America’s national parks continued to dominate the travel sphere this summer, offering the pandemic-weary a respite from cabin fever through the magic of actual cabins and reminding RV-newbies and seasoned road-trippers alike that they really are America’s Best Idea.
Another great idea! Hit the parks in the fall when the colors change, the temps cool down, and the tourists all but vanish. There’s all that foliage to enjoy, of course—but that’s just the beginning. Elk begin to rut, fog descends upon the valleys, and salmon fling themselves upstream as nature transforms into the most vibrant time of the year.
Although national parks are appealing destinations year-round, a few stand out from the pack in autumn. Fall colors are an obvious draw at some parks but there are also other benefits to traveling in September through November. To help inspire your next fall getaway, check out the autumnal splendor of 10 of my favorite national parks.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee
The most-visited national park, the Great Smoky Mountains is magnificent in fall. Maples, birches, beeches, hickories, and dogwoods form a tapestry of scarlet, russet, orange, and yellow with sunflowers and asters bloom as well. Savor the spectrum from your car or bike on the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop where, if you’re lucky, you might spot a black bear or two. Drive up to Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet the highest point in Tennessee. Climb the 375-foot ramp to the 45-foot observation tower and be rewarded with 360-degree views.
New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia
Yes, the nation’s newest national park has sublimely colorful scenes every fall, and yes, the photo opportunities are only one reason to visit. Whitewater rafting is another. Fifty-three miles of the wild and wonderful New River run through New River Gorge which became America’s 63rd and newest national park in 2020. Outfitters offer whitewater-rafting trips in the shadow of sandstone cliffs but gawking at the canopy of changing leaves is good enough reason to visit—as is photographing the impressive New River Gorge Bridge. On Bridge Day, October 16 this year, the span is closed to vehicles, and visitors can stroll and marvel at hundreds of skydivers floating 876 feet into the gorge.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
If you love fall foliage but aren’t so much in love with getting out of your car (though I do recommend a hike or two) then Shenandoah is the best national park in America for you. Hit its famous 105-mile Skyline Drive along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and become enveloped in the very essence of the season as you cruise through—slowly. There are no fewer than 75 scenic overlooks from which you can gaze out over the canopy of reds, oranges, and gold. Early October is when things hit their peak up here. For those who want to stretch a little, pull over around Mile 49 for a gentle hike to the quadruple waterfalls of Rose River Cascades. And the misty vistas and 500 hiking trails are totally tempting.
Arches National Park, Utah
In the summer months, hiking in Arches can feel like slogging through a convection oven with temperatures soaring into the triple digits and nary a tree in sight to provide shade—not to mention that the park teems with so many tourists that they’re often forced to close the park for the day. During fall the heat and the hordes dissipate dramatically. September and October provide maximum high-desert sunshine with comfortable temps in the 60s and 70s so you’ll be well-equipped to explore this whimsical red rock terrain strewn with mighty pinnacles, balanced rocks, and 2,000-plus arches without succumbing to heat exhaustion and/or road rage.
A certified dark sky park, Arches is well suited for stargazing. Stargazing is a year-round activity but fall is a good bet to see meteor showers. The season kicks off with the Draconid meteors (peaking October 8), then the Orionids (October 21), South Taurids (November 4 to 5), North Taurids (November 11 to 12), and finally the Leonids (November 17). The Orionids, in particular, can produce up to 20 meteors per hour. Despite peaking on October 21, they can be seen all month long.
Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Lassen Volcanic is a national park where you might not expect fall colors. This quiet northern California Park has pockets of cottonwood, oaks, and sagebrush which together create a vivid palette. Crystal clear Manzanita Lake is one area of the park with bright colors in addition to the ever-present evergreens. Even if you don’t time it right for the fall colors, you’ll still enjoy an iconic view of Lassen Peak. Because the park has several high elevation areas, autumn arrives early as does winter. Your best chance of seeing brilliant foliage is in September and October. As the season progresses, be prepared for temporary road or trail closures due to snow at higher elevations. Don’t be disappointed if you see snow instead of fall colors, though. The geothermal areas of Sulphur Works and the Bumpass Hell Trail are beautiful in different ways.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
The downside of being one of the most notable national parks in the country (and world-renown) is that things stay pretty crowded. The Grand Canyon’s 3 million annual visitors swarm the popular South Rim for hikes, mule rides, and unnerving selfies all throughout the summer—yes, even in spite of the heat. But after road trip season screeches to a halt, this natural wonder gets more accessible. September through November sees lower crowd levels and cooler, comfier temps that hit that sweet spot between sweater weather and shorts season. You’ll be able to ride your mule in peace and get a photo of the mile-deep canyon without worrying you might accidentally get bumped off the edge.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
South Dakota’s Badlands is the only national park in the country where you can get psychedelic desert colors at sunrise and the deep, burnished gold of autumn grasses in the afternoon. Hike the quiet trails like the hands-on Notch Trail which weaves through a canyon and up a wooden ladder before culminating in a sweeping prairie vista. Drive through the park and you’ll also see otherworldly rock formations, their pink and yellow hoodoos bathed in warm autumn light with streaks of bright foliage in the backdrop. Or, if you’re up to it, take advantage of the vastly reduced post-summer car traffic and hit the roads by bike.
White Sands National Park, New Mexico
One of America’s newer national parks is a place of weather extremes with occasional freezing temperatures in the winter, scorching forecasts in the summer, and wind-swept afternoons in the spring—all of which sounds fine and dandy until you’re rinsing your eyes of gypsum crystals or sweating like a hog. Fall in White Sands National Park is where it’s at: The cottonwood trees are changing color, the crowds have thinned, and the comfortable dry warmth of New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin makes it easy to hike through snow-white sand for hours on end or rent a sand sled from the visitor center and embrace your inner child as you careen down the dunes.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Congaree National Park is located in the Midlands region of South Carolina. With a humid subtropical climate, the park experiences mild winters and very warm, wet summers. The park is accessible in all seasons, but is best experienced in the spring and fall when temperatures are at their most comfortable and insects are generally not a problem. September through November is a wonderful time to visit Congaree with average daily temperatures in the 70s with low humidity. Fall colors peak between the end of October and early November. Water levels are ideal at this time of year for taking a paddling trip on Cedar Creek.
Zion National Park, Utah
You’ll love Zion in the fall! The temperatures are milder to enjoy the best Zion hikes, there are fewer people than in summer, and the park looks stunning as beautiful red, yellow, and orange leaves add so much color to its rugged desert landscape. Though the climate in Zion is arid, many trees thrive in the park. Evergreen white pines, ponderosa pines, and Douglas fir are mixed with golden aspens, crimson maples, copper oaks, and yellow cottonwoods. Red and gold accents brighten the desert landscapes, creating ample opportunities for nature photographers.
Zion has a very long fall foliage season due to the variety in elevations. At higher elevations in Zion, you can see trees turning bright by mid-September. The peak season in the park usually lasts from late September to early October. However, at lower elevations, you can enjoy picturesque fall colors as late as mid-November.
The national parks above offer the opportunity to enjoy fall’s splendors without jostling the summer crowds. You may even discover a new favorite sight. No matter what, traveling to any of these national parks in the fall is a captivating way to explore some of America’s most special places.
Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love—that makes life and nature harmonize.