Plan your perfect fall foliage getaway with this interactive leaf color map! It’s the ultimate visual planning guide to the annual progression of changing leaves.
It may not have officially arrived yet, but fall is certainly in the air: Pumpkin spice beverages abound at coffee shops, school is back in session, and cooler temps are right around the corner. That means peak leaf peeping season is nearly here and the foliage map from SmokyMountains.com is the perfect tool to help you plan a colorful fall trip.
Discover the best destinations to experience nature’s spectacular show as the leaves change color this season. Simply explore this interactive map to find where red, orange, and yellow hues will peak near your travel dates.
The prediction map—“meant to help travelers better time their trips to have the best opportunity of catching peak color each year”—tracks the entire United States as various regions go from no change in leaf color to minimal, partial, near peak, and finally peak coverage. There isn’t much happening yet, but you can check out the map here to bookmark for later in the season and even submit foliage information about your area to help improve the predictions.
The map provides a visual guide to follow autumn’s colorful transformation across North America. View precise predictions of the fall foliage season from week to week. Get ideas for your RV route and plan to hit the road when the scenery will be at its most breathtaking.
Spend your fall trip immersed in nature’s vibrant beauty thanks to this easy planning tool. Start discovering your next leaf-peeping adventure today.
As you know from many of my posts, I can never get enough of fall foliage. Every year, landscapes transform as if God decides to get out his paintbrush and remind us of the surrounding beauty.
Leaf peeping has become so popular that many RVers plan road trips around the changing leaves. Fortunately, there’s an amazing interactive tool to help you do just that!
Fall foliage prediction map
The fall foliage prediction map or leaf peeping map gives you a nationwide view of the changing leaves. You can check travel dates by using the slider bar at the bottom. The different colors denote different stages.
Green denotes no change yet and brown means that the leaves are past their peak. The colors in between show the colorful progression of fall.
It’s so easy to use, and frankly, it’s fun! I couldn’t help sliding the bar back and forth to see the colorful flow overtake parts of the country.
How accurate are its predictions?
Just like you can’t completely predict the weather, leaf predictions can never be 100 percent accurate. However, SmokyMountains.com has published this predictive leaf-peeping map for nearly a decade.
It started as a fun project to meet the needs of their customers. SmokyMountains.com offers 2,000+ cabins and vacation rentals in Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains. So, it’s easy to see how the leaf peeping map could benefit their customers.
But what started as a fun project for their clientele rapidly grew into a top fall resource that tens of millions of people use annually.
The founder of SmokyMountains.com and creator of the map, David Angotti, is also an Airline Transport Pilot. As such, he was required to fully understand weather patterns and was highly trained in to use of meteorological tools. The combination of his expertise and love for travel led to this highly accurate tool.
What data does the map use?
I love to know how things work and algorithms, in particular, impress me. The algorithm SmokeyMountain.com created analyzes several million data points including:
NOAA historical temperatures
NOAA historical precipitation
NOAA forecast temperatures
NOAA forecast precipitation
Historical leaf peak trends
Peak observation trends
Historical model outputs from previous years
It outputs approximately 50,000 predictive data pieces that forecast county-by-county the precise moment when peak fall will occur.
And last year, they announced how it’s more accurate than ever with mid-season updates.
“Due to the complexity of applying a humongous, multi-faceted dataset, we have historically published our map annually without mid-season updates,” creator David Angotti explains. “However, for the first time we plan to release a mid-season update in late September. By applying the mid-season update, we believe the accuracy and usefulness of the tool will be increased.”
How is the fall foliage prediction map useful?
Get there at the right time.
As RVers, you probably instantly see the usefulness for travelers. We’ve all too often mistimed our road trips and begrudgingly enjoyed the leftovers. A tool like this changes that.
Even if you’ve been to the above places before, it’ll be like visiting a whole new place if you go at peak leaf pepping times.
However, clever folks have used the fall foliage prediction map for more than travel.
“The vast majority of individuals use the leaf map to simply check when leaves will peak near their home or use it to plan a leaf peeping trip,” David Angotti says. “However, through the years, we have heard some fascinating stories about how the tool was leveraged.”
He goes on to share some of the favorite stories from leaf peeping map users.
One example is a bride in the northeast changing the date of her outdoor wedding. Another is a director scheduling a movie shoot on location based on our predictions. Even school teachers have used the map to plan field trips and add to their lesson plans.
Other nifty leaf peeping resources
SmokyMountains.com also offers some helpful information and fun resources on its fall leaf map site.
If you include plants that can regenerate, the upper age limit could be ten thousand years or more. Such superorganisms including the famous quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) grove nicknamed Pando are made up of genetically identical trunks connected through a single root system that sends up new shoots over time. These clonal colonies are impossible to date with precision because the oldest decomposed long ago.
Known as the Trembling Giant, Pando is located about 40 miles southeast of Richfield, Utah, the nearest town. Widely considered the world’s largest tree with one vast root system, the aspen clone is also one of the largest living organisms on the planet. Spanning roughly 106 acres within Fishlake National Forest, a sprawling patch of greenery situated in the High Plateaus of south-central Utah, Pando weighs more than 6,600 tons and contains approximately 47,000 genetically identical stems (or branches), experts say.
Pando which in Latin translates to I spread is so massive that satellite imagery shows the outline of the clone in stark contrast with the rest of the surrounding national forest; its complex network of roots is so vast that it tunnels beneath Utah State Route 25, a winding two-lane highway that slices through Pando’s center.
No one knows Pando’s exact age with some estimates dating it to the end of the last ice age or about 25,000 years ago and others going as far back as 80,000 years.
The Big Tree, as it’s usually known, is one of the best known live oak trees in the United States. In its more than 1,000 years, the Big Tree has survived hurricanes, fires, and even an 1864 Civil War battle that razed the rest of the town, Lamar, Texas, to the ground. With a height of 44 feet, trunk circumference of 35 feet, and crown spanning roughly 90 feet, the massive coastal live oak has survived Mother Nature’s fiercest storms including Hurricane Harvey (August 25, 2017).
Many lists of oldest trees stick to single-trunked plants that produce annual growth rings. These kinds of trees are easier to date. Scientists called dendrochronologists focus on assigning calendar years to tree rings and interpreting data within those rings. By using a hand-cranked tool called an increment borer they extract core samples without depriving the tree of strength and vigor.
As a rule, gymnosperms—flowerless plants with naked seeds—grow slower and live longer than angiosperms, flowering plants with fruits. Gymnosperms include ginkgo and every kind of conifer—including yews, pines, firs, spruces, cedars, redwoods, podocarps, araucarias and cypresses. Roughly 25 gymnosperm species can live 1,000 years or longer. The cypress family contains the most millennials but the longest-lived species is a pine with an effective age limit of five millennia. By contrast, eight centuries is extremely old for an oak, an angiosperm. And only one kind of flowering plant, a baobab, has been positively dated beyond one millennium.
During research for his book Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees, Jared Farmer learned a lot about the world’s oldest growers. Here are some of the most exceptional specimens.
The longest-lived gymnosperms
Great Basin bristlecone pine, Pinus longaeva, ≥4,900 years
Until 1964, the oldest tree ever known grew in a cirque on Wheeler Peak in Nevada’s Snake Range in what is now Great Basin National Park. After a graduate student researcher tried and failed to extract a complete core sample, he decided to produce a stump. This scientific desecration haunted him the rest of his career even though he cut it down with permission of a forest ranger. Originally labeled WPN-114 this pine was posthumously renamed Prometheus.
The oldest survivor with a name is Methuselah which grows in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in the White Mountains of eastern California. This pine was originally cored by tree-ring scientist Edmund Schulman who made bristlecones famous through his 1958 article in National Geographic. The innermost rings on Schulman’s core samples are extremely suppressed and partly eroded making dating difficult. The oldest extracted ring from Methuselah might be from 2490 or 2555 BC. In any case this tree is well over 4,500 years old today.
Methuselah’s location is no longer marked by the U.S. Forest Service but anyone who hikes the trail will be close to it and many other living beings as old as the pyramids of Giza. In the same population an unnamed bristlecone even older than Methuselah grows and it is known only to an inner circle of dendrochronologists. Secrecy provides protection from vandals who would carve names on it, relic hunters who would take cones from it, and photographers who would inadvertently damage the fragile soil.
In a deeper sense, the identity of the true oldest living bristlecone is simply unknowable. That’s not just because no one has the time—or the funding or the imperative—to do an exhaustive search throughout the Great Basin. The effort would be futile. On most ancient bristlecones, the oldest wood has long ago been ablated, speck by speck, by desert winds.
Giant sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum, ≥3,266 years
As soon as Anglo-Americans encountered giant sequoia in the midst of the California gold rush, they acted in paradoxical ways: protecting them while also cutting down trophy specimens for traveling exhibits. By counting rings on stumps, people knew in the 1850s that sequoias can live for thousands of years.
