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 kids shuffle back to school and winter creeps closer. I’d argue it’s one of the best times to visit most national parks—though some truly stand out during the autumnal season.
Each summer, millions of people head into the great outdoors to enjoy America’s national parks. And while the warmer months are no doubt the most popular time to visit parks overall, there are still some parks that are just as good—or even better—to visit in the fall. Whether you’re looking for a weekend getaway or a lengthier fall vacation, here are the top 11 national parks to visit this fall.
1. Grand Canyon National Park
The Grand Canyon isn’t just one of America’s most recognizable and iconic natural features. It’s also a great destination for a fall vacation. Temperatures can be over 100 degrees in the summer at the bottom of the canyon. While it can still be warm in the area through the fall, average temperatures do start to drop down to a more manageable range of 70 -80 degrees. This means that October and November are great months to visit.
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2. Joshua Tree National Park
Here’s another national park that’s a great choice to visit in the fall because of dropping temperatures. Joshua Tree National Park’s desert location means extreme heat can make it difficult to enjoy the park in the summer months. A fall visit will allow you to enjoy countless hiking trails with cooler weather.
Those planning a trip will likely want to look into accommodations ahead of time—Joshua Tree National Park is fairly remote. There are two main towns nearby: Twenty-Nine Palms and a town also named Joshua Tree. Camping is also a possibility in the park but you’ll want to secure a reservation as soon as possible. The majority of the 500 campsites in the park are available by reservation.
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3. Zion National Park
Zion is one of the best national parks to visit in the fall for several reasons. Firstly, the weather is more pleasant in fall than in the summer when temperatures can be brutally hot. Secondly, the changing colors of the cottonwoods and brush compliment the giant sandstone walls within Zion Canyon. Lastly, the crowds are less extreme at this time of the year than during the busy summer holiday period. It can still be busy with people looking to see the colors changing, but less so than the summer holidays.
The best time to visit Zion for fall colors is between mid-October and early November. The exact timing can vary year to year but this is generally a safe bet to see some great fall foliage in the park. Fall is an amazing time of year for most of the parks in Utah so you could extend your trip and visit the other parks in Canyon Country.
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4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is another excellent choice for those looking to see some changing colors alongside their outdoor adventure. Located on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is not only home to gorgeous fall leaf displays but also countless hiking trails as well as wildlife such as black bears and white-tailed deer.
Great Smoky Mountains is home to some of the most scenic fall drives in the country. Don’t miss Cade’s Cove, a lush valley surrounded by mountains and filled with history. The drive up to the viewpoint at Clingmans Dome is perhaps the most famous in the park. There are layers upon layers of mountains stretching as far as the eyes can see rich with color this time of the year.
Not far out of the park is the Blue Ridge Parkway. This National Scenic Byway links Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Shenandoah National Park. This scenic drive is famous for its views and fall colors.
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5. Big Bend National Park
Big Bend is one of the lesser-visited national parks due in part to its remote location. Lesser known doesn’t mean less to do, however. The park is home to countless hiking trails, opportunities for river rafting and kayaking trips, camping, and even hot springs. Like Joshua Tree, fall is one of the better times to visit as the area enjoys cooler weather. Temperatures are perfect during October and November. You’ll enjoy beautiful warm days and cooler nights.
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6. Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park is covered in deciduous trees and during fall turns into a golden paradise. Similar to the Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah is a fall classic and offers visitors some of the most abundant and vibrant colors in the country. This park takes on a completely new look once the colors change and it’s just hard to beat those scenic drives through the park as the fall leaves drop all around you.
Shenandoah is home to one of the best scenic fall color drives in the country. Skyline Drive is the main road through the park and runs 105 miles north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It has around 70 different overlooks and spending a day or two exploring this incredible stretch of road is often the highlight of a visit to the park.
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7. Arches National Park
Another Utah park best seen in autumn is Arches National Park. The powerful dance of wind, rain and red sandstone over many eons created the 2,000-plus fantastical arches at Arches—but it did not leave much shade or shelter. Visits in 100-degree summer or 10-degree winter weather can be unpleasant but in autumn you’ll enjoy temperate conditions and smaller crowds.
Aesthetically pleasing erosion is the big lure stirring the soul with unusually balanced rocks, fins, spires, and arches. The autumn light cast on the red rocks is spectacular.
The park and its surrounding area offer excellent mountain biking, canyoneering, rock climbing, and hiking. Many people who travel here turn their trip into a national park two-fer adding on nearby Canyonlands, a 30-minute drive south.
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8. New River Gorge National Park and Preserve
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. October, after the heat subsides, 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 park’s eponymous bridge and watch BASE jumpers and rappellers descend over the side of the bridge.
And, of course, visitors who head to the New River Gorge 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.
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9. Badlands National Park
Only a few centuries ago, over half the North American continent was carpeted in the same type of mixed grass prairie one encounters in Badlands National Park. The park retains the largest intact prairie of any in the National Park Service providing an enduring home to the animals that keep this type of ecosystem healthy: bison, prairie dogs, ferrets, pronghorns, coyotes, big horn sheep, golden eagles, and others.
In the summer months, violent thunderstorms and blazing temperatures can make touring the Badlands challenging but come fall the weather mellows to the 60s and 70s. Some of the grasses are yellow in autumn too making it easier to spot wildlife and shutterbugs are rewarded with gold-hued landscapes.
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10. Saguaro National Park
Named for the United States’ tallest cactus (it can reach up to 50 feet), this Sonoran Desert park is split into two parts by the city of Tucson. The Sonoran people also known as the Hohokam settled here in 2100 B.C. and built some of the earliest canal irrigation systems on the continent. The park is pitted with their ruins and tagged with petroglyphs.
The temperatures drop to an average of 70 degrees in October and November making the fall ideal for comfortable visits. It’s also fun to drop by Tucson in the fall thanks to its mix of Mexican and American seasonal celebrations that include pumpkin patches, corn mazes, Halloween activities, and All Souls processions.
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11. Congaree National Park
To finish my list, here’s a hidden gem! 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.
In the winter, this park tends to flood and in summer the humidity and heat make human bodies feel like they’re flooding. But autumn is the Goldilocks time in South Carolina’s only national park devoted to the natural world.
Congaree harbors the biggest old-growth, bottomland hardwood forest left in the Southeast. It’s an arboreal paradise and 15 trees growing here are the largest known specimens of their kind on the planet including loblolly pine, cherry bark oak, American elm, sweetgum, and swamp chestnut oak—all of which are over 130 feet tall. Sheltering in and among those trees are feral pigs, bobcats, alligators, river otters, and deer.
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It’s hard to go wrong with a trip to a national park during the fall. After all, October and November are really the best times to get out of doors and enjoy the crisp, autumnal air before the winter cold settles in. 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.
Autumn brings a longing to get away from the unreal things of life, out into the forest at night with a campfire and the rustling leaves.
—Margaret Elizabeth Sangster, poet