4 of the Most Underrated, Crowd-free National Parks in America

Tired of crowds? Try these underrated national parks instead.

Contrary to popular belief, fall is the ideal season to visit America’s national parks. Summer is beautiful and all but there’s only so much one can tolerate with the scorching temperatures, parking lot road rage, and crowds swarming like they’re at a rock concert.

Come fall, however, the tides start to shift—kids are back in school, campground availability becomes less of a challenge, and in many parts of the country, the foliage turns scenic drives and trails into luminous leafy tunnels. Also, bears go back into hibernation so that’s one less thing to worry about. 

This is all well and good for clamorous national parks like Zion, the Great Smoky Mountains, and the Grand Canyon but it’s even more true of America’s more underrated gems. Of the 63 national parks not including the more than 400 national monuments, memorials, and scenic byways overseen by the National Park Service (NPS) a good chunk of them are far-flung places you’ve likely never heard of—let alone traveled hours out of your way into the vast wilderness to visit. 

These are places with the same level of staggering natural beauty as the well-trod parks minus the crowds and the calamity (looking at you, reckless Yellowstone tourists). When it comes to underrated natural beauty not ruined by overcrowding, these are the best of the bunch. Follow the links below for more details about each park and the can’t-miss ways to visit each one.

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

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, West Virginia

Even though New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is the newest national park in the country upgraded from a national river in 2020 there’s nothing youthful about this ancient landscape. Flowing northward through mountainous Appalachia in West Virginia, this mighty waterway is among the oldest rivers in the world, carving and splashing its way through a 53-mile canyon of trees, hills, and cliffs. Famed as a mecca for white-water rafting and rock climbing along with ample activities both on land and on water, this sleeper hit of a park puts the gorge in gorgeous. 

Marvel at the third-highest bridge in the U.S. The New River Gorge Bridge is to West Virginia as the Space Needle is to Seattle—a feat of architectural prowess and innovation ascending to staggering heights. A centerpiece attraction in the park, it’s the longest steel span bridge in the western hemisphere designed to significantly reduce travel time for drivers on roads. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places it’s an essential sight in New River Gorge best seen from the Canyon Rim Visitor Center north of the bridge.

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

Get wet in one of the oldest rivers on the planet. For a waterway that might be as old as 360 million years, the New River is certainly still spry and lively. Adrenaline junkies come from far and wide to suit up and float the river navigating white water that can reach as high as Class V rapids. Altogether, the park protects 53 miles worth of river from Bluestone Sam to Hawks Nest Lake with the more intense rapids accumulating in the lower gorge. Experienced rafters can hit the river themselves or licensed outfitters in the area provide guided trips.

Get more tips for visiting New River Gorge National Park

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

An optimal example of quality over quantity, Congaree National Park is smack dab in the middle of South Carolina’s murkiest floodplains. At just 26,000 acres, it’s a tiny but mighty park that has the mystical look and feel of a mildly haunted forest with some of the tallest trees east of the Mississippi thrown in for good measure. It may look like a giant swamp but Congaree is a huge floodplain of its namesake Congaree River where the constant ebb and flow of water levels is a healthy part of the natural ecosystem filtering nutrients down into the roots of loblolly pines and tupelos so colossal and towering that they block out the sun.

Though it may look like a big ol’ swamp it’s a massive floodplain. The river routinely floods carrying vital nutrients down into the roots of skyscraping giants like loblolly pines, laurel oaks, and swamp tupelos. This being flat-as-a-flapjack South Carolina, the trails are all easy (albeit occasionally muddy). An absolute must is the mud-free elevated Boardwalk Loop Trail which winds through high-canopy forests so dense it gives the park an eerie, Blair Witch Project kind of vibe. But don’t worry—the only wildlife you’re likely to see are owls, armadillos, and otters.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Paddle Cedar Creek. South Carolina is infamously flat and considering the watery focal point here paddling is the main draw. Guests can book a guided kayak or canoe trip with an area outfitter (or bring your own) on Cedar Creek, a moody waterway that meanders through the thick of the forest like a wooded labyrinth. The slow-moving creek is also gentle as can be which means you won’t have to work too hard to paddle in either direction—rather, sit back and enjoy the peaceful journey through an ominous forest so quiet that the only sounds are distant woodpeckers and hooting owls. The longest journey is a 15-mile float from Bannister’s Bridge to the far-mightier Congaree River.

Hike the Boardwalk Trail. Although the park is flat and hiking is really more like scenic strolling, the Boardwalk Trail is a beauty to behold getting visitors up close and personal to the park’s most epic plant life. The easy—and dog-friendly—trail traverses a 2.5-mile boardwalk loop starting at the visitor center and passing through trees, over creeks, and alongside rivers. The boardwalk is raised several feet off the forest floor, so it’s accessible—even during heavy rain—and it’s a lot less muddy than some of the other trails through the woods.

Get more tips for visiting Congaree National Park

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

A gypsum dune field so vast that it’s visible from space, White Sands National Park truly looks out of this world. This New Mexico park located in a southwestern region of the state once awash in a prehistoric sea is now home to the largest gypsum desert on Earth with dunes 30 feet deep and 60 feet tall stretching for 275 square miles.

Soft and silken, the dunes look more like granulated sugar than sand and the fact that they’re made of gypsum means they don’t absorb heat from the sun so you can walk barefoot without burning your soles. With mountains looming in the distance and rockets roaring in the background from the nearby missile range it doesn’t get much more otherworldly than this.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Slide on a sand sled. Because the dunes are snow-white it feels appropriate that sledding is one of White Sands’ premier activities. But unlike snow, sand is not naturally slick which is why waxed plastic saucers are recommended—and available for rent or purchase from the gift shop at the entrance visitor center.

The entire park is accessible for sledding and exploring but sledders are reminded not to slide down dunes that lead towards roads or ones that end on a hard surface (spoiler alert: the area at the base of the dunes is not as soft as it may look). 

Explore the dunes via the Alkali Flat Trail. The longest of the park’s five designated trails this is a five-mile loop at the end of the scenic Dunes Drive with mesmerizing desert views that extend to the horizon. Clip-on shoe covers are a wise choice since you’ll 100 percent be shimmying up and down a plethora of tall dunes through shifting sands and unstable surfaces as you follow the red diamond trail markers. Wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses, and ample sunscreen are also advised along with plenty of water.

A bit easier, the Dune Life Nature Trail is a one-mile loop through the grassier portion of the park where you might see tracks in the sand of critters like kit foxes, badgers, and lizards. For something truly unique embark on a guided full moon hike offered once a month by reservation.

Get more tips for visiting White Sands National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

An underrated park Lassen Volcanic is the the least visited national park in California. With its thermal features, soaring peaks, volcanic history, and shimmering lakes it feels like a mini-Yellowstone with a fraction of the crowds. Nestled in a quiet section of central northern California it’s a place where rugged extremes and intensity like the fuming mud pots in Bumpass Hell are juxtaposed by the peaceful bliss of Manzanita Lake. Like Yellowstone, too, Lassen Peak is also an active volcano that could blow at a moment’s notice.

The key difference here, though, is that, unlike the global catastrophe that would ensue from a Yellowstone eruption, Lassen is far tamer. When it last erupted in 1917 shattering a lava dome, spewing a fine layer of ash, and triggering avalanches and floods it certainly caused damage and disarray but it wasn’t the end of humanity. Rather, nowadays the 10,457-foot mountain is a requisite hike for park-goers, and the sleeping giant forms an almost cinematic-like backdrop from many prized vantage points in this explosive, fiery, and gorgeous park.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike to the top of Lassen Peak. It’s a five-mile round-trip journey to the cratered summit where panoramic views of the Cascade Range (including Mount Shasta in the distance) await. The trail gets quite steep at points and much of it is in the direct sun so plan accordingly. Even in the height of summer, traces of snow can be found at the top so proper hiking boots and layers are especially recommended for fall.

Another iconic area to explore is Bumpass Hell, a moderate three-mile trek through the largest hydrothermal area in the park, home to vibrant hot springs, bubbling mud pots, and acidic boiling water. Due to its high elevations, it’s an area prone to lots of snow which means it’s closed in the winter and into late spring.

