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Spring Wildflowers Bloom in the National Parks

By Kurt Repanshek

Spring can be one of those iffy seasons in the National Park System. You might run into warm, sunny days with an easy breeze at your back. Or you could find yourself being pelted by sleet, battered by a stiff wind, with grey clouds scooting by overhead.

One thing you can count on, though, are wildflowers — glorious wildflowers and trees in colorful bloom. Columbines and trilliums, shooting stars, Indian paintbrush, redbuds and dozens upon dozens more. All these floral species work in concert to color these landscapes as they recover from the cold, bleak days of winter.

This is a favorite season for birds, bees and photographers. Wildlife is more easily seen in the spring in many parks, too, making the coming three months idyllic for exploring national parks.

For those who love to marvel at the kaleidoscope of colors and hues that wildflowers spread across the parks, the season is unmatched. Winter’s snowmelt and the warming sun coax perennials back to life, brightening hillsides, meadows and even forest floors.

Take the trillium, for example. Though there are more than three dozen trillium species in North America, common to these perennials is their favored habitat: partial shade and rich, moist, well-drained soil. Many units of the park system, from coast to coast, have just what they need:

  • Find large, descriptively named White trilliums (T. grandiflorum) in Shenandoah National Park’s hollows in Virginia;
  • Patches of Yellow trillium (T. luteum) cluster in the river bottoms of Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area on the Kentucky/Tennessee border; and
  • Clumps of Giant trillium (T. chloropetalum) climb the wooded slopes of Redwood National and State Parks in California.
nature, flowers, national parks
Fringed Genetian near Yellowstone Lake. Photo used with permission from the National Park Service and Diane Renkin

Check the parks’ websites to find out when they might be blooming, as times range from February in Redwood to May in Big South Fork. Desperate for redbuds? Find them in the East at Great Smoky Mountains, at Shenandoah and along the Bluestone National Scenic River in West Virginia. They’re also common at Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis and along the Arch Rock Entrance Road in Yosemite National Park in California, where they bloom in April.

If you need help identifying wildflowers, consider attending one of the annual spring wildflower festivals at Great Smoky Mountains National Park (spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, April 11-15), Shenandoah National Park (Wildflower Weekend, May 6-7) or New River Gorge National River (Wildflower Weekend, April 28-30).

If you prefer to go it alone, you can utilize tools available through the National Park Service’s web network. Great Smoky Mountains has one the best with its Species Mapper. This software lets you choose a particular wildflower species and find out where you’re most likely to encounter it in the park.

As the Species Mapper won’t tell you when the flowers bloom, you can head outside of the Park Service web universe to a site run by the National Phenology Network and use its tools to gain insights. For example, the site’s Phenology Visualization Tool can show when the first blooms can be expected in a location, based on a 30-year average. At Old Rag in Shenandoah, May 7 is typically the first day you might see a bloom. At Bar Harbor, Maine, near Acadia National Park, it would be May 23. (Note: This tool can be tricky to master, so take advantage of the primer videos in the right-hand column.)

Those who are wild about wildflowers should also check out the Park Service’s NPSpecies web page, which allows you to discover which wildflowers grow in the parks. You can also use it to search for valuable information about the National Park System’s many mammals, birds, amphibians, insects and more.

For more articles on enjoying the National Park System in spring, visit NationalParksTraveler.com, where you’ll find a handy seasonal Essential Park Guide and detailed daily coverage of the national parks.


kurt repanshekBefore launching National Parks Traveler in August 2005, Kurt Repanshek spent 14 years with The Associated Press in positions ranging from a general assignment reporter to correspondent-in-charge for the state of Wyoming. Since embarking on a freelance career in the fall of 1993, his articles have appeared in Smithsonian, National Geographic Traveler, Audubon, National Wildlife, Hemispheres, Wilderness, and other publications.

His other credits include an article on national parks of the world for Microsoft’s Encarta CD, as well as three guidebooks to the national parks. As a contributor to the Travel Arts Syndicate, his stories have appeared in the Miami Herald, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Denver Post, and other newspapers.

While the Traveler started out only as a means to promote his public lands, environmental, and outdoors writing, it has evolved into a vehicle for both promoting the national parks and nurturing advocates for them. Add your voice to the dialogue through commenting on National Park Traveler stories.