By Caitlin Leary, MNN
As the fall colors deepen, so do the number of people who seek them. These autumnal enthusiasts are called “leaf peepers,” and they can make a vacation out of viewing and photographing the fall foliage.
Of course, what better way to view fall’s leaves than in a protected park, preserve or forest? Protected areas such as Acadia National Park in Maine, Denali National Park in Alaska, and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail provide the perfect setting for a colorful excursion.
Image: Carl M / Flickr
Acadia National Park
Located primarily on Mount Desert Island in coastal Maine, Acadia National Park provides one of the most stunning fall foliage shows in the Northeast, starting in late September and wrapping up towards the end of October.
Interestingly enough, the beauty is actually the result of a nasty forest fire that swept the area back in October 1947. The fire destroyed many of the forests conifers in the process, which, in turn, allowed for the accumulation of leaf peeper-worthy deciduous species, such as birch, maple and poplar, to take root in their place.
With 47,000 acres of mountains, woodlands, lakes and shorelines, there are countless ways to experience all the rich autumn colors Acadia has to offer.
Yosemite National Park
Although Yosemite National Park, located in central California, is best known for its enormous cascading waterfalls, great granite cliffs and groves of giant Sequoias, this is one park that shouldn’t be overlooked by leaf-peeping enthusiasts.
Fall foliage in Yosemite approaches its peak in late October and continues to linger on into November. It’s difficult to ignore the rich, saturated colors of the maples, dogwoods, quaking aspens and oaks.
Denali National Park
Stretching out across 9,492 square miles in Interior Alaska, Denali National Park and Preserve is the perfect destination for mountaineers, backpackers and, of course, leaf peepers. Be sure to come early, though, as autumn peaks in late August and early September.
With a large expanse of deciduous taiga, including poplar and willow trees, autumn (especially September) is a notably colorful time in this protected area.
Other autumn-friendly vegetation includes shrubs and flowering plants that constitute much of the brilliant hues coming up from the ground.
Image: Alaskan Dude / Flickr
Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park‘s fall foliage peaks around mid-October. This Virginia park hosts a large variety of deciduous trees, including maples, birches, oaks, poplars and gums.
The best way to experience the changing leaves in Shenandoah National Park is by driving the entire length of the park via the 105-mile Skyline Drive. About 2 million people traverse this winding National Scenic Byway every year.
There are 75 spectacular overlooks of the valley below throughout the breathtaking drive, granting the perfect opportunity to snap photos of the reds, oranges and yellows.
The Appalachian National Scenic Trail is not just a hiking path it’s a 2,175-mile long opportunity for leaf peepers.
Whether it’s a light day hike or long-distance backpacking trip, this public footpath is a perfect place to experience fall foliage, especially if you live in any of the 14 eastern U.S. states that contain it (or near any of the 75 park lands the trail cuts through).
Since the trail expands from Georgia’s Springer Mountain up to Maine’s Mount Katahdin, the ideal months to check out the changing of the leaves vary with climate and elevation.
Oak Mountain State Park
Changing leaves aren’t just for New England. The Deep South has its own share of striking fall colors to view. One of the best places to see these colors is central Alabama’s Oak Mountain State Park.
For just $3 per person, leaf peepers can enjoy a colorful fall weekend of hiking or camping in the park. The peak times to experience the bright colors are from late October into November.
Encompassing 9,940 acres, Oak Mountain State Park is the largest state park in the state and is home to the state’s largest wildlife rehabilitation center.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains, a subrange of the Appalachian mountains located in Tennessee, is the most visited national park in the United States and for good reason.
What makes this gorgeous national park fascinating is that fall colors arrive in traveling downward waves. Trees in the higher elevations of the mountains (4,000 feet and above) begin to sport orange, red and yellow foliage in early to mid October, while the lower and middle elevations stay relatively green until the end of October into early November.
The park features a variety of activities for visitors, including hiking, auto touring, camping, fishing, guided tours and horseback riding. In the fall, the changing of the leaves tops all other activities and attracts a great number of leaf peepers to the park.
Image: mK B./Flickr
Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier National Park, located in northwest Washington, begins bursting with fall colors around August and September the same time as other high-altitude parks (such as Denali National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park).
This park which is home to Mount Rainier, a massive stratovolcano that reaches 14,411 feet at its summit is a popular place to hike and climb. But be sure to do it before early October, when the park closes for the winter.
Adirondack State Park
Covering 6.1 million acres in upstate New York, Adirondack Park is the largest protected area in the contiguous United States. It contains 3,000 lakes, 30,000 miles of waterways and 2,000 miles of hiking trails.
Because of its chillier, elevated climate, fall colors come early in Adirondack Park. Be there in time to see the leaves peak in the last two weeks of September.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Located just northwest of Boulder, Colo., Rocky Mountain National Park is the perfect leaf-peeping destination for those who don’t live in close range to all the protected areas along the coasts that are well known for their colorful fall foliage.
Much of the park consists of evergreen trees, but there is an abundance of deciduous trees likes quaking aspens and cottonwoods at elevations between 6,000 and 