US National Park Week 2012: where to go when the parks are free

It's April, so it's time once again for one of the most tempting deals in American travel: National Park Week. Each of the 397 parks in the National Park System is offering free admission to visitors from April 21-29. The US National Parks are a bargain at any price, and the $80 annual pass is one of the best investments a nature-loving American traveler can make, but if you need an incentive to go visit some of the most breathtaking natural and historical wonders the world over, hopefully free admission will get you to hit the road this year.

And with the summer months seeing the lion's share of visitors, April is a great time to go. An analysis of the best times to visit national parks as recommended by Lonely Planet authors found October to be the most highly recommended month, with September and April close runners-up. If you have to go in the summer, go (and we have some great tips on how to find solitude even during the busiest times of year); but if you can, shoot for the shoulder season, that sweet spot between high and low season, to enjoy some of the most popular parks without the crowds.

Which parks are best best in April? Spring wildflowers are carpeting the lower elevations, desert parks are at their most pleasant temperatures for exploration, and waterfalls are beginning to flow with full force with the onset of the snowmelt. Here's a short list of some of our authors' favorite parks to visit during National Park Week:

Planning to explore a National Park this year? Where are you headed?

[Photo: Yosemite's Vernal Falls from the Mist Trail, taken in April by jeroen020 on Flickr]

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