Paddle Manzanita Lake. In the shadows of Lassen Peak this regal-blue lake offers the ultimate in tranquility. Rental equipment for paddle boards and kayaks is available at the Manzanita Lake Camper Store and the utter stillness of the water makes it a lovely place for a leisurely float in the sun. Fishing for trout is another popular pastime here as is strolling the flat trail that surrounds the lake and picnicking in the area.

Get more tips for visiting Lassen Volcanic National Park

Worth Pondering…

Two roads diverged in a wood, and

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

— Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Cherohala Skyway Festival: Celebrating 27 Years of the Mile High Legend

The seventh iteration of the Cherohala Skyway Festival is coming up this weekend.

The Cherohala Skyway Festival is the perfect excuse to get outdoors and experience fall colors all along the Cherohala Skyway, a National Scenic Byway and one of the most beautiful drives in the Appalachian mountain regions.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cherohala Skyway

The Cherohala Skyway was opened and dedicated in 1996. The road has been designated a National Scenic Byway. The road cost over 100 million dollars to construct.

The Cherohala Skyway crosses through the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee and the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. The name Cherohala comes from the names of the two National Forests: Chero from the Cherokee and hala from the Nantahala.

The Cherohala Skyway is located in southeast Tennessee and southwest North Carolina. The Skyway connects Tellico Plains, Tennessee with Robbinsville, North Carolina, and is 42 miles long. The Skyway is a wide, paved 2-lane road maintained by the Tennessee Department of Transportation and the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The elevations range from 900 feet above sea level at the Tellico River in Tennessee to over 5,400 feet above sea level at the Tennessee-North Carolina state line at Haw Knob.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cherohala Skyway Festival

The 7th Annual Cherohala Skyway Festival in Tellico Plains is hosted by the Charles Hall Museum and Heritage Center on Saturday, October 28 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Located in Tellico Plains, Tennessee, the Cherohala Skyway Festival is an opportunity to get outdoors for a day of family fun.

There will be booth after booth of juried arts and crafts, lots of living history, and plenty of incredible food and treats.

Test your axe throwing skills at the On The Road Axe Throw trailer, paint a pumpkin, and have your face painted. You’ll find lots of free festival fun including horse-drawn wagon rides, a petting zoo, kids train rides, tractor-pulled hay rides, a huge inflatable Kids Zone, a sawdust dig for cash and treasures, and Mecca Camp’s Resort’s Game Zone.

Live Bluegrass and mountain music will fill the air all day long at the Josh Graves Memorial Music Festival.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Food for everyone

First Baptist will offer a free pancake breakfast from 8:30-10 a.m.

A & A Meat will be grilling thick slices of bologna on grilled Texas toast with grilled onions or grilled cheese sandwiches.

Cristal’s Kitchen will cook pinto beans over an open fire and serve with cornbread and relish. 

Slim’s Burger Joint offers burger and cheeseburger baskets with all the southern fixings including French Fries and Mozzarella sticks.

There will be food trucks on site including smoked BBQ and so many other favorite foods.

For dessert, try funnel cakes, kettle corn, popcorn, gourmet caramel apples, cotton candy, sno cones, and a wide variety of baked goods.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Living history

All ages can step back in time in the Living History areas. There will be demonstrations and games showing the life of the early settlers and Cherokee in the early 1800s. Learn about the favorite games of the Cherokee, beading, and corn husk doll making. Interact with 18th-century camps and taste dishes cooked over an open fire. A Long Hunters camp will have all the camping equipment used by the early frontiersmen as they crossed the Appalachian Mountains into the American frontier.

Watch how a Native American flute is made and listen to live Native American flute music. Learn more about the Cherokee in the area and their removal through forced treaties and later forced removal through the Hall Museum’s displays in building 1 and the Tennessee Trail of Tears booth. 

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Directions

The festival will be held at the Charles Hall Museum complex (229 Cherohala Skyway) and The Charles Hall Field (122 Bank Street) behind the museum complex.           

From I-75, take the exit and travel east on New Highway 68 through Madisonville to Tellico Plains and the junction with Route 165. Turn right onto Highway 165 (Cherohala Skyway) and proceed to one of three parking areas: 

Turn immediately to the left onto Bank Street before Volunteer Federal Bank. Enter the field on the right at the marked entrance beside the Fire Truck across from Hardees and before Tellicafe. A parking attendant will direct you. Shuttles are available but it is just a few steps to the festival. 

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Continue to the Hall Museum. A parking attendant will direct you to either park in the Farmer’s Market area after the Tellico Plains Library and before the Cherohala Skyway Visitor’s Center or at the parking areas at the Hall Museum entrance. There will be easy access parking in this area and an area to drop off handicapped individuals before you park.

DO NOT PARK in Volunteer Federal Bank’s parking lot until after 1 p.m. Easy parking is available in designated lots for $5/vehicle. BRING CASH! Admission to the festival is FREE as well as most activities.

Worth Pondering…

Every leaf speaks bliss to me, fluttering from the autumn tree.

—Emily Brontë, Fall, Leaves, Fall

Leaf Peeping Map 2023: Plan Your Fall RV Trips

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.

Fall colors at Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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

Spend your fall trip immersed in nature’s vibrant beauty thanks to this easy planning tool. Start discovering your next leaf-peeping adventure today.

Leaf peeping is travel jargon for viewing, photographing, or simply enjoying fall foliage.

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 colors along the Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Fall colors in Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Fall colors in Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.”

Fall colors near Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Now, you can perfectly time your trip for the:

It’s also a great opportunity to check out my Ultimate Guides for:

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.

Fall colors in Jacksonville, Oregon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unexpected uses

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.

Fall colors at Whitehall, New York © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other nifty leaf peeping resources

SmokyMountains.com also offers some helpful information and fun resources on its fall leaf map site.

You can see a scientific overview of why leaves change colors, colorful illustrations, fall coloring sheets for kids, and a list of the Top Places to See Fall Foliage in All 50 States.

Worth Pondering…

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.

—Albert Camus

Preparing for Sweater Weather

The fall equinox arrives on Saturday, September 23, 2023

Autumn has caught us in our summer wear.
—Philip Larkin, British poet (1922–86)

It’s officially the last day of summer which means that pumpkin spice and sweater weather are basically upon us. Rather than bemoan the end of one season, I’m looking forward to everything autumn brings with it—including crisp morning air and apple cider. Consider today’s post your fall kickoff complete with a leaf-peeping guide and some great road trips for the season.

Saying farewell to the long, warm days of summer can be bittersweet but the sheer majesty of the changing fall foliage makes the transition a little bit easier. As autumn’s cooler temperatures and shorter days set the trees ablaze with color, now is an ideal time to plan a leaf-peeping road trip, hike, or other excursion to take in the views.

It is the summer’s great last heat,
It is the fall’s first chill: They meet.
—Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The fall season officially begins on Saturday, September 23. This date marks the autumn equinox or the date between the summer and winter solstices when day and night are nearly equal lengths. (We also know it as the first day of the year when you can order a pumpkin spice latte with no shame.)

During an equinox, the Sun crosses what we call the celestial equator—an imaginary extension of Earth’s equator line into space. The equinox occurs precisely when the Sun’s center passes through this line.

After the autumnal equinox, days become shorter than nights as the Sun continues to rise later and nightfall arrives earlier. This ends with the winter solstice after which days start to grow longer once again. 

The word equinox comes from Latin aequus, meaning “equal” and nox, the Latin word for “night.” On the equinox, day and night are roughly equal in length.

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

But why do leaves change color in the fall?

Autumnal leaves in vibrant hues are a beautiful part of the season but those leaves are also a vital part of keeping trees alive. The trees with leaves that change color in fall are deciduous. (Evergreen trees with needles which stay green to continue the photosynthesis process through the winter are coniferous.) Deciduous trees usually have large, broad leaves.

Most of the year, these leaves are green because of the chlorophyll they use to absorb energy from sunlight during photosynthesis. The leaves convert the energy into sugars to feed the tree.

As the season changes, temperatures drop and days get shorter. Trees receive less direct sunlight and the chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down.

The lack of chlorophyll reveals yellow and orange pigments that were already in the leaves but masked during the warmer months. Darker red leaves are the result of a chemical change: Sugars that can get trapped in the leaves produce new pigments (called anthocyanins) that weren’t part of the leaf in the growing season. Some trees like oaks and dogwoods are likely to produce red leaves.

