Where and When to See Wildflowers on the Trail

Purple lupines, yellow pond lilies, fire pink, and more!

No matter where you live in the United States, you’re likely not far from colorful meadows and trailside displays. From the rugged Columbia River Gorge in Washington to a popular, yet remote island in Maine, here are five of our favorite hikes and parks to spot wildflowers throughout the country.

Dog Mountain, Washington

Each spring, hikers flock to Dog Mountain for its enormous wildflower blooms. | Photo: Wilson Bilkovich, Flickr

Dog Mountain is a rite of passage for Pacific Northwest hikers. Everyone suffers through the nearly 3,000-foot climb that guarantees you’ll earn your post-trek beer, and the summit promises unspoiled views of the surrounding Columbia River Gorge. Dog Mountain becomes perhaps the most sought-after hike in the region for a few magical weeks each spring. Hikers drive hours to catch a glimpse of the trail’s legendary wildflower blooms.

Balsamroot isn’t especially rare in the Columbia River Gorge, but the sheer abundance makes it worth the trek; at the flower’s peak, hikers walk through numerous meadows covered almost entirely in lemon-hued blooms.

Pro Tip: To hike Dog Mountain is to lament its congested parking lot. Rather than circling the lot all morning, catch a shuttle from Stevenson for a stress-free trip. Failing the shuttle, start hiking early or head out on a weekday.

[Wildflowers You’ll See] Balsamroot is the dominant wildflower lining Dog Mountain, though hikers might also pass fields of Indian paintbrush (known for its vibrant red hue) and stalks of purple lupine along the way.

[When to Go] Head out in late May or early June for the best views.

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Virginia is home to a number of unusual landscapes; it’s not uncommon to travel between lush valleys, thick forests, and unforgiving mountain passes in a single hike. Those landscapes make the state an ideal home for all manner of wildflowers. And there may be no better place to explore that variety than Shenandoah National Park.

More than 850 varieties of wildflower call the park home and, with 500+ miles of trails, you’re sure to see their colorful displays throughout its boundaries. Early in the spring, hikers should tackle lower-elevation hikes (all the better if they’re near waterfalls like the 70-foot-tall Dark Hollow Falls) before heading to higher elevations as summer progresses. Some key hikes to spot the blooms? The 8.8-mile Old Rag Loop, the 14-mile Neighbor Mountain – Jeremys Run Loop, and the 2.7-mile Hawksbill Mountain Loop. The park’s famed Skyline Drive is also prime wildflower territory in summer and fall.

[Wildflowers You’ll See] The purple, cup-shaped bloodroot blooms in early spring, while walls of pink azaleas bloom by Mother’s Day. Later in the season, pink touch-me-nots take root near streams at the height of summer.

[When to Go] Wildflowers seem to be in bloom more often than not at Shenandoah National Park. The first waves bloom in early spring, but you’ll see wildflowers through fall (when wild sunflowers are at their iconic peak).

Cub Lake Loop, Colorado

Yellow Pond Lily on Cub Lake | Photo: Rocky Mountain National Park, Flickr

Even without wildflower blooms, the Cub Lake Loop would be well worth any hiker’s time. The six-mile trek takes hikers through open meadows, delivers mountain views, follows the Big Thompson River, and cuts through the charred remains of the 2012 Fern Lake Fire. Each fall, hikers are likely to see herds of elk and the occasional moose grazing along the way.

Every spring and summer, more than 80 varieties of wildflowers bring the subalpine terrain to life. Pink-and-white wintergreen and bright violet bee balm, among others, line the trail and dot the meadows through which hikers traverse. Yellow pond lilies cover the surface of Cub Lake, creating a colorful contrast with the lake’s sapphire hue.

[Wildflowers You’ll See] More accurately, what won’t you see? Roughly 80 types of wildflowers bloom along the Cub Lake Loop, so you’ll enjoy an unprecedented variety. Yellow pond lilies, which bloom in July, are the star attraction on Cub Lake each summer.

[When to Go] Given Cub Lake’s elevation, wildflowers peak in early- to mid-season; visit in June or July for the best blooms.

Bar Island, Maine

Half the fun of seeing Bar Island’s lupine meadows is simply arriving on the island. Just offshore from downtown Bar Harbor, the island’s sandbar is only accessible from 90 minutes before low tide to 90 minutes after low tide; this gives hikers roughly three hours to explore the 1.5-mile trail.

That’s plenty of time to cover the island, part of Acadia National Park, but we can’t blame hikers for wanting more time to gawk at its explosive wildflowers. The middle of Bar Island is home to meadows of lupine, distinguished by their one- to two-foot stalks and deep shades of purple.

[Wildflowers You’ll See] You might see a handful of varieties, but fields of violet lupine are the main attraction on Bar Island.

[When to Go] Head there in May or June for the prime viewing.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

A wake robin in bloom at GSMNP | Photo: rjones0856, Flickr

No list of great wildflower hikes would be complete without mentioning Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The popular park is nicknamed Wildflower National Park, and for good reason: More than 1,500 types of wildflower grow in the Great Smoky Mountains, with vibrant displays lasting from late winter to the end of autumn each year. Some of our favorite trails? The 10.2-mile classic Alum Cave Trail, the 5.1-mile Abrams Falls Out and Back trail, and the 3.2-mile trail to Andrews Bald and back.

That said, we’re partial to the rhododendron and azalea blooms that make the park resemble a sunset. The rhododendrons explode in crisp pink and white hues, while the azaleas bloom in bright shades of red, orange, and yellow. For the best views, take a low-elevation hike by the end of June and a hike at higher elevations in July.

[Wildflowers You’ll See] With 1,500 types of wildflowers blooming throughout the park, it’s tough to narrow it down. That said, Dutchman’s britches (resembling an upside-down tooth) grow throughout the park, while fire pink is every bit as vivid as it sounds.

[When to Go] Visit in the spring months (April through June) for the best blooms. That said, blooms vary with elevation; if you’re not seeing wildflowers on a lower-elevation hike, try something higher up.

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