After the Civil War, two of the largest protected sequoias became known as the General Grant and the General Sherman. A rivalry ensued between Fresno County, home of the Grant and Tulare County, home of the Sherman. In 1931, the California Chamber of Commerce announced an unscientific verdict: Although Sherman was—and still is—the world’s largest tree, Grant would count as the world’s oldest. Confusingly, tourists routinely referred to another monumental tree, Yosemite National Park’s Grizzly Giant as the age champion based on its incomparably gnarled appearance.
In the 1990s, a forest ecologist created a mathematical formula for estimating a sequoia’s age based on the volume of its bole or the trunk below the crown. He tested his formula on hundreds of stumps in Converse Basin, the one large grove of big trees that had been devastated by industrial logging. Here, many trimillennials including the oldest ever known at 3,266 years or more had been leveled to make grape stakes and shingles. The ecologist disproved for good the old assumption that biggest means oldest. By his estimation, the General Sherman was only 2,150 years old and the Grizzly Giant was a shocking 1,790 years young.
The most senior of these trees probably lacks a name because of its relative smallness. And it may be newly dead. In 2020 and 2021, megafires devastated the southern Sierra, killing up to 20 percent of all mature sequoias.
In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws… to represent themselves. Nothing is holier nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.
These landmarks formed from millions of years’ worth of seismic activity as the area shifted, wrinkled, and expanded leaving exposed sandstone to spread to the surface. The water eventually began eroding the sandstone into fins or narrow, thin rock faces. Then, water seeped into the cracks of the fins and froze and expanded which caused chunks of sandstone to fall out and form a window. Water and wind continued to erode the window until it became an arch.
Among the park’s best-known arches are the Delicate Arch and the Landscape Arch—the largest of them all. Landscape Arch stretches 306 feet across or about the length of a football field. In 1991, hikers heard cracking and popping noises from the arch and suddenly a slab of rock about 60 feet long broke away and crashed to the ground below. A photo and a video of the event were recorded and no one was hurt.
If you decide to visit, be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen and water (there is little shade available) and check for timed ticket entry between April and October.
Petrified Forest certainly has a startling ring to it. Not to mention, Petrified Forest National Park isn’t actually a forest—at least not anymore. And it’s not necessarily a dangerous place … as long as you don’t attempt to steal the rocks.
Nearly 200 million years ago, coniferous trees such as pines grew in this lowland area of what is now Arizona though the climate was more tropical at the time. Fallen trees, some 9 feet in diameter and around 200 feet tall were covered in sediments as nearby rivers flooded from storms. Over time, multiple volcanic eruptions layered the area in volcanic ash, rich with silica.
The burial of these trees happened so quickly (by geological standards) that the wood evaded decay normally caused by insects and oxygen. As the groundwater mixed with the volcanic ash and silica, it layered over the wood and turned the organic material into stone also known as petrification.
The resulting fossils are a beautiful menagerie of reds, yellows, oranges, and whites. They somewhat resemble precious stones which makes them an enticing souvenir. But as with all National Park lands visitors are not allowed to take anything from the site including rocks, plants, and animals. And for good reason, since removing any of these items can harm the local ecosystem or degrade the geological features.
Legend has it that taking a rock from Petrified Forest National Park can bring about miserable luck. The park receives envelopes full of returned rocks each year often with letters begging for forgiveness for fossil theft and hoping their bad luck subsides. Some letters simply state, “You were right!” and some have detailed the years of misfortune that befell the burglar. These correspondences were even turned into a book, Bad Luck, Hot Rocks: Conscience Letters and Photographs from the Petrified Forest.
When visiting Petrified Forest National Park (or any park) remember to take only pictures and leave only footprints.
Designated a national park by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, the park also holds UNESCO World Heritage Site status and has been the site of human inhabitation since approximately 7500 BC. About A.D. 550 some of the people living in the four corners region of the four states of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico decided to move onto Mesa Verde; over 700 years these people raised families in communities of stone built into sheltered coves of canyon walls.
Not only did the cliff dwellings offer shelter from potential invaders but also from rain and snow allowing the ruins to be well preserved for more than 1,000 years. Over a generation or two in the late 1200s, these people left their homes and moved away to locations in Arizona and New Mexico.
The spectacular park includes more than 4,500 archaeological sites of which about 600 are cliff dwellings. Located just outside Cortez, Colorado, the main park road is open 24 hours, year-round. Alas, to see some of the most impressive cliff dwellings close up, Balcony House, Cliff Palace, and Long House you must join a ranger-guided tour.
The main park road leads to numerous overlooks offering marvelous views of the cliff dwellings in the early culture. First on our circuit was Spruce Treehouse, perhaps the best-preserved cliff dwelling. Standing on the edge of the rugged canyon and looking down and across to the cliff dwelling gives one the eerie feeling that the residents just departed. Throughout our visit to these early outposts of humanity, one could feel the ghosts of the ancients looking back at us.
The largest gypsum dune field in the world is located at White Sands National Park in south-central New Mexico. This region of glistening white dunes is at the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert within an internally drained valley called the Tularosa Basin. The park ranges in elevation from 3,890 feet to 4,116 feet above sea level. There are approximately 275 total square miles of dune fields here with 115 square miles (about 40 percent) located within White Sands National Park.
This dune field is very dynamic with the most active dunes moving to the northeast at a rate of up to 30 feet per year while the more stable areas of sand move very little. The pure gypsum (hydrous calcium sulfate) that forms these unusual dunes originates in the western portion of the park from an ephemeral lake or playa with a very high mineral content. As the water evaporates (theoretically as much as 80 inches per year!), the minerals are left behind to form gypsum deposits that eventually are wind-transported to form these white dunes.
Many species of plants and animals have developed very specialized means of surviving in this area of cold winters and hot summers with very little surface water and highly mineralized groundwater.
Badlands National Park is an otherworldly destination that offers visitors an immersive experience of the natural beauty and geologic uniqueness of the region. The rugged canyons, towering spires, and colorful rock formations create an awe-inspiring landscape that is unlike anything else in the world.
Drive through the park and enjoy the breathtaking scenery that Badlands National Park has to offer. With several scenic drives available including Badlands Loop Road and Sage Creek Rim Road visitors can take in the stunning views and take their time experiencing the park.
Experience the park’s rugged beauty up close by hiking one of its many trails. With more than 60 miles of trails available, there are plenty of opportunities to explore the park on foot and discover breathtaking views, unique rock formations, and diverse wildlife.
Observe the park’s native wildlife including bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorns, coyotes, and prairie dogs. Badlands National Park is home to one of the largest remaining undisturbed mixed-grass prairies in the United States making it an ideal location for wildlife viewing.
Big Bend National Park has it all—vast amounts of open space, rivers, canyons, pictographs, and hot springs. Located in southwest Texas, the park can be wonderfully warm in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer offering year-round access to some of the most beautiful terrain in the state. Big Bend National Park is where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Chisos Mountains and it’s where you’ll find the Santa Elena Canyon, a limestone cliff canyon carved by the Rio Grande.
In the center of Big Bend lies the Chisos Mountains, the only mountain range in the United States fully contained within a single national park. Given their relatively high elevation—the summit of Emory Peak stands at 7,835 feet—the Chisos are typically 10 to 20 degrees cooler than the adjacent desert and home to a wide variety of shady juniper, mesquite, and oak. Within the 20 miles of trails here it’s a fairly easy hike to a beautiful view at the summit of Emory Peak.
From Shenandoah in Virginia to Congaree in South Carolina, this road trip hits four national parks, covers 780 miles, and guides you away from the crowds
How’s the saying go? “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” But if you want to connect the most spectacular East Coast national parks and experience the best adventures in between maybe the saying should go: “It’s not just the destination because the journey is kickass, too.”
Follow my plan and you’ll paddle wild rivers, climb storied cliffs, and find yourself in miles of empty, stunning wilderness. Set aside a couple of weeks to complete the whole drive or carve off one leg at a time.
Fort Royal, Virginia to Afton, Virginia
Distance: 108 miles
Route: This is a short but worthy stretch of road through Shenandoah National Park and some gorgeous mountain drives along the way.
The park: Just 75 miles west of Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park protects a particularly pretty stretch of the Blue Ridge Mountains offering a quick getaway for denizens of the Mid-Atlantic. And they show up—nearly 1.6 million of them visited the park in 2021. And most stick to Skyline Drive which draws a line through the middle of the park or flock to the summit of Old Rag, a dramatic, rocky peak with tough climbs and killer views.
To avoid the crowds, try the 3.4-mile Chimney Rock loop hike. Or bring your fly rod. The park is packed with pristine backcountry trout streams, 70 of which hold healthy populations of native brook trout. Rapidan River, a headwaters stream, offers cool history along with its bevy of trout as President Hoover established a mountain retreat where two streams join to form the Rapidan.
Need to know: You can fish for trout year-round in Shenandoah but Rapidan is catch and release only.
Stay: Skyland puts you in the heart of Shenandoah as the park lodge occupies 27 acres off milepost 41 of Skyline Drive. Even better than the location are the digs: newly renovated rooms and cabins are well appointed and the mountain views from 3,680 feet are stunning.
