Most Wildflowers / Most Biodiversity
Great Smoky Mountains NP, TN/NC
Flower fans can’t do better: More than 1,660 types bloom in the Smokies. High moisture content nurtures scores of glacially isolated species, and the range of elevation—875 to 6,643 feet—supports all of the climate zones you’d find traveling from Georgia to Maine. Tom Harrington, a park interpreter who hikes hundreds of miles annually to provide real-time bloom bulletins (smokiesinformation.org), suggests marking your calendar as follows. Mid-April to mid-May: Up to 40 species of spring ephemerals like Dutchman’s breeches, trout lilies, and white-fringed phacelia burst forth on the first 1.9 miles of the Porter Creek Trail to Fern Falls. “When white-fringed phacelia are in full bloom, it appears as if the ground is covered with snow,” Harrington says. He also likes the 7.4-mile Lower Mt. Cammerer Trail in spring. “If you time it right [last week in April], you’ll be lucky enough to see dwarf-crested iris appearing as a lavender-colored carpet,” he says. Mid-may to mid-June: Purple catawba rhododendrons light up the Alum Cave Bluff Trail. Mid-July to mid-August: Catch displays of crimson bee balm, wild golden glow, monkshood, and turk cap lilies on the 8.1-mile showstopper on the Appalachian Trail from Newfound Gap to the Boulevard Trail. Harrington’s personal fave? Flame azaleas—bracketed by “pickup truck-size” shrubs of red, pink, white, lavender, and peach—atop Gregory Bald in mid-June. Make it a 15.6-mile loop by following Wolf and Hungry Ridges, camping at mile-high Sheep Pen Gap.
Do it From Fontana Village, drive five miles west on NC 28 to the Twentymile Ranger Station. Map Trails Illustrated Great Smoky Mountains NP ($12, natgeomaps.com) Guidebook Hiking Great Smoky Mountains National Park, by Kevin Adams ($17, falcon.com) Contact nps.gov/grsm Trip data backpacker.com/hikes/424997
Black Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, WY/MT
Drop several notches on the food chain in Black Canyon, where as many as one wolf, mountain lion, grizzly, and black bear stalk every two square miles. Take the 17-mile Yellowstone River Trail, bring binocs, and don’t forget to yodel every step of the way. Get a route description and tracklog: backpacker.com/hikes/53473.
Size records for mammals big and tall
→ Largest freshwater fish: 10-foot, 300-plus-pound alligator gars. Spot monsters in central Texas rivers.
→ Most arches: Arches NP has 2,000-plus—the longest spans 290 feet. See it: backpacker.com/hikes/18410.