Vermont © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When do fall leaves change color

Leaves can change their color from as early as mid-September through early November. Typically, the second and third weeks of October are the peak times but it shifts depending on your location and your local weather conditions.

Foliage starts to change in the northern-tier states out West and in the Midwest by late September. By October 2, the leaves in some areas will be past their prime. 

Much of New England as well as the Pacific Northwest will be at or near peak fall color by October 9. 

A little further south in the Blue Ridge Mountains, mid-October is your best bet.

Cherohala Skyway, North Carolina/Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See below for times of the year of peak foliage around the country:

  • Oregon: Best viewed while driving along scenic highways from mid-September through mid-October; however, color conditions vary daily based on humidity and fog density. 
  • North Carolina: North Carolina’s leaf patterns move east across the state. The first leaves in the western part of the state begin to peak the week of October 9. By October 23, the entire state should peak and the show will be pretty much over by November 1.
  • Vermont: Optimal viewing from September 18 through October 2 although the leaves will begin to change in early September.
  • New Hampshire: Leaves in New Hampshire will be at their best the last week of September. By October 16 most of the state will have changed.
  • Washington: Washington State leaves normally hit their peak the week of October 9 and past their peak by October 23.
Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top destinations for viewing fall leaves

Here is a list of my picks for the most idyllic spots in the U.S. for viewing fall leaves. Some are off the beaten path, some are on more popular, scenic routes for you to enjoy whether on foot or by vehicle. I’ve also included the dates for peak foliage viewing for each location.

Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Peak Viewing: October 9-28

Virginia’s Skyline Drive is a National Scenic Byway that runs 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The speed limit is 35 mph with 75 overlooks to pull over and enjoy the sights of the Shenandoah Valley below. Often called one of America’s favorite mountain drives, Skyline Drive is “good for the soul.” 

La Sal Mountain Scenic Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moab, Utah

Peak viewing: Mid September to mid October

Aside from aspens, cottonwoods, and other deciduous trees making the slow turn to brilliance, the abundant sandstone rocks change colors here, too. Shorter days and angled fall light combine to give Moab’s signature sandstone deeper, more varied colors than usual. Several different leaf-peeping routes include the La Sal Mountain Loop Road Scenic Backway, the Gemini Bridges Trail, the Poison Spider Mesa Trail, and the Moab Rim Trail. Jeeps are required on all routes except the La Sal

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

Great Smoky Mountain National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Peak viewing: Mid to late October, depending on elevation.

You’d be hard-pressed to find any terrain more perfectly orchestrated for fall color viewing than the Great Smoky Mountains. Lots of sumac adds to the brilliant reds but the Park boasts an amazing diversity of trees and terrain that add to the color spectrum—some 100 species of native trees live in the Smokies. To enjoy them, drive the Clingmans Dome Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway, or the Foothills Parkway. 

Mount Washington Cog Railway, New Hampshire © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kancamagus Scenic Highway, Lincoln, New Hampshire

Peak viewing: September 25-October 7

The Kancamagus Scenic Highway in the White Mountains of New Hampshire known by the locals as The Kanc provides some of the most spectacular fall foliage viewing in New England. The Kanc’s 35-mile scenic pass that connects Lincoln to Conway (Route 112) has some tricky hairpin turns and no gas stations so be prepared. It does have plenty of places to pull over and enjoy the grandeur of the vistas. 

Julian apples © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Julian, California

Peak viewing: Early to mid-November.

In Julian, autumn is the grandstand season both for apple-pie eating and leaf-peeping. Sample the town’s homemade apple confections then watch black oaks do their color-changing trick at Lake Cuyamaca in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. A scenic 45-minute drive leads to Palomar Mountain State Park where you can put some miles on your feet while you admire bracken ferns and leafy oaks on the Thunder Ridge and Chimney Flat Loop. Or hike the Five Oaks Trail at Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve, home to some of the oldest and largest black oaks in San Diego County. 

Worth Pondering…

It’s the first day of autumn! A time of hot chocolatey mornings, and toasty marshmallow evenings, and, best of all, leaping into leaves!

—A. A. Milne

25 Quotes on the Beauty of the Fall Season

I love the fall season. I love all the reds, gold, and browns, the slight chill in the air, and watching the geese fly south in a V

Like spring, fall is a season of transformation. As we watch the leaves change and fall, it’s natural to reflect on the seasons of our own lives and the large and small shifts that are underway. Fall is also a time for harvesting the fruits of our labors—both literally and figuratively—as well as celebrating our growth and gathering with loved ones for time-honored holidays and traditions.

For so many people, fall is the most magical time of the year. As summer ends, a bit of chill fills the air leading to the myriad of foliage colors seen as the trees prepare for winter. Sweaters and flannels emerge as well as all the seasonal flavors such as warm cinnamon sugar, pumpkin spice, and salted caramel. Football games and bonfires become favorite weekend activities and many folks enjoy trips to the pumpkin patch and apple picking.

Cherohala Skyway, North Carolina/Tennessee in fall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In many parts of the country, fall is marked by a parade of fiery hues on the boughs above our heads. Deciduous trees light up with a burst of color—greens become yellows, oranges, reds, purples, and browns as the intensity of summer dramatically gives way to a more subdued time of year.

As the foliage colors start to peak, leaf peeping trips become more common. These trips involve driving to places where one can see the best colors on the trees for general enjoyment and photography opportunities. For RVers, fall RV camping trips are especially fun. Sleeping beneath colorful trees and spending time beside a warm bonfire is particularly special and many want to experience this at least once during the season.

However you choose to spend this season of change, these 25 quotes are bound to invigorate your appreciation for autumn.

Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga, Tennessee in fall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Autumn brings a longing to get away from the unreal things of life, out into the forest at night with a campfire and the rustling leaves.

—Margaret Elizabeth Sangster, poet

I loved autumn, the one season of the year that God seemed to have put there just for the beauty of it.

—Lee Maynard, writer

If winter is slumber, and spring is birth, and summer is life, then autumn rounds out to be reflection.

—Mitchell Burgess, writer and producer

Autumn is a second spring, when every leaf is a flower.

—Albert Camus

Panguitch Scenic Byway, Utah in fall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

October, baptize me with leaves! Swaddle me in corduroy and nurse me with split pea soup. October, tuck tiny candy bars in my pockets and carve my smile into a thousand pumpkins.

—Rainbow Rowell, author

Autumn passes and one remembers one’s reverence.

—Yoko Ono

Another fall, another turned page: there was something of jubilee in that annual autumnal beginning, as if last year’s mistakes had been wiped clean by summer.

—Wallace Stegner, writer and historian

It’s the good kind of ache, like the feeling you get on the first real day of autumn when the air is crisp and the leaves are all flaring at the edges and the wind smells just vaguely of smoke—like the end and the beginning of something all at once.

—Lauren Oliver, author

Fall has always been my favorite season. The time when everything bursts with its last beauty, as if nature had been saving up all year for the grand finale.

―Lauren DeStefano, Wither

Stowe, Vermont in fall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Every leaf speaks bliss to me, fluttering from the autumn tree.

—Emily Brontë

I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.

—L.M. Montgomery

It’s the first day of autumn! A time of hot chocolatey mornings, and toasty marshmallow evenings, and, best of all, leaping into leaves!

—A. A. Milne

I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house.

—Nathaniel Hawthorne

(Autumn’s) golden richness speaks not of the innocence of spring, nor of the power of summer, but of the mellowness and kindly wisdom of approaching age. It knows the limitations of life.

—Lin Yutang, writer and inventor

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia in fall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is something so special in the early leaves drifting from the trees — as if we are all to be allowed a chance to peel, to refresh, to start again.

—Ruth Ahmed, pseudonym for the writing team of Anstey Spraggan and Dimmi Khan

Don’t you love New York in the fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies. I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address.

—Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron, writers

It is the summer’s great last heat,
It is the fall’s first chill: They meet.
—Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt

Autumn has caught us in our summer wear.
—Philip Larkin, British poet (1922–86)

As long as autumn lasts, I shall not have hands, canvas and colors enough to paint the beautiful things I see.
—Vincent Van Gogh, letter to Theo van Gogh

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina in fall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summer ends, and autumn comes, and he who would have it otherwise would have high tide always and a full moon every night.

