Why Fall Is the Best Time to Visit Our National Parks
All the awe. None of the crowds.
America’s national parks continued to dominate the travelsphere this summer, offering the pandemic-weary a respite from cabin fever through the magic of actual cabins, and reminding RV-newbies and seasoned road-trippers alike that they really are America’s Best Idea.
Another good idea? Hitting the parks in the fall, when the colors change, the temps cool down, and the tourists vanish. There’s all that foliage to enjoy, of course—but that’s just the beginning. Elk begin to rut, fog descends upon the trees, and salmon fling themselves upstream as nature gracefully transitions into the most vibrant time of the year. To help inspire your next fall getaway, check out the autumnal splendor of a few of our favorite national parks.
Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho
It’s one thing to spot elk during the summer or spring—but witnessing them in fall, when they’re rutting, is an entirely wilder experience. The first time you hear one bugle will stop you in your tracks. And while Yellowstone’s crowds generally thin out after Labor Day, much of the park will remain accessible ’til around November, including bike paths, fishing holes, and guided kayak tours on Yellowstone Lake. Take a hike through America’s oldest national park while the trails are still open. (Just don’t forget the bear spray; a few friends might still be out and about before they settle in for hibernation.) Now’s your chance to contemplate the supervolcano without being elbowed by children.
In the summer months, hiking in Arches National Park can feel like slogging through a convection oven, with temperatures soaring into the triple digits and nary a tree in sight to provide shade—not to mention that the park teems with so many tourists that they’re often forced to cap access for the day. You’re better off waiting until fall, when the heat and the hordes have dissipated dramatically. September and October provide maximum high-desert sunshine with comfortable temps in the 60s and 70s, so you’ll be well-equipped to explore this whimsical red rock terrain strewn with mighty pinnacles, balanced rocks, and 2,000-plus arches without succumbing to heat exhaustion and/or road rage. You might even luck out and get Delicate Arch, the park’s most iconic formation, all to yourself.
An early-morning hike to the top of Cadillac Mountain—the highest peak on the Eastern seaboard—not only offers one of the most spectacular sunrises in America but also a stunning view of New England's finest colors. (You can also drive up, in case hiking up a mountain in pitch darkness isn’t exactly your idea of a good time.) Later in the day, hike the circumference of Jordan Pond just down the road. Surrounding one of the cleanest and deepest lakes in Maine, the trail is a prime spot for leaf-peeping, with the surrounding mountains lit up like an all-natural Lite-Brite. The region generally remains temperate and pleasant through the end of September, when you’ll find yourself trekking through thick, eerie fog which eventually lifts to reveal the blazing foliage of maple and birch trees.
Come autumn, the eastern part of this immensely popular park tends to empty out. That’s when you’ll want to hit the 415-square-mile western section of the Colorado Front Range, where the glorious fall foliage is gonna be. By late September, the aspens that blanket the Rocky Mountains are at the peak of quaking, when the leaves, quivering in the wind, all become a single bright wash of gold. Hike through the Hidden Valley or Twin Sisters Trail for the best aspen-laden views, and pack a picnic to while away a few hours at Bear Lake.
Even compared to the spectacle of most national parks, Florida’s iconic Everglades conjures images of intimidating extremes, from invasive pythons and mosquito swarms to intense humidity and hurricanes—plus, the fact that this is the only place on Earth where you’ll find both alligators and crocodiles swimming along. But this mighty park is one worth stepping outside your comfort zone for, especially towards the end of fall. As the park enters its dry season in November, the omnipresent rain tapers off, adorable manatees populate the coastal waters, and the calm rivers offer hundreds of miles to paddle and explore. You’ll also beat the park’s peak season in winter, when you’ll more likely need to compete with frenzied crowds for kayak rentals.
During a good year with early snow, you might actually be able to enjoy some Jackson Hole skiing whilst nodding approvingly at the changing leaves. Late September is generally your best bet for catching peak foliage at Grand Teton, a breathtaking vista just down the road from Yellowstone that’s bursting with vibrant cottonwoods, aspens, and willows. Gaze upon Snake River bathed in an autumnal glow, and get out there at dawn or dusk for the best odds of spotting moose and elk. Just keep an eye out for bears fattening themselves up for winter.
Leaf-peeping in Texas? It’s not a typo! While Northeastern and Midwestern national parks are better known for their foliage, little-visited Guadalupe Mountains National Park in West Texas proves that the desert can be a haven for autumn colors, too. Hiking the McKittrick Canyon Trail is one of the coolest—and most unexpected—treks for fall foliage, as the (mostly) dry riverbed path meanders through dense thickets of luminous maples aglow in shades of oranges, yellows, and reds. The best part? Since the park is so underrated, you’ll likely have the trees, the leaves, and the trails all to yourself.
If you love fall foliage (naturally) but aren’t so much in love with getting out of your car (understandable) then Shenandoah is the best national park in America for you. Hit its famous 105-mile Skyline Drive and become enveloped in the very essence of the season as you cruise through. There are no fewer than 75 scenic overlooks from which you can gaze out over the canopy of reds, oranges, and golds. Early October is when things hit their peak up here. For those of you who do want to stretch a little, pull over around Mile 49 for a gentle hike to the quadruple waterfalls of Rose River Cascades.
