The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.
The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including Arches, Great Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 424 NPS units across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials. These sites are outside the main focus of this guide.
September is one of the best months of the year to visit the national parks. The weather is fantastic across much of the US, the busy summer season is coming to an end and in some parks you can see the first of the fall colors. In this guide, I list five of the best national parks to visit plus four bonus parks.
About this National Park series
This article is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year.
These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, I picked out what I think are the optimal times to visit each park. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at lease one occasion.
For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out my Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide will cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels. Please note this overview will be posted following the completion of this 12 month guide in February 2024.
And at the end of this article, I have links to the other guides in my Best National Parks by Month series.
Visiting the National Parks in September
In my opinion, September is one of the best months of the year to plan a national parks trip. In September, the weather is still warm and the snow has melted on the higher elevation trails. After Labor Day, crowds get lower in the national parks now that children are back in school.
During September, you can visit almost any national park and have a great experience. The parks in the northern half of the US are still relatively warm and the roads are still open. In warmer climates like Utah and Arizona, September is still a hot month to visit but not as bad as June through August especially if you can delay your visit to the end of the month. And in a few places, you can even catch the first fall colors at the end of September.
I recommend avoiding Everglades and Congaree in September as they tend to be hot, humid, and swarming with mosquitoes.
For this guide, I could have listed 30 great parks to visit in September since there are so many good options. Instead, I list five of the very best parks to visit with more suggestions at the end of this guide.
Let’s get started.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The information I provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures since these dates are constantly changing. Roads can close in the national parks at any time so I recommend getting updates on the NPS website while planning your trip.
Best National Parks in September
1. Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Location: North Dakota
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a picturesque wilderness of grasslands and badlands. Bison, feral horses, pronghorns, and elk roam the landscapes, hiking trails meander through the colorful bentonite hills, and scenic roads take visitors to numerous stunning overlooks.
This national park is made up of three separate units: the South Unit, the North Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. Of the three, the South Unit is the more popular. In the North Unit, the views of the badlands are beautiful, there are several short, fun trails to hike, and there is a very good chance you will spot bison and other wildlife right from your car.
Why visit Theodore Roosevelt in September: Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s weather is defined by the seasons. Summers are warm with occasional hot periods. Thunderstorms occur in the afternoons. Spring and fall are mild. Winters can be quite cold with high winds.
Weather: Although some days will be in the 80s, the average high is 74°F and the average low is 42°F. Rainfall is low with only 1.3 inches of rain falling in September.
Sunrise & sunset (South Unit): Sunrise is at 5 am and sunset is at 8:50 pm. The South Unit is in the Mountain Time Zone and the North Unit is in the Central Time Zone.
Top experiences: Hike the Caprock Coulee Trail, enjoy the view from Sperati Point and the Wind Canyon Trail, drive the Scenic Drive in both units, visit the Petrified Forest, hike the Ekblom and Big Plateau Loop, and visit River Bend Overlook.
How many days do you need? If you want to explore both the North and South Units, you will need at least two days in Theodore Roosevelt National Park (one day for each unit).
Plan your visit
- The Ultimate Guide to Theodore Roosevelt National Park
- North Dakota: Theodore Roosevelt National Park
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park: A Plains-state Paradise
- Badlands Meet History in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
2. Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Location: New Mexico
An underground fantasy land of limestone chambers, stalactites and stalagmites, and long, twisting tunnels is located in the Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico.
From late May through October you can watch the Bat Flight program. At the Bat Flight Amphitheater, grab a seat and watch as the bats emerge by the thousands from the natural entrance of the cave. The best time to see the bats is in August and September when the baby bats join the show. The Bat Flight Program takes place every evening and it is weather dependent.
Why visit Carlsbad Caverns in September: To watch the Bat Flight Program when bats emerge by the thousands from the natural entrance of the cave.
