Up Your Fall Foliage Game with Tips from National Park Service Experts
Including what to do if you arrive too late.
It’s autumn again, that time of year when the annual demise of deciduous trees can actually be so beautiful that people flock from dozens, even hundreds of miles away just to get the best look at them. “Leaf peeping” season has arrived, and you yourself may be yearning to take in the magnificent autumnal colors of bright red, yellow ochre, alizarin crimson, and other hues found on Bob Ross’s paint palette—in real life.
Unfortunately, you’re not alone. With the predicted small window of time to see the quick metamorphosis of colors this year, there’s going to be a rush to see the trees, especially in big open places—i.e. national parks—where the collective colors can combine to form a jumbo-sized version of that IRL paint palette. America’s National Parks are already a draw during the warmer months, and they certainly hold their own during cooler ones.
Fortunately, Thrillist has tapped three NPS experts for advice on navigating the parks, so you can best maximize your time outside before grabbing that next Pumpkin Spice Latte. Read up on the best destinations for foliage-hunting around the country, what to look for once you’re there, how to avoid the crows, and what to do if you’ve mistakenly arrived after the season’s peak.
The best NPS-recommended parks for foliage
“The fall colors in certain national parks can blow your mind,” says Ash Nudd, former NPS ranger-turned-hiking concierge for Worldmark by Wyndham. “In the east, Acadia, the Great Smoky Mountains, Mammoth Cave, and Shenandoah all have amazing fall seasons.”
Catoctin Mountain Park is another East Coast recommendation, located in the northeastern section of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It tops the charts for NPS Supervisory Park Ranger Phillip Greenwalt. “The deciduous forest of the mid-latitude that comprises Catoctin is famous for its brilliant display of vivid foliage in the fall,” he says.
Elsewhere, Pamela Barnes, Community Engagement Supervisor at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, praises her often overlooked place of business in Ohio. “Cuyahoga Valley has a different personality in each season,” Barnes notes. “The cooler temperatures conjure up dreams of warm apple cider or pumpkin pie.”
While the midwest may not have as many officially designated National Parks as, say, California, (though it has quite a few that probably should be), its fall foliage displays certainly give the rest of the country a run for its money.
And then, of course, there’s the West Coast and the Rocky Mountains. “My favorite parks out west for fall colors are the ones that have aspen groves that turn the most beautiful golden yellow—Glacier, Grand Teton, and Rocky Mountain,” Nudd continues. “Rocky Mountain is probably the best in the fall because not only does it have great colors, but the wildlife is amazing. Many of the big, exciting animals people hope to see make quite a spectacle as the rut begins—it’s pretty magical.”
How to avoid the crowds
You might find yourself leaving a crowded city to immerse yourself in as much wilderness and foliage as possible, maybe even frolic or roll around in a pile of leaves—only to discover everyone else had the exact same idea. “Fall is a special time of year here, and we do see an increase in visitation,” confirms Greenwalt.
However, for those in search of a true nature escape, Nudd says there are strategies to timing it just right. “If you really are hoping for a quieter autumn experience, go during the week,” he recommends. “I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.”
If a mid-week trip isn’t an option for you, Barnes offers an alternative solution: “Visit early in the morning or later in the day on weekends.” That means the crack of dawn—all the better for you influencers out there—or when the sunset is starting to cast its glow. Both times are arguably better for lighting anway; just don’t forget those layers and maybe a steamy thermos, and you’ll have plenty of room to stretch out. “Parking lots at popular locations tend to fill between 10 am and 3 pm on those warm, sunny fall days,” Barnes adds.
Of course, if the only leaf-peeping time you can muster happens to overlap with everyone else’s, it wouldn’t hurt to have a backup location in mind. “Having a plan B in case your destination is very crowded will help you have a better experience,” says Barnes. Or just give in to it all and “pack your patience,” as Greenwalt says. “Even on a crowded day, you can still have a great visit.”
Get out of the car and go for a hike
It might seem obvious, but if you do decide to get your peeping fix at a National Park, remember that you’re in the wild and far from the comforts of home. “The mistakes we generally see are visitors not bringing essentials like water, snacks, or sturdy hiking shoes,” reports Greenwalt. After all, the farther out you get, the more foliage you see.
“Driving routes are wonderful for taking in the view, but make sure you stop and get out of the car,” says Barnes. “Take a long hike, a leisurely stroll, or sit for a while and take it in. There's nothing like the smell of the cool air and the crunching of the leaves underfoot.”
Keep your eyes peeled & chat with rangers onsite
“Maples, oaks, sassafras, tulip, poplar, and beech make for a variety of colors,” says Barnes, naming trees that can be found all over the US. Maple might be one of the most recognizable—largely thanks to Canada and its leaf- centric flag. But trying to identify a tree behind the glorious display staring you down can be a fun new challenge, and one that might leave you shocked to realize how little many of us know about nature. You got this—and, if you really don’t, you can always ask a park ranger.
“Park visitor centers can help, as volunteers and rangers can provide updates or orient you to the park and trails based on what your interests are,” says Greenwalt.
As for Catoctin Mountain Park, Greenwalt has you covered. “Oak and pine can be found on the eastern side of the park,” he says. “Whereas sugar maple, hickories, tulip, poplar, and beech, among other varieties, are found dotting the landscape of the western side of the mountain”
Not the talkative type? No worries. Greenwalt recommends hitting up the National Park Service website, the NPS App, or even Instagram to plan your trip. As he explains, “Many parks also maintain social media accounts where you can learn about park events or park conditions.”
Try not to sweat a late arrival
Unfortunately, missing out on a park’s peak foliage window happens often. “A common mistake people make about seeing the leaves and colors in the fall is that they think the colors come later than they actually do,” reports Nudd. “The two major landmark holidays in the fall are Halloween and Thanksgiving, and so they assume the leaves will change between those two holidays, when in reality, in many places, the colors begin to change in September, and if you wait till October, you will miss most of it—especially in high elevation locations or places further north.”
Direct your browser to detailed online maps which cover leaf changes throughout both the country and specific states or regions. Some are prediction maps based on previous years and some actually show the current conditions, so reviewing those can help you get a much more accurate picture.
Did you end up getting to an area that’s just past its peak? No worries. “With the lack of foliage at some of the vistas from the mountains, you get great views of the surrounding valleys, towns and countryside,” assures Greenwalt. So even if you hike late in the season and don’t see much up top, having fewer leaves on branches means you can see more of the valleys and beautiful sights below you.
Plus, more leaves on the ground rather than the trees means better chances for catching sight of the locals. As Nudd explains, “In Yellowstone, the colors are not as vibrant as in other parks, but the wildlife spotting opportunities are unmatched. My two favorite animals to watch during the rut are the elk and the buffalo, and there are plenty of both.”
And hey, if it’s really, really late in the season, at least snowliage time is right around the bend.