Where to See Wildflowers (Responsibly) Across the West
Under-the-radar destinations to see the blooms before it’s too late.
The gradual relent of winter’s chilly grip to balmy temps and longer days ushers forth spring wildflower blooms that erupt in colorful splendor across alpine meadows, rugged coastlines, and grassland prairies.
Accompanying seasonal blooms will be the inevitable surge of wildflower viewing, as droves of tourists pollinate corresponding festivals, national parks, forests, and towns renowned for their bursts of springtime medleys. Destinations like Antelope Valley, California, and Crested Butte in Colorado’s Gunnison National Forest attract large crowds that, if post-pandemic outdoor recreation trends are any indication, are sure to increase this year.
Overcrowding of wildflower hot spots, meanwhile, makes the practice of sustainable tourism all the more vital. Flora species are invaluable indicators for researchers to study the effects of climate change, as each annually responds to environmental prompts ahead of their emergence. In select regions, warming temperatures have catalyzed blooms much earlier than those documented, say, 150 years ago. In others, such as the increasingly dry Southwest, the new norm of prolonged drought may cause traditionally colorful spring responses to remain dormant. Traffic surges, straying from trails, plucking flowers, and tampering of any sort can greatly impact that increasingly fragile dynamic.
“Picking flowers is illegal in national parks and many other state and public lands,” The Nature Conservancy‘s Trevor Bloom tells Sunset. “Wildflowers are just that—wild, and do not last long in bouquets, so it’s best to leave them alone. Stay on marked trails avoid trampling. Just one footstep can kill a plant. Remember, a flower is the reproductive organ of a plant, and without the flower the plant cannot reproduce.”
In addition to exploring under-the-radar wildflower destinations to avoid contributing to overcrowding, practicing “Leave No Trace” standards ensures the preservation of these wild environs. Flowers “grow by the inch and die by the foot,” National Park Service officials write, so do your best to “protect nature and help the next visitor experience the same beauty that you came to see.”
After speaking with a few Western-based wildflower experts, we compiled a list of destinations primed for eco-friendly enjoyment. Be sure to add these to your wildflower bucket lists!
Eastern Sierras: Higher elevations and untouched lands make wonderful habitats for blooms that often last all the way into September. Splashes of orange, red, purple, and yellow benefit from diverse soil that yields species like lupine, Giant Indian Paintbrush, Sierra tiger lily, crimson columbine, and skyrocket, among others. Explore some of the best hotspots in the Eastern Sierra range using this downloadable wildflower guide. Just remember to come prepared. Elevation changes can make weather unpredictable, so packing clothing layers, sunscreen, and bug spray is never a bad idea.
Redwood National and State Parks: Overlapping state and national parks replete with coastal redwood and sequoia offer more than 38,000 acres of old growth that acts as a haven for myriad wildflowers, including trillium, Douglas iris, leopard, Mariposa, and alpine lilies, snowflowers, and spotted coralroot. At the Bald Hills of Redwood National Park, an eruption of lupine and rhododendron typically runs from mid-May through June and blankets the area in purple undulations.
Camas Prairie Centennial Marsh Wildlife Management Area: Idaho flies under the radar as a travel destination to begin with, let alone as a hotspot for wildflower viewing, but about an hour and a half east of Boise are lands teeming with bursts of springtime flair. Most notably, the spring season brings with it an eruption of Camas Lilies that carpet the marshlands in a sea of purple. Learn more about Camas Prairie here.
Sawtooth Mountains: Destinations near the sleepy town of Stanley such as Red Fish, Pettit, and Stanley lakes are surrounded by trails that wind hikers through untouched alpine meadows that burst with an array of color through the end of summer. Wildflowers found at various elevations include mountain shooting star, Western columbine, Elephant’s Head, and slim larkspur. Whether camping at a designated campground or venturing into the backcountry on a longer trail like Alice Lake, there is appeal for all manner of adventurers. Learn more about the Sawtooth region here.
Alder Springs: A “gem of the high desert,” according to Deschutes Land Trust Outreach Director Sarah Mowry, Alder Springs, just a short day trip from Bend, is known for its April and May blooms across the region’s sagebrush plateaus. Hike towards the creek, Mowry says, to see early blooms of Purple Daggerpod, Yellow Bell, and Goldfields.