Weather: Carlsbad Caverns National Park has a semiarid climate with generally mild winters and warm to hot summers. In September, the average high is 83°F and the average low is 60°F. September is one of the wettest months of the year with 2.9 inches of rainfall. The average temperature throughout the cave is 68°F and the relative humidity remains close to a constant 100 percent.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 6:20 am and sunset is at 7:40 pm.
Top experiences: Tour the caverns on your own or on a ranger-guided tour.You can also go star gazing, hike a surface trail, or go on a scenic drive.
How much time do you need? A half to a full day is all you need to explore the caverns on your own and/or take a ranger-guided tour.
Plan Your Visit
- The Ultimate Guide to Carlsbad Caverns National Park
- Get Immersed in Caves: Carlsbad Caverns National Park
3. Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park preserves a section of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.
Skyline Drive is the main thoroughfare through the park, a road that twists and turns for 105 miles from north to south. For those who want to explore the park beyond Skyline Drive, 500 miles of hiking traverse the park.
Shenandoah is a beautiful park to visit in September. From the viewpoints along Skyline Drive, you can gaze across the mountains and the valleys below.
Why visit Shenandoah in September: The fall colors begin the last two two weeks of September in the higher elevations. Plus, the weather is perfect for sightseeing and hiking.
Weather: The average high is 66°F and the average low is 58°F. On warmer than average days, it can get up into the high 70s. Rainfall averages about 5 inches per month through the year and September is no different.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:20 am and sunset is at 6:30 pm.
Top experiences: Drive Skyline Drive and visit the overlooks, hike to the top of Bearfence Mountain, visit Dark Hollow Falls, enjoy the view from Hawksbill Mountain, hike to Mary’s Rock, and hike a section of the Appalachian Trail.
Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure, hike Old Rag Mountain, a 9-mile loop trail.
Old Rag is generally considered a challenging route. The best time to hike this trail is May through October. You’ll need to leave pups at home—dogs aren’t allowed on this trail. From March 1-November 30, visitors to Old Rag Mountain including hikers on the Saddle, Ridge, and Ridge Access trails will need to obtain an Old Rag day-use ticket in advance.
How many days do you need? You can drive the length of Skyline Drive in one day, visiting the overlooks and hiking a trail or two. For a more leisurely experience or to do several more hikes plan on spending two or more days in Shenandoah.
Plan your visit
- The Ultimate Guide to Shenandoah National Park
- Ride the Sky along Skyline Drive
- The Best National Parks for Fall Foliage—and When to Visit Them for Peak Leaf-Peeping
4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Location: Tennessee and North Carolina
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States. In 2022, over 12 million people visited this park. Second place wasn’t even close (that would be Grand Canyon with 4 million visitors).
This national park straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. The ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains runs through the center of the park and it is here that you will find some of the tallest peaks in eastern North America.
With over 100 species of trees that cover various elevations in the park, the peak time for fall colors lasts quite a while in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The trees first begin to change color at the higher elevations as early as mid-September. From early to mid-October, the colors slide down the mountains. Peak season comes to an end at the beginning of November when the trees at the lower, warmer elevations finally change colors.
Why visit Great Smoky Mountains in September: For great weather for hiking and the beginning of fall colors.
Weather: The average high is 70°F and the average low is 52°F. Rainfall is about 4 inches for September which is one of the driest months of the year.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 7 pm.
Top experiences: Enjoy the view from Clingman’s Dome and Newfound Gap, hike the Alum Trail to Mount LeConte, drive through Cades Cove, and drive the Roaring Fork Motor Trail.
How many days do you need? You can drive the park’s main roads and visit the highlights of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in one day. To explore the parks more fully plan three to four days and avoid Cades Cove on weekends. Trust me on that one.
