Springtime tends to be the Achilles’ heel of the outdoorsman. Even if you can tough out a polar vortex with the best of them, and remain cool during the sweltering depths of August, the unpredictable temperatures and soggy conditions that dominate most of the country from March until May may keep you sulking indoors.
That’s a real shame, because springtime offers some of the best hiking adventures to be had. And no, we aren’t just talking about the wildflower explosion in California and other parts of the southwest. We’re talking about rainshowers, puddles, and mud…so much mud. Yes, the same issues that keep many people off the trails in spring are precisely what we love about outdoor adventures.
Let’s start with those wildflowers. Sure, the photos of poppies carpeting Joshua Tree National Park are a sight to behold. But you’ll encounter a much greater variety, including some incredibly rare species that only bloom for a week or two at most, if you’re willing to brave the wet and wild depths of the forests and mountains.
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Another factor the desert can’t offer: waterfalls. Thanks to heavy rains and snowmelt, creeks, rivers, and other waterways flow higher and faster in the spring than any other time of the year. That trickle oozing out of the rocks during summer and fall might well become a roaring deluge during springtime, and if you don’t go out, you’ll never see it.
While some might see the leafless trees and bare ground of early spring as bleak and uninteresting, the denuded landscape offers one major advantage: unobstructed views from the hike summit.
If all this isn’t enough to convince you, how about the cool temperatures that let you explore a lot farther without getting fatigued? How about the relative lack of bugs, or the sight of newborn wildlife? How about the simple fact that the trails have a lot fewer people on them?
What’s more, with the right gear, even the “unpleasant” conditions of a spring hike can be exactly what make it fun. Getting soaked by a sudden rain shower, stomping through ankle-deep puddles, or sliding around through the mud will make you feel like a kid again, not to mention make for some great trailside photos.
As at every time of year, an enjoyable spring hike requires taking certain safety precautions specific to the season:
- Rain- and snow-flushed waterways flow higher and faster than at other times of year. Walk wide of river and creek banks, and don’t attempt to wade across them unless you absolutely have to.
- Spring weather has a way of changing the landscape. Be aware that certain trails may be flooded, washed out, or buried by mud or rockslides. Before embarking on your trip, have a Plan B and C just in case.
- It’s always possible that those trails will change while you’re hiking on them. Even if your trail has hardly any ascents, we recommend bringing along a pair of trekking poles just in case.
- One obvious precaution is dressing for changes in weather. Even if the forecast calls for sun, the microclimates in a mountain or woodland environment could bring unexpected rain, snow showers, or thick fog. Make sure to wear waterproof, high-traction boots; dress in layers; and bring a headlamp. (See our recommendations for spring hiking gear below.) And don’t assume that just because it’s cool or cloudy that you don’t need sunscreen.
- Wear a good base layer to keep your body temperature constant, a mid-layer for insulation, and a packable waterproof outer layer that you can strip on or off as needed.
Our list of best springtime hikes offers some unparalleled natural beauty and mud-slinging good times. These easy- to moderate-level hikes are perfect for working the kinks out of your creaky winter joints while making sure you don’t overdo it and end up on the injured list until summer.
Multnomah Falls | Portland, Oregon
As popular as Multnomah Falls is in every season, connoisseurs would argue that springtime is when this hiking region comes into its own. Just over 2 miles of moderate difficulty, the trail is a lush rainbow of leaves, wildflowers, moss, fungi, and fallen logs, all made even more vibrant by a frequent soaking from mist and rainfall. Make your way to the graceful stone bridge that stands at the falls’ midpoint or continue upward to the lip of the falls for truly spectacular views over the Columbia River Gorge.
The Flume | White Mountains, New Hampshire
Bring your sunglasses — not for the sun, but for the blinding riot of color that greets you as soon as you pull up to Franconia Notch State Park, where this one-of-a-kind trail is located. Multi-colored lupine spires pave the way to an 800-foot crack in the sheer granite of New Hampshire’s White Mountain range. The Flume section of the 2-mile loop is all uphill and involves climbing some very old, very wet stairs as you gaze down on dripping mossy crevices and dramatic waterfalls that shoot through the narrow, jagged chasm. (Bonus points for looking up the history of this trail; it was discovered by a 93-year-old woman.)