Grey Butte. Adjacent to the popular high desert playground of Smith Rock State Park—the butte is linked to Smith Rock via trail systems—the slopes of Grey Butte wind hikers through juniper, sagebrush, and in the spring, a diverse collection of high desert wildflowers, including the Mariposa Lily and Grass Widow. Wild onion, buckwheat, and desert parsley can also be enjoyed, according to Mowry.
“For other under-the-radar spots in the West, look to your local land trust,” Mowry says. “There are land trusts all over the west that protect places important for wildflowers and other plants and animals. Many of those places are open for exploring!”
Big Bend: After being included in the now-largest Dark Sky Reserve in the world, the Big Bend love fest continues. The mountainous desert region is one highlighted by cactus flowers like the Strawberry Pitaya, the spiny ocotillo shrub, catclaw, desert marigolds, and the area’s namesake bluebonnets. For an optimum viewing experience, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center recommends a 230-mile scenic loop that begins and ends in Alpine, with stops in Terlingua, Lajitas, Presidio, and Marfa. Learn more about the southwest Texas road trip here.
Davis Mountains: Another recommendation from the Ladybird Johnson Center is the array of flora in the vicinity of the Davis Mountains. Piñon and ponderosa forests at higher elevations boast a collection of wildflowers not found anywhere in the state’s flat grasslands—Mexican buckeye, Scarlet Bouvardia, White Flower Peppergrass, and Purple Feather Dalea, to name a few. Embark on the 75-mile Davis Mountains Loop for the full experience. (And be sure to stop at the McDonald Observatory for some world-class stargazing while you’re in the area.)
Canyonlands National Park: The park itself never garners the attention of its immediate neighbor to the east, but avoiding the crowds of Arches National Park is seldom a bad thing. In Canyonlands—and the greater southeastern Utah region—is a symphony of wildflowers that have adapted to survive an arid desert. Prince’s Plume, Harriman’s yucca, Claret Cup, prickly pear, and Parry’s biscuitroot can all be sighted among this Martian landscape. Just make sure you’re packing plenty of water if venturing out on foot! Learn more about the wildflowers of Canyonlands here.
Red Canyon Botanical Area: Easily accessible and offering a large trail network, Red Canyon, which sits just up the road from Bryce Canyon National Park, is home to incredibly unique soils—Tertiary Claron Limestone—that provide a habitat for rare plant life, including Red Canyon Penstemon, not found anywhere else in the world.
“Red Canyon Botanical Area has a such a high concentration of endemic plants,” says Tony Frates of the Utah Native Plant Society. “And because people tend to just drive through it on the way to Bryce, it remains at least somewhat under the radar.” Learn more about Red Canyon here.
Blacktail Butte, Grand Teton National Park: Blacktail Butte is Grand Teton National Park‘s wildflower mecca. “During the summer in June and July, wildflowers explode like fireworks beneath the awe-inspiring skyline of the Teton mountain range,” The Nature Conservancy‘s Bloom says. And because Blacktail Butte is inside park boundaries, it remains protected. Tiny Golden Buttercups, Scarlet Gilia, Purple Sticky Geraniums, and 3-foot Green Gentians, which live for decades but only bloom once, are all on display. “One of the most unique species found here is the Steer’s Head wildflower,” Bloom says, “which blooms in the early spring (April-May) and more closely resembles a tiny cow skull than a flower.”
Dunraven Pass, Yellowstone National Park: While there is no disputing the popularity of Yellowstone National Park as a destination known for its hydrothermal attractions, the park is also an incredible wildflower destination. “One of the best places to see fields of flowers right outside your car window is Dunraven Pass, which climbs to over 8,800 feet and provides a window into subalpine and alpine zones of the Rocky Mountains that harbor incredible wildflower diversity,” Bloom says. “Look for pink monkey flowers, golden fields of mule’s ear, and pink tufts of moss campion dripping from the rocks. Also don’t forget the iconic white bark pine, one of the oldest tress in the world, and only found at high elevations.”
Cody’s Heart Mountain Preserve also offers the opportunity to view hundreds of native plant species. Learn more about it here. And for guided information in the Grand Teton and Yellowstone areas, check out the educational adventure opportunities courtesy of the Guides of Jackson Hole.