The spring equinox brings increasingly long and languorous days brimming with sunshine and rain showers. America’s deserts epitomize this season of renewal as monochrome palettes give way to a kaleidoscope of plant life. Death Valley’s 2016 “super bloom” has garnered the most attention, but wildflower seekers can find vernal blossoms throughout the wild west.
Saguaro National Park - Tuscon, AZ
Southeastern Arizona’s Saguaro National Park (SNP) was established to protect its namesake, the iconic dancing cactus. Spanning two districts and over 6,000 feet in elevation change, the 90,000-acre park hosts everything from desert scrub to conifer forest.
The showiest woody shrubs — brittlebush, palo verde and ironwood — blossom in March and April. Cactus flowers bloom from late March through late May, most peaking in mid-April. The saguaro’s floral crowns reach their height the following month with blossoms that open in the evening. Though SNP doesn’t offer wildflower hikes, guides highlight the blooms.
Fees: Vehicle — $10, Adult — $5 per person, Children (15 and under) — Free
White Sands National Monument - Alamogordo, NM
In southern New Mexico, sugary gypsum hills roll across 275 square miles of the Tularosa Basin. With fewer than nine inches of annual precipitation and scorching summer temperatures, the dunefield is largely void of vegetation. But those plants that can tolerate the harsh wilderness conditions certainly put on a vibrant seasonal show.
In springtime, early bloomers such as Hartweg’s sundrops and White Sands mustard begin budding. By mid-May, the delicate spindles of gypsum centaury and white evening primrose can be found through the park. Flowers can be spotted along any of the park’s trails or from Dunes Drive, where visitors can park and explore. Ranger-led hikes such as sunset strolls maximize the likelihood of spotting the sometimes diminutive flowers.
Fees: Adults — $5, Children (15 and under) — Free
Valley of Fire State Park - Las Vegas, NV
Just 45 minutes from Las Vegas’ neon strip, Valley of Fire State Park’s looming sandstone formations jut out from the parched desert floor. Petroglyphs adorn rust-colored boulders, well-trodden trails weave through snow-white slot canyons, and for most of the year, plants go unnoticed.
Valley of Fire averages just four inches of annual rainfall and triple-digit summer highs, keeping wildflower season relatively short. Most flowers bloom in March and April, embellishing the desert with an assortment of gauzy pastel petals. Two striking springtime favorites are beavertail cactus and strawberry hedgehog cactus.
Fees: $10 per car
The Cove Palisades - Culver, OR
Tucked into eastern Oregon’s high desert, The Cove Palisades State Park sits among towering cliffs and Lake Billy Chinook. At 4,402 acres, the park draws visitors with miles of hiking trails and an abundance of opportunities for water-based recreation.
Wildflower viewing at The Cove is described akin to an Easter egg hunt. The blooming season tends to be brief and the flowers may play hide and seek, but they’re a treat to find. Early blossoms to look for are chocolate lilies, death camas and phlox. April, May and June bring the bulk of blooms, including frothy yarrow, sturdy-stemmed milkweed, and the aptly named Indian Paintbrush.
Fees: $5 parking
Snow Canyon State Park - St. George, UT
Snow Canyon State Park traverses 7,400 acres of ancient lava flows set amidst red and white sandstone bluffs. Occupying the intersection of three ecosystems — the Mojave Desert, Great Basin Desert and the Colorado Plateau — the area averages just 7.5 inches of rain annually and houses a myriad of drought-adapted flora and fauna.
With an elevation that spans 3,150 to 5,023 feet, Snow Canyon blooms from spring through autumn, peaking between late March and early May. Hikers, bikers and equestrians can spy flowers — including wild rhubarb and purple sage — along miles of paths, but the Sand Dunes and Hidden Pinyon trails are especially popular for shrubbery.
Fees: Vehicle — $6, Utah Vehicle — $3, Vehicles with nine or more people — $2 per person
Desert Botanical Garden - Phoenix, AZ
Desert ecosystems are some of the most fragile in the world, making it difficult to guess which plants will bloom when. If you'd prefer a bit more predictability, head to Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden.
The Harriet K. Maxwell Desert Wildflower Trail traces two acres of flowering desert flora. Irrigation and thorough preparation mean bountiful blooms during March and April, including penstemon, desert lupine, and Mexican and California poppies. The Garden also runs a Wildflower Info Site in collaboration with 21 parks and gardens. Individuals can share photos to crowdsource information on where to see Arizona's most bountiful wildflowers.
Fees: Adults — $22, Seniors — $20, Students (13-18) — $12, Children (3-12) — $10, Under 3 — Free