The 16 Best National Parks for Families to Explore this Spring

Following the past pandemic winter hibernation a national park adventure is one of the best family vacation ideas for spring

During April and May, national parks tend to be less crowded and cooler then during peak summer travel which means plenty of outdoor space to stretch out and burn off energy. As an added bonus, April brings National Park Week (April 17-25, in 2021), an annual celebration that includes FREE admission and special junior ranger programs for kids.

Spring is prime time for wildflowers, to spot baby wildlife, hit the hiking trails, and enjoy seasonal waterfalls. Here are 16 of the best national parks in spring throughout the United States. These exceptional public lands will help you reconnect and reboot.

Saguaro cactus in bloom © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Spring is the perfect time to visit Saguaro before the triple-digit summertime temperatures descend on the Sonoran Desert. The region’s giant saguaro cactuses are an iconic symbol of the Southwest and families are bound to see plenty of them along hiking trails and driving routes through the east or west section of the park. The greatest diversity of spring-blooming cacti species can be seen in April. The cactus show continues as the abundant prickly pears bloom in early May followed by saguaros from mid May to mid June.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Visitors will find cooler spring temperatures at Grand Canyon with even a chance of snow on the Rim. The possibility of rain and snow, combined with more breezes and skies clear of haze and smog (that tends to drift from Las Vegas and Southern California) makes spring an ideal time to see the canyon in all its drama and beauty.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New River Gorge National Park & Preserve, West Virginia

In January 2021, New River Gorge was elevated to national park status focusing national attention on the natural beauty of one of West Virginia’s most beloved playgrounds. The New River is one of those places that gets under your skin and stays with you especially if you enjoy outdoor activities. Spring at New River Gorge means whitewater through deep canyons, the perfect backdrop for thrilling family rafting trips.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Spring at Shenandoah National Park brings blooming wildflowers and trees, flowing waterfalls and migrating songbirds. Only 75 miles west of Washington, D.C., Shenandoah is an easy escape from the bustle of the city. A park hallmark is Skyline Drive, the scenic byway that runs 105 miles north and south along the mountaintop ridge. To escape any April showers, duck into Luray Caverns, located just outside park boundaries for a cave exploration filled with towering stone formations and massive caverns.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

Each spring, the hollows of Great Smoky Mountains National Park bloom with ephemerals such as trillium, lady slipper orchids, bleeding hearts, violets, and other native flora. For 71 years wildflower enthusiasts have enjoyed the show during the annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage (May 8-16, in 2021). Later in spring, synchronous fireflies light up the woodland glens (dates vary year to year).

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina

The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway is among the most scenic drives in the Eastern U.S. Designed to “lie gently upon the land,” this national park corridor stretches from Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offering scenic mountain views and ample hiking opportunities along the way. Expect to find a mix of wildflowers and tree blossoms including dwarf iris, tulips, violets, and various species of rhododendrons and dogwood trees. Craggy Gardens (MP 364.6) has a particularly spectacular rhododendron bloom in late spring.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Opt for the family-friendly Riverside Walk and look for early blooming wildflowers such as desert marigold, slickrock paintbrush, and western columbine. You just may catch a glimpse of baby animals including wild turkey chicks, mule deer fawns, and bighorn sheep.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah

Located north of Zion, Cedar Breaks National Monument is a 10,000-foot hidden gem, a wide red rock amphitheater similar to Bryce Canyon. Spring arrives later at this higher elevation but when it does, the meadows blaze with the brilliant colors of wildflower blooms. Be sure to hike to Spectra Point to glimpse the oldest tree in the park—a Bristlecone pine estimated to be 1,500 years old.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Tours of the cliff dwellings begin in May but early spring travelers won’t miss out since cliff dwelling structures like Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House can be viewed at overlooks year-round. Prior to June, the park is quieter with fewer crowds and moderate temperatures. A less-visited nearby site, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument has the highest concentration of Native American archaeological sites in the U.S.—more than 6,300 including cliff dwellings, kivas, petroglyphs, and sacred springs.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

One of the least-visited national parks, Big Bend is a perfect place for physical distancing. Springtime at Big Bend National Park means cooler temperatures, wildflowers, and plenty of migrating birds. And Big Bend is a great place to explore the Rio Grande River which is framed by sheer canyon walls.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park preserves 11,000 acres of old growth bottomland hardwood forest with some of the largest trees (of their kind) in the United States. The sun and water reflect the trees creating a complex world of depth, light, and life.Cypress knees spring from the swamp like forest stalagmites.The story of spring in Congaree, is the trees, water, flowers, light, and life working together to bring you something entirely new, entirely special.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Above ground, the yucca bloom, cacti send out yellow arms, and mescal plants blossom across the Chihuahuan Desert landscape. Below ground, stalactites line cave ceilings and decorative rock formations keep youngsters enthralled along the Big Room Trail. Carlsbad Caverns is famous for its bat flight program and the Brazilian free-tailed bats make their migratory journey back to the park in late spring.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Summer gets hot in the desert but spring is the perfect season to visit. With its location within 1,200 square miles of Mojave and Colorado deserts, spring is prime time at Joshua Tree. Not only will you enjoy milder weather, you might also be treated to spectacular springtime displays of lupine, poppies, and Joshua tree blooms.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Spring is a time to enjoy sunshine and snow at Lassen Volcanic. The Manzanita Lake and Southwest Areas of the park remain accessible by car all year. Snow clearing on the park highway (which closes to through traffic in the snowy, winter season) begins in the Manzanita Lake Area in late March or early April. It takes two months on average to clear and open the 30-mile park highway. The snow clearing process is largely dependent on the depth of the winter snowpack and spring weather.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Utah

