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Stumbling upon an unexpected field of colorful wildflowers can feel like finding a meticulously wrapped present. As you crest a mountain ridge or trek out of a dense forest and find a carpet of vivid, sunlit color where you didn’t expect it, it’s easy to find yourself awestruck.
If you’re looking to break free of the straight paths of botanical gardens and color outside the lines instead, there are spectacularly wild places to see flowers bloom all around the U.S. that you might not expect. (Just make sure to admire the flowers — or snap that perfect Instagram shot — from a safe distance and not destroy their precious habitats.) Read on for five underrated spots for wildflower lovers to visit in the U.S. this spring.
Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia
Best time to visit: Mid-April to early May
What you’ll see: Wild ginger, trillium, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Indian paintbrush, violet, skunk cabbage
Not only is this winding highway one of the most scenic drives in the country, it’s also where you’ll find some of spring’s most vivid blooms — from the cheerful yellow black-eyed susans and dandelions bobbing right alongside the road to wild rhododendrons, orchids, and irises blooming along forest trails. The forest floor, where much of the seasonal color appears, is hard to ignore, but the blossoming trees and bushes also add to the show. Among them are dogwoods, azaleas, and tulip poplars.
However, if you can’t visit until summer or fall, don’t despair. Spring may be the best time for critical mass of blossoms, but later in the year, you’ll still have the treat of seeing columbines, impatiens, bittersweets, coreopsis, cone flowers, and delicate evening primroses in the wild. The National Park Service publishes a handy wildflower calendar of roughly which flowers will be in bloom when you arrive, but it probably won’t prepare you for the sheer variety and beauty you’ll see and smell along this mountain highway.
Texas Hill Country, Fredericksburg, Texas
Best time to visit: Late March to early May
What you’ll see: Bluebonnet, Indian paintbrush, phlox, spiderwort, Indian blanket
First ladies usually choose a cause as their focus during their time in the spotlight: Nancy Reagan famously took up the fight against drug abuse, Michele Obama worked to change how American children view food and health, and Melania Trump fought bullying. Lady Bird Johnson chose wildflowers — more specifically, to champion the cultivation of wildflowers alongside highways instead of billboards.
In Austin, a national wildflower center bearing her name continues the remarkable work and scholarship she began. The center has laid out some road trips to take in some of the local beauty, including a short loop that explores a flower-rich section of Texas Hill Country, Mrs. Johnson’s home region. Spring visits will show you the famous Texas bluebonnets, but early summer is also a great time to visit, when you’ll find the white spherical blooms of antelope horn flowers (as well as other plants that like the Texas heat, including daisies and Mexican hats).
Best time to visit: May to September
What you’ll see: Lupine, columbine, fireweed, shooting star, forget-me-not, wild orchid
Alaska may not be the first place that comes to mind for rampant and beautiful wildflowers, but if you think about it, why wouldn’t flowers thrive after dark and wet winters followed by round-the-clock sunlight? Wherever you travel in Alaska after snowmelt, you’ll find brightly hued eager flowers blinking into the midnight sun. Columbine, Indian paintbrush, and fireweed nod and flourish in sunny meadows and tundra areas and along mountain roads. Marshy riversides and coastal areas welcome magenta whorled lousewort, pink swamp rosemary, cat-tails, and shooting stars.
Flowers bloom later at high elevations, so you can still find hearty alpine wildflowers right up through September. AllTrails is a useful site that allows you to filter hikes around Anchorage and Fairbanks for the best wildflower viewing. For a sure bet, a visit to Denali National Park will win you stunning rewards in wildlife and wildflower sightings.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Borrego Springs, California
Best time to visit: Early to mid-March
What you’ll see: Desert mariposa lily, ocotillo, indigo bush, desert lupine, creosote, Mexican poppy
You also may not expect wildflowers to bloom in the desert — and the arid setting of California’s largest state park is right in its name. Within the 2300-square-mile area of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the landscape includes canyons, washes, pine forests, mountain ranges, rolling scrub-covered plains, and 12 designated wilderness areas. Across them all are hundreds of different species of wildflowers.
Anza-Borrego is the site of some of the most spectacular so-called superblooms in the past several years. The numbers of flowers that open depends on the amount of rain that falls during the winter months, and the longevity of their blooming period hinges upon how quickly the desert heats up in the spring. Superblooms are a result of perfect conditions: lots of winter rain and a late spring, so the area’s flowers open in tandem and stay open (and provide content for Instagram posts for weeks). Though hordes of visitors arrive in years when the conditions are right, the park has more than 500 miles of roads and even a short hike off the paved roads can reap solitary finds. Just be sure to stay on the trail to avoid trampling these beautiful blooms.
Glacier National Park, Montana
Best time to visit: Late June to mid-July
What you’ll see: Glacier lily, Indian paintbrush, beargrass, fireweed, trillium, pointed mariposa lily
As soon as the snowpack on the slopes of Glacier National Park begins to melt, the yellow flowers of the glacier lily pop up to replace it. The growing season at this high altitude may be short, but that just makes the colors and variety of flowers seem sweeter. Rarity is a theme here among the flowers. Beargrass, a fairly common sight, usually just seems to be a clump of grass, but once every six or seven years, a stalk rises as high as five feet from the clump and a cone of white flowers opens at the top.
Other types of flowers found here that open only under special circumstances are the rock harlequin and Bicknell's geranium, two species that remain dormant as seeds in the soil for years until they are awakened by the extreme heat of a forest fire. After fires, these particular plants will bloom for a few summers before retreating to sleep as seeds until the next fire. Glacier National Park maintains a Flickr page for flower fans who can’t make this year’s show to keep up with the colors. Fair warning: One look at a monochromatic scree slope lit up by purple and white clutches of color may be enough to set you planning next year’s spring vacation.