When it comes to developed campgrounds, Mathews Arm Campground is your best bet in the north end of Shenandoah. Big Meadows and Lewis Mountain are the most centrally located campgrounds and give you quick access to some of the most popular sites in the park like Dark Hollows Trail and the Byrd Visitor Center and camp store. Loft Mountain, the largest campground in the park is the only one south of US 33. Book your campsite several months in advance via the NPS system—things fill up quickly in peak summer and fall seasons.
Afton, Virginia to Fayetteville, West Virginia
Distance: 170 miles
Route: You’ll head deep into the heart of the Southern Appalachians to explore the 63rd and most recently designated national park—New River Gorge with one of the region’s deepest gorges and some of its tallest mountains.
Detour: About 60 miles away in nearby West Virginia, Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area is a hotbed of traditional climbing with hundreds of established multi-pitch routes that traverse the mountain’s unique fins of Tuscarora quartzite which rise from the canopy like a dragon’s back. If you have time, sign up for a three-day trad camp where you’ll master anchors and protection placement.
The park: The 70,000-acre New River Gorge National Park protects some of the best whitewater rafting and rock climbing on the eastern seaboard. Less known? The 13-miles of singletrack built specifically for mountain biking. Hit the Arrowhead Trails on the south side of the gorge for fast and pedaly flow through a dense hardwood forest. The three-mile long Adena loop has the toughest climbs and quickest descents.
Need to know: Unlike many national parks, bikes are allowed on a variety of trails throughout New River Gorge including some non-technical paths that cruise by historic mining camps.
Stay: The cabin-heavy Adventures on the Gorge Resort sits on the rim of the New River Gorge, with a 350-acre campus packed with ziplines, pools, aerial adventure courses, and low key restaurants. The resort’s in-house guides will take you climbing and rafting, too. Choose from glamping tents to deluxe cabins.
Fayetteville, West Virginia to Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Distance: 275 miles
Adventure along the drive: Take a quick detour back into Virginia on your way to Tennessee to stop at the 200,000-acre Mount Rogers National Recreation Area—5,279-foot Rogers is the tallest peak in the state. Start in Grayson Highlands State Park and hike four miles through high-elevation mountain balds, scramble over rock outcroppings, and spy the herds of feral ponies that live free range on the ridges.
Detour: Before you hit the Smoky Mountains, soak in one of the only natural hot springs in the Southern Appalachians in Hot Springs, North Carolina. Mineral waters fill tubs in the Hot Springs Resort and Spa on the edge of the French Broad River. Book a private tub and make time for a beer at Big Pillow Brewing in downtown.
The park: A little over 12 million. That’s how many people visited the 500,000-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park last year. That’s the bad news. The good news? Most of those people stick to the scenic roads and short nature trails which means the best way to ditch the crowds is to hit the backcountry. Head to the less crowded eastern side of the park accessed at a remote entrance to the park off of Heintooga Ridge Road to backpack or trail run the 13.8-mile Hemphill Bald Loop which cruises along at 5,000 feet in elevation across mountain top meadows before sinking deep into a forest of old growth poplars, babbling trout streams, and remote campsites.
Stay: Camping is popular year-round and the park has a variety of options to enjoy camping throughout the year with 10 locations.
Eat and Drink: Skip the madness in Gatlinburg and head to the much quieter Townsend where traditional Southern fare is given an upscale treatment at the Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro. What isn’t grown onsite is sourced locally. Cheese plates are dressed with home-grown figs, and local trout is paired with tomato jam and grits.
Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Columbia, South Carolina
Distance: 230 miles
Route: This route begins on the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most biodiverse in the country and ends in a serene swamp with a stop in everyone’s favorite North Carolina mountain town of Asheville along the way.
Adventure along the drive: Just outside of Asheville, The Riveter combines professionally built bike jump lines with a 16,000-square foot climbing gym, yoga studio, and bar. Send it inside and out then cross the street and grab a beer at Sierra Nevada’s sprawling East Coast campus.
Detour: The Chattooga River in Georgia offers 20 miles of class III-V whitewater in a pristine setting that’s designated Wild and Scenic and was the filming ground for the cult classic film Deliverance. It’s one of the most unique rafting experiences you can get on the East Coast because the number of rafters is limited and groups are spaced out to preserve the remote nature of the river. Knock out eight-mile section 4 for the biggest rapids or combine sections 3 and 4 as an overnighter with a riverside camp.
The Park:Congaree National Park doesn’t get the recognition of Great Smoky but don’t let the lack of hype—or crowds—deter you. The landscape is unlike any other as the park protects the largest expanse of old growth bottomland forest in the east. The best way to explore the park is by boat paddling a canoe along Cedar Creek where a marked 15-mile trail takes you through gnarled cypress knees and loblolly pines that reach more than 100 feet tall.
Need to know: There’s no current in the creek, so it’s an ideal out-and-back paddling adventure.
Stay: Congaree is just 30 minutes from downtown Columbia where Sesquicentennial State Park offers 69 sites with water and electric service. Alternatively, stay at The Barnyard RV Park in nearby Lexington.
Almost heaven, West Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River Life is old there, older than the trees Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze
Country roads, take me home To the place, I be-long West Virginia, mountain momma Take me home, country roads.
Wondering where to travel in October? Why not opt for a nature getaway and visit one of America’s National Parks in October!
The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or at lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.
In October, fall colors sweep across much of the United States. The majority of the parks that you will see on this list are parks that are ablaze in fall colors. Some of these are obvious picks such as Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains but a few may surprise you. In this guide, I list six beautiful national parks to visit in October plus four bonus parks and a road trip to link several of these together.
About this National Park series
This article is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year.
These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, I picked out what I think are the optimal times to visit each park. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at lease one occasion.
For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out my Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide will cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels. Please note this overview will be posted following the completion of this 12 month guide in February 2024.
And at the end of this article, I have links to the other guides in my Best National Parks by Month series.
Visiting the National Parks in October
From mid-September through November, the leaves change from green to vivid hues of yellow, orange, and red across much of the United States. To see these brilliant fall colors, October is the best month of the year to plan your national parks road trip.
On this list are parks that show off some sort of fall colors and some are more spectacular than others. Shenandoah National Park is gorgeous this time of year and one of the top national parks to visit to see fall colors. But there are also parks like Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt that put on a show which are places that you might not associate with fall colors.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The information I provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures since these dates are constantly changing. Since roads can close in the national parks at any time, I recommend getting updates on the NPS website while planning your trip.
Best National Parks in October
1. Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park preserves a section of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.
Skyline Drive is the main thoroughfare through the park, a road that twists and turns for 105 miles from north to south. For those who want to explore the park beyond Skyline Drive, 500 miles of hiking trails traverse through the park.
Shenandoah is a beautiful park to visit in October. From the viewpoints along Skyline Drive, you can gaze across the mountains and the kaleidoscope of fall colors.
Why visit Shenandoah in October: The last two weeks of October are prime time to visit the park to see fall colors. Plus, the weather is perfect for hiking.
Weather: The average high is 60°F and the average low is 40°F. On warmer than average days, it can get up into the high 70s. Rainfall averages about 5 inches per month through the year and October is no different.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:20 am and sunset is at 6:30 pm.
Top experiences: Drive Skyline Drive and visit the overlooks, hike to the top of Bearfence Mountain, visit Dark Hollow Falls, enjoy the view from Hawksbill Mountain, hike to Mary’s Rock, and hike a section of the Appalachian Trail.
Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure, hike Old Rag Mountain, a 9-mile loop trail.
Old Rag is generally considered a challenging route. The best time to hike this trail is May through October. You’ll need to leave pups at home—dogs aren’t allowed on this trail. From March 1-November 30, visitors to Old Rag Mountain including hikers on the Saddle, Ridge, and Ridge Access trails will need to obtain an Old Rag day-use ticket in advance.
How many days do you need? You can drive the length of Skyline Drive in one day visiting the overlooks and hiking a trail or two. For a more leisurely experience or to do several more hikes plan on spending two or more days in Shenandoah.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a picturesque wilderness of grasslands and badlands. Bison, feral horses, and elk roam the landscapes, hiking trails meander through the colorful bentonite hills, and scenic roads take visitors to numerous stunning overlooks.
This national park is made up of three separate units: the South Unit, the North Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. Of the three, the South Unit is the more popular. In the North Unit, the views of the badlands are beautiful, there are several short, fun trails to hike, and there is a very good chance you will spot bison, pronghorn, and other wildlife from your car.
Theodore Roosevelt is a relatively quiet park to visit all year. We visited in early October and had an awesome experience. The weather was still warm, crowds were very low, and the hint of fall colors was a nice bonus.
Why visit Theodore Roosevelt in October: The weather is getting cooler but this is a beautiful time to visit the park. The trees turn a nice shade of yellow adding a splash of fall color to the park.
Weather: The average high is 58°F and the average low is 30°F. On hotter than average days, the temperature can get up into the 80s. Rainfall is low.
Sunrise & sunset (South Unit): Sunrise is at 7:15 am and sunset is at 6 pm. The South Unit is in the Mountain Time Zone and the North Unit is in the Central Time Zone.