—Hal Borland

Autumn . . . the year’s last loveliest smile.

—William Cullen Bryant

Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.

—George Eliot

Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love—that makes life and nature harmonize.

Fish Lake Scenic Byway, Utah in fall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

—George Eliot

Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons.

―Jim Bishop

Days decrease,

And autumn grows, autumn in everything.

―Robert Browning, poet

8 Spectacular Places to See Arizona’s Fall Colors

Road trip inspiration for seeing Arizona’s best leaves

Fall colors? In Arizona? Yep, that’s right. Despite its reputation as a gigantic desert full of sand and cactus, Arizona offers plenty of autumn action too.

With elevations ranging from nearly sea level to 12,633 feet, Arizona is home to a surprisingly diverse number of ecosystems—including ones where you’ll find deciduous trees. Yes, the type of trees whose leaves turn colors in the fall.

Renowned landscape photographer Derek von Briesen dubbed it “Arizona’s Almost Endless Autumn” because you can spend nearly three months following the fall colors as they trickle down from the forested high country to the desert creeks.

Of course, Arizona isn’t one of those states where you can drive pretty much anywhere and see the colors. You have to know where to go and sometimes get out of the car and take a hike.

Arizona has some gorgeous spots with fall foliage that will take your breath away. Right in the middle of the Coconino National Forest, Flagstaff and Sedona’s Oak Creek Canyon are two of the best known spots to see all the brilliant color changes of the aspen, maple, cottonwood, and oak.

The change typically begins in the highest elevations in late September and then filters down to the lower elevations throughout the rest of the fall.

Late September to late October brings rich yellows and reds to the high-desert creeks near Sedona, Cottonwood, and Camp Verde. By late November, the colors move lower in elevation and farther south. This is an exciting time of year for desert-dwelling nature photographers as autumn in the Sonoran Desert equates to images of yellow cottonwoods framed with Saguaro cacti. Through early to mid-December, colors continue to permeate the Sonoran Desert lighting up all of the canyons such as Araviapa Canyon.

Most colors peak in late November closer to the Valley just in time for the holiday weekend. One of the best places to see that is at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum. It’s just a short drive east of the Valley. The awe-inspiring view of the vivid orange and red leaves on the 40-foot-tall pistachio trees make it well worth the trip.

Those of us who love the autumn color and miss it in the desert don’t need to go far to find it. Besides day trips in search of autumn colors, you can also enjoy some unique desert sites that most avoid in the summer.

For many, autumn is when nature does its finest work. So if you’re a leaf peeper, it’s time to start making plans to experience it—the crisp air, a crackling fire, hearty comfort food and, of course, a dazzling display of colorful leaves.

Here are some of the best autumn road trips in Arizona.

Watson Lake, Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Prescott 

Although the town itself is a popular destination for its old-world cowboy charm, the main reason to drive to Prescott in the fall is the beautiful shades of gold, yellows, and oranges of the trees in the area. You’ll find autumn colors in downtown Prescott, along the Greenway Trail Systems, along Granite and Miller Creek, and in the Historic Courthouse Plaza.

In a more spectacular setting, the lakes in and around Prescott and Prescott Valley surrounded by deciduous trees showcase their bright oranges and golds at this time of the year. You’ll find cottonwood and ash trees near Watson Lake along the 4.8-mile-long Watson Lake Loop Trail or on the shores of Granite Basin Lake and Fain Lake in Prescott Valley.

Gorgeous autumn colors surround Lynx Lake in Prescott National Forest in mid-October. And if you love aspens in the fall with their shimmering yellow-gold leaves you’ll find them near Prescott in the Aspen Creek/Copper Basin.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Sedona 

Sedona is arguably the most popular destination in Arizona offering a perfect day trip at any time. However, autumn is one of the best times to visit this picturesque town nestled among towering red rock formations. Although the town’s art galleries, boutique shops, and restaurants for all tastes and budgets are worth the drive, fall in Sedona is best experienced outdoors.

Temperatures are perfect for hiking and several trails offer not only views of the stunning red rocks but also boast some autumn colors. The classic hotspot in the Sedona area is Red Rock Crossing where small waterfalls and yellow foliage along Oak Creek stand out against the red sandstone of Cathedral Rock inspiring photographers from around the world.

Avoid the crowds at Sycamore Creek, a moderate hike accessible via the Parsons Trail near the town of Cottonwood. After a quick hike that drops about 180 feet from the rim of the canyon, one is greeted with a lush, perennial creek lined with trees, all in various stages of autumn transformation. This trail continues for another 3.5 miles until it reaches Parsons Spring. The spring makes a perfect turnaround point for casual day hikers. Or continue deeper into the Sycamore Creek Wilderness where soaring sandstone walls, extreme solitude, and historic cabins await.

Or, for more fall colors set against the red rocks drive Dry Creek Road to Boynton Canyon Road or the Red Rock Loop.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Montezuma Castle National Monument

Fall is also the perfect time to visit one of the most spectacular cliff dwellings in Arizona, Montezuma Castle National Monument. Built by the Sinagua (who had absolutely nothing to do with Montezuma and his people) the five-story cliff dwelling housed an entire village. Besides a look at the stunning cliff dwelling in October, you can also enjoy the changing colors of the sycamore trees along the trail.

Also, part of the national park, Montezuma Well is 10 miles away and is definitely worth the short drive. Here you’ll find a natural sinkhole fed by an underground stream in the desert. The resulting oasis is home to an array of wildlife but you’ll also find a few Sinagua cliff dwellings on its steep walls. You’ll also find more giant sycamore trees here along the short trail leading to the natural stream feeding the “well.”

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Tuzigoot National Monument

Tuzigoot National Monument sits on top of a hill overlooking a valley. An ancient village of the Sinagua overlooks a marsh on top of a hill here, a hilltop pueblo, one of the largest in the area. The self-guided, third-of-a-mile trail through and around the 110-room ancient pueblo also offers gorgeous views of Verde River and Tavasci Marsh. The valley below filled with deciduous trees adds a splash of autumn color to the desert.

Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Mount Lemmon

The highest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson, Mount Lemmon offers several leaf-peeping opportunities making it a great day trip in the fall. The 30-mile-long Mount Lemmon Scenic Byway leading to the top of the mountain offers stunning views changing from giant Saguaro-filled areas to deciduous trees, aspens, and pines. In the higher elevations along the way, several hiking trails lead in the middle of this mix of pines and deciduous trees bursting with color in mid-October.

You’ll find colorful oaks and maples along with pines in Bear Wallow, a small valley accessible from Bear Wallow Road. Or hike the Aspen Draw trail or Aspen Meadow trail on the top of the mountain to be in the middle of aspen colonies showcasing their gorgeous fall colors. Other areas to stop include the Cypress Picnic Area, the Palisades Visitor Center, and the Box Elder Picnic Area.

Ramsey Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Ramsey Canyon Preserve

Ramsey Canyon Preserve in Southeastern Arizona is known for its birding opportunities but around mid-October it also showcases all the autumn colors of the Arizona sycamore, oak, and maple trees growing in and around it.

The Loop Trail through the bottom of the deep, wooded ravine takes you through a wooded area with a stream in the center showcasing fall colors in October. Starting past the visitor center it includes two connected loops linked by footbridges, a short, half-mile trail, or a longer one just over a mile through the valley floor. For those who need more of a challenge, a steep trail leads through a wooded area up the ridge.

Popular on weekends in mid-October when the leaves peak, the preserve is still quiet enough for a great time among fall colors. As a bonus, you are almost guaranteed to see wildlife—at least a few wild turkeys—besides the humming birds the preserve is famous for.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Boyce Thompson Arboretum

The Arboretum located in Queen Creek Canyon is the state’s oldest and largest botanical garden. With spectacular views of Picketpost Mountain, Boyce Thompson Arboretum features plant collections from the world’s deserts, historic buildings, and hidden gardens along miles of trails. The Arboretum has been called “the most enchanting” Audubon Important Birding Area in Arizona and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Vibrant fall colors take over the lush flora which makes late November the best time of the year to explore the gardens. Peak color-spotting varies due to weather and climate conditions but a good bet is during the time that the park would typically hold its annual Arizona Fall Foliage Finale during mid- to late-November. Leaves from honey locust, pomegranate, and soapberry trees offer light yellow to deep copper and golden tones before they shed while the Arizona sycamore tends to reach a yellow-red, the cottonwood a bright yellow, and the walnuts can reach a dark red.

