The hills are alive with the… sight of wildflowers! And not just the hills: deserts, prairies, canyons, sand dunes, bogs, forest floors and more are waiting, or soon will be, to enchant you with their annual bounty of scents and colors.
If it’s spring already where you are, don’t fret – you haven’t missed it. Wildflower season is longer than you think: desert blooms start early in the year, while the meadows of the alpine zones peak late in summer. There’s always somewhere in bloom.
Ready for a botanical adventure you won’t forget? From vast sweeps of color to brief bursts of brilliance, take your pick from these prime flower-spotting destinations across America.
Carrizo Plain National Monument, California
Carrizo Plain National Monument is a quiet valley tucked away in the Central Coast range where few people venture – except during the spring bloom. Wildflower lovers should target March and April, when the height of the bloom works its way up the valley. Rare ‘super bloom’ years attract visitors who didn’t even know they liked wildflowers, while average years are merely amazing. Vast fields of yellow goldfields and hillside daisies stretch off into the distance, lavender phacelias smear the hillsides, blending into orange California poppies and yellow and white tidy-tips. The surreal inflated inflorescences of the desert candle are an uncommon highlight.
Crested Butte, Colorado
Summer in the Rockies is a sight to behold no matter where you are, but few spots guarantee wildflower glory like Crested Butte. Since 1986, the small Colorado mountain town has hosted the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival every July, with hikes, workshops, culinary events, photo tours and plein-air art outings. Come before or after the festival and there’s plenty to see on your own. Early bloomers include the hanging blossoms of red columbine and glacier lilies, with hillsides covered in golden mule’s ear daisies and scarlet tufts of Indian paintbrush during the height of summer.
Mt Rainier, Washington
Most people visit Mt Rainier National Park for its namesake mountain. For some of us, the peak is a conveniently lovely backdrop for photos of our main quarry: wildflowers, and lots of them. Weather on the mountain is predictably unpredictable, so hitting the timing just right for the peak bloom takes a bit of luck. In general, aim for mid-July to mid-August. Look for pink calypso orchids and the ghostly white Indian pipes in the forests, while the open meadows will sport purple gentians, explosions of white blossoms from bear grass, feathery mops of pasqueflowers, and lupines in all directions.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park
According to poet Billy Wilder, to ‘azaleate’ is to commiserate with someone about a natural event you just barely missed because you were too early or too late, as in the brief azalea bloom of the Great Smoky Mountains. Certainly, look for the azaleas: there are nine species of rhododendron and azalea in the park, with flame azaleas starting earlier at lower elevations in April and May, while the higher elevation Catawba rhododendron peaks in June. But that’s only the start of the long list of wildflowers to be stalked in the area. Look for the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, a week-long festival with guided walks celebrating the diversity of early bloomers in the park, including trilliums, orchids, irises and much more.
Hill Country, Texas
What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think of Texas Hill Country? Okay, perhaps it’s ‘barbecue.’ But after that, it’s most likely ‘bluebonnets.’ There’s no one spot to go. Start in Austin at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Pull over (but stay off private property) as you drive around Burnet, where the annual Bluebonnet Festival is held every April. Local towns have banded together to create a self-guided loop tour around the Highland Lakes area, but also explore side roads, like Hwy 16 north of Llano toward the mysteriously named Baby Head Cemetery for sweeps of bluebonnets mixed with Indian paintbrush and coreopsis.
Cranberry Glades, West Virginia
Not every wildflower destination needs to offer vast sweeps of color fit for a calendar; some of the more interesting and diverse spots require a bit more appreciation for the subtle and the bizarre. If you want to see carnivorous plants, for example, you generally need to head to a bog. The Cranberry Glades Botanical Area in West Virginia holds the state’s largest bog area – four separate bogs, in fact, with a half-mile boardwalk built so you can enjoy the ecosystem without causing too much damage (or sinking). Look for tiny sundews with their glistening droplets of deadly stickiness, pitcher plants, purple fringed orchids and golden marsh marigolds, and, yes, cranberries.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California
If you don’t think of deserts as wildflower destinations, take a trip to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. You won’t be alone: thousands of visitors, camera in hand, descend on this Southern California park in hopes of catching a bloom at its peak. Time it right and the desert floor will be a carpet of magenta from the desert sand verbena. Look closer to spot purple phacelias, dune primrose and desert lilies. Tall, spindly ocotillos stick out with their long scarlet blossoms like an invention of Dr. Seuss. Duck into side canyons on trails that lead to native palm oases, watching for the neon yellow flowers of barrel cacti, beds of miniature purplemat and the elusive translucent ghost flowers.
White Mountains, New Hampshire
New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the most rugged mountains of New England, are also its most spectacular for wildflowers, with a range of species more commonly seen much farther north in Canada. The annual Celebration of Lupines, held every June in Franconia Notch, honors the reliably captivating blues, pinks and whites of everyone’s favorite local legume. Hikers can follow the presidents for good wildflower viewing – ie trails on Mt Washington, Mt Jefferson, Mt Eisenhower and Mt Clay. Follow the Alpine Garden trail on Mt Washington, the tallest of the lot, for the best of the region’s high elevation blooms, including the alpine azalea and pincushion plants.