Top experiences: Hike the Caprock Coulee Trail, enjoy the view from Sperati Point and the Wind Canyon Trail, drive the Scenic Drive in both units, visit the Petrified Forest, hike the Ekblom and Big Plateau Loop, and visit River Bend Overlook.
How many days do you need? If you want to explore both the North and South Units, you will need at least two days in Theodore Roosevelt National Park (one day for each unit).
Despite its name, the New River is one of the oldest rivers on the continent. There is some debate among geologists about the age of this river with estimates ranging from 3 to 360 million years. During this time, the river carved out a 73,000 acre gorge in West Virginia. The sandstone cliffs and whitewater rapids create world-class rock climbing and whitewater rafting destinations. Hiking and mountain biking trails wind through the forests leading to overlooks and historic settlements.
There are two big reasons why New River Gorge is one of the best national parks to visit in October: Bridge Day and, you guessed it, fall colors.
On the third Saturday in October (October 21, 2023), the New River Gorge Bridge closes to traffic and opens to pedestrians. This is one of the largest extreme sporting events in the world. On Bridge Day, BASE jumpers leap from the bridge and rappelers ascend and descend from the catwalk. There is also a zipline that runs from the bridge to Fayette Station Road (the High Line) that you can sign up for in advance.
Why visit New River Gorge in October: To participate in Bridge Day and to see fall colors in the park. For peak colors, plan your visit for the last week in October into early November.
Weather: The average high is 64°F and the average low is 46°F. October is one of the driest months of the year.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 6:45 pm.
Top experiences: Do the Bridge Walk, hike the Long Point Trail, drive Fayette Station Road, go mountain biking and rock climbing, enjoy the view from Grandview Overlook, hike the Castle Rock Trail, and visit Sandstone Falls.
Ultimate adventure: Go white water rafting on the New River (rafting season is April through October).
How many days do you need? If you want to visit the three main areas of New River Gorge National Park (Canyon Rim, Grandview and Sandstone) and have enough time to go whitewater rafting, you will need three to four days. However, with less time, you can visit the highlights and hike a few of the trails.
Zion National Park is one of the best places in the United States to go hiking.
Angels Landing and the Zion Narrows are two bucket-list worthy hikes that attract thousands of visitors every year. Angels Landing is one of the most popular destinations in Zion. Everyone who hikes Angels Landing requires a permit. You also need a permit to hike the Narrows from the Temple of Sinawava going upstream in the Virgin River. Since high water may prevent travel in the Narrows, check the park’s current conditions before you start your day.
But there are also numerous short, family-friendly hikes to choose from as well as multi-day backpacking adventures and hikes that require canyoneering experience.
Zion is a busy park to visit all year round but in October visitation begins to ease at least a little bit. And October with its warm weather and splash of fall colors is a gorgeous time to go hiking in Zion.
October is also a great time to visit the rest of Utah’s Mighty 5: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyons National Parks.
Why visit Zion in October: For fewer crowds, some fall colors, and pleasant hiking weather. If you have plans to hike the Zion Narrows, this is a good time of year to do it. The water temperature is still relatively warm and the water level is low, prime conditions for doing this hike.
Weather: The average high is 78°F and the average low is 50°F. On unusually warm days the temperature can get into the 90s. Rainfall is low. Sunrise and sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 6:50 pm.
Top experiences: Hike Angels Landing, Observation Point, Hidden Canyon, Riverside Trail, Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, and Canyon Overlook.
Ultimate adventure: There are several to choose from. Hike the Narrows from the top-down as a long day hike or a two-day backpacking trip. The Subway is another strenuous but gorgeous hike and you will need canyoneering experience for this one. The West Rim Trail is a great two-day backpacking trip or a one day mega-hike.
How much time do you need? If you plan to hike, spend at least 3 to 4 days in Zion National Park. You can do three big hikes (one each morning) or use two of the days for a multi-day backpacking adventure. This also gives you time to explore Kolob Canyons at the northern section of the park.
The colorful buttes, spires, and pinnacles create one of the most photogenic landscapes in the country. Bison, pronghorns, and bighorn sheep roam this larg mixed-grass prairie region. The sunrises and sunsets are magical, the hiking trails are short and sweet, and for those looking for more solitude, you can take your pick from a handful of backcountry experiences.
This is not a park that you might expect to see some fall colors but in October there are a few trees in the gullies their colors as they turn yellow and red.
Why visit Badlands in October: For fantastic weather, few crowds, and the chance to see some fall colors.
Weather: The average high is 65°F and the average low is 38°F. On unusually warm days, it can get into the 80s. October is the end of the rainy season with 1.5 inches of rain.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7 am and sunset is at 6 pm.
Top experiences: Drive Badlands Loop Road and visit the overlooks, watch the sunrise and/or the sunset, hike the Notch Trail, hike the Door and Fossil Exhibit Trails, drive Sage Creek Rim Road, visit Roberts Prairie Dog Town, hike the Castle Trail, and count how many bison you can find.
Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate experience, venture into the backcountry. In Badlands National Park, you are permitted to hike off-trail and the Sage Creek Wilderness and Deer Haven Wilderness are great places to go hiking and spot wildlife.
How many days do you need? One day in Badlands National Park gives you just enough time to visit the highlights and hike a few short trails. Make sure you catch either sunrise or sunset in the park because these are one of the best times of day to look out across the landscape. To fully experience the park add an additional day or two and be sure to make a pit stop at nearby Wall Drug.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States. In 2022, 12.9 million people visited this park. Second place wasn’t even close (that would be Grand Canyon with 4.7 million visitors).
This national park straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. The ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains runs through the center of the park and it is here that you will find some of the tallest peaks in eastern North America.
With over 100 species of trees that cover various elevations in the park, the peak time for fall colors lasts quite a while in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The trees first begin to change color at the higher elevations as early as mid-September. From early to mid-October, the colors slide down the mountains. Peak season comes to an end at the beginning of November when the trees at the lower, warmer elevations finally change colors.
Why visit Great Smoky Mountains in October: For great weather for hiking and an array of fall colors.
Weather: The average high is 64°F and the average low is 41°F. Rainfall is about 5 inches for October which is one of the driest months of the year.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 7 pm.
Top experiences: Enjoy the view from Clingman’s Dome and Newfound Gap, hike the Alum Trail to Mount LeConte, drive through Cades Cove, and drive the Roaring Fork Motor Trail.
How many days do you need? You can drive the park’s main roads and visit the highlights of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in one day. To explore the parks more fully plan three to four days and avoid Cades Cove on the weekend. Trust me on that one.
Commemorating the Cold War, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site offers visitors a history of the U.S. nuclear missile program and their hidden location in the Great Plains. The site details U.S. foreign policy and its push for nuclear disarmament.
Aztec Ruins National Monument
Aztec Ruins National Monument is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River Valley. In use for over 200 years, the site contains several multi-story buildings called great houses, each with a great kiva—a circular ceremonial chamber—as well as many smaller structures.
Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site
Hubbell Trading Post is the oldest operating trading post in the Navajo Nation. The Arizona historical site sells basic traveling staples as well as Native American art just as it did during the late 1800s.
El Malpais National Monument
The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais National Monument offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. There’s something for everyone here. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails. Known as the badlands in Spanish, El Malpais was used by early Spanish map makers to describe areas of volcanic terrain. El Malpais preserves an ancient volcanic landscape and a history of human habitation.
October road trip idea
South Dakota Road Trip
With one week, you can go on a road trip in South Dakota visiting Badlands and Wind Cave National Park. Add on Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, and even Devils Tower for an epic road trip. The aforementioned Minuteman Missile National Historic Site a few miles from Badlands National Park.
It’s hard not to be drawn to those majestic blue peaks running down the western spine of the Old Dominion. Part of the Appalachian Range—and one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, dating back more than 1 billion years of existence—the Blue Ridge Mountains are home to America’s Favorite Drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and a stretch of one of the most visited footpaths in the world, the Appalachian Trail.
The spring shows off the first blooms of dogwood and redbud but the high season around these parts is fall when visitors swarm to see the glorious, flame-colored foliage. Here, there’s a setting for every speed whether you’re cruising along the scenic Skyline Drive at 35 mph or doing some extreme hiking on the Appalachian Trail.
Following are some of the most beautiful places to visit in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Shenandoah National Park
Located at the northern end of the Blue Ridge, Shenandoah rocks a whopping 500-plus miles of hiking trails. Bears, wild turkeys, and deer are out in large numbers in the spring and summer; in the fall it’s all about chipmunks. Hikers can cross the Appalachian Trail off their bucket list (about 105 miles of the iconic trail runs through Shenandoah), tackle sweeping summits, and go chasing waterfalls.
If you plan to camp out or book lodging in the park reserve your spot a good year in advance—particularly if you’ve got your eye on October, the busiest time of year. For a great place to stay near Shenandoah post up in a camping site at Big Meadows where you can spend your evenings stargazing.
Shenandoah surges in the fall months when tons of people come out to do the Skyline Drive. The 105-mile highway runs through the park along the crest of the mountains and has 70 overlooks along the way that are perfect for selfies or a panoramic portrait of the hazy blue peaks and fiery orange treetops. The drive has a 35 mph speed limit and is absolutely packed with cars so come prepared with snacks and a high-octane leaf-peeping playlist.