Oak Creek Canyon

8. Oak Creek Canyon

The river gorge is a perfect place to escape year-round and is equally as appealing for leafers from October through November. As the temperatures drop, the leaves do the same but unlike other locations in the West that feature yellowed aspen leaves, Oak Creek is home to the maples and oaks normally associated with the East Coast.

One of the more popular destinations along the Mogollon Rim nestled between Sedona and Flagstaff the area is a two-hour drive to the north. Walk along the West Fork Trail (the most popular trail in the entire Coconino National Forest) surrounded by deep-red color or drive the canyon’s length to cover more ground. Though the area lost foliage during the 2014 Slide Fire which burned a devastating 21,227 acres, there are plenty of reddish-gold hues flooding the space—with a uniquely Southwestern take. After all, you can’t see red leaves and red rocks in Vermont.

For more on Arizona, explore these articles:

For more on leaf-peeping, explore these articles:

Worth Pondering…

Every leaf speaks bliss to me, fluttering from the autumn tree.

—Emily Brontë, Fall, Leaves, Fall

Campspot Outdoor Almanac: Outlook on 2023 Road Travel and Camping Trends

The biannual Campspot Outdoor Almanac reveals that 2023 will be another big year for outdoor travel and highlights where to go and what to expect while enjoying the open road

As the seasons change and we move into the quieter half of the year, we often have more time to reflect and take stock. Which is nice! Really, it is. But when the holiday lights are stored away and the cold creeps into our bones, even the most winter-obsessed of us can start to feel a little cooped up.

Driving Red Rock Scenic Byway, Sedona, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And that is why planning ahead is important. Just as gardeners plant seeds and are bolstered by the promise of what is to come, so too can RVers make plans for what is ahead. Whether you arrange a short winter getaway in the mountains or the desert or work out the finer details of a family reunion at a camp resort, that plan is how we’re able to look forward to the good times ahead.

In a chaotic and stressful world, plans are our reprieve—the daydreams that get us through. Because when we’re planning, we’re invested in tomorrow. In the road ahead and the time we get to spend together. And when we’re packing up—when we’re camping—we realize what it is we really need. The essentials! What you can fit in the available space of the RV?

The Springs at Anza-Borrego RV Resort & Golf Course, Borrego Springs, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When we’re camping, we’re getting back to the basics. We’re retreating from the din of society and finding safe haven in the great outdoors and the campgrounds offering tucked-away corners, epic adventures, stunning scenery, and even luxury RV resorts.

Whether you’re planning for your cross-country RV trip, snowbird escape, hiking adventure with Fido, or next summer’s trip to a camp resort, the Campspot Outdoor Almanac provides information for plotting out the ultimate road trips and retreats—no matter the season.

Readers can access top destinations for camping in 2023 along with inspiration for top road trips and scenic drives, recommendations for road trips for each season, helpful statistics and data about national and state parks that are trending, and demographic information about road travelers.

Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some top insights from travelers planning trips include:

  • Budget-friendly trips: Continued increased interest in shorter road trips is expected in 2023 as travelers discover their home states and local region
  • Average road trip route distance: 1,223 miles with a 20.5 hour driving duration
  • Top national parks: Grand Canyon, Arches, and Zion
  • Percentage of campers who are traveling as a couple: 67 percent
  • Top camping destinations: Moab (Utah), Sedona (Arizona), Florida Keys
Tent camping in Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The latest camping trends

Types of campers:

  • RV (61 percent)
  • Tent (19 percent)
  • Glamper (12 percent)
  • Cabin (4 percent)
  • Car Camper (3 percent)
  • Boondocker/dispersed (1 percent)

Camping and work-life balance:

  • 43 percent of campers take 2-4 weeks off from work annually
  • 36 percent of campers take 4-6 camping trips annually, 19 percent take 7-10 annually
  • 18 percent go camping for major winter holidays and 23 percent are interested in doing so
Newfound
Driving Newfound Gap Road through Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top 2023 camping goals:

  • Travel to new places to camp (69 percent)
  • Go camping more often (53 percent)
  • Explore more national and state parks (47 percent)
  • Spend more time in nature (37 percent)
  • Spend more time outside with family (30 percent)

Top regions campers are most excited to visit in 2023:

  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Colorado
  • Utah
  • Alaska
  • Yosemite National Park
Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top states campers are most interested in visiting in 2023:

  • Colorado
  • Montana
  • Tennessee
  • Florida
  • North Carolina
  • Wyoming
  • California
  • Michigan
  • Oregon
  • Utah
The Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top destinations for RVers:

  • Grand Canyon
  • Las Vegas
  • The Campsites at Disney’s Fort Wilderness, Florida
  • Yosemite National Park
  • Ginnie Springs, Florida
  • Zion National Park
  • Daytona International Speedway
  • Campland on the Bay in San Diego
  • Okeechobee, Florida
  • Moab
Along the Creole Nature Trail, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Road trips and scenic drives

Road trip trends:

  • 37 percent are willing to travel any distance on a road trip if they have time while 26 percent prefer trips that are 6 to 10 hours in length
  • After private campgrounds, public lands and hotels were the next most popular accommodation types for road trips

How far do roadtrippers travel?

  • Average route distance: 1,223 miles
  • Average driving duration: 20.5 hours
White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top national parks where travelers planned road trips:

Picacho Peak State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top state parks where travelers planned road trips:

  • South Yuba River State Park, California
  • Maquoketa Caves State Park, Iowa
  • Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, Kentucky
  • Hanging Rock State Park, North Carolina
  • Watkins Glen State Park, New York
  • Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas
  • Niagara Falls State Park, New York
  • Letchworth State Park, New York
  • Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
  • Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, Florida
  • Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, Illinois
  • Custer State Park, South Dakota
Fredericksburg, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A road trip for every season

Take inspiration from these road trips and scenic drives to plan your 2023 adventures.

Spring

New Orleans, LA, to Fredericksburg, TX

Distance: 469 miles

With pit stops in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Beaumont, Houston, and Austin, this route is a Cajun food-lover’s dream. Be sure to drive the Willow City Loop just north of Fredericksburg for wildflowers galore.

Where to stay:

  • Sun Outdoors New Orleans North Shore, Ponchatoula, Louisiana
  • The Retreat RV and Camping Resort, Huffman, Texas
  • Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg, Texas
Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summer

Blue Ridge Parkway

An epic drive filled with stunning vistas of the Appalachian Highlands, this route is known as America’s Favorite Drive for a reason.

Where to stay:

  • Montebello Camping and Fishing Resort, Montebello, Virginia
  • Halesford Harbor Resort, Moneta, Virginia
  • Catawba Falls Campground, North Carolina
Covered Bridge Tour near Terre Haute, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fall

Covered Bridge Tour in Indiana

Distance: 35+ miles

Indiana has 31 covered bridges that are super quaint and historic. According to locals, Sim Smith Bridge is even haunted.

Where to stay:

  • Turkey Run Canoe and Camping, Bloomingdale
  • Peaceful Water Campground, Bloomingdale
  • Hawthorn Park, Terry Haute
Amelia Island, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter

Florida East Coast

Distance: 470 miles

Whether you start in the northern or southern part of the state, a drive along the east coast is a perfect way to say goodbye to the winter blues.

Where to stay:

  • Ocean Groove RV Resort, St. Augustine
  • Indian River RV Park, Titusville
  • Sun Outdoors Key Largo, Key Largo

Worth Pondering…

Road trips have beginnings and ends but it’s what’s in between that counts.

The Best Arizona Fall Road Trip: Wineries, Hikes, Train Rides, and More

Arizona hikes, rides, tours, and a local winery or two

All through the summer, Arizona has bounced between extremes—going from record-breaking heat to a deluge of monsoon storms. Since fall is not a season prone to anything quite that intense things should calm down. Autumn comforts even as it calls locals and returning snowbirds outside to play. Basking under big blue skies while reveling in mild sunshine, fall is a perfect time to go exploring.

For an incredible fall road trip, take the drive to the geographic center of Arizona, the Verde Valley. The wide valley stretches from Mingus Mountain to the Mogollon Rim, a lush transition zone separating the Sonoran Desert from the high country and slashed by the winding Verde River.

