In spring, the days get longer, the temperatures get higher, and the ground starts thawing. Nature’s on the move, and it’s time for you to shake off that cabin fever and get moving, too. Here are several of our favorite seasonal outdoor adventures that get you hiking, biking, sea kayaking, or just out there!
1. Northern Lights Viewing
According to NASA, we’re in a solar maximum, the peak of an 11-year cycle during which sun-spot, and, thus, Northern Lights activity rises and falls. Spring is a great time to head to Alaska for a little late-season aurora borealis viewing. Although winter’s long dark nights make for a better show of the green, blue, and purple-red lights, the “season” technically runs from August to May. Plus, spring sees Alaska’s seasonal businesses and more remote areas start to open up.
Where to Go: Fairbanks—close to the Arctic Circle and great for viewing yet still relatively accessible—is the northern lights hub. Some 60 miles northeast of it is the highly popular Chena Hot Springs Resort, where you can soak in a sunset while soaking in a warm, mineral-rich spring before the sky really lights up. You need to act fast, though. The solar maximum rush is on, and area resorts are filling up. (Chena is reportedly booked solid through winter 2014.) Not to worry. You can try for next spring, and you still have other options for right now.
Where Else to Go: Check out the multiday Gray Line Alaska tours by rail or rail and bus between Fairbanks and Anchorage, with stops in Denali National Park. Indeed, many Alaska tour operators offer aurora borealis and other all-inclusive packages. (Some could feature stays at Chena, a popular place with operators, who might have booked blocks of rooms long ago.) On these, you can be as active or as relaxed as you like and still get out (and up) there.
2. Desert Wildflower Hiking
Like fall, spring sees high-but-not-yet-scorching desert temperatures. But spring also sees desert wildflowers. Their abundance varies each year, based on winter and spring precipitation (the more and the more spaced out, the better), wind conditions (hopefully, on the gentler side), and warming spring sun. The higher the elevation, the later the season, and a lack of flowers at one altitude doesn’t rule out a burst of blooms at another. The websites of the National Parks Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin) have wildflower information—in some cases, timely reports—and tools.
Where to Go: Wildflower season is February through May at California’s Joshua Tree National Park, which has 12 nature trails at elevations ranging from 1,500 feet in the Colorado Desert to 5,000 feet in the Mojave. Watch for yellow bladderpods, orange-red chuparosas, purple turpentine brooms, and white desert star vines. If the nature walks seem tame, try one of the more strenuous trails. Even if you don’t see many blossoms, you’re sure to spot cholla cacti, piñon pines, and, of course, the trees that gave the park its name.
Where Else to Go: Southwest Texas’ Big Bend National Park, in the Chihuahuan Desert near the Mexican border, averages 10 inches of rainfall a year (the highest of all the U.S. deserts) and has some 1,200 species of plants as well as elevations that range from 1,800 feet at the Rio Grande to 7,800 feet in the Chisos Mountains. Tonto National Forest, in the Sonoran Desert near Phoenix, has the Superstition Mountains Desert Foray (2,000–2,500 feet) with several trails surrounded by succulents and cacti that bloom in spring or early summer.
3. Whale-Watching: West Coast
Beginning in March, several varieties of whales, particularly the greys, ply the waters off California, Oregon, and Washington. They swim up from the warm waters off Baja, Mexico, which is their winter mating and calving territory, en route to Alaska’s Bering Sea, a popular summer feeding area.
Where to Go: In California, you can spot greys on a hike or bike along 1.6-mile Chimney Rock Trail in Point Reyes National Seashore, 40 miles north of San Francisco. The peninsula here is also known for its sea lion colonies. In Oregon’s Ecola State Park, 100 miles north of Portland, head to the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse viewpoint. It’s just off the 2.5-mile Clatsop Loop Trail, which takes you through forests of giant Sitka spruce in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark. There’s a campsite near both the viewpoint and the trailhead of a 4-mile route that loops you back.
Where Else to Go: Want a closer look? Consider a sea-kayaking excursion in the Saratoga Passage between Whidbey and Camano islands, some 35 miles north of Seattle. Island operators also offer various types of boat excursions, or you can whale-watch for a song from a Washington State Ferry. Also be on the lookout for orcas, porpoises, sea lions, sea turtles, seals, otters, bald eagles, blue heron, and snowy egrets.
4. Whale-Watching: East Coast
In eastern waters, humpbacks migrate from Caribbean breeding grounds to feeding grounds off coastal New England, particularly Massachusetts. Other marine mammals to watch for include fin, orca, sperm, and sei whales; seals, dolphins and porpoises; and Kemp’s ridley, loggerhead, and leatherback sea turtles.
Where to Go: The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Scituate, some 30 miles southeast of Boston, is especially well known for its whale populations. In addition northern right whales head north from Florida and Georgia waters to the Great South Channel. Whale-watching in the east is best done by boat, and dozens of operators, from as far north as Newburyport to as far south as Nantucket, run trips. Two great places to learn more about Atlantic marine life and sign up for naturalist-led sailings are Gloucester’s Whale Center of New England and Boston’s New England Aquarium.