, yucca, ocotillo, and Texas mountain laurel.

7. Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida

The swampy terrain of South Florida comes alive in the hot, sticky months of late spring and early summer with sawgrass, pond-apple blossoms, pickerel weed, goldenrod, and stands of fluffy, pink muhly grass. One notable flower sets the Everglades region apart, however—its orchids. Everglades National Park has more orchid varieties than any other park in the continental United States—though getting to see them involves patience, attention, a bit of luck, and a lot of bug spray. Try hiking the park’s short, accessible Anhinga Trail to see a variety of native plants, including the potential for orchids. Also try the Kirby Storter Roadside Park at nearby Big Cypress National Preserve, a one-mile boardwalk with numerous exotic blooms. If you’re up for more extensive exploring and have a lot of luck on your side, you might even get a glimpse of the preserve’s rare, celebrated ghost orchid.

8. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Summer is brief but relentlessly sunny in the Arctic Circle, and the near-constant daylight in July and August coaxes a spectacle of color from the depths of the tundra. There are no roads or trails in this 8.5-million-acre wilderness, but those willing to plan ahead and forge their own paths (or hire guides to help), can experience a bounty of truly wild flowers, including striking blue Arctic forget-me-nots, bright yellow bursts of arnica, tufts of cotton grass (shown here), and much more. One of Alaska’s best-known wildflowers is the pervasive three- to four-foot-tall fuchsia fireweed, a late-season plant that easily colonizes disturbed ground and will cover large meadows and fields in a wash of shocking color.

9. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Rocky Mountain is one of the highest-elevation parks in the country, and up in this rare air, three major ecosystems—the montane, subalpine, and alpine regions of the park—each offer their own flowers. Blooms start as early as April in the lower elevations and reach their peak around mid-July in the alpine regions. A trip along the park’s 48-mile Trail Ridge Road offers an excellent cross-section of the park’s flowers, and during the height of summer, daily ranger-led hikes from the Alpine Visitor Center highlight the wide variety of blooms that have adapted to life above 11,000 feet. Plants that bloom—albeit briefly—at this altitude include alpine sunflowers (shown here), primrose, mountain dryad, snow buttercups, fairy primrose, and Arctic gentian.

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