Plan your visit
- The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Land of the Blue Smoke
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
- Great Smoky Mountains: Most Visited National Park…and We Can See Why
- The Ultimate Guide to Cades Cove
- Cades Cove: An Open Air Museum
- National Park Fees: Great Smoky Mountains Introduces Parking Fees
5. Mesa Verde National Park
Located in southwestern Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is one of the most unique national parks in the United States. This park preserves the ancient Puebloan cliff dwellings and archeological sites that are hundreds of years old. Short hikes, scenic drives, and viewpoints make the to-do list but the best way to experience this park is to get up close with the cliff dwellings on a tour.
Why visit Mesa Verde in September: Fall is one of the best times of year to visit Mesa Verde. There are fewer visitors in the park than during summer and cooler temperatures make conditions more comfortable for hiking and other activities. September brings sunny days, pleasant temperatures, and fewer rainy days.
Weather: The average high is 75°F and the average low is 48°F. Rainfall is low.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is 6 am and sunset is 8:15 pm.
Top experiences: Take a ranger guided tour of a cliff dwelling, see the Spruce Tree House, hike the Petroglyph Point Trail, drive Mesa Top Loop, explore the Far View sites, and hike the Point Lookout Trail.
How many days do you need? One to two days are all you need to take a cliff dwelling tour and go on the scenic drives through the park. Consider spending a night or two in Morefield Campground just four miles from the park entrance. With 267 sites there’s always plenty of space and the campground rarely fills.
Plan your visit
- The Ultimate Guide to Mesa Verde National Park
- Mesa Verde National Park: Look Back In Time 1,000 Years
- Mesa Verde National Park: 14 Centuries of History
Bonus! More parks to visit
As stated earlier, September is a great time to visit just about any of the US national parks.
In the east, September is a beautiful time of year to visit New River Gorge National Park.
Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in September
National park-like amenities tell the story of America’s most infamous active volcano. Gorgeous wildflower-packed views of the volcano can be enjoyed in spots like Bear Meadows while those seeking a closer view of the crater rim may drive to the Windy Ridge viewpoint or even summit the rim of the 8,365-foot volcano with a permit.
At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking this is Bryce Canyon National Park. It looks almost identical to its more famous national park cousin which is located about an hour to the east. Yet with less than a quarter of the annual visitation of Bryce, this small but mighty national monument makes a worthy alternative for those seeking color-packed canyon views stretching across three miles at an elevation of around 10,000 feet.
Aztec Ruins National Monument is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River Valley. In use for over 200 years, the site contains several multi-story buildings called great houses, each with a great kiva—a circular ceremonial chamber—as well as many smaller structures.
Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park
Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park in Macon, Georgia is a significant Native American landmark dating back over 10,000 years. Visitors can learn about the Mississippian culture, climb atop the seven mounds, and even go inside one of the mounds’ Earth Lodge. Eight miles of walking trails wind through the park including by the namesake river. The park is making efforts to become a national park and hosts annual events like the fall Ocmulgee Indian Celebration (31st annual; September 16-17, 2023).
More Information about the National Parks
- From Arches to Zion: The Essential Guide to America’s National Parks
- America the Beautiful: The National Parks
- Learn How America’s National Parks Got Their Names
- 10 of the Best Scenic Drives in National Parks
- 9 of Best National Parks for RV Campers
- Guide to Adventure Activities in National Parks
- National Parks Inspire Love of Nature
- 12 Dog Friendly National Parks
- The Best National Parks for Fall Foliage—and When to Visit Them for Peak Leaf-Peeping
Best National Parks to visit by month
January: Best National Parks to Visit in January (to be posted mid-December)
February: Best National Parks to Visit in February (to be posted mid-January)
March: Best National Parks to Visit in March (to be posted mid-February)
April: Best National Parks to Visit in April
May: Best National Parks to Visit in May
June: Best National Parks to Visit in June
July: Best National Parks to Visit in July
August: Best National Parks to Visit in August
September: Best National Parks to Visit in September
October: Best National Parks to Visit in October (to be posted mid-September)
November: Best National Parks to Visit in November (to be posted mid-October)
December: Best National Parks to Visit in December (to be posted mid-November)
Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.