With over 400 national parks scattered across the continental United States, choosing where to take your Airstream can be a tough (but fun) challenge. If you’re limited on time, you’ll probably want to head to those parks nearest to home, but if you have a chance to roam the continental states the choices get harder.
Fortunately this is a great problem to have. One way to narrow the selection is to consider the season you’ll be traveling. Let’s take a look at some of the best choices for springtime travel.
If you define “spring” by the calendar, it’s March 20 or 21 through June 21. For those in the north, that’s when the snow disappears and the world turns green again—but it’s also a time of mud in the northeast and unpredictable or stormy weather in other areas. For those in the south, oppressive heat (and humidity in the east) starts to build up. Where to go?
My first recommendation to Airstreamers is to take this opportunity to hit some of the popular parks that are indoor/outdoor, and especially those that are overwhelmed once school lets out. That points to the Capital Region parks (including monuments and museums in Washington DC and nearby), historical sites in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
The payoff here will be shorter lines, an easier job of finding good campsites near the urban areas, and the option to spend a day indoors at a museum or monument when there’s a weather surprise.
You can also take advantage of the shoulder season in the big westerns parks such as Grand Canyon (south rim), Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Yosemite, and Yellowstone, but this is tricky. Check the official NPS.gov website and monitor road closures carefully; you will need to be flexible about your arrival date and plans, since weather conditions dictate the exact opening dates.
Don’t be surprised if the road you wanted to take into a big western park is closed for a month longer than expected, and you have to literally drive to another state in order to reach the alternate entrance.
If you don’t mind days above 85 degrees, springtime is actually really wonderful in the southwestern desert. Parks like Saguaro, Organ Pipe, Big Bend, and Death Valley often have spectacular desert blooms in March. In those years when the flowers are just average you’ll have the place almost to yourself.
To avoid the heat, look for those western parks that are at somewhat higher altitude. In the spring they can be delightfully cool and lightly visited. Examples include Joshua Tree (CA), Mesa Verde (CO), Big Basin (NV), Dinosaur (CO), Lake Mead (NV), and smaller parks that don’t have their own camping like Petrified Forest (AZ), Salinas Pueblos (NM) and Montezuma Castle (AZ).
Early spring is also a great time to hit the beach, at least down in Florida’s panhandle. It’s cooler there in the spring than the rest of Florida, and the white sands of the Gulf Islands National Seashore extend from Pensacola to Destin. Balmy breezes help compensate for humidity and hot sunshine. If you’re recovering from a long winter, the Gulf Islands National Seashore might be your first stop.
Or you might go for a quieter beach stay at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas. The beaches aren’t nearly as nice but there’s over 80 miles of privacy to be had on the nearly-deserted barrier island. Just remember, by late spring it will be hot, humid, and potentially quite buggy, so have your escape plan handy.
In a future installment we’ll talk about best choices for summer. Got a nomination? Send it via email to firstname.lastname@example.org along with any photos you might want to share, and it might be published in a future issue of Outside Interests.
—By Rich Luhr, Editor, Airstream Life magazine
Catch up on Rich Luhr’s series on National Parks at the Outside Interests archives!
#1 National Parks for Airstreamers
#2 What to expect in the National Parks
#3 Choosing your National Parks
#4 Planning your visit