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Crater Lake Trail (Glenn Randall)
Flame Azalea (Pat & Chuck Blackley)
Rhododendron (Pat & Chuck Blackley)
Lupine and Redwoods (Ed Callaert)
Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, CO
Crater Lake Trail
At 10,000 feet, summer must cram its splendor into the few short weeks between final thaw and autumn snow. The upside? A reliable glut of midsummer wildflowers blooming furiously before the freezing nights return. More than 100 species grace this glacial valley, including showy aspen sunflower, scarlet paintbrush, and blue columbine. You’ll need your field guide right from the start on this 5-mile out-and-back, which kicks off with the bloom-choked meadows near the West Portal trailhead and views of the twin, 14,000-foot Maroon Bells perfectly reflected in Maroon Lake. Stars of countless Colorado postcards, the peaks owe their reddish tinge to iron-rich hematite in their sedimentary layers. Skirt the shore of Maroon Lake as you gain 500 feet in 1.5 miles through an aspen stand to Crater Lake, yielding still more flower-strewn clearings and views of 14,018-foot Pyramid Peak. Choose from a string of campsites lining West Maroon Creek just beyond the lake, directly at the base of 14,014-foot North Maroon Peak. Note: In summer, access is by bus only ($6/person) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; to park your car near the trailhead ($10), you have to arrive between 7 and 9 a.m.
Go Mid-July for peak blooms Get there From Aspen, take the second right at the CO 82 roundabout and follow signs to Aspen Highlands Village. Bus departs outside Four-Mountain Sports. Permit Required; free Map Trails Illustrated Maroon Bells/Redstone/Marble ($12, natgeomaps.com) Contactfs.usda.gov/whiteriver
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN/NC
Gregory Bald Trail
In late June, the finest seat in the Smokies just might be this grassy, 4,949-foot Appalachian bald. That’s when the patch’s hundreds of flame azaleas—which vary from small shrubs to bushes taller than a hiker—erupt into a rainbow of hues, ranging from oranges to creamy whites and yellows, riotous reds, and docile shades of pink (thank natural hybridization for the color-wheel results). For fit hikers, the effect—framed against a backdrop of 360-degree views over the park from Cades Cove to Tennessee state highpoint Clingmans Dome—is well worth the 4.4-mile, 2,300-foot climb from Parson Branch Road. Ascend steadily through sections of old-growth hardwood and hemlock forest, scanning for black bears and white-tailed deer as you hike, to campsite number 13 at mile 4.1; here, you’re only .3 mile from the bald. Can’t make it in June? Hold off until late summer to savor the bald’s second-most famous flora, wild blueberries ripe for the gathering.
Go June for peak azalea bloom; August for blueberries and better chance of bear sightings Get there From Cades Cove, take the Loop Rd. 6 miles to one-way Parson Branch Rd. Drive 5.5 miles to the trailhead. Permit & Reservations Required; $4/person/night Map Trails Illustrated Great Smoky Mountains ($12, natgeomaps .com) Contactnps.gov/grsm
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, CA
Sugar Bowl Loop
There aren’t many places where you can sleep under the canopy of 2,000-year-old giant sequoias, making this trip into the world’s largest such grove life-list material for backpackers of any expertise. Thanks to prescribed burning, the trees here vary widely in size and age—from 30-foot-tall, 30-year-old juveniles to ancient, behemoth specimens that reach 20 feet in diameter and nearly 300 feet in height (about the size of a 25-story building). From the Redwood Canyon trailhead, follow Redwood Creek to pick a campsite dwarfed by the massive conifers near a trail junction at 1.6 miles. Here, you’ll find surprising solitude: Even in the summer, only about 60 people camp in this well-kept-secret corner of the park each month. Next day, continue up the west side of the 6-mile loop on the Sugar Bowl Trail to climb 900 feet up Redwood Mountain for views of 8,200-foot granite monolith Big Baldy rising above the treetops.
Go June through September; the access road closes once heavy snow is on the ground Get there From Squaw Valley (the town, not the ski resort), take CA 180 east for 20 miles. Turn right onto FR 14S75 (dirt) for 2 miles to the trailhead. Permit Required; $15/group up to 10 Map Trails Illustrated Sequoia/Kings Canyon ($12, natgeomaps.com) Contactnps.gov/seki