The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.
The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including Arches, Great Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 424 NPS units across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials. These sites are outside the main focus of this guide.
Planning a trip to the U.S. national parks in May and don’t know which ones to visit? May is a beautiful time to visit the national parks now that the snow has melted across most of the country and roads have reopened. In this guide, I cover five great parks to visit plus five bonus parks and a road trip that links several of these parks together.
About this National Park series
This article is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year.
These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, I picked out what I think are the optimal times to visit each park. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at lease one occasion.
For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out my Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide will cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels. Please note this overview will be posted following the completion of this 12 month guide in February 2024.
And at the end of this article, I have links to the other guides in my Best National Parks by Month series.
Visiting the National Parks in May
May is an awesome time to visit the national parks. By May, warmer weather settles across most of the US. The snow has melted, the grass is green, the trees have leaves, and most roads are now open.
There are a handful of national parks that close their roads in late fall for snowfall and these roads don’t reopen until mid to late spring (or even early summer for some parks). You can still visit these parks in March and April but it is not until May that you have access to the full park.
May tends to be a busy month to visit the national parks but crowds are still lower than the summer months. If you want warm weather without massive crowds, May is a good time to plan your national parks trip.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The information I provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures since these dates are constantly changing. Since roads can close in the national parks at any time, I recommend getting updates on the NPS website while planning your trip.
Best National Parks in May
1. Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park preserves a section of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Skyline Drive is the main thoroughfare through the park, a road that twists and turns for 105 miles from north to south. For those who want to explore the park beyond Skyline Drive, 500 miles of hiking trails traverse the park.
Why visit Shenandoah in May: This is the best month to see wildflowers blooming in Shenandoah National Park. Plus, the weather is warm, the trees have leaves, and the entire park is lush and green.
Weather: The average high is 66°F and the average low is 46°F. Rainfall averages about 4.5 inches per month through the year and May is no different.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6 am and sunset is at 8:20 pm.
Top experiences: Drive Skyline Drive and visit the overlooks, hike to the top of Bearfence Mountain, visit Dark Hollow Falls, enjoy the view from Hawksbill Mountain, hike to Mary’s Rock, and hike a section of the Appalachian Trail.
Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure, hike Old Rag Mountain, a 9-mile loop trail.
Old Rag is generally considered a challenging route. The best time to hike this trail is May through October. You’ll need to leave pups at home—dogs aren’t allowed on this trail. From March 1-November 30, visitors to Old Rag Mountain including hikers on the Saddle, Ridge, and Ridge Access trails will need to obtain an Old Rag day-use ticket in advance.
How many days do you need? You can drive the length of Skyline Drive in one day visiting the overlooks and hiking a trail or two. For a more leisurely experience or to do several more hikes, plan on spending two or more days in Shenandoah.
Plan your visit
2. Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park is composed of two distinct districts: The Rincon Mountain District (East) and the Tucson Mountain District (West). Saguaro is a hot place to visit in May. So, why am I recommending it? Because this is the best time to see the Saguaro cactus in bloom.
The Saguaro cactus begins blooming in late April with peak blooming season in May. By the end of May into the first week of June, the blooming season ends.
Why visit Saguaro in May: To see the Saguaro cactus in bloom.
Weather: In May, the average high is 93°F and the average low is 60°F. Rainfall is extremely low.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 5:30 am and sunset is at 7:15 pm.
Top experiences: Drive Bajada Loop Drive, hike Valley View Overlook Trail and Desert Discovery Nature Trail, see the Signal Hill Petroglyphs, and drive the Cactus Forest Drive. Just outside of the park is the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum which is well worth the time.
How much time do you need? You will need two days to see the highlights of Saguaro National Park, one for each unit. With more time, you can go backpacking or hike the longer, more challenging hiking trails and visit the above mentioned Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum.
Plan your visit
- The Ultimate Guide to Saguaro National Park
- Inside the Cartoonish and Majestic Land of Saguaro
- Saguaro National Park: Two Parks in One
- Saguaro National Park: 11 Planning Tips
- Reach for the Sky: Saguaro National Park
3. Mesa Verde National Park
Located in southwestern Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is one of the most unique national parks in the United States. This park preserves the ancient Puebloan cliff dwellings and archeological sites that are hundreds of years old. Short hikes, scenic drives, and viewpoints make the to-do list but the best way to experience this park is to get up close with the cliff dwellings on a tour.
Why visit Mesa Verde in May: In May, the roads reopen in the park and ranger-guided tours of the cliff dwellings begin for the year. The weather is fantastic and crowds are lower than what you would see here during the summer months.
Weather: The average high is 70°F and the average low is 43°F. Rainfall is low.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is 6 am and sunset is 8:15 pm.
Top experiences: Take a ranger guided tour of a cliff dwelling, see the Spruce Tree House, hike the Petroglyph Point Trail, drive Mesa Top Loop, explore the Far View sites, and hike the Point Lookout Trail.
How many days do you need? One to two days are all you need to take a cliff dwelling tour and go on the scenic drives through the park. Consider spending a night or two in Morefield Campground just four miles from the park entrance. With 267 sites there’s always plenty of space and the campground rarely fills.
Plan your visit
- The Ultimate Guide to Mesa Verde National Park
- Mesa Verde National Park: Look Back In Time 1,000 Years
- Mesa Verde National Park: 14 Centuries of History
- Mesa Verde: A Home in the Cliffs
4. Congaree National Park
Location: South Carolina
Congaree is hot and humid in May and with higher levels of mosquitoes, it’s not a great time to visit the park unless you want to see the synchronous fireflies.