Blue Ridge Parkway
One slow-paced, less-crowded alternative to Skyline Drive is the Blue Ridge Parkway boldly nicknamed America’s Favorite Drive. The full 469-mile parkway stretches from Rockfish Gap at the southern end of Shenandoah, trails through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and ends in Cherokee, North Carolina. More than 200 miles of this gorgeous road run through the Blue Ridge Mountains at a meandering 45 mph.
Highlights along the Virginia stretch include the George Washingtonand Jefferson National Forests plus a number of overlooks with incredible mountain scenery. Pick a scenic spot for a picnic like Mabry Mill (the Parkway’s biggest attraction, located at Milepost 176), or catch some authentic Appalachian mountain music in Southwest Virginia. If you need speed you can still access the various attractions on the Blue Ridge Parkway at a number of access points off the major north-south Interstate 81.
About six miles off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Nelson County, Crabtree Falls is the highest vertical drop in Virginia and one of the tallest waterfalls east of the Mississippi River. Crabtree has five major cascades spilling down more than 1,200 feet. The first overlook is near the parking area and easily accessible and experienced hikers can tackle the trail to the upper falls and an additional four overlooks.
The Mill Mountain Star
Should you ever find yourself driving on Interstate 81 near Roanoke, Virginia, one of the finer roadside attractions in the state is the Mill Mountain Star (also known as the Roanoke Star). The world’s largest free-standing illuminated star made its debut as a Christmas decoration in 1949 and quickly became the iconic symbol of this railroad town. Fun fact: It was dedicated by Roanoke native John Payne, who played Fred Gailey in the original Miracle on 34th Street.
Giant stars aside, this area also happens to be a bucket-list destination for cyclists; it’s been designated “a silver-level ride center” by the International Mountain Biking Association. The extensive greenway system is great for casual riders and families while the challenging terrain at Carvins Cove attracts mountain bike aficionados from across the country. Whether you bike, hike, or drive up the view of the Roanoke Valley from the top of Mill Mountain is worth it.
Virginia’s Triple Crown on the Appalachian Trail
Hikers can catch three of the most stunning vertical ascents on the Appalachian Trail in one 32-mile loop known as the Triple Crown (you can also do any of these hikes as a standalone from their trailheads). You’ll need some serious bouldering skills—and some climbing gear—to make it up the rock walls to Dragon’s Tooth, a 35-foot quartzite rock spire. Next, a moderately difficult hike will take you to McAfee Knob, a huge rock ledge offering incredible panoramic views of the mountains (a great spot to watch the sunrise, too). The final gem on the last stretch of the loop is Tinker Cliffs which is made of limestone that’s more than 250 million years old.
The highest peak in Virginia at 5,729 feet, Mount Rogers has one of only six living high-altitude spruce-fir forests—the only one of its kind in the state. The downside is that the thick forest and rhododendron thickets make it tough to get a bird’s-eye view of your surroundings. But ambitious hikers approaching the summit from the Massie Gap Trail in Grayson Highlands State Park may be rewarded with a different spectacular sight—wild ponies.
The Blue Ridge Music Center
If you got really into the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, you’ll want to check out this region where music icons like Ralph Stanley, The Carter Family, and The Statler Brothers were discovered. Southwest Virginia is known for its Appalachian musical heritage, from old-time string bands and bluegrass to gospel and blues. The Blue Ridge Music Center—one of the major venues on Virginia’s Crooked Road Music Trail—is located at the bottom of the state off the Blue Ridge Parkway (MP 213). You can usually watch a concert whenever the center is open or tour the museum to learn about the history of music in the mountains. Come in August and you can catch the annual fiddler’s convention in the nearby town of Galax.
Asheville, North Carolina
Want to keep the Blue Ridge Mountains party going but miss the comforts of city life? Continue just a few hours southwest to Asheville where you’ll find a high concentration of hipsters and a local culture to match. Hit the non-profit Center for Craft to check out boutiques and small-batch vendors, hang out at Fleetwood’s for rock bands and comedy nights, or find your niche and try your hand at one of The Chop Shop Butchery’s classes. You can always head out of town for a day trip deeper into the mountains to natural havens like Pisgah National Forest. Afterward, you’ll still have plenty of time left to get down to some classic bluegrass hits back in town.
O Shenandoah, I long to hear you Away, you rollin’ river O Shenandoah, I long to hear you Away I’m bound to go
Fall foliage paints the landscape with vibrant yellows, oranges and reds, creating picturesque settings
Fall is one of the most beautiful times of the year and the U. S. offers a spectacular show of fall foliage with vibrant displays of gold, scarlet, and orange. With hundreds of state parks and forests around the country, it might be overwhelming to pick the best place to view the displays. To narrow your search, this list includes information on fall foliage peak times and colors around the country.
Keep in mind that it’s difficult to predict exactly when the leaves will turn in any given location. The best strategy is to select your travel dates in advance but not your destination. Then before heading out, check official state tourism websites and state park websites for up-to-date reports on fall foliage.
Peak time: Because Hawaii’s climate is tropical, seasonal changes are minimal compared to the mainland United States. You won’t find the traditional fall colors here but that doesn’t mean Hawaii is less colorful. This time of the year instead look for colors produced by the plants and trees in bloom such as the African tulip, chorisia speciosa, timor, royal poinciana, and rainbow shower.
Dominant colors: Red, orange, and gold
Peak time: Peak colors are usually in early October in northern, central, and eastern Idaho. By mid-October, colors in southern Idaho reach their height of color.
Dominant colors: Yellow and red
Peak time: In northern and central Illinois peak viewing time is mid-October. Southern Illinois peaks from late October to early November.
Dominant colors: Gold, orange, and red
Peak time: Northern Indiana reaches peak color in early to mid-October whereas the southern part of the state peaks in mid- to late October.
Dominant colors: Yellow and red
Peak time: Peak fall color occurs in northeast Iowa on the weekend closest to October 10 on average. Peak fall color occurs later in the more southern parts of the state.
Dominant colors: Red and orange
Peak time: Northern Kansas colors peak from early to mid-October. Southern Kansas peaks mid- to late October.
Peak time: Late October to early November is when to expect fall colors in Louisiana.
Dominant colors: Red, purple, and yellow
Peak time: Southern Maine and coastal areas typically reach peak colors in mid-October whereas western mountain areas peak earlier in the month.
Dominant colors: Yellow and red
Peak time: In southern and central Maryland peak colors are on display in late October and early November. If you can only visit during early October, visit parks around Garrett County.
Dominant colors: Orange, yellow, and green
Peak time: During the first week of October, plan a visit to the western and southeastern regions for foliage. Peak foliage occurs mid-October for the central area and eastern regions.
Dominant colors: Red and orange
Peak time: The far western quarter of the Michigan Upper Peninsula peaks from mid-September to early October whereas all other areas in the UP peak from late September to mid-October. The expected peak color for the Lower Peninsula is from late September to late October.
Dominant colors: Red and orange
Peak time: On average fall foliage peak times in the northern third of the state occur mid-September to early October. The central third of the state is most colorful between late September and early October. Southern Minnesota trees reach their peak late September to mid-October. One exception is the North Shore of Lake Superior where peak fall color arrives roughly one week later than inland areas.
Dominant colors: Yellow and gold
Peak time: Plan for fall leaves in Mississippi to turn in late October to mid-November.
Dominant colors: Orange, yellow, red, and purple
Peak time: Colors start to change in late September and peak in mid-October. Fall colors begin in the northern part of the state and move south to the Ozark Mountains.
Dominant colors: Yellow and gold
Peak time: Watch for fall colors in central Montana in late September to early October. Western Montana peaks in early to mid-October.
Dominant colors: Orange, red, and yellow
Peak time: Leaves peak in Nebraska in mid to late October.
Dominant colors: Orange, yellow, gold, and red
Peak time: Fall colors in Nevada peak in mid- to late October.
Dominant colors: Yellow and red
Peak time: Generally, the best times to view the fall colors are near the end of September in the far north, the beginning of October in the White Mountain region, and the middle of October in the south.
Dominant colors: Yellow and red
Peak time: Fall foliage peak viewing for inland New Jersey is from mid-to late October. Late October to early November is the best time for foliage in coastal areas of the state.
Peak time: At higher elevations peak viewing is in early to mid-October. Lower elevations peak from mid-October to early November.
Dominant colors: Red, orange, and yellow
Peak time: New York is known for great foliage so plan your trip sometime between the last few days of September through the month of October. The Adirondacks and Catskills provide the most opportunities for viewing vibrant fall colors.
Dominant colors: Red and orange
Peak time: Inland areas of the state can expect fall foliage peak time around mid- to late October. The coastal regions of North Carolina typically hit their peak from late October to early November.
Dominant colors: Green, gold, rust, and brown
Peak time: North Dakota leaves peak with fall colors in early to mid-October.
Dominant colors: Yellow and orange
Peak time: Most trees peak during the second and third week of October. Late in the month tends to be an ideal time to visit the southernmost areas of the state.
