Even if you’ve been to Yosemite a thousand times, visit in spring and it feels like the first time all over again. The valley blooms with dogwood, the rushing falls reach out to you with their cold mist, the sun-warmed meadows beckon with a hundred different shades of green, and there’s always the towering granite. We recommend a hike up the Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls. The cold mist is perfect on a warm day, and you can’t beat the view. Plan ahead: grab a sandwich from Degnan’s Deli ($; Yosemite Village; 209/372-8454) to enjoy along the way. Looking for a drier way to take in the landscape? Go on a ranger walk for a primer on the park’s history and geology, plus a few (or 10) gnarly bear tales.
Watch the return of the whales
The Oregon coast is a rugged land of contrasts: tidepools fat with delicate, touchable creatures, spring buds nudging out of fungus-happy soil, and tumultuous waves slapping basalt headlands. Now’s the time to watch for gray whales; some 20,000 begin passing Depoe Bay on their northward migration to Alaska in March from breeding grounds in Baja California. “There are very few places along the Western coastline where you can see whales as close as you can here,” says marine biologist Carrie Newell, who also runs Whale Research EcoExcursions whale-watching trips (whaleresearchexcursions.com). The best vantage point? Pretty much any rocky outcropping, including those at Devil’s Punch Bowl, Cape Foulweather, and Boiler Bay scenic viewpoint.
Taste bubbly after a balloon ride
Spring takes its sweet time in wine country. The hills hold their winter green, and some years snow lingers atop Mount St. Helena. The big crowds are months away, but the mustard and lupine are blooming, and nowhere is the display more gorgeous than from the air. “Flying in the springtime,” says Sonoma County balloonist Mike Kijak, “you have all the greens and then, bam, that contrast with the yellow mustard. It’s like somebody took a paintbrush to the land.” After a Sonoma flight, people always ask Mike, owner of Up & Away Ballooning (up-away.com), which winery they should visit. “There are so many you can’t pick just one,” he says, “so I send them to Korbel Champagne Cellars. They have tours and you can see how Champagne is made, which is a whole different process than winemaking. And the gardens are gorgeous.” But it’s not all wine here. Sonoma County Farm Trails has guides to more than 90 local creameries, orchards, and farms.
Listen for the rush of desert cascades
Along the margin where the city and the Sonoran Desert converge east of Phoenix, spring reveals the desert not as a parched wasteland of bleached cow skulls, but as an ephemeral garden. When rains come, the Superstitions brighten—if briefly—with the vivid orange and yellow of desert wildflowers and flow with waterfalls (Peters Canyon, pictured). “Reavis Falls is actually one of the tallest waterfalls in Arizona—nearly 196 feet,” says Jon Colby, a local hiking and mountain biking guide with Arizona Outback Adventures (aoa-adventures.com). “Some take long and tough hikes to reach. But right off State 88 at Fish Creek, there are small and pretty cascades. A few minutes and you’re there.” Catch them before they disappear. For a quintessential desert experience, hike the Peralta Trail past saguaros and dramatic boulder stacks to Fremont Saddle, 5 miles round-trip. Tonto National Forest;
Smell the fruit blossoms
The Topa Topa Mountains frame a valley filled with citrus groves heavy with lemons. In midafternoon, a sweet breeze flows in and freshens Ojai with a hint of ocean air. So by the time Ojai’s pink moment arrives at sunset, get ready to swoon. Drive through the upper valley on State 150, a narrow farm road through the orchards. “What I love is the smell of the stone fruit blossoms—apricots, peaches, and plums,” says Kerry Clasby, a professional forager who scours California farms, forests, and markets to supply chefs in Los Angeles and beyond. “The Blenheim apricots at the K.B. Hall Ranch are the first to bloom. That’s when I know it’s spring.” These fruits might not be market-ready yet, but other local goodies from olive oil to seafood make the Ojai Farmers’ Market a one-stop food adventure. 9–1 Sun; 300 E. Matilija St.;
Meet your newest national park
Part of the “wow” moment of rolling up at Pinnacles National Park, about two hours south of San Francisco, is the unexpected contrast. One minute you’re on a grassy country road, then suddenly: a shambling sky-high rock castle. In January 2013, Congress upgraded Pinnacles from national monument to national park, in part because of the park’s condor recovery program and the talus caves and rock spires that beckon climbers. From March into May, poppies and purple bush lupine create a colorful backdrop for hikers and bird-watchers who ascend the spires for views that stretch forever.
