The Best National Parks for Fall Foliage—and When to Visit Them for Peak Leaf-Peeping

The dog days of summer have us dreaming of crisp autumn air, leaf peeping, and camping in America’s national parks

Every year across the national parks, the leaves shift from their familiar green into a rainbow of warm colors. With this change of seasons also come fewer crowds and cooler temps as the kids shuffle back to school and winter creeps closer. It’s one of the best times to visit most national parks—some truly stand out during the autumnal season. 

What better place to witness the changing of the seasons than at your favorite National Park?

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These 12 national parks offer spectacular fall foliage viewing. Find out the best times to visit below and as always don’t forget to follow “leave no trace” principles when visiting wild places. 

Stop by any of these locations across the United States—starting from early September through November—to see golden, sweeping views.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As the summer gradually transitions to fall, the beauty that comes with the new season includes everything from crisp temperatures to changing leaves. The latter is always a sight to see each year as lush green trees get tints of red, orange, and yellow all around. Even though this transformation happens nearly at the same time every autumn it never gets old—especially when you visit new spots to take in all of the fall foliage. If you’re in search of different views outside of those around your neighborhood taking a trip to the most scenic national parks across America is your next best bet.

Related article: Plan Your Autumn Getaway around Fall Foliage

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

When the leaves change, visitors come in droves to Skyline Drive which runs 105 miles through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia’s the Blue Ridge Mountains. This national scenic byway offers numerous stops to take in the foliage but it can be slow going on weekends. If you can visit on a weekday when you can enjoy popular lookout points such as Hemlock Springs Overlook and Range View Overlook with fewer crowds. Enjoy a self-guided driving tour, go on a nature hike or sign up for a horseback ride to enjoy the spectacular fall colors.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While Shenandoah National Park is only a 75-mile drive from America’s capital, it’s a world away from the Washington, D.C. metropolis. As autumn approaches, the foliage across the landscape turns into stunning red, orange, and yellow hues. The best time to see the stunning sight is from September through October. This national park also has a fall color webcam that shows the changing leaves virtually on a week-to-week basis through the peak of the season.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

The fall colors at Great Smoky Mountains National Park are incredible as the red maples, yellow birch, and flowering dogwoods begin to change hues in October and November. Take in the views from Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee. On your way down, take a few steps and strike a pose in front of the iconic Appalachian Trail sign. Most visitors explore the park by car so you won’t be alone if you opt to drive to scenic lookout points. The 11-mile Cades Cove Loop is especially popular among motorists.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mid-October to early November is the best timeframe to pay a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to see fall foliage. Embedded in the Appalachian Mountains across North Carolina and Tennessee, the array of over 100 tree species—such as sugar maple, scarlet oak, and sweetgum—change from green to yellow, orange, red, and even purple hues. The best views of the 4,000 miles of foliage are from mid-to lower elevations as this is where the leaves reach their peak. 

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Aside from paddling through Cedar Creek during the autumn in central South Carolina, you can find peak fall foliage from the end of October until early November at Congaree National Park. This region is filled with yellow hues during the mild season (it’s usually around 70 degrees on average during that time of year).

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take time to explore Congaree National Park in South Carolina in autumn when there are fewer insects and the weather is ideal for outdoor activities such as bird-watching, canoeing, and kayaking. Hike the 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop Trail which is a great way to get to know the park. Pick up a self-guided brochure or join a ranger-led walk. More adventurous types may want to hike the 11-mile Kingsnake Trail which takes parkgoers through some of the more remote parts of the park.

Related article: Stunning Fall Drives across America

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Starting in late September, the leaf colors will begin changing to orange-like hues until around the end of October at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. The best colors, though, appear in early October every year.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Fall is an incredible time to visit Zion National Park. As temperatures cool, it’s the perfect time for a hiking adventure. Also, the crowds are much smaller compared to summer and the park looks stunning as beautiful red, yellow, and orange leaves add so much color to its rugged desert landscape.