Dominant colors: Gold, crimson, and yellow
Peak time: Fall foliage in Oklahoma is at its best in late October through early November.
Dominant colors: Yellow and red
Peak time: Mid- to late October is peak foliage time for Oregon.
Dominant colors: Red, orange, and yellow
Peak time: Peak color is during early October for the northern region of the state. The central region typically reaches full color in mid-October. For southeastern Pennsylvania peak color occurs during the last two weeks of October.
Dominant colors: Red and orange
Peak time: Peak viewing for Rhode Island is from mid-to late October.
Peak time: The entire month of October is prime time for spotting fall foliage but the peak time is typically from mid-to late October. Prime spots for foliage viewing are McKittrick Canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park and the area around Winnsboro in East Texas.
Peak time:Utah’s fall color season gets underway in early September at higher, northern mountain locations and continues into November in lower, southern areas. Scenic drives are one of the best ways to see the beauty of fall in Utah.
Peak time: Northern Vermont reaches its peak between the last week of September and early October. Early to mid-October is peak time for southern Vermont.
Vermont is well-known for stunning foliage and state parks are a great resource.
Dominant colors: Yellow, orange, purple, and red
Peak time: Inland Virginia reaches peak foliage from mid- to late October. Coastal Virginia typically reaches its peak from late October to early November. Shenandoah National Park is a fantastic place to view the foliage of autumn. Scenic drives such as the Blue Ridge Parkway are another great option for foliage viewing.
Dominant colors: Yellow and red
Peak time: Fall color in Washington typically begins in mid-September and peaks in mid-October.
Dominant colors: Orange, yellow, and red
Peak time: The state reaches peak color from late September to late October.
Dominant colors: Orange and yellow
Peak time: Early to mid-October is peak fall foliage time in Wisconsin.
Dominant colors: Yellow and red
Peak time: Peak Wyoming colors can be seen from early to mid-October.
Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.
National parks, large areas of untouched nature, belong to all Americans. Because of this, any changes or developments in these parks require federal government approval. Essentially, every citizen has a say in how these parks are managed.
On the other hand, state parks are owned by the residents of a specific state and are managed by that state’s government. They are funded by the state which also sets the rules for the park’s use. This includes who can use the park and how it can be used. A recent example of this is a law in Florida that prioritizes state residents over visitors from other states when making camping reservations in Florida State Parks.
Considering these basic differences between the national and state park systems, it’s clear that each can offer a unique camping experience. Each type of park has its pros and cons, so understanding these can help you plan a great RV camping trip. Use this article as a guide in your decision-making process, helping you plan a wonderful camping experience.
State parks offer a host of appealing benefits for families seeking a retreat from the daily hustle without the need for a substantial road trip. With more than 6,600 state parks scattered across the U.S., chances are there’s one conveniently located near you. This proximity to home can often make camping at a state park more cost-effective than venturing to a national park. Additionally, state parks tend to charge lower fees and in some cases entrance is free.
In terms of amenities, state parks typically offer more developed facilities than national parks. You’re likely to encounter well-maintained camping sites, picnic tables, and multiple access points. What you probably won’t find, however, are massive crowds vying to witness one of the iconic natural wonders often protected within national parks.
On the downside, state parks, as a general rule, are smaller than their national counterparts. Their compact size and easy accessibility can make them popular camping destinations so depending on the park and the season you might need to book your spot several months or more in advance.
The smaller scale of state parks also means they house fewer unique ecosystems or natural attractions. Multi-day back-packing expeditions may be off the table but you can still expect a range of wonderful trails and spectacular sights that can be explored within a few hours.
All told, national parks span thousands of acres and sometimes cross multiple state borders. Depending on where you live, a national park may take longer to get to than a state park. However, chances are, it will have at least one or two spectacular and unique attractions within its expansive boundaries.
Because of their size, you’ll find amazing, epic experiences in national parks that you won’t find anywhere else. From wildlife viewing opportunities to multi-day hikes or horseback riding trips through a variety of ecosystems, national parks provide many activities that you won’t find in state parks.
U.S. national parks frequently make it onto the bucket lists of people from around the world. There’s a certain prestige to ticking a park such as Joshua Tree or Zion off your to-dos. Expect them to be popular and you won’t be disappointed.
If you are looking for a back-to-nature camping experience, you can find it in a national park. Campsites at national parks are basic so you can unwind in a beautiful and peaceful natural environment without interruption.
Undoubtedly, each national park with its unique features and attractions offers a spectacular and singular experience. However, it’s important to consider some potential drawbacks of these awe-inspiring locations.
For instance, they are typically more expensive to visit compared to state parks due to their remote locations resulting in greater travel distance and higher entrance fees. This distant placement could deter campers with limited vacation time.
Furthermore, the qualities that make national parks so endearing also render them exceedingly popular. This popularity can make securing a campsite during the busy season from May to October particularly challenging. National parks tend to offer limited camping, if at all.
Some campers may also perceive the lack of amenities at more rustic national park campsites as a disadvantage. If you’re hoping for comprehensive facilities such as hookups, you’re not likely to find it here.
What you should consider when choosing between state parks and national parks
How much time do you have?
Your choice between a state park and a national park for your RV camping trip will hinge on several considerations. Firstly, how much time can you allocate?
If you have only a week of vacation, the journey to a national park might not be feasible. In such cases, a local state park could present the perfect getaway. Conversely, if you have the luxury of several weeks or more, an RV camping trip to a national park can create memories that will last a lifetime.
What’s your budget?
Inevitably, money also has to factor into your decision-making process. What’s your budget including travel expenses, park entrance, and camping fees? If you’re on a tighter budget, camping at a state park makes better sense than traveling to a national park and paying higher fees when you get there.
What’s important to you?
What do you want from your camping experience? Are you simply looking for a base camp while you explore nearby attractions? Do you want to immerse yourself in the wonders of nature for a few days or a week? Do you want state park amenities like a playground or splash park for the kids or a cafe where you can enjoy an icy cold brew coffee or ice cream? State parks will give you more amenities while national parks offer a more immersive natural experience. Consider what’s important to you before you book a vacation at either a national or state park.
Choosing between national parks and state parks for your camping trip involves considering various factors. Let’s organize these considerations for each.
Size and experience: National parks are vast areas of protected land that provide unique and immersive experiences with nature. Despite a higher cost, the exceptional sights and features usually justify the expense.
Amenities: National parks generally offer fewer amenities than state parks.
Crowds: Popular park attractions often draw large crowds during the summer months leading to potential traffic jams and challenges in finding parking or a campsite.
Mitigation strategies: You can avoid the crowds by traveling during off-peak seasons or using less crowded access points. Additionally, consider exploring less popular attractions within the park.
Accessibility and variety: State parks are generally easier to access than national parks and can offer a wide range of natural experiences at a lower cost.
Park rules: Since each state manages its parks differently, rules can vary from park to park.
Amenities: If amenities are a priority, state parks usually offer a broader selection. It’s recommended to check with the specific park for available facilities.
One of the fantastic aspects of the U.S. is the ability to choose from diverse camping experiences. The vast expanses of national parks offer unforgettable adventures while state parks provide convenience and a distinctly regional experience. Exploring both allows for a broad spectrum of camping experiences, each with its unique charms.
State parks to visit
When most people think about America’s parks, they think of national parks like Zion and the Grand Canyon but many state parks can rival even some of the best national parks. The U.S. is home to more than 6,600 state park sites which protect over 14 million acres of diverse landscapes from arid deserts to coastal forests and soaring mountains. If you were to explore one every day, it would take you over 18 years to see every state park. Don’t know where to start? Check out these five standout state parks around the country and the features that make them well worth the visit.
Custer State Park, South Dakota
Many visitors come to Custer State Park—covering over 70,000 acres in South Dakota’s Black Hills—to swim, paddle boat, fish, or simply admire the view of the incredibly picturesque Lake Sylvan. However, the park is perhaps best known for its herd of approximately 1,500 free-ranging bison, one of the world’s largest bison herds. Drive the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road and there is a good chance you’ll come to a halt when bison cross in front of you. Watch out for wild turkey, deer, elk, wild burros, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats, too.
My Old Kentucky Home State Park, Kentucky
One of Kentucky’s more quaint state parks, this site centers around the former plantation that inspired the imagery featured in My Old Kentucky Home which is recognized as the official state song and arguably best known for its ties to the Kentucky Derby.
My Old Kentucky Home State Park offers tours of the historic Federal Hill mansion, though tickets are required ($16/adult; $14/senior). Guests can also hit the links on the park’s 18-hole golf course and in the summer visit the outdoor theater to catch a production of The Stephen Foster Story music which features more than 50 songs from the creator of My Old Kentucky Home.
Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina
Hunting Island State Park is a popular vacation destination located in the South Carolina Lowcountry and attracts nearly one million visitors a year. The park features five miles of beachfront, a saltwater lagoon, and the state’s only publicly accessible lighthouse.
Located on 5,000 acres of the barrier island, Hunting Island State Park offers a variety of activities. In addition to the beach, you can enjoy hiking trails, fishing, and boating. The park also includes a visitor center, a theater, and interactive exhibits.
