The quieter, cooler months are when many of the most beautiful national parks in the American West are at their best.
Each summer millions of people flock to southern Utah’s red rock landscapes. 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.
Locals who know the area well will recognize springtime by its many names. The most well-known is mud season. This is when the snowmelt has made mountain trails in the region muddy. 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.
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. The Moon House Ruins trail is a 4.6-mile walk that leads to a pueblo built in the millennium.
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. In June and July, there are more than half million visitors each month. The springtime months have significantly fewer. 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.
Moab is an easy drive away from Canyonlands and Arches national park, which are particularly peaceful in early spring. The Radcliffe, The new boutique hotel offers minimalist rooms for outdoor-lovers. You can also arrange climbing, biking, and hot air-balloon adventures with the staff.
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 historic hotel is the place to be. Zapata RanchThe Nature Conservancy is the owner of this property. It is situated just outside the park. It has a 17-bedroom lodge and a range-to–table dining room.
White Sands National Park is located in the Tularosa Basin, 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.”
No matter where you are in desert season, these landscapes seem to be alive. April and May are ideal times to view the ivory sego and cacti blooms. Cryptobiotic soil is another important desert life-form that’s often overlooked, but which can sometimes look like a fuzzy, blackened crust on the ground. Respect it and observe the park rules.
This story was first published in the March 2022 issue. Travel + Leisure Under the headline “Why Spring is the Right Time to Celebrate the ‘Desert Season'”
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