This Is the Best Season to Visit the National Parks in the American West

Many of the magnificent national parks of the American West are at their best during this cooler, quieter time of year.

Red Rock formations in Arches National Park
Arches National Park, in Utah, which is less crowded in spring. Photo: Colin Miller/Gallery Stock

Every summer, millions flock to the red-rock landscapes of southern Utah. But the pro move is to visit in spring — the earlier, the better — to avoid the unbearable heat, the crowds, and the possible flash floods that can spoil a summer trip.

To in-the-know locals, springtime goes by a few names. Best known is mud season, that time of year when mountain trails in the region are still boggy from snowmelt. But April and early May also signal the peak of what we in Utah call desert season, when the weather is more temperate and fewer people visit some of our region’s most stunning natural places.

“Summer is too hot for these landscapes,” says Stephen Trimble, a former ranger at Capitol Reef National Park and editor of the book "The Capitol Reef Reader." “Spring is the best time of year to wander across the slickrock domes of the Navajo Sandstone. The season also softens the canyons with delicate green leaves,” Trimble notes, as well as the blooms of cottonwood trees and crimson Indian paintbrush.

Horses and riders in Snow Canyon State Park
Horseback riding in Utah’s Snow Canyon State Park.

Benjamin Rasmussen

For Colorado-based rock climber Luke Mehall, the author of "American Climber," Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument is the perfect desert-season destination. “Spring is my favorite time of year in my favorite place,” Mehall says. “Seeing the flowers and cacti come to life is absolutely amazing — there’s a sense of renewal.”

This 1.35 million-acre sweep of land — which is held sacred by the Diné (Navajo), Hopi, and Ute peoples — is home to breathtaking landscapes and 100,000 archaeological sites. Notable trails include the path to Moon House Ruins, a 4.6-mile out-and-back to a millennium-old pueblo.

Zion National Park, one of the country’s most visited reserves and the home to world-famous hikes including Angels Landing Trail, is another desert-season winner. Both June and July see more than half a million visitors, on average; springtime months, by contrast, see significantly fewer arrivals. Avoiding busy trails is easier in the Kolob Canyons area, which is often overlooked — but shouldn’t be. As for Angels Landing, it’s best accessed via Zion’s less-trafficked east entrance.

Two scenes from Utah national parks, including a detail of a Yucca flower, and a low view of a person canyoneering
From left: Harriman’s yucca blooms in Arches every spring; Utah’s desert landscapes are ideal for canyoneering. Courtesy of National Park Service

Elsewhere in Utah, Arches and Canyonlands national parks are both within easy driving distance of Moab, which is particularly peaceful in the early spring. The Radcliffe, a new boutique hotel there, offers minimalist rooms designed for outdoorsy go-getters. Staff can help arrange biking, climbing, canyoneering, and hot-air-balloon adventures.

Outside of Utah, Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park has two of the tallest dunes in North America, both topping 700 feet, as well as some seriously dark skies for stargazing. The place to stay is the historic Zapata Ranch, which is owned by the Nature Conservancy. Located just outside the park, it has a 17-bedroom lodge with a range-to-table dining room.

Desert season is also prime time for White Sands National Park in the Tularosa Basin of New Mexico. The park’s 275 square miles of alabaster sand constitute the world’s largest gypsum dune field. Trek the five trails, or pack buckets, shovels, and umbrellas for a day at New Mexico’s coolest “beach.”

Wherever desert season takes you, know that these seemingly lifeless landscapes are anything but. April and May are the ideal time to see cacti flower and the ivory sego lily bloom. Another less-noticed but pivotal desert life-form lies underfoot: cryptobiotic soil, which is crucial to these ecosystems, often looks like a blackened, fuzzy crust on the dirt. Respect and protect it by staying on trails and observing park rules.

A version of this story first appeared in the March 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "Why Spring Is the Moment to Embrace 'Desert Season.'"

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