Hunting Island State Park campgrounds feature full hookups, water, and electricity. Some sites feature gravel pads while others are paved. There are also cabins available. There are also restroom facilities, a shower house, a grocery store, and a dump station.
The campground has an excellent range of sites with campsites able to accommodate RVs from 28 to 40 feet. However, a two-night minimum is required. Most sites are located near the beach and are easy to maneuver.
Hunting Island State Park also features a fishing pier. The pier extends 1,120 feet into Fripp Inlet. You can fish in the saltwater lagoon, Johnson Creek, and the harbor river.
There are a few short hikes around the edge of the mesa with stunning views into the deep canyons. The Intrepid Trail System offers 16.6 miles of hiking and biking trails with varying degrees of difficulty.
Nestled within a grove of junipers, the Kayenta Campground offers a peaceful, shaded respite from the surrounding desert. All 21 campsites offer lighted shade structures, picnic tables, fire rings, and tent pads. All sites are also equipped with RV electrical hookups (20/30/50 amp). Modern restroom facilities are available, and hiking trails lead directly from the campground to various points of interest within the park including the West Rim Trail, East Rim Trail, Wingate Campground, or the Visitor Center.
New in 2018, the Wingate Campground sits atop the mesa with far-reaching views of the area’s mountain ranges and deep canyons. This campground contains thirty-one 31 campsites, 20 of which have electrical hookups that support RV campers while 11 are hike-in tent-only sites. RV sites will accommodate vehicles up to 56 feet and there is a dump station at the entrance to the campground.
Catalina State Park, Arizona
Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invite camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. The park provides miles of equestrian, birding, hiking, and biking trails that wind through the park and into the Coronado National Forest at elevations near 3,000 feet.
The park is located within minutes of the Tucson metropolitan area. This scenic desert park also offers equestrian trails and an equestrian center provides a staging area for trail riders with plenty of trailer parking. Bring along your curiosity and your sense of adventure as you take in the beautiful mountain backdrop, desert wildflowers, cacti, and wildlife.
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
From the steep, sublime Zion Canyon to the imagination-igniting hoodoos of Bryce, here’s how to uncover the best of all five Utah national parks
Welcome to the land of red rock canyons, panoramic views framed by arches, and sandstone spires. Over 75 percent of Utah belongs to the public through sprawling national forests, expansive wilderness, charming state parks, and five Utah national parks.
All of Utah’s national parks are located in the state’s southern half. From steep yet sublime Zion Canyon to the imagination-igniting hoodoos of Bryce and the iconic Delicate Arch, the Mighty Five are worth the hype. And for every must-see highlight in these parks, there are at least a dozen secret sights, quiet trails, and roads less traveled.
So, how to outsmart the crowds? The simplest answer is to go when others don’t. This might mean a winter visit when snow makes those hoodoos extra enchanting and temperatures are far more tolerable than the extreme heat of summer.
All Utah national parks are also open 24/7 meaning you can plot a sunrise tour or a stargazing mission. But keep in mind that if you visit in the off-season (roughly November to February), the operating hours of visitor centers and local restaurants vary—although during this time you’ll find cheaper lodging.
Planning pays off handsomely here: A few popular hikes require permits that open months in advance and the most coveted campgrounds and lodges (especially those within park borders) often book out a year ahead. Many of these reservations are available at www.recreation.gov. From east to west, here’s the best of Utah’s national parks including essential sights, hidden gems, and pro tips for making the most of every visit.
Zion National Park
The first national park established in Utah (and the 13th in the U.S.), Zion—with its towering canyon walls and hanging gardens—makes many a bucket list. The park has grown so popular that during peak season (March to October), its main road now closes to private vehicles meaning visitors must ride a shuttle. The loophole is that you can bike this nearly flat scenic drive and e-bikes and bikes are available to rent in nearby Springdale.
If you want to hike the sought-after Angels Landing trail, you’ll need to apply for a permit two to six months before your visit. If you can, stay in nearby Springdale or at Zion Lodge—wherever you stay in or near Zion, book as much as 13 months ahead when reservations open. When you’re ready to ditch the tourist circuit, explore the Kolob Canyons section of the park or the quieter trails off Kolob Terrace Road.
Zion has three campgrounds. Watchman Campground is open year-round with reservations from early March to late November and first-come, first-serve during the rest of the year. South Campground and Lava Point Campground are open seasonally.
Bizarre spires formed over millions of years are the main attraction at Bryce. After all, there’s a higher concentration of these hoodoos here than anywhere in the world. The best (and fastest) way to satiate your hunger for hoodoo views is by taking the Navajo Loop from Sunset Point or Queen’s Garden Loop from Sunrise Point off the park’s main drive. For a more immersive trek, follow one of those trails down to Fairyland Loop or try part of the 23-miler Under-the-Rim Trail.
To get some hoodoos all to yourself, take the back entrance into Bryce Amphitheater via Tropic Trail from the tiny town of Tropic where you can also grab lunch at a state-favorite: i.d.k. Barbecue. Explore a quieter hoodoo landscape by biking Red Canyon Path (paved) or Thunder Mountain Trail (dirt). The ideal base camp for the park is the historic Lodge at Bryce Canyon.
Bryce Canyon National Park has two campgrounds, North and Sunset, located near the Visitor Center, Bryce Canyon Lodge, and the main Bryce Amphitheater. North Campground is reservation-based May 27 through October 15 and first-come, first-served October 16 through May 26. Sunset Campground is first-come, first-served April 15h through October 31st.
A 100-mile geologic wrinkle in the earth known as the Waterpocket Fold is responsible for the majestic environment at Utah’s quietest national park. Unique attractions include petroglyphs and the historic Fruita Orchards which the park still maintains. Try fresh pies made with local fruit like peaches or apples at Gifford Homestead near the park entrance. Then wander down Capitol Gorge—a canyon that once served as the main highway through the area—or brave the steep trail to Cassidy Arch where Butch Cassidy is rumored to have escaped the law.
You, too, can escape (from other travelers, that is) if you have a good 4WD vehicle. Notom-Bullfrog Road leads to Lake Powell and intersects with Burr Trail Road, another backcountry route. Burr Trail leads to Boulder, a gateway town to Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument and home to what’s arguably Utah’s best restaurant (Hell’s Backbone Grill; open spring through fall, reservations recommended). Boulder’s close but Torrey’s closer—stay in one of the lodges in this little town just 5 minutes from the park.
Adjacent to the Fremont River and surrounded by historic orchards, Fruita Campground in Capitol Reef has 71 sites. Each site has a picnic table and firepit and/or above-ground grill but no individual water, sewage, or electrical hookups. There is an RV dump and potable water fill station near the entrance to Loops A and B. Restrooms feature running water and flush toilets but no showers. The park has a 100 percent reservation system from March 1-October 31.
Five distinct districts comprise Canyonlands, each offering something different. Island in the Sky is a land of long views—don’t miss Shafer Trail Viewpoint or Mesa Arch.
Only about 20 miles south of Island in the Sky as the crow flies (but a solid two-hour drive away), the Needles District offers great hiking including an action-packed jaunt on Cave Spring Trail featuring a replica of an 1880s-era cowboy camp and mushroom-like rock formations.
Go to the Maze to get lost; Chocolate Drops and Land of Standing Rocks are a couple of worthy destinations in this backcountry district. Head to the non-contiguous Horseshoe Canyon unit to see incredible petroglyphs including floating holy ghosts.
Visit the River District at the bottom of the canyons carved by the Green and Colorado Rivers for a rafting adventure. For most of the park’s district, the best place to stay is Moab which offers easy access to Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the park’s rivers.
Canyonlands maintains two campgrounds. Island in the Sky Campground (Willow Flat) has 12 sites, first-come, first-served. There are toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground. There is no water at the campground. The campground is open year-round. The Needles Campground has 26 individual sites. You can reserve some individual sites from spring through fall. At other times of the year, individual sites are first-come, first-served. There are toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground.
Star of Ed Abbey’s iconic Desert Solitaire, Arches has come a long way since 1968 and these days it’s so action-packed, that the park service is piloting a timed-entry system requiring reservations from April to October 2023. But there are ways around a Disneyland experience. Be an early bird or a night owl—come before sunrise or stay beyond sunset and you’ll be amply rewarded with quieter trails and golden light that makes the arches glow.
The nearest accommodations of Moab are close enough to the park entrance to make this doable. If you’d rather not rise early, book a guided tour with a ranger to see the permit-only Fiery Furnace area or secure a campsite at Devils Garden up to six months in advance. From the campground, you can hike to an underdog of an arch: the lesser-known, stunning Broken Arch.
Devils Garden Campground is the only campground at Arches National Park. You can reserve campsites for nights between March 1 and October 31. Between November and February, campsites are first-come, first-served.
Landscape is what becomes us. If we see our natural heritage only as a quarry of building block instead of the bedrock of our integrity, we will indeed find ourselves not only homeless but rootless by the impoverishment of our own imagination. At a time when we hardly know what we can count on in a country of shifting values and priorities, Canyonlands is our bedrock, a geologic truth that we all share, the eyes of the future are looking back at us, praying that we may see beyond our own time.