Build a desert bouquet
Atelier de LaFleur, a modern floral shop in downtown Tucson, makes beautiful arrangements from unexpected flora: native desert blooms. “We don’t have access to open-air flower markets like other major cities,” says owner and horticulturist Colleen LaFleur. Instead, she draws inspiration from the landscape around her, incorporating plants like desert-adapted succulents, cactus, spidery epiphytes (air plants), and exotic orchids into her bouquets. This season, you can learn how to weave your own in her sleek studio ($45).
Explore a 55-acre blooming wonderland
It’s hard not to feel a bit like Alice when strolling through Victoria, B.C.‘s Butchart Gardens in April. Turn in any direction and discover towering trees—evergreens, magnolias, and cherry trees raining pink—and green grass studded with Technicolor tulips and tiny narcissus. This century-old classic is also more progressive than you might think: Butchart’s 50-plus gardeners repurpose green waste into compost, recycle as much water as possible, and use organic mulches—even the kids’ carousel has a living roof. $28 U.S.;
Chase hidden waterfalls
The 26 natural falls dotting Washington’s Olympic Peninsula Waterfall Trail—one of the state’s best-kept secrets—are at their roaring best this time of year. Spanning the 3,600-square-mile peninsula west of Seattle, the trail’s breadth means there’s a cascade for everyone from day-trippers to backpackers. Sol Duc Falls (pictured), near Port Angeles, is one of the easiest to catch: A 0.8-mile trail leads to a misty footbridge, where you can peer down at the falls crashing onto mossy rocks. For more serious awe, and even less effort, try Vincent Creek Falls, a 125-foot chute visible from the High Steel Bridge near Hoodsport.
Rub elbows with the city’s hottest florists
The best part about Seattle Wholesale Growers Market, aside from the staggering number of local blooms, is that you no longer need to be a florist to visit. Housed in a brick warehouse in the artsy Georgetown neighborhood, the market opened as a place to connect floral pros searching for regional flowers with Washington, Oregon, and Alaskan growers. It’s now open to the public on Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., so even novices can access fresh cuttings, which this month include ranunculus, peonies, and lilacs. $5 day pass;
Zip and sip in wine country
Wineries are the new amusement parks of the West. Ancient Peaks Winery, on the historic Santa Margarita Ranch near Paso Robles, CA, has added tours that zoom you down four ziplines with views of vineyards and the Santa Lucia Mountains. The first ride is a bit of a heart-stopper, but after zipping 1,300 feet across a lush valley, you’ll appreciate that first sip of wine even more. The nearly three-hour tour ends in the tasting room, where you can refuel with a glass of Merlot, cheese, and other nibbles. $99, including wine;
Bask in tropical blooms
In March and April, Upcountry Maui is a feast for the eyes. That periwinkle haze you experience on the drive through Kula is spring’s annual explosion of jacaranda blossoms. For even more floral abundance, visit the 8-acre Kula Botanical Garden, which showcases orchids, proteas (pictured), and other subtropical blooms. $10; 638 Kekaulike Ave., Kula;
Do a petal drive-by on the coast
For some of the best blooms on the Central California Coast, cruise along Shell Creek Road in Santa Margarita, where meadows are carpeted with baby blue eyes, goldfields, and tidytips. Petal peepers park in roadside pullouts for photo ops and picnics. From Santa Margarita, take State 58 east 20 miles and turn left on Shell Creek Rd.; San Luis Obispo visitor bureau, 805/541-8000.
Behold waterfall wonders in the forest
Multnomah Falls is only a half-hour from Portland—and you don’t even need to get out of your car to check out this 620-foot tiered stunner. More than 2 million people a year make the trip—it’s Oregon’s most popular outdoor spectacle. Take the short hike to the stone footbridge. Look up. Look down. Now you know why. Be sure to grab a spot in the smaller lot across from Bridal Veil Falls (also worth a looky) and walk to the main event.
