12 wilderness areas for enjoying wildflowers

Wildflowers in Gallatin National Forest

flickr, Forest Service - Northern Region

One of spring’s greatest joys is its abundance of beautiful wildflowers. From alpine mountains to dense wetlands to steamy deserts, designated wilderness areas feature a plethora of wildflowers, which are thankfully protected as a cherished part of these landscapes.

Below are 12 wilderness areas we recommend for the unique wildflower experiences they offer. Protecting lands like these ensures that the plants that dwell within them can continue to flourish.

1. Mt. Thielsen Wilderness, Oregon

A profusion of wildflowers awaits those who are willing to brave Oregon’s great heights. Your climb up Mt. Thielsen will be rewarded by a collection of Western pasqueflower, dirty socks, partridge flower, Newberry’s knotweed, Jacob’s ladder, and perhaps even pink hybrids of rose and white mountain heather.

Photo: Jacob's ladder at Mt. Thielsen. Credit: USFS (Richard Helliwell).

2. Round Island Wilderness, Michigan

With lakeshores as well as conifer and hardwood forests, Round Island hosts a diversity of plant life. Sand beaches boast starry false lily of the valley and death camas, cobble beaches showcase columbine and bluebells, and marshy shores include bird's eye primrose and Indian paintbrush. Tiny orchids can be found in the conifer forests, including the rare calypso orchid and summer coralroot. At only a few inches tall, the endemic, threatened dwarf lake iris resides here as well.

Photo: Calypso orchid at Round Island. Credit: USFS.

Tips for wildflower hunting

3. Wambaw Swamp Wilderness, South Carolina

Those few who visit this trailless bog must possess superior navigation skills, but their patience will be well-rewarded. Hidden among the moss and ferns are varieties of spectacular wild orchids, like fragrant ladies’-tresses and marsh lady's tresses. More than 1,600 species of plants have been documented in the Francis Marion National Forest in which Wambaw Swamp resides, including 32 species of orchids and 12 species of carnivorous plants. Because of its characteristic climate, wildflowers are viewable year-round.

Photo: Red buckeye in Francis Marion National Forest. Credit: flickr, Chris M Morris.

4. Mt. Adams Wilderness, Washington

From mid-July to mid-August, after snow melts and before new frosts begin again, brief but beautiful wildflower exhibits enchant Mt. Adams. Spreading phlox covers the ground with shades of white and purple, while twisted sickletop lousewort and soft alpine pussytoes poke their heads up. Mt. Hood pussypaws, subalpine daisies, yellow fan-leaved cinquefoil and blue Donner Lake lupine join the fleeting flora as well.

Photo: Lewis' monkey-flower at Mt. Adams. Credit: USFS (L. Swartz).

5. Charles C. Deam Wilderness, Indiana

This area’s rich flora is a consequence of the neighboring Mount Carmel Fault. March ushers in twinleaf and trout lily, but come May wild hyacinths cast light blues onto this wild canvas. But wait, there’s more: bloodroot, dutchman’s-breeches, Jacob’s-ladder, trillium, firepink, draft larkspur, phacelia, jack-in-the-pulpit, wood poppy, blue phlox, buttercup, spring beauty and violet.

Photo: Wild hyacinths at Charles C. Deam Wilderness. Credit: USFS (Teena Ligman).

6. Spirit Mountain Wilderness, Nevada

This wilderness is in the Newberry Mountain range, a popular locale for wildflower viewing. The Mojave desert features a surprising array of wildflowers in spring, sprouting beneath juniper and cactus trees. Among the many wildflowers growing here are bright yellow-orange Mexican poppies.

Photo: Dune primrose in Nevada's Mohave Desert. Credit: flickr, Thure Johnson.

7. Siskiyou Wilderness, California

This area is known for its diversity of plant life, due to special geological and geographical factors. Many Siskiyou plants are rare or endemic, meaning they can only be found here. This wilderness contains one of the world’s largest concentration of lilies, including the rare Bolander Lily. Visitors can also spy the rare English Peak Greenbrier and Howell’s lousewort.

Photo: Glacier lilies at Siskiyou. Credit: flickr, MiguelVieira.

8. Castle Crags Wilderness, California

More than 300 species of wildflowers have been identified in this wilderness area. The Castle Crags harebell and Castle Crags ivesia have both been named for the one place on Earth that they grow. Fun flowers like leopard lilies, tiger lilies, yellow monkey flowers, cobra plants and Indian rhubarb (elephant ears) also sprout here, as well as the more-common yarrow, aster, Cycladenia and eriogonum.

Photo: Castle Crags harebell. Credit: USFS.

9. Pajarita Wilderness, Arizona

With over 660 species of plants, it’s no wonder this wilderness area is considered a haven for amateur and professional botanists. Photographers also flock to this area, hoping to find some exquisite blooms. After all, there are a whopping 17 wildflower species that can be found only at Pajarita.

Photo: Smooth bouvardia in nearby Madera Canyon. Credit: flickr, Ken Bosma.

10. Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, Colorado

The legendary Maroon Bells are within White River National Forest, where flowers reach their famously full beauty in July. Blue lupines and Colorado columbines contrast with yellow heartleaf arnica and tall groundsel. As you hike from grassy peaks through colorful slopes to canyon floors, it may be hard to keep your eyes on the ground because the Rocky Mountain views are just as stunning. Every year, Wildflower Festival events are held in the nearby town of Crested Butte, where a recent study showed that climate change has added over a month to the wildflower season.

Photo: Colorado columbines. Credit: Al Schneider, Southwest Colorado Wildflowers, USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.

11. Shenandoah Wilderness, Virginia

Shenandoah is a couple hours by car from Washington, D.C., but for Appalachian Trail hikers it is an easy destination. Starting in late March, visitors can spy some of the area's 862 wildflower species, the most prominent of which are asters, peas, lilies, mints and mustards. Spring has the greatest diversity at lower elevations near streams. Pink lady's slippers decorate forest floors and Quaker ladies pop upwards along trails. In summer and fall, the best blooms are in the Big Meadows area of the national park and along the edges of Skyline Drive, where you will see pink azaleas in May. Wild sunflowers are ablaze in fall, one the best times of year to visit this area.

Photo: Lady's slipper at Shenandoah Wilderness. Credit: Steve Bair / wilderness.net.

12. Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge Wilderness, New Jersey

This wilderness area is located inside the marshy Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Several hundred of species of plants live here, with many blooming from March to October. Spring boasts viburnum, trillium, starflower, geranium, ginger and iris. Summer ushers in swamp honeysuckle, fringed orchid and evening primrose. Autumn stays vibrant with aster, goldenrod and gerardia. Only an hour's drive from the busy city of New York, this wild place is sure to restore visitors senses.

Photo: Eastern Tiger Swallowtail at Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Steven Reynolds.

Learn more about wildflower hunting with our wildflower viewing tips

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