Here you’ll find spectacular scenery as awe-inspiring mountain landscapes give way to cascading waterfalls, wildlife, and countless outdoor activities
Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in the Appalachian Mountain chain, one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. The park offers visitors spectacular views, recreation, and natural wonders in each season.
Adjoined by three national forests, the 800-square-mile park is the ancestral homeland of the Cherokee. They called the area Shaconage or land of blue smoke for its natural bluish haze—which is caused by organic compounds given off by the mountains’ abundant vegetation.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park holds UNESCO World Heritage status for its natural beauty and world importance. It’s also among the country’s most visited national parks, in part because it is easily accessible from major interstates and highways. In fact, half the population of the United States lives within a day’s drive from the park.
While getting to the Smokies is easy, here are eight other reasons to add this park to your must-see list:
1. Immense biodiversity
Great Smoky Mountains is the most biologically diverse national park in the United States—no other park matches its number and variety of animals, plants, fungi, and other organisms. That’s because this land became a refuge for species displaced during the last ice age.
Its valleys and peaks range in elevation from about 875 feet to more than 6,600, creating safe habitats throughout the park for plants and animals we might consider common only to northern or southern regions of North America.
Abundant rainfall and high summertime humidity create a temperate climate in which species thrive—including 100 species of native trees, over 1,500 flowering plants, more than 200 types of birds, and over 9,000 species of insects.
About 80 types of reptiles and amphibians live here. The park is known as the Salamander Capital of the World for its 30 identified species—from the 2-inch lungless salamander to foot-long hellbender.
The nonprofit Discover Life in America, an official park partner, is conducting a massive effort to catalog every species living in the Great Smoky Mountains. Since 1998, the group has tallied more than 21,000 species including more than 1,000 that are new to science. Scientists believe there may be as many as 80,000-100,000 living species overall. Citizen science plays an important role in the project, giving the public opportunities to participate in research.
2. Stunning scenery
Geologists believe the Smokies were once as tall as the Rocky Mountains but wind, water, and time have worn them down to the sloping peaks and broad valleys we see today. About two inches of rock erode every thousand years. Forests of hardwoods and evergreens cover these mountains with different tree species growing at different elevations.
At Clingmans Dome, the park’s highest point at 6,643 feet, visitors can take in this stunning scenery from an observation deck. The 360-degree view extends over 100 miles on a clear day but sometimes can be limited to around 20 miles.
Mountain views can also be seen throughout the park whether visitors tour by car or on foot. With 150 official trails in the park, hikers can find vistas at many points along their way. An 11-mile, one-way loop road circles Cades Cove and is open for bicycle and foot traffic only each Wednesday from May through September. A drive over Newfound Gap Road compares to a trip from Georgia to Maine in terms of the varying forest ecosystems to see. Auto tours also can be taken along Foothills Parkway and through Cataloochee Valley.
3. Bears! And plenty of other wildlife
About 1,900 black bears live in the Great Smoky Mountains, one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States where the bears can live in wild, natural surroundings. These Great Smoky icons along with deer, turkeys, groundhogs, and other wildlife can often be seen in the open fields in Cades Cove and Cataloochee Valley during the morning and evening.
Among the spruce and fir forests on the park’s high-elevation ridges, you might spot the endangered Northern flying Squirrel, saw-whet owl, red crossbill, Blackburnian warbler, and other creatures.
In all, about 65 species of mammals and 50 native species of fish reside in the park. Before the park’s establishment in 1934, a number of native animals—such as bison, elk, mountain lion, gray and red wolves, river otter, Peregrine falcon, and several species of fish—were eradicated by hunters and trappers, among other reasons. Today, the National Park Service works to preserve native species in a condition similar to what existed before the presence of modern humans.
Some species have been reintroduced such as elk in 2001 after a 200-year absence as well as river otter and peregrine falcon.
To reduce the likelihood of vehicles colliding with wildlife on Interstate 40 in North Carolina, a series of wildlife-safe passages have been constructed. These overpasses and underpasses help animals move safely between the park and national forests as they search for mates, food, and habitat.
4. The ancestral home of the Cherokee
The Cherokee Nation once inhabited what now makes up the southeastern United States. Members lived in a matriarchal society of small communities. Among their hunting grounds were the mountains and valleys now part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In the 1700s, settlers encroached on Cherokee territory spreading disease, prompting conflict, and pressuring the Tribe to relinquish their land. Some Cherokee chose to migrate westward before President Andrew Jackson began their forced removal.
From the edge of what’s now the national park, the U.S. government placed the Cherokee in stockades and confiscated their homes and possessions. In 1838, nearly 14,000 Native Americans were forced to move to Oklahoma and Arkansas—a deadly, six-month walk that became known as the Trail of Tears. More than 4,000 Cherokee died en route from cold, hunger, and disease.
A small group, the Oconaluftee Cherokees were allowed to stay. Others hid deep in the mountains to avoid relocation. Together, they formed the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians which has about 15,000 members today. Many of them live in a 57,000-acre reservation known as the Qualla Boundary which borders the park. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian and Oconaluftee Indian Village tell the Cherokee story and are located just outside the park in Cherokee, North Carolina.
The Tribe is currently seeking to rename the park’s Clingmans Dome to Kuwohi which translates to the Mulberry Place.
5. Remains of settler villages
For a century before the establishment of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, European settlers lived on land that had been the home of the Cherokee. Visitors can explore remnants of settler villages in Cades Cove on the western end of the park and Cataloochee Valley on the eastern end.
In Cades Cove, families used the rich and fertile land to grow corn. They built log homes, barns, churches, and schools. As many as 685 people lived here in 1850. Neighbors assisted one another and turned seasonal chores into community events: corn husking, molasses making, and gathering of chestnuts. The National Park Service has restored several cabins and barns so Cades Cove looks as it did in the early settler days.
In Cataloochee Valley, visitors can get a glimpse into mountain life at the turn of the 20th century. About 1,200 people lived here in 1910 and based their economy on farming, commercial apple growing, and an early tourism industry. Historical buildings can be seen from the main road or by hiking a couple of miles: a school, churches, a barn, and a few homes.
This year, the park completed a renovation of the Walker sisters’ two-story cabin. The women refused to leave their farm when the park was created so the government granted them a lifetime lease. The cabin dates to the 1800s and the sisters lived there until 1964.
6. The ghost town of Elkmont
In the early 1900s, Elkmont was a logging and railroad town of more than 1,500 people. It was built by the Little River Lumber Company and Railroad which owned almost 80,000 acres of what is now the national park. In addition to laborers, the railroad and town attracted wealthy vacationers and social clubs. Elkmont Campground now occupies part of this area.
The ghost town moniker developed in the 1990s after numerous resort cabins from Elkmont’s heyday were abandoned. When the government established the park residents were given the choice of selling their homes at full value or selling to the Park Service at a reduced price in return for a lifetime lease. Many chose leases, most of which expired in 1992. The Park Service was left with dozens of empty buildings it could not maintain.
The Park Service demolished some buildings preserved others and opened them to the public. Among them is the 3,000-square-foot Appalachian Clubhouse which can be rented for events.
Something else worthwhile to see at Elkmont: fireflies. Elkmont is one of the best places in the world to view these lightning bugs each June.
7. Lodging at 6,400 feet
No roads lead to LeConte Lodge at the base of Mount LeConte so this backcountry accommodation requires a hike. Reservations must be made well in advance.
Mount LeConte is Great Smoky Mountains’ third-highest peak at 6,593 feet. Five trails—ranging in length from 5 to 9 miles—will get you to LeConte Lodge which is under Park Service jurisdiction. If you take the Trillium Gap Trail you might see the lodge’s pack llamas carrying the latest delivery of provisions.
LeConte Lodge sits at nearly 6,400 feet and is considered the highest guest lodge in the eastern United States. It operates generally from mid-March through mid-November and is the only in-park lodging. Other lodging can be found in the park’s gateway communities.
The lodge predates the park. LeConte Lodge began as a tent camp in 1926 for visiting dignitaries from the nation’s capital when plans began to create Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
8. Free entrance
Unlike many national parks, Great Smoky Mountains has no entrance fee. However, a parking tag is required for each vehicle—with prices set at $5 for a day, $15 for a week, and $40 for the whole year. Parking tags are not required for motorists passing through the area or who park for fewer than 15 minutes.
The Park Service added this modest charge in March 2023 because the park has been operating on an inadequate budget for years while experiencing an increasing number of visitors.
Parking tags can be purchased online or in person at locations near the park’s three main entrances: Gatlinburg and Townsend, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina.
I hope this article piqued your curiosity and motivated you to pack up the RV and roll on over to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
One final remark: Unless you stay for a month, do not try to do it all. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is HUGE covering 522,427 acres. In visiting, I can say that once is not nearly enough.
Wait. What?! I’ve posted other articles on the Smokies:
Each year thousands of backpackers Climb the Great Smoky Mountains… Nature’s Peace flows into them as Sunshine flows into Trees; the Winds blow their freshness into them… and their Cares drop off like Autumn Leaves.