Tour the Grand Canyon on two wheels
We’ve moved on from pack trips and crammed shuttle buses. Bright Angel Bicycles is the park’s new and only bike-rental spot, with comfy geared cruisers for pedaling along the rim’s paved roads and greenway paths. Keep an eye out for spring wildflowers—and, if you’re lucky, a condor soaring across the canyon. $25/half-day;
Explore the wild side
To kick-start spring, may we recommend a breath of salt air? The new stretch of boardwalk at Olympia’s Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge crosses over mudflats and salt-marsh plants—chances are good for a bald eagle or otter sighting—to the tidal edge as it washes in marine life like chinook and grebes. Another 2 miles out-and-back brings you into the restored Puget Sound estuary. The 762-acre delta has some of the best birding right now, as winter’s buffleheads and mergansers linger alongside the arrivals: Wilson’s and yellow-rumped warblers. $3 for 4 adults;
Say no to snow
With March being the snowiest month in much of Colorado, cure your cabin fever with a spring fling along Colorado National Monument’s Monument Canyon Trail, a 12-mile out-and-back near Grand Junction. From the Coke Ovens Trailhead, a 1-mile round-trip will get you big-gun geological wonders—the Coke Ovens domes, the 400-foot sandstone Kissing Couple, and the 450-foot Independence Monument monolith—and wildflowers like milk vetch, barrel cactus, and canyon primrose. Look east toward Grand Mesa (pictured) still entombed in snow—hey, you’ve cheated winter for a day. $7 entrance fee;
Go wine tasting alfresco
Tasting rooms are fun and all. But sipping wine while wandering through a gorgeous 13-acre organic flower and veggie garden—sampling fresh herbs, edible blooms, and spicy mustard greens along the way? Way better. Tack on bocce ball and bites of bread dipped in fresh-pressed olive oil, or honey harvested from resident bees, and we’ll call it the perfect spring day at Campovida in the Northern California town of Hopland. The sprawling family-owned property is primarily a retreat center, but it also welcomes day-tripping picnickers looking for a place to try local Mendocino County wines. No tasting fee; farm dinners from $150; lodging from $225;
Have fun on the farm
At Superstition Farm in Mesa, Arizona, not only can you meet and greet the cows, you can hop a hayride around 55 acres that include an all-rescue petting zoo, ice cream at the Milk Bar, and a farm store with fresh eggs, cheese, and butter. Rumor has it that the farm’s locavore dinner series is expanding into an on-site restaurant. Tours ($7.50) at 10 and noon Sat and by appointment
Hoof it on a hoodoo trek
If Alice slid down the rabbit hole in New Mexico, she might land at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. About halfway between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, it’s an enormous wonderland of narrow slot canyons and hoodoos—and it used to be almost impossible to get to. Now, the washboard dirt road that would make anyone fear for their axles is paved. And the 1.2-mile Cave Loop Trail has been widened, so it’s easy to wander around the base of the monument for that up-close look at geology at work. Of course, you still have to sweat for the best views: namely, hiking the steep 1.5-mile (one-way) Canyon Trail for a panorama of the Sangre de Cristo, Jemez, and Sandia Mountains.
Hang out by the sea
A park meets a beach, and we call that a love connection. Take deep breaths of salty air on the bluffs and dunes of the 3-mile loop trail at Chambers Creek park near Tacoma, Washington, which hooks you up with Puget Sound beach. Cross the footbridge at Central Meadow (a kite flyer’s heaven) and walk south for primo sandcastle building. After you build your masterpiece, the A-list fish and chips—and a killer view—are waiting for you at Chambers Bay Grill ($$;chambersbaygolf.com), where you can watch squally March weather make rainbows over the Sound.