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore | Munising, Michigan
One of the more unpredictable hikes on this list (in terms of terrain and weather) is the mile along the North Country Trail from Miners Beach to Miners Castle at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. But the journey is well worth it. You’ll start on the wooded shore of Lake Superior, then dive deeply under a canopy of whispering birch, gnarled cedar, and soaring white pine, crossing river tributaries and discovering some of the north country’s rarest wildflowers — jack-in-the-pulpits, trailing arbutus, and the ethereal white trillium. The last few feet are a fun scramble up a stony slope to arrive at a National Park station with a platform overlooking the iconic spire of Miners Castle.
Bouchoux Trail at Jensen’s Ledges | Catskill Mountains, New York
A sometimes steep 1.5-mile ascent, a little-known pocket of New York’s Catskill Mountains, and a springtime lull in local tourism mean you could well enjoy the hike at Jensen’s Ledges in complete solitude. Trust us when we say the narrow trail and switchback turns are worth the sometimes arduous going. For one thing, there’s the rare opportunity to watch a waterfall from above as it tumbles over a breathtaking precipice. (Just choose your seating area carefully.) Along the way, keep an eye out for the rare pink ladyslipper blooming in the protection of a tree root. At the top, you’ll be rewarded not only by a view of the winding Delaware River you can’t get at any other time of year but also by a series of huge cairns and sculptures created by some anonymous artists from the shards of bluestone that litter the summit.
Rattlesnake Ledge | North Bend, Washington
Moody fir trees, moss-covered boulders, giant gold and red salmonberries, and tiny lilies of the valley are just a few of the things you’ll find along the 1.9-mile ascent to Rattlesnake Ledge, a breathtaking view of the Cascade Mountains cut through by Snoqualmie Pass — all just an hour outside of Seattle. Perfect for a sunrise or sunset expedition, this well-maintained and popular trail can be heavily trafficked, so a wet day might be your best bet to have it mostly to yourself. (Bonus points for being awesome if you stop in at the nearby Snoqualmie Inn for a look at the waterfalls featured in a certain cult TV show.)
- A good base layer is essential for spring hiking and the Fjallraven Keb line covers all the bases (see what we did there?) with the thermo-regulation of natural wool and a comfortable, flexible fit.
- These are incredibly mobile technical tights that are lightweight but incredibly durable. We’re obsessed with the second-skin feel, the separate knee panels that give for added mobility, and the reinforced seat fabric that protects your bum when you stop for a breather on a rain-soaked log. Perfect on their own for a quick uphill scramble in fair weather or under a pair of trekking pants for added warmth.
- Lightweight, water-resistant, and treated for UPF 50+ sun protection, this is the ultimate spring hiking button-up. We especially appreciate the roomy chest pockets and the vented back yoke and underarms.
- This ingenious Midlayer keeps your core warm with wool-based MerinoLOFT insulation in the chest and shoulder panels, while fleecy-soft, quick-drying terry corespun fabric (merino wool wrapped around a nylon core) in the back and sleeves lets you laugh at the threat of rain.
- The stylish cut of this three-layer shell jacket makes it the perfect pick when you’re hitting the trail right after work, or vice versa. The hip-length cut and hood with laminated brim provide extra protection, while the recycled Eco-Shell material keeps you waterproof but well-ventilated.
- The perfect emergency shell for hiking in changeable weather conditions, the Zeta packs up small but offers big-time protection. The minimalist design and fully articulated patterning also offer great freedom of movement.
- These badass trekking trousers are built from Fjallraven’s legendary G-1000 fabric, a wind- and waterproof mix of polyester and cotton canvas that comes into its own when impregnated with Greenland Wax (see below). With double-layered seat and knees and six cargo pockets, these wilderness-ready pants are cut to make your butt look great.
- Ulvö pack to make sure my laptop and lunch stay safe and dry during an inclement commute. A wet-weather staple, Fjallraven’s signature Greenland Wax waterproofs just about anything you can put it on. And I don’t just mean clothes. I slide it over my
- Like the matching Zeta shell, these pants are a must-carry during an all-day ascent. Keep them in your backpack for when the weather turns foul, and you’ll remain high and dry while everybody else is bailing out.
- Easily the most comfortable pants you’ll ever own. Don’t let the ultra-lightweight fabric fool you — the PFC-free DWR treatment on these super breathable pants repels water and dries faster than you can say “Oh look, the sun’s coming out.”
- We’re obsessed with the construction and agility of this badass hiking shoe. Built around the Mammut Flextron technology which integrates a spring-steel sole as a midsole, it also features an asymmetrically laced GORE-TEX mono-tongue that does double-duty to keep moisture out.
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