As winter loosens her grip, it’s time to get out and explore. Spring moves in strange patterns across the West, and the secret is to know what’s happening where…and to get there. Here are some camping spectacles you don’t want to miss.
Skies Full of Snow Geese
Every year, millions of Snow Geese migrate up the central flyway en route to the arctic. As the name implies, they cover the ground until it’s white as snow. If that’s not enough, the Kalmath Basin is also a major wintering spot for Bald Eagles that like to chow down on waterfowl.
Playing the Slots
The Utah-Arizona border is the land of slots—slot canyons, not slot machines. These incisions in the redrock sandstone are often narrow enough that turning sideways with a pack on is a challenge. They stretch miles deep in the sandstone, and take on unbelievably beautiful sculpted forms. Options range from short to medium day hikes to backpacking trips. The slot canyons are dangerous in flash floods, and spring tends to be before the monsoon rains…but check the forecast first to be sure. Days will be warm to hot, nights cool to cold.
Where: Paria-Vermillion Cliffs, Utah-Arizona border
When: March to May
Malheur at Migration
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a sprawling array of wetlands, cliffs, rivers, and the giant escarpment of Steens Mountain south of Burns, Oregon. In spring Malheur is an oasis in the high desert of the Great Basin, and countless migrating birds stop on their way north. The menagerie includes raptors, Sandhill cranes, waterfowl, Ibis, songbirds, and everything in between. Be sure to make a detour to the Alvord Desert and the Alvord Hot Springs if you have time. The Refuge became famous for the occupation by armed privatization extremists in 2015: now’s the time to visit a treasure that belongs to all of us again.
Where: Malheur Wildlife Refuge, Harney County, Oregon
The Wildflower Explosion
Few places are as iconic for wildflowers as Death Valley National Park in the Mojave, which includes the lowest point in North America. The wildflower explosion is at it’s best when a few conditions coincide: well spaced rainfall during winter and spring, enough warmth from the sun, and mild winds. Some years, you might even see a “superbloom,” which can happen when an El Nino brings extra moisture to the Southwestern US. Blooms start in February in low elevations, and climb up to 11,000-foot mountain slopes by May and June. Go early to avoid scorching heat.
Where: Death Valley National Park, CA
When: Mid February to Mid June
Big Trees and Big Beasts
In spring, two very large things can be found on California’s north coast. One, which is there all year, is Sequoia sempervirens, the Coast redwood, the tallest trees on earth. The second is Escrhrictus robustus, the 35-ton Gray whales that migrate up the West coast on their way from Baja to the Bering Sea every spring. Seeing both in one trip is one of the joys of Redwood National Park, which includes both a wild coastline and forests full of massive trees.
Where: Trees: Redwood National Park, CA. Whales: Klamath Overlook or Crescent Beach Overlook.
When: March to May