Warmer mornings and longer evenings are telltale signs that spring is in the air, bringing with it an array of colorful explosions, as wildflowers cover hillsides and prairies with bright blooms. The first full week of May is set aside as National Wildflower Week, the official recognition of our country’s floral bounty. Sure, you could admire the blossoms from a distance, but why not celebrate by lacing up your hiking boots and getting right into the thick of things?
Below, you’ll find hikes of varying lengths and on differing terrains — but all follow trails rich with wildflowers during peak viewing season. Just be sure to adhere to “Leave No Trace” principals. In addition to returning with everything you brought in, that means staying on the trail at all times and not picking or trampling any flowers.
Pro tip: Use the hashtag #NoFlowersWereHarmed when posting to social media to encourage others to follow those guidelines as well.
Mount Rainier National Park, Wash.
5.5 miles round trip
Peak season: July, August
Maybe summiting Rainier (or Tahoma, to the local indigenous tribes) isn’t in the cards for you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy majestic views of the peak while frolicking among the flowers. The Skyline Trail leaves from Paradise, the southern hub of the Rainier area, but continue to follow signs to Panorama Point at all of the various trail junctions. It may be tough to read the signs because you’ll be distracted by the wildflowers! Peak season finds meadows brimming with avalanche lilies, pink heather, western pasqueflowers, lupine, scarlet paintbrush and bright yellow cinquefoil, all with a backdrop of cascading waterfalls and sparkling glaciers. Seven-day passes cost $15 per person with no car, or $30 per vehicle. You can also buy an America the Beautiful Interagency Annual Pass for $80, which grants admission to all national park, forest service or federal sites charging a fee for one year.
Columbia River Gorge, Wash.
Six miles round trip
Peak season: late May, early June
If you have the gumption for a steep climb, head to Dog Mountain. This calf-burner covers more than 2,800 feet of elevation gain, so it’s not a walk in the park. But the sweat equity is more than worth it for the views at the upper meadows. You’ll be rewarded with swaths of yellow balsam root that practically drip over the walls of the gorge. Cluster lilies, baby blue-eyes and Indian paintbrush flowers are interspersed throughout, creating a sensory experience unlike any other. If you don’t have the fortitude (or lung capacity) to tackle that much climbing, stop at the lower meadows located at Mile 1.5. There are still plenty of flowers, and you’ll save yourself nearly 1,300 feet of climbing. In the high season (March 31 through July 1), a permit is required and can be obtained through recreation.gov. Only 150 are issued per day. The day-use fee is $5 per vehicle, plus a nonrefundable $1 reservation fee.
Lake Alpine, Calif.
Eight miles round trip
Peak season: June to early July
If you’re keen on hiking a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail without the commitment of all 2,650 miles, consider this stunner of a section. The hike begins on the peak of Ebbetts Pass in a parking lot frequently used for trail magic stations, where volunteers supply PCT thru-hikers with snacks, gear and other creature comforts before they continue trekking. The first mile of the hike is both an easy stroll and prime wildflower viewing as the path winds through meadows filled with the most dazzling displays of lupine found in the Eastern Sierra. After this, the trail steepens and the wildflowers lessen, but it’s still worth the effort to make it to Noble Lake, where you can enjoy lunch among a few still-glorious patches of subalpine flowers. Free.
Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park, Calif.
Five miles round trip
Peak season: February through early May
Potato Harbor is one of the more popular hikes on Santa Cruz Island for good reason. Day visitors and overnight campers can access the trail from Scorpion Anchorage, where boats drop off all visitors. From there, take the North Bluff Trail on the right as it climbs up to the top of the island before meandering along the cliff edge and connecting with Potato Harbor Road. During peak season, vibrant yellow explosions of coreopsis line the skinny trail and hang over the sides of the cliffs in a showy display of floral fortitude. If you’re lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of whales in the ocean far below. Free, but ferry transport to the island costs $59 per adult and $41 per child for a day trip through Island Packers. Island camping costs $79 per adult and $54 per child; standard campsite costs $15 per night.
Less than one mile
Peak season: Late May through early June
Admittedly, walking around Centennial Marsh is less of a hiking adventure and more of an outdoor-with-a-super-bloom experience. Situated in the southwest region of Idaho, far from the rugged mountains that most associate with the state, Centennial Marsh is a 3,100-acre parcel of wetlands that is home to a little-known super bloom. Compared with its outrageously popular cousin in California, the Centennial Marsh super bloom sees fewer people as a sea of purple camass lilies covers the valley floor. Add thousands of birds, and it’s an outdoor experience you aren’t likely to forget. Don’t delay your trip, because the bloom is unpredictable; sometimes it lasts one month, other times only one week. Free.
Crested Butte, Colo.
Seven miles round trip
Peak season: June to August
Crested Butte is the wildflower capital of Colorado, and this trail may be one of the best and most easily accessible hikes of them all. In peak season, the hillsides are virtually painted with lupine in varying shades of pink, red, purple, white and yellow, with clumps of corn lilies mixed in for good measure. It is a popular mountain biking trail, so keep an eye out for those on two wheels. If you have a hankering for more wildflowers, consider visiting in early July, when the town hosts its annual Wildflower Festival, complete with guided hikes, tours, workshops and performances. Free.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tenn.
11.3 miles round trip
Peak season: Mid-to-late June
Gregory Bald is a 4,949-foot mountain located on the Tennessee-North Carolina border and entirely within the boundaries of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With 3,020 feet of elevation gain, it’s a popular hiking destination for those looking for a challenging day. But mid-to-late June is arguably the best time to visit thanks to the flame azaleas that bloom on the summit every year. While the vibrant red flowers are the main draw, the trail also sees loads of other wildflowers, such as trillium, mountain laurel and pink lady’s slipper. Sure, it is a lot of climbing, but the colorful summit views are worth the muscle fatigue. Free.
Acadia National Park, Maine
1.9 miles round trip
Peak season: June
Viewing these wildflowers requires a different skill set: reading tide tables. At low tide, a gravel sandbar opens between the town of Bar Harbor and Bar Island, allowing hikers access to the beautiful display of lupine. The dirt road gently wraps through the forest of this uninhabited island before leading to an old home site. But time your visit carefully so you don’t get stuck out there. The sandbar is accessible for exactly 90 minutes before low tide and 90 minutes afterward, so you have three hours to enjoy the flowers. Tides change daily, so make sure you’re looking at a current tide chart. A seven-day pass costs $15 per person with no car or $30 per vehicle.
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