Arches and Canyonlands are colorful siblings that are great to visit any time of year but to avoid the high heat of summer the best time to visit is now. Spring-time activities run the gamut in these two parks. Hiking is the main attraction with endless miles of trails. Some of the more popular hikes in Arches lead to Delicate Arch, Landscape Arch, Park Avenue, and the Windows Section. In Canyonlands explore the Island in the Sky with its trails to Whale Rock and ancient granaries on Aztec Butte. Longer treks in the Needles District can fill several days and more. Spring also is a time of renewal, and you can see this in the blooming flowers.

Worth Pondering…

April is a promise that May is bound to keep.

—Hal Borland

Celebrating America’s Parks and American Heritage during National Park Week

From April 17-25, the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation invite everyone to celebrate America’s treasured places during National Park Week. Join the fun!

The Department of the Interior has announced that National Park Week—an annual weeklong celebration of America’s national parks—will run from April 17 to April 25. National Park Week encourages the public to explore the vast network of national parks, sacred sites, and historical landmarks. 

Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Park, New York © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Every national park has its own unique story to tell, yet so much of our nation’s shared heritage can be found in the towering forests and vast desert expanses that make up our National Park System,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. “The outdoors has also proven to be a welcome refuge during the past year of the pandemic. I encourage everyone to enjoy the beauty and wonder of our national parks safely and responsibly.”   

To kick off National Park Week all parks will have a free admission day on Saturday, April 17. The public is asked to recreate responsibly when visiting parks.

White Sands National Park, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Park Service (NPS) invites everyone to participate in a Twitter chat preview of National Park Week on April 16 at 1 p.m. Join the conversation and share favorite memories, tips, and stories about national parks using the hashtag #NationalParkWeek.    

“National Park Week is always a great reminder of the wide variety of sites, parks and programs available for the public to explore in-person or online,” said National Park Service Deputy Director Shawn Benge. “Throughout the week, ‘travel’ to national parks through virtual tours and other entertaining and educational digital activities designed to connect visitors with the vast network of historical, cultural, inspirational, and recreational parks across the country.”   

Cumberland Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“The National Park Foundation and our park partners celebrate the full diversity of our parks. They come in all shapes and sizes. They are urban and rural, natural and manmade. They each have their own, unique story, perspective and experience to share with all of us that, when taken together, really tell the American story,” said National Park Foundation President and CEO Will Shafroth. “And each of us has an important role to play in helping to preserve and protect these special places.”

The 2021 National Park Week theme days are:  

Pinnacles National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saturday, April 17: Free Admission and ParkRx Day

Spending time in parks and nature benefits overall physical and mental health and wellness. In honor of the NPS’ century-long collaboration with the Office of Public Health, National Park Week begins with ParkRx Day! Enjoy a free admission visit and experience the healing power of nature in a national park.   

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sunday, April 18: Volunteer Sunday

Thank you to National Park Service VIPs (Volunteers-In-Parks)! With over 400 national park sites to manage, NPS volunteers play a critical part in helping parks thrive. From clearing trails and providing directions to assisting visitors through museum collections, volunteers help all of us enjoy national parks.   

Cowpens National Battlefield, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monday, April 19: Military Monday

Thank you for your family’s military service. Many national parks have direct connections to the American military—there are dozens of battlefields, military parks, and historic sites that commemorate and honor the service of American veterans. In gratitude for their service, free annual passes are available for all those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Learn more at nps.gov/subjects/military.  

Saguaro National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuesday, April 20: Transformation Tuesday

National parks and communities are ever changing whether it is in nature, history, opportunities to experience places, and our own personal journeys. Some transformations in national parks have occurred naturally while others are the result of conservation and restoration projects. From restoring buildings to their historical appearance, to rehabilitating ecosystems, to the maturation of wildlife, to incorporating emerging technology, learn how and why parks and their features have transformed through the years.    

Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wednesday, April 21: Wayback Wednesday

History happened and memories are made in national parks. Take a look at some of your favorite parks then and now. How has the view changed? Who else has stood in the same spot in the past? Learn about the living landscapes, historical battlefields, ancestral structures, homes of prominent people, and buildings that are tangible reminders of the ever-evolving U.S. story.

New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Thursday, April 22: Earth Day

A global celebration encouraging all people to learn more about and care for the planet, Earth Day is the perfect time to reflect on the natural wonders that the NPS helps to protect.   

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Friday, April 23: Friendship Friday

Caring for the parks is a big job. Park partners have played an important role since the NPS was founded in 1916 and this tradition of generous, committed support continues today with individuals, groups, and communities helping preserve and enhance the national park experience.  

Capitol Reef National Park. Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saturday, April 24: Junior Ranger Day

The NPS Junior Ranger program provides fun and engaging ways for young people to connect with America’s heritage and landscapes.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sunday, April 25: BARK Ranger Day

National parks are fun to share with those we love including those of the fluffy variety! BARK Ranger principles ensure a pet’s visit to a park is fun and safe.   

Go outside, spring is for feeling alive in national parks.

Worth Pondering…

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.

—Wallace Stegner, 1983