Scenic small towns full of personality are sprinkled throughout the valley just a few miles apart creating plenty of easily accessed options. Here are a few.

Out of Africa © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Out of Africa Wildlife Park

Nestled in the high desert of Camp Verde, Out of Africa Wildlife Park provides a sanctuary for hundreds of exotic animals and features dozens of large predators. The preserve spreads across 100 acres of rolling terrain on the slopes of the Black Hills. The large natural habitats eliminate stress-induced behavior.

Tiger Splash is Out of Africa’s signature show. There is no training and no tricks. The daily program is spontaneous, just animals frolicking with their caretakers. Fierce tigers engage in the sort of playful activities every housecat owner will recognize. It’s just the grand scale that makes it so impressive. Visitors can also take a narrated African Bush Safari and attend the Giant Snake Show.

Outside the park is Predator Zip Line which offers a two- to three-hour zip line tour across five lines and a suspension bridge high above the animals.

Old Town Cottonwood

Wine Tasting in Cottonwood

Not long ago, Cottonwood was a sleepy little burg with much of its small downtown sitting vacant. Everything changed when vineyards and wineries sprang up on nearby hillsides with rich volcanic soil.

Old Town Cottonwood © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wine-tasting rooms opened, one after another, and soon restaurants, shops, galleries, and boutique hotels followed. The businesses filled the Prohibition-era buildings fronted by covered sidewalks along the three blocks of Old Town.

Related article: Five Fall Road Trips in Arizona

Such a picturesque and compact setting makes Old Town Cottonwood a popular destination for lovers of wine and food since so much can be sampled by walking a block or two.

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walk the Streets of Jerome

Most everybody knows about Jerome, the mile-high town clinging to the steep slope of Cleopatra Hill. It was once known as the Billion Dollar Mining Camp for the incredible wealth pulled from the ground.

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After the mines closed it became a rickety ghost town saved by enterprising hippies who turned it into a thriving artist community with fine art and crafts studios and galleries, cool boutiques, mining museums, historical buildings, eclectic inns, and B&Bs, and memorable restaurants and bars lining its narrow, winding streets.

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the high perch of Jerome, views stretch across the Verde Valley to the sandstone cliffs of Sedona. Music spills from saloons and eateries as visitors prowl the shops moving from one level of town to the next, pausing to read historic plaques and admire the Victorian architecture. Jerome feels cut off from the rest of the world. It’s one of those towns where it always feels like you’re on vacation.

Verde Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ride the Verde Canyon Railroad

Go off-road the old-fashioned way when you climb aboard the Verde Canyon Railroad and rumble into scenic backcountry. The train departs from the station in Clarkdale and travels into a high-walled canyon carved by the Verde River.

Cottonwood trees canopy the water and turn golden in the waning fall days. Such a rich riparian habitat lures a variety of wildlife, notably eagle, hawk, heron, mule deer, javelina, coyote, and beaver.

Verde Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vintage FP7 diesel locomotives provide the power. All passenger cars have panoramic windows and allow access to open-air viewing cars, where you’ll likely spend most of your time savoring fine fall days.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike in West Sedona

If you want to enjoy red rock scenery while avoiding some of the crowds and traffic issues, hike a few trails on the far edge of West Sedona.

Related article: Family-friendly Road Trips Through Arizona: Sedona and the Verde Valley

The Western Gateway Trails at the end of Cultural Park Place weave together a series of interconnected pathways across juniper-clad slopes above Dry Creek. Signs with maps at every junction make for easy navigation.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The gentle Roundabout Trail, a 2-mile loop, provides a quick introduction to the area as it branches off from the paved Centennial Trail and swings through shady woodlands and past a couple of small boulder fields. Curling back, it traces the edge of the mesa overlooking Dry Creek with views north of Cockscomb, Doe Mountain, and Bear Mountain.

Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can create a slightly longer loop (3.3 miles) by combining the Stirrup and Saddle Up trails. After crossing an arroyo the route climbs to the top of a plateau where the views stretch to Courthouse Butte and Bell Rock at the other end of town.

If you want a little more of a workout, the Schuerman Mountain Trail can be accessed across the road from Sedona High School. It climbs at a moderate uphill slant to the top of an old volcano, now eroded into a rangy mesa.

Cathedral Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a great view of Cathedral Rock from the first overlook. It’s a 2-mile round-trip if you make this your turnaround. If you’re in a rambling mood, the trail continues across the broad back of the mountain, golden grasslands dotted with juniper and pine trees.

Montezuma Castle © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Apartment House of the Ancients

Sinagua built the five-story, 20-room structure about 1150 but abandoned it in the early 1400s. Montezuma Castle is built into a deep alcove with masonry rooms added in phases. A thick, substantial roof of sycamore beams, reeds, grasses, and clay often served as the floor of the next room built on top. The placement of rooms on the south-facing cliff helps regulate summer and winter temperatures. The series of long pole ladders used to climb from the base of the cliff to the small windows and doorways high above could be pulled in for the night.

Related article: The Ultimate Arizona Road Trip: 16 Places to See & Things to Do

Beaver Creek at Montezuma Castle © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A short self-guided loop trail leads from the visitor center past the cliff dwelling through a beautiful grove of Arizona sycamores and catclaw mimosa trees along spring-fed Beaver Creek. Benches along the path offered the perfect spot to view the massive structure.

The white-barked Arizona Sycamore is one of the most distinctive sights at Montezuma Castle often reaching heights of 80 feet. This tree once blanketed Arizona 63 million years ago when the climate was cool and moist. As the weather became drier these deciduous trees thrived only in areas close to permanent water, such as the perennial streams and canyon bottoms.

Montezuma Well © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive 11 miles north to see the Montezuma Well which is part of the national monument. Along with the limestone sinkhole, cliff dwellings, and irrigation channels are characteristic of the prehistoric people who lived in the area. The water in the well which is 386 feet across has high levels of arsenic and other chemicals but it still supports endemic species such as water scorpions, snails, mud turtles, and leeches.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An Ancient Village on the Hill

Built atop a small 120 foot ridge is a large pueblo. Tuzigoot is Apache for crooked water; however, it was built by the Sinagua. With 77 ground floor rooms this pueblo held about 50 people. After about 100 years the population doubled and then doubled again later. By the time they finished building the pueblo, it had 110 rooms including second and third story structures and housed 250 people. An interesting fact is that Tuzigoot lacked ground level doors having roof-accessed doors instead.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The site is currently comprised of 42 acres that includes the hilltop pueblo, cliffs, and ridges in the valley and the Tavasci Marsh, a natural riparian area surrounding an old curve of the Verde River. A paved, fully accessible trail takes you through the pueblo giving you a good idea of what it would have looked like. Though the views from the ruins alone are worth the walk, one room is reconstructed and you can enter it and see what it would have looked like when inhabited.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot can be found in Clarkdale, Arizona, just west of Montezuma Castle and just north of Jerome. Visiting Tuzigoot is definitely worth your while!

Related article: Most Scenic Towns in Arizona

Worth Pondering…

To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

The Best Stops for a Fall Road Trip

Whether you park for ten minutes or ten days, what destinations do you pull off the highway for?

At some point, everyone starts to think about their dream road trip. For some, it’s a jaunt to the Grand Canyon or touring the Mighty Five in a decked-out RV. For others, it’s traveling Historic Route 66 or the Blue Ridge Parkway. No matter the destination, though, everyone needs to make stops on the way. What are some of your favorites?

For my purpose, a stop is anything from a national park to a state park or a roadside attraction to a Texas BBQ joint. Anything that gets you to pull off the highway, turn off your engine, and stretch your legs a bit—whether it’s to hike a mountain trail or tour a living history museum is up to you.

My vote for the perfect road trip stop is multifaceted and an ongoing list as I travel to new places and explore America’s scenic wonders.

Smitty’s Market, Lockhart © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas BBQ, Lockhart, Texas

Houston and Austin can quibble all they want about who has the best barbecue, but the clear winner is Lockhart. This small town 35 miles south of Austin is the Barbecue Capital of Texas—and that’s not just a municipal marketing ploy. The Texas State Legislature passed a resolution in 2003 officially giving Lockhart the title. Hundreds of thousands of people make the trek to Lockhart every year where four barbecue joints cook up mouth-watering meats made by legendary pitmasters. Here, meat is served in boxes by the pound and eaten off butcher paper on long, wooden tables.

Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks, Montpelier, Vermont

Vermont Maple has been the standard by which all syrups are judged. I think you can taste eight generations of experience in Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks. The Morse Family has been making maple syrup and related products in Vermont for 200 years. And their folksy maple farm is an interesting place to visit any time of year.

Nestled on a hilltop just 2.7 miles outside of Montpelier, the smallest state capital in the U.S., Morse Farm is a throwback to a simpler, quieter time when generations of the same family worked together to carve out a living on the land.

Related article: Must-See under the Radar Small Towns to Seek Out this Fall

Morse Farms Maple Sugarworks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll hear an informative and fascinating presentation about the history and operation of the farm and you can take a stroll on the trail among some of the sugar maple trees. There are farm animals to feed and of course there is a gift shop with a wide assortment of the farm’s products for sale.

Open daily, with slight variation in hours by season. No admission charge. Harvesting season is mid-March to Mid-April. Ample parking is available, including pull-through parking for RVs.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods, Mexican Hat, Utah

Drive the 17-mile dirt road through Valley of the Gods and you’re left wondering why its more famous neighbor, Monument Valley, attracts visitors in almost infinitely greater numbers. Valley of the Gods features spectacular mesas, buttes, and spires, but none of the crowds; it’s possible you won’t see another vehicle as you make your way past rock formations such as Lady In A Tub, Setting Hen Butte, and Seven Sailors.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The west entrance is situated on Utah Hwy 261, 10 miles north of Mexican Hat; the east entrance begins on US Hwy 163 about 7 miles east of Mexican Hat. The road through the park is level-graded dirt; a high clearance vehicle is generally recommended.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Mesa Verde, Spanish for green table, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years, from A.D. 600 to 1300. Today the park protects nearly 5,000 known archeological sites including 600 cliff dwellings. These sites are some of the most notable and best preserved in the United States.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 1,400 years ago, a group of people living in the Four Corners region chose Mesa Verde as their home. For more than 700 years they and their descendants lived and flourished here, eventually building elaborate stone communities in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls. Then, in the late 1200s, they left their homes and moved away in the span of a generation or two. Mesa Verde National Park preserves a spectacular reminder of this ancient culture.

Bardstown © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bardstown, Kentucky

It’s no surprise that Bardstown has been named one of the most beautiful small towns in America more than once. With several well-known bourbon distilleries, wineries, and historic sites, Kentucky’s second-oldest town has a lot to offer the traveler.

Barton 1792 Distillery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’re here for the bourbon, right? Start your tours with a trip to the oldest fully functioning distillery in Bardstown, Barton 1792 Distillery, famous for its signature 1792 Bourbon. Visitors can tour the property’s 196 acres, which showcase more than 25 barrel-aging warehouses, a picturesque stillhouse, and an award-winning distillery. Tours are complimentary and so are the tastings at this local distillery.

Stephen C. Foster State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stephen C. Foster State Park, Fargo, Georgia

Located within the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, this remote park offers access to the breathtaking wealth of flora and fauna of America’s largest black water swamp. Reserve a place on one of the guided pontoon boat tours and enter a primeval world of moss-draped trees, ibis, storks, turtles, and of course the American Alligator, an estimated 12,000 of which live within the refuge. A boardwalk trail next to the boat dock makes it easy to explore a small area of the swamp on foot.

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

Stephen C. Foster State Park is a certified dark sky park allowing guests to experience some of the darkest skies in the southeast. Nine cottages are available to rent, and there’s a campsite for tents, trailers, and motorhomes.

Hubbell Trading Post © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hubbell Trading Post, Ganado, Arizona

Famously known as the oldest continuously operating trading post on the Navajo Nation (it’s been here since 1876), Hubbell Trading Post is a part historic site, part museum/gallery, and part thriving retail operation specializing in authentic Navajo rugs, jewelry, and pottery. A visit to the adjacent Hubbell family home with an impressive collection of Southwestern art and Native American arts and crafts is recommended.

Mission Concepcion © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission Concepcion, San Antonio, Texas

A functioning Catholic church intermittently since 1731, Mission Concepcion is a picturesque historic structure that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, only a short distance from San Antonio’s most famous mission, The Alamo. It’s worth dropping by for a look and some photos. In particular, keep an eye out for the remnants of the frescoes that were painted on the building when it was constructed, but have badly faded over time.

Jamestown Settlement © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jamestown Settlement, Virginia

Near the site of the first permanent English settlement in America, established in 1607, Jamestown Settlement preserves and recreates life at the time. There are four components to the complex. As you enter, there are museum exhibits featuring artifacts and interpretations of the lives of the colonists, the natives, and the Africans who were forcibly brought along.

Jamestown Settlement © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Continuing outside, you come to a recreated Powhatan village; farther down the path, you come to a recreated colonial fort; then on down to the water, you’ll see, and be able to board, replicas of the three ships that brought the settlers. In each of these outdoor locations, there are interpreters attired in appropriate garb to answer your questions and demonstrate period skills, from cooking to preparing an animal hide to firing a rifle.

Lake Martin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lake Martin Swamp Tours, Breaux Bridge, Louisiana

Swamp tours are a must-do for anyone visiting Louisiana and Lake Martin is home to one of the state’s most impressive collections of wildlife. No one can make guarantees where nature’s concerned but a trip out onto this beautiful, man-made lake is likely to bring close-up views of birds including egrets, herons, roseate spoonbills, and eagles as well as the ‘gators for which the region is famous. Champagne’s Cajun Swamp Tours offer trips out into the cypress swamps every day. Their guides are friendly, knowledgeable, and full of character.

Related article: Stunning Fall Drives across America

Navajo Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Navajo Bridge, Page, Arizona

The two beautiful Navajo Bridges that span the Colorado River’s Marble Canyon may look identical but they were built more than 65 years apart. The first bridge opened to traffic in 1929 and was, at the time, the highest steel arch bridge in the world. However, it was not designed to carry modern day traffic and its replacement more than twice as wide opened in 1995. Rather than dismantling the original bridge, they left it in place to allow pedestrians to enjoy the spectacular view of the river 467 feet below. Take time to visit the interpretive center on the west side of the bridge.

Wilson Arch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wilson Arch, Monticello, Utah

One of the pleasures of driving this part of Utah (in particular the section of US Route 191 running north from Bluff through Blanding, Monticello, and Moab) is happening upon the incredible rock formations that seem to appear around every corner. This one, Wilson Arch, was named after Joe Wilson, a local pioneer who had a cabin nearby in Dry Valley. It’s an easy hike up to the arch and makes for great photos.

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fredericksburg, Texas

Step back in time to learn about Fredericksburg’s German heritage at Pioneer Museum. The 3.5-acre site gives a glimpse into the lives of the early German settlers in the frontier town of Fredericksburg from the 1840s to the 1920s. Visit the National Museum of Pacific War, a Smithsonian-affiliated museum dedicated to telling the story of the Pacific Theater during World War II. With interactive exhibits and endless galleries and stunning grounds, the museum will inspire all generations.

National Museum of Pacific War © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoy Fredericksburg’s diverse culinary scene. From German food to burgers to fine dining, Fredericksburg has something for everyone’s taste. Sip wine at any of the more than 50 wineries in the Fredericksburg area, enjoy a self-guided trip down Wine Road 290 on your own or opt for a wine tour with any of our local wine tour companies. 

New River Gorge Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New River Gorge Bridge, New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

At 3,030-feet this is the world’s third longest single arch bridge. At 876 feet above the river, it is also one of the tallest. The visitor center has picnic areas and hiking trails with spectacular views of bridge and gorge. White water rafting and hiking are popular in summer.

Bridge Day, on the third Saturday in October (October 15, 2022), features B.A.S.E. jumpers and rappellers in a festival atmosphere. New River Gorge Bridge is located on U.S. Highway 19 between Summersville and Beckley.

