5 Places for Hikers to Get a Head Start on Spring

Don’t wait for spring to come to you. Grab your pack and escape to these sunny trails.

The bad news: Much of the country is still covered in snow. The good news: That means it’s prime time to take advantage of moderate temperatures in the warmer parts of the U.S. From sun-baked arches in Utah to shimmering waters off the coast of Florida, here are five hikes for reacquainting yourself with the sun, shaking off winter’s rust, and basking in some epic scenery—sans crowds. Just don’t forget the sunscreen.

Arches National Park, Utah

Evening light at Arches NPS | Photo: Thomas Shahan 3 under CC BY-SA

By late April, Utah’s “Mighty 5” will host enormous crowds seeking Instagram-worthy shots of the state’s canyons and arches. Beat the spring rush with an early shoulder-season visit to Devils Garden in Arches National Park.

Opt for the Devils Garden Full Lollipop, five miles of rock fins, chasms, sandstone slabs, and a few narrow ledges. But the intermediate-rated trail only gains 550 feet in total (not including numerous spur trails), making for a family-friendly excursion. The remote, yet well-maintained singletrack includes views of eight of the natural arches for which the national park is named, including Tunnel Arch, Pine Tree Arch, Partition Arch, and Navajo Arch.

Looking for more? Branch off the Full Lollipop to the connected Devils Garden Primitive Loop, which leads to additional arches (including the Private Arch). Take care on this section of the hike, especially if it’s rained or iced over recently; a few depressions fill with water in rainy conditions, and one rock face requires hikers to navigate a very narrow ledge.

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Dry Tortugas National Park offers hiking, camping, diving, and snorkeling each spring. Photo: gabe popa, Flickr

After months of frigid temperatures, you may have forgotten how good it feels to sink your toes into the sand, swim in tropical waters, and stargaze on crisp, clear evenings. If so, the remedy is a few days at Dry Tortugas National Park. Seven islands make up the park, accessible only by boat or seaplane and located 70 miles west of Key West.

Its most popular attraction is Fort Jefferson, which protected the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida in the 1800s, but, today, outdoor enthusiasts have plenty to explore. Snorkelers and swimmers can swim with turtles and look for shipwrecks. Stand-up paddleboarders can glide across the emerald waters. And hikers can traverse the park’s sandy paths and spend a night at the 10-site primitive campground.

Stone Mountain State Park, North Carolina

Stone Mountain Falls | Photo: HP contributor Russell Hobart

There’s really no bad time to visit North Carolina’s Stone Mountain State Park, home to towering granite, trout-filled waters, and 18 miles of trail. But winter runoff increases the water flow and makes early spring one of the best times to hike its trails and check out the park’s 200-foot Stone Mountain Falls. What sets Stone Mountain Falls apart is its unusual shape; whereas most other waterfalls cascade straight down over a cliffside, these flow in an almost 45-degree angle before tumbling into the river below. Our favorite trail to scope the falls? The 4.7-mile-long Stone Mountain Loop Trail.

Elsewhere along the intermediate/difficult-rated trail, hikers can count on views of Appalachia, explore the 600-foot-high granite bulge at the heart of the park, and visit a restored homestead, which was occupied between 1855 and 1955.

Sedona, Arizona

The Devil’s Bridge Trail offers some of the best views of Sedona’s famous red rocks. Photo: Phil Price, Flickr

Sedona’s red rocks are majestic in all seasons, but they’re best enjoyed in early spring, long before the oven-hot summer heat sends otherwise-hardy hikers scurrying to Flagstaff’s highcountry or the area’s various wet canyons.

Devil’s Bridge Trail introduces hikers to the ruggedness of the region before ending at the largest natural sandstone arch in the Sedona area. Enjoy panoramic views of cinnamon-hued rock from atop the 45-foot-long arch. The trail ascends roughly 350 feet over the course of 1.5 miles, but don’t be fooled: A good portion of that elevation gain comes from two steep ascents up natural stone steps. (No handrails or ropes are provided, so those wary of heights should take caution.) You’ll need a 4×4 vehicle to reach the official trailhead, or you can park in the lot off of Dry Creek Road and gear up for a 4.5-mile round trip instead.

Santa Catalina Island, California

Backpacking the TCT | Photo: ilya_ktsn under CC BY-SA

Avid backpackers and casual hikers alike will find something to love on Santa Catalina Island, roughly 22 miles southwest of Los Angeles. The park features dozens of miles of trails, ocean vistas, and the rare Catalina Orangetip butterfly—plus, agreeable temperatures, especially in early spring when highs are in the mid-60s and lows are in the 50s. Those seeking a challenge can tackle all 38 miles of the rocky Trans-Catalina Trail, which leads to secluded beach camping (permits are issued at Two Harbors Visitor Services, Hermit Gulch Campground, or Island Plaza in Avalon), views of a 2,000-year-old soapstone quarry (Tongva-Gabrieleño Native Americans once used the soapstone to make pots), and a potential encounter with a herd of bison that calls the island home.

The 4.2-mile Garden to Sky Loop , meanwhile, touches on many of the island’s highlights for hikers looking for a day-only outing. From the summit, take in views of the Pacific Ocean, the California mainland, and the breadth of the mountainous island.

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