Fall colors make their way to Zion in late October and early November and November temperatures often range from the 30s to the 50s—so pack plenty of layers. Also, remember that as visitors disperse for the winter, Zion’s shuttle buses begin running a little less frequently and for fewer hours each day.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though the climate in Zion National Park is arid, many trees thrive in the park. Evergreen white pines, ponderosa pines, and Douglas fir are mixed with golden aspens, crimson maples, copper oaks, and yellow cottonwoods. During the fall months, red and gold accents brighten the desert landscapes creating numerous opportunities for nature photographers.

To get the big picture of the fall in Zion, take the easy one-mile Canyon Overlook Trail east of the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel. The views of Zion Canyon from far above will take your breath away. A one-hour trail is perfect for families and those who are not ready for long strenuous hikes.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park, Texas

At Big Bend National Park visitation peaks in the fall and winter months when the weather makes for more pleasant conditions along the more than 200 miles of hiking trails. A birder’s paradise, Big Bend is home to more than 450 bird species and is an ideal place to catch a glimpse of birds migrating south. Drive along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive which winds through the Chihuahuan Desert and offers great vantage points of interesting rock formations as well as park highlights such as Mule Ears Viewpoint and Santa Elena Canyon.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Back in the West, Lassen Volcanic National Park is a park where you might not expect fall colors. This quiet northern California park has pockets of cottonwood, oaks, and sagebrush which together create a vivid palette. Crystal clear Manzanita Lake is one area of the park with bright colors in addition to the ubiquitous evergreens. Even if you don’t time it right for the fall colors, you’ll still enjoy an iconic view of Lassen Peak.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because the park has several high elevation areas, autumn arrives early. Your best chance of seeing brilliant foliage is in September and October. As the season progresses, be prepared for temporary road or trail closures due to snow at higher altitudes. Don’t be disappointed if you see snow instead of fall colors, though. And don’t miss the geothermal areas of Sulphur Works and Bumpass Hell Trail which are beautiful in a different way.

Related article: Leafy Scenes: 12 of the Best Road Trips for Viewing Fall Foliage

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, West Virginia

The country’s newest national park, the 7,000-acre New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia can be visited any time of year—but it stands apart in the fall. Anglers catch fish such as walleye and bass in the New River and rock climbers can be seen ascending the more than 1,400 routes established on the park’s sandstone cliffs.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

October is a particularly popular time to visit. It’s also when the annual Bridge Day event takes place (in 2022, on October 15) and thousands of visitors congregate to walk across the New River Gorge Bridge and watch BASE jumpers and rappellers descend over the side of the bridge.

And, of course, visitors who head to the New in the fall will be rewarded with stunning fall foliage which arrives first in the mountains and works its way down into the valleys throughout the season.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park, Utah

In addition to glimpses of changing leaves, the temperatures in Arches National Park are much more tolerable with highs in the 70s in October (compared to daily highs in the 90s from June through August). If you’re hoping to capture some amazing photographs, the autumnal light cast on the red rocks is spectacular—and you’re also more likely to see wildlife if you’re camping in the park.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan for hiking, biking, backpacking, or camping and be sure to check out the Fiery Furnace, a unique sandstone formation that offers incredible views at sunrise and sunset. The Devils Garden Trail is one of the most popular points of interest in the park exposing viewers to a wide range of arches.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The downside of being one of the most notable national parks 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 throughout the summer—yes, even despite 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.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

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.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive through the park and you’ll also see otherworldly rock formations, their pink and yellow striations bathed in the warm autumn light, streaks of bright foliage in the backdrop. Or, if you’re up to it, take advantage of the vastly reduced post-summer car traffic and hit the roads by bike.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

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.

Related article: Fantastic Fall Foliage…and Where to Find It

Bottom line

It’s hard to go wrong with a trip to a national park during the fall. After all, September, October, and November are the best times to get out and enjoy the crisp, autumnal air before winter blankets the countryside with snow. Whether you’re seeking lower temperatures and smaller crowds or you’re purely in pursuit of peak foliage, pack your jacket, bring the camera, and get ready to have an unforgettable trip.

Worth Pondering…

National parks are sacred and cherished places—our greatest personal and national treasures. It’s a gift to spend a year adventuring and capturing incredible images and stories in some of the most beautiful places on Earth.

—Jonathan Irish, photographer