Historic Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Historic Oatman, Arizona

Once a thriving mining town, then a virtual ghost town when Route 66 was bypassed, Oatman has been reborn as a popular tourist destination for its Old West flavor. Many of its historic buildings still stand including the Oatman Hotel where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent a night of their honeymoon and where the lobby is covered by thousands of dollar bills that tourists have attached to the walls and ceilings.

Related article: 10 of the Best Small Towns to Visit this Fall

Historic Oatman © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are cowboy shootouts and gift shops galore. But above all, there are the burros, descendants of animals released in the hills by miners. They function today as the semi-official stop lights wandering the narrow streets and poking their heads into car windows looking for handouts.

Hurricane © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hurricane, Utah

Despite its name, you’re likely to find beautiful weather in Hurricane. And that’s a good thing when you consider the outdoor adventures available just a stone’s throw from the small town. Take advantage of the proximity to Sand Hollow Reservoir and Sand Hollow State Park. Of course, Hurricane is also a home base for many travelers to Zion National Park, so you’ll want to bring your hiking boots for the park’s most notable trails, like Angel’s Landing, Emerald Pools, and The Narrows.

Worth Pondering…

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,

Healthy, free, the world before me,

The long brown trail before me leading wherever I choose.

—Walt Whitman

11 National Parks Perfect to Visit This Fall

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

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

Each summer, millions of people head into the great outdoors to enjoy America’s national parks. And while the warmer months are no doubt the most popular time to visit parks overall, there are still some parks that are just as good—or even better—to visit in the fall. Whether you’re looking for a weekend getaway or a lengthier fall vacation, here are the top 11 national parks to visit this fall.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon isn’t just one of America’s most recognizable and iconic natural features. It’s also a great destination for a fall vacation. Temperatures can be over 100 degrees in the summer at the bottom of the canyon. While it can still be warm in the area through the fall, average temperatures do start to drop down to a more manageable range of 70 -80 degrees. This means that October and November are great months to visit.

Get more tips for visiting Grand Canyon National Park

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Joshua Tree National Park

Here’s another national park that’s a great choice to visit in the fall because of dropping temperatures. Joshua Tree National Park’s desert location means extreme heat can make it difficult to enjoy the park in the summer months. A fall visit will allow you to enjoy countless hiking trails with cooler weather.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Those planning a trip will likely want to look into accommodations ahead of time—Joshua Tree National Park is fairly remote. There are two main towns nearby: Twenty-Nine Palms and a town also named Joshua Tree. Camping is also a possibility in the park but you’ll want to secure a reservation as soon as possible. The majority of the 500 campsites in the park are available by reservation.

Get more tips for visiting Joshua Tree National Park

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Zion National Park

Zion is one of the best national parks to visit in the fall for several reasons. Firstly, the weather is more pleasant in fall than in the summer when temperatures can be brutally hot. Secondly, the changing colors of the cottonwoods and brush compliment the giant sandstone walls within Zion Canyon. Lastly, the crowds are less extreme at this time of the year than during the busy summer holiday period. It can still be busy with people looking to see the colors changing, but less so than the summer holidays.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best time to visit Zion for fall colors is between mid-October and early November. The exact timing can vary year to year but this is generally a safe bet to see some great fall foliage in the park. Fall is an amazing time of year for most of the parks in Utah so you could extend your trip and visit the other parks in Canyon Country.

Get more tips for visiting Zion National Park

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

4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is another excellent choice for those looking to see some changing colors alongside their outdoor adventure. Located on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is not only home to gorgeous fall leaf displays but also countless hiking trails as well as wildlife such as black bears and white-tailed deer.

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

Great Smoky Mountains is home to some of the most scenic fall drives in the country. Don’t miss Cade’s Cove, a lush valley surrounded by mountains and filled with history. The drive up to the viewpoint at Clingmans Dome is perhaps the most famous in the park. There are layers upon layers of mountains stretching as far as the eyes can see rich with color this time of the year.

Not far out of the park is the Blue Ridge Parkway. This National Scenic Byway links Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Shenandoah National Park. This scenic drive is famous for its views and fall colors.

Get more tips for visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Big Bend National Park

Big Bend is one of the lesser-visited national parks due in part to its remote location. Lesser known doesn’t mean less to do, however. The park is home to countless hiking trails, opportunities for river rafting and kayaking trips, camping, and even hot springs. Like Joshua Tree, fall is one of the better times to visit as the area enjoys cooler weather. Temperatures are perfect during October and November. You’ll enjoy beautiful warm days and cooler nights.

Get more tips for visiting Big Bend National Park

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park is covered in deciduous trees and during fall turns into a golden paradise. Similar to the Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah is a fall classic and offers visitors some of the most abundant and vibrant colors in the country. This park takes on a completely new look once the colors change and it’s just hard to beat those scenic drives through the park as the fall leaves drop all around you.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah is home to one of the best scenic fall color drives in the country. Skyline Drive is the main road through the park and runs 105 miles north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It has around 70 different overlooks and spending a day or two exploring this incredible stretch of road is often the highlight of a visit to the park.

Get more tips for visiting Shenandoah National Park

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Arches National Park

Another Utah park best seen in autumn is Arches National Park. The powerful dance of wind, rain and red sandstone over many eons created the 2,000-plus fantastical arches at Arches—but it did not leave much shade or shelter. Visits in 100-degree summer or 10-degree winter weather can be unpleasant but in autumn you’ll enjoy temperate conditions and smaller crowds.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aesthetically pleasing erosion is the big lure stirring the soul with unusually balanced rocks, fins, spires, and arches. The autumn light cast on the red rocks is spectacular.

The park and its surrounding area offer excellent mountain biking, canyoneering, rock climbing, and hiking. Many people who travel here turn their trip into a national park two-fer adding on nearby Canyonlands, a 30-minute drive south.

Get more tips for visiting Arches National Park

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

8. New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

The country’s newest national park, the 7,000-acre New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia can be visited any time of year—but it stands apart in the fall. October, after the heat subsides, is a particularly popular time to visit. It’s also when the annual Bridge Day event takes place (in 2022, on October 15), and thousands of visitors congregate to walk across the park’s eponymous bridge and watch BASE jumpers and rappellers descend over the side of the bridge.

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

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

Get more tips for visiting New River Gorge National Park

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Badlands National Park

Only a few centuries ago, over half the North American continent was carpeted in the same type of mixed grass prairie one encounters in Badlands National Park. The park retains the largest intact prairie of any in the National Park Service providing an enduring home to the animals that keep this type of ecosystem healthy: bison, prairie dogs, ferrets, pronghorns, coyotes, big horn sheep, golden eagles, and others.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the summer months, violent thunderstorms and blazing temperatures can make touring the Badlands challenging but come fall the weather mellows to the 60s and 70s. Some of the grasses are yellow in autumn too making it easier to spot wildlife and shutterbugs are rewarded with gold-hued landscapes.

Get more tips for visiting Badlands National Park

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Saguaro National Park

Named for the United States’ tallest cactus (it can reach up to 50 feet), this Sonoran Desert park is split into two parts by the city of Tucson. The Sonoran people also known as the Hohokam settled here in 2100 B.C. and built some of the earliest canal irrigation systems on the continent. The park is pitted with their ruins and tagged with petroglyphs.  

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The temperatures drop to an average of 70 degrees in October and November making the fall ideal for comfortable visits. It’s also fun to drop by Tucson in the fall thanks to its mix of Mexican and American seasonal celebrations that include pumpkin patches, corn mazes, Halloween activities, and All Souls processions.

Get more tips for visiting Saguaro National Park

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Congaree National Park

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

In the winter, this park tends to flood and in summer the humidity and heat make human bodies feel like they’re flooding. But autumn is the Goldilocks time in South Carolina’s only national park devoted to the natural world. 

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree harbors the biggest old-growth, bottomland hardwood forest left in the Southeast. It’s an arboreal paradise and 15 trees growing here are the largest known specimens of their kind on the planet including loblolly pine, cherry bark oak, American elm, sweetgum, and swamp chestnut oak—all of which are over 130 feet tall. Sheltering in and among those trees are feral pigs, bobcats, alligators, river otters, and deer.

Get more tips for visiting Congaree National Park

Bottom line

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

Worth Pondering…

Autumn brings a longing to get away from the unreal things of life, out into the forest at night with a campfire and the rustling leaves.

—Margaret Elizabeth Sangster, poet