With over 2,000 species found world-wide, there are only three species of synchronous fireflies that can be found in North America. Every year, Congaree National Park hosts synchronous fireflies for approximately two weeks between mid-May and mid-June. During this time visitors can experience an awe-inspiring display of synchronous flashing while the fireflies search for a mate. This special and unique phenomenon is extremely popluar.
In order to protect critical firefly habitat and provide optimum visitor experience, tickets are required to enter the park during for this event. A set number of vehicle passes are issued for each evening of the event. Vehicle passes for this event are distributed by lottery hosted at www.recreation.gov/ticket/facility/300008.
Why visit Congaree in May: To see the synchronous fireflies.
Weather: The average high is 83°F and the average low is 60°F. On hotter than normal days, the high temperature can get up into the high-90s. In terms of rainfall, this is one of the drier months to visit the park but now that it is getting warmer expect humid weather. Mosquitoes can also be bad this time of year.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:20 am and sunset is at 8:20 pm.
Top experiences: Walk the Boardwalk Loop Trail, go canoeing or kayaking on Cedar Creek, hike the Weston Loop Trail, and hike to the General Greene Tree.
Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure, go on a multi-day canoe trip on the Congaree River.
How much time do you need? One day in Congaree is all you need to see the highlights. Walk the boardwalk trails and go for a canoe trip on Cedar Creek.
Plan your visit
- The Ultimate Guide to Congaree National Park
- Finding Solace in the Old Growth Forest of Congaree
- Home of Champions: Congaree National Park
5. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Location: Tennessee and North Carolina
Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. The ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains runs through the center of the park and it is here that you will find some of the tallest peaks in eastern North America.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States. In 2022, 13 million people visited this park. Second place wasn’t even close (that would be Grand Canyon with 4.7 million visitors).
In May of 2022, 1.3 million people visited this national park (you read that right…1.3 million people in one month). To put that into perspective, that’s about the same number of people that visited Capitol Reef National Park all year! And Capitol Reef was the 21st most visited national park lastt year.
And May isn’t even the busy time to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The busy season is the summer months and peak visitation is July with 1.6 million visitors.
Why visit Great Smoky Mountains in May: For great weather and lower crowds than the summer months.
Weather: The average high is 68°F and the average low is 45°F. Rainfall is about average for the year with the park receiving about 7 inches of rain.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7 am and sunset is at 8 pm.
Top experiences: Enjoy the view from Clingman’s Dome and Newfound Gap, hike the Alum Trail to Mount LeConte, drive through Cades Cove, and drive the Roaring Fork Motor Trail.
How many days do you need? You can drive the park’s main roads and visit the highlights of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in one day. To explore the parks more fully plan three to four days and avoid Cades Cove on the weekend. Trust me on that one.
Plan your visit
- The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Land of the Blue Smoke
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
- Great Smoky Mountains: Most Visited National Park…and We Can See Why
- The Ultimate Guide to Cades Cove
- Cades Cove: An Open Air Museum
- National Park Fees: Great Smoky Mountains Introduces Parking Fees
1 more National Parks to visit in May
Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park was included in my series for the best parks to visit in April since that month is a great time to see wildflowers in the park. The weather in May is very good with average high temperatures in the low 80s and low rainfall but this tends to be the busiest month to visit Pinnacles so keep that in mind while planning your trip.
Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in May
Cumberland Island National Seashore
Cumberland Island National Seashore includes one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands in the world. The park is home to a herd of feral, free-ranging horses. Most visitors come to Cumberland for the natural glories, serenity, and fascinating history. Built by the Carnegies, the ruins of the opulent 59-room, Queen Anne-style Dungeness are a must-see for visitors.
Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site
Known as an iron plantation, Hopewell Furnace illustrates how mining and producing iron ore spurred the United States to economic prosperity. Visitors to this Pennsylvania site can see demonstrations and hike the surrounding area which was originally farmland.
Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park
On the banks of the Pedernales River in the heart of the Texas Hill Country, the LBJ Ranch tells the story of America’s 36th President beginning with his ancestors until his final resting place on his beloved LBJ Ranch.
El Malpais National Monument
The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais National Monument offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails.
May road trip idea
In 10 days, you can drive point-to-point from Washington DC to Gatlinburg, Tennessee visiting three national parks along the way—Shenandoah, New River Gorge, and Great Smoky Mountains. You can also drive the Blue Ridge Parkway from Shenandoah to Great Smoky Mountains.
More Information about the National Parks
- From Arches to Zion: The Essential Guide to America’s National Parks
- America the Beautiful: The National Parks
- Learn How America’s National Parks Got Their Names
- 10 of the Best Scenic Drives in National Parks
- 9 of Best National Parks for RV Campers
- Guide to Adventure Activities in National Parks
- National Parks Inspire Love of Nature
- 12 Dog Friendly National Parks
- Plan Your Visit: Free Entrance Days in the National Parks for 2023
- The Best National Parks for Fall Foliage—and When to Visit Them for Peak Leaf-Peeping
Best National Parks to visit by month:
January: Best National Parks to Visit in January (to be posted mid-December)
February: Best National Parks to Visit in February (to be posted mid-January)
March: Best National Parks to Visit in March (to be posted mid-February)
April: Best National Parks to Visit in April
May: Best National Parks to Visit in May
June: Best National Parks to Visit in June
July: Best National Parks to Visit in July
August: Best National Parks to Visit in August
September: Best National Parks to Visit in September (to be posted mid-August)
October: Best National Parks to Visit in October (to be posted mid-September)
November: Best National Parks to Visit in November (to be posted mid-October)
December: Best National Parks to Visit in December (to be posted mid-November)
However one reaches the parks, the main thing is to slow down and absorb the natural wonders at leisure.