The downside of being one of the most notable national parks in the country is that things stay pretty crowded. The Grand Canyon’s 3 million annual visitors swarm the more popular South Rim for hikes, mule rides, and unnerving selfies all throughout the summer—yes, even in spite of the heat. But after road trip season screeches to a halt, this natural wonder gets a lot more accessible. September through November sees lower crowd levels and cooler, comfier temps that hit that sweet spot between sweater weather and shorts season. You’ll be able to ride your mule in peace and get a photo of the mile-deep canyon without worrying you might accidentally get bumped off the edge.
The glaciers are what you come to see, and you should, y’know, see them while you still can. But you should also come to Glacier National Park to see stunning fall colors, especially around late September and early October. Unlike the evergreen trees you might be used to seeing, ’round these parts you’ll find larch trees—deciduous conifers that shed their needles in the fall. Most of the park’s concessions close after October 1, but the iconic Going to the Sun Road remains open until about midway through the month. Hike the famous Highline Loop where you might spy some bighorn sheep, mountain goats, or grizzly bears before they go into hibernation. Or venture up to Cracker Lake to catch that sweet foliage reflected on the water.
South Dakota's Badlands is the only national park in the country where you can get psychedelic desert colors at sunrise and the deep, burnished gold of autumn grasses in the afternoon. Hike the quiet trails like the hands-on Notch Trail, which weaves through a canyon and up a wooden ladder before culminating in a sweeping prairie vista. Drive through the park and you'll also see otherworldly rock formations, their pink and yellow striations bathed in warm autumn light, streaks of bright foliage in the backdrop, often blanketed in powdery snow. Or, if you’re up to it, take advantage of the vastly reduced post-summer car traffic and hit the roads by bike.
Snow begins piling up as early as late September here, and winter pretty much begins in October. Public transportation will close after summer, but that’s a good thing: It means that, if you have a car or the ability to rent one, you have Denali pretty much all to yourself. Just you and 325,240 acres of peaceful “me time,” where stress melts away and time practically stands still (probably because you have no cell service). The mountains serve as a stunning backdrop to the grizzly bears, moose, and caribou just moping through dense foliage. Oh, and you may also see some golden eagles screaming past the golden leaves.
One of America’s newer national parks is a place of weather extremes, with occasional freezing temperatures in the winter, scorching forecasts in the summer, and wind-swept afternoons in the spring—all of which sounds fine and dandy until you’re rinsing your eyes of gypsum crystals or sweating like a hog. Fall in White Sands National Park is where it’s at: The cottonwood trees are changing color, the crowds have thinned, and the comfortable dry warmth of New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin makes it easy to hike through snow-white sand for hours on end or rent a sand sled from the visitor center and embrace your inner child as you careen down the dunes.
A hike through the subalpine wilderness of Paradise (the area on the south slope of Rainier) will show you the very best vistas of the Evergreen State’s not-so-evergreen trees. Maples, elderberries, aspens, and scores of other trees you likely couldn’t name if you tried begin turning fiery reds and yellows in late September. Head up to Chinook Pass and Tipsoo Lake for some of the most luxurious views. You’re in prime territory for elk and moose to wander across your path while they enjoy the foliage themselves, albeit in a more digestive manner than a sightseeing one. For those who need some fun motivation to hike—like, something more than just the hike itself—mushroom-picking permits are available from the US Forest Service.
North Carolina and Tennessee
If you’ve got the good fortune to already live near the area, the Smokies make for some of the easiest foliage to plan a trip around since there’s no strict date range when everything’s at its peak. At the park’s highest elevations, fall comes on the early side, with the blazing colors of beech and birch trees taking hold as soon as mid-September. Lower down, foliage season can last all the way through early November, with oak and sugar maple trees towering over a shock of autumnal wildflowers. The mountains that run through this park aren’t so much smoky this time of year as they are aflame. The reds, oranges, and yellows cover the hills and brighten the land; a trip to Looking Glass Falls is the best way to see it. And now that most of the park’s 12 million annual visitors have come and gone, you might even have the view to yourself.
Although the intimidating, breathtaking sequoias don’t really change color, a hike through California’s most popular national park still offers visitors a number of festive fall sites. The famous Half Dome Trail is the highlight, but even if you can’t get a permit, the rest of the park will make you forget all about that when the foliage of cottonwoods, oaks, maples, Pacific dogwoods, and aspens peaks in late October. Everything in the park remains open, sometimes as late as November. That deafening silence? It’s not just because the tourists have left; in the fall, many of Yosemite’s waterfalls slow to a trickle.
One of the more unexpectedly awesome national parks in the US, Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley is teeming with pleasant surprises, from wineries and scenic train rides to music festivals. The first half of October is when you can enjoy foliage here at its peak. The park’s star attraction, Brandywine Falls, is absolutely clogged with tourists and their cars during the summer months, but come fall you’ll be able to stay on that boardwalk as long as you like. Oh! And that scenic train ride we mentioned? It lets you chug along through the park while solving murder mysteries or sampling wine.