Spend a day in cheese country
The Giacomini family makes its tangy, creamy Point Reyes Original Blue cheese on 700 rolling green acres on Marin County‘s Tomales Bay. And at their cooking school, the Fork, you’re all invited to take part. The day starts not in the kitchen but with a tour of the family farm, usually led by patriarch and dairyman Bob Giacomini. The family credits their happy cows and the fog drifting in off the Pacific for the cheeses’ flavor, but as the master cheesemaker walks you through a tasting, you’ll see that aging and enzymes are at play too. The day’s capper is a cooking demo by a local celebrity chef who serves a multicourse lunch that makes local wines and those cheeses truly shine. Monthly farm tours with cheese tasting ($25) and cooking classes (from $65);
Savor farm-to-table flavors
In Queen Creek, Arizona, wander the budding peach groves and U-pick veggie garden at Schnepf Farms. Pick out a peach tree to lease for the year, and the fruit is yours. Come back for Dinners Down the Orchard, four-course meals by local chefs in the middle of Schnepf’s organic groves. Dinners $90; farm open Thu-Sun;
Experience wildflower wow factor
One heck of a spring show is on view at Anza-Borrego, California’s largest state park. First-timers can’t miss the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail, a 3-mile round-trip flowering with brittlebush, desert lavender, and ocotillo. For a hike twice as long, there’s the 6- mile round-trip into Hellhole Canyon for blooming barrel cactus, lupine, and phacelia, plus Maidenhair Falls. Four-wheeling flower fans, scope out the sand verbena and dune evening primrose on the 20-mile Coyote Canyon Jeep Trail.
Find the sweet spot on skinny tires
Daytime highs reach the 60s this month in Moab, making it the perfect time for two-wheeling through the surrounding area’s wonderfully alien landscapes. The Moab Skinny Tire Festival($170; skinnytireevents.com) spans four days of 40 to 60 miles (the less-supercharged can peel off early) on knockout routes like the Colorado River corridor, Dead Horse Point State Park, and Arches National Park. The revelry kicks off with an outdoor barbecue ’n’ brew party. Or stop in for post-ride carbo replenishment at one of our faves, Moab Brewery.
Discover a farm-based utopia
In the town of Gilbert, Arizona (near Phoenix), check out an experiment in living simply: the utopian community of Agritopia, a 160-acre cluster of ranch homes anchored by an urban farm and farm-sourced restaurants. Grab an alfresco burger at Joe’s Farm Grill ($), followed by a slice of banana cream pie at the Coffee Shop ($). Stroll the rows of the community garden, then stop by the farmstand for the latest harvest.
Frolic in a flurry of almond blossoms
Spring in the Capay Valley, west of Sacramento, means a snowfall of frilly pink peach blossoms and lingering white almond blooms. Hit the five-town Almond Festival(espartoregionalchamber.com), or head to Capay Organic for the first monthly farm tour of the year (free; capayorganic.com). The kids will love the John Deere–pulled tram; you’ll love the bluegrass bands, browsing the farmstand, and strolling in the stone-fruit orchard.
Go on a desert safari
In Palm Desert, CA, you’ll be happy enough tromping along the wildflower-dotted trails at the Living Desert—part 1,200-acre wilderness preserve; part zoo, botanical garden, and nursery. But prepare yourself: The minute you lay eyes on the knobby-kneed, all-legs baby giraffe frolicking on the hillside (we call him Mr. Gangles but officially he’s Majani), you’re a goner. Let’s just say that your camera battery should have a full charge. Late afternoon is especially gorgeous as the sun begins setting behind the snowcapped peaks, and the place feels like yours. $14;
Conjure fresh eggs in your backyard
One word: chickens. You can keep hens in your yard! Get a jump-start on spring with an intro class at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. “Coops de Ville: How to Raise Backyard Chickens” gives you the 101 on which breeds to choose, how to care for fuzzy little chicks, and how to keep them safe in the suburbs. $51;
Get a sustainable ride
Tooling along the 10-mile Poudre River Trail (fcgov.com/parks) is a rite of spring in the bike-crazed town of Fort Collins, known for its progressive two-wheeled attitude. Speaking of progressive, Panda Bicycles (closed Sun; pandabicycles.com) has raised the bar for sustainable rides with its bamboo frames made locally. At around $2K, these bikes aren’t cheap, so we recommend a demo ride before you commit. You could be the cool one with the ecobike on the next sunny day on the trails.