10 Best National Parks to Visit in the Fall
Summer is the most popular time to visit America’s national parks. After all, it is the season of the beloved road trip. But, as most national park aficionados will attest, the shoulder seasons may be the very best time to visit. By September, crowds have largely disappeared, creating an opportunity for a much more intimate experience with America’s Best Idea. Fall colors are in full swing and wildlife is more likely to make an appearance. Autumn is a truly spectacular time to visit these ten national parks.
1. Acadia National Park, Maine
Home to islands, shoreline, granite peaks—plus vast swaths of aspen, birch, alder, maple, and other deciduous trees—Acadia is consistently at the top of the list for best places to take in fall colors. Salty ocean air mingles with fragrant autumn decay, creating a seasonal charm that is often enjoyed in relative solitude. The park’s historic carriage roads aren’t open to motorized traffic, but you can drive to the highest point in the park, 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain. By mid-October, visitors are rewarded with a serene landscape, a place where the cry of the loon can once again be heard echoing through empty forests.
2. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Long, narrow Shenandoah is perfect for a fall foliage drive: every year, leaf peepers from all over flock to Skyline Drive National Scenic Byway, which runs 105 miles through the park and boasts 75 scenic overlooks for maximum autumnal enjoyment. With nearly 200,000 acres of park to explore, those who prefer to check out the colors on foot are in luck, too—and those who like to adventure on two wheels shouldn’t miss the annual Shenandoah Fall Foliage Bike Festival, held each October.
3. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
The midwest isn’t known for its national parks, which means Cuyahoga Valley National Park might just be Ohio’s best-kept secret. Established in 2000, this park preserves the agricultural heritage of northeast Ohio. As colors change and leaves fall, the crowds slowly fade away, leaving Cuyahoga as a pristine santuary patiently awaiting the first snow. Take a ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad from Independence to Akron for a front-row view of the changing landscape.
4. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
Guadalupe Mountains National Park is one of the most pristine wilderness areas in the Lower 48. It is home to the highest point in Texas, 8,749-foot Guadalupe Peak, a surprisingly dynamic mountain. Autumn is the perfect time to hike the modest 8.4-mile round-trip trail, as spring and summer temps can be scorching. On your way to the top, traverse through scrubby desert, vanilla-scented evergreens, unexpected pockets of spindly trees, and finally to the triangular summit monument, where views extend into Mexico. And for those camping out, the cooler air and early evening sunsets are a welcome change, as the dark night sky offers some of the very best star gazing in the country.
5. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Nestled in the hills between the mountain towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park boasts big views year round, but the park really comes to life in the fall. Huge sections of hillside are covered in aspen groves, which turn brilliantly gold from late August into October. Best of all, though, is the elk rut: Mating season for these giant ungulates means hearing their eerie bugles, and you can watch it all at Moraine Park.
6. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
With summer temperatures regularly soaring into the triple digits, it’s no wonder rangers at the Grand Canyon warn visitors about the dangers of heat stroke and dehydration. But when autumn arrives, the Big Ditch is just as spectacular, and you can actually spend a full day outside. Hike along the rim for incredible (and much less crowded) views, or book a commercial rafting trip—they run through October.
7. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
America’s first national park is also among the biggest. Yellowstone encompasses nearly 3,500 square miles of land, and its ecosystem reaches even farther. In addition to its famous geysers and charismatic wildlife—bison, grizzly bears, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, moose, and bald eagles, among others—Yellowstone's notorious summer crowds dispearse in autumn. As roads close and the park prepares for winter, the diminished human presence reverts the park to a pre-historic setting. For an extended trip, tack on a visit to its neighbor, Grand Teton National Park.
8. Yosemite National Park, California
When temperatures in the Yosemite Valley start to cool off, the leaves really start to heat up. Mid-October is peak leaf season, though colors typically last until the first frost in early December. Best of all, crowds have mostly disappeared from the national park by the time the foliage lights up, meaning autumn visitors have their pick of giant sequoia groves, waterfalls (Bridalveil and Vernal run year-round), and sweeping valley views.
9. Olympic National Park, Washington
Because it’s home to mostly evergreen trees, Olympic National Park experiences subtle changes that are heralded by autumn scents and sounds. Olympic’s rivers are home to all five species of salmon, and they spawn in the fall. For the best view, head to the Sol Duc River to watch the Coho in October, or check out the Hoh River in November. Fresh snow can decorate higher elevations, frosting the landscape in a green-white palette that cues the native wildlife to diligently prepare for the coming winter.
10. Denali National Park, Alaska
For most of the year, visitors to Denali can travel the park’s singular road only by shuttle bus, but when shuttle service ends each September, the park hosts a Road Lottery, which visitors can enter for a chance to drive their personal vehicle at their own pace through the park. After the four-day lottery period, visitors can check out dazzling autumn landscapes as far as the Teklanika River at Mile 30 until the first heavy snows close the road for the season. The struggle to survive is in full swing in autumn, so visitors are warned to be especially respectful of wildlife, as winter's harsh presence is right around the corner.
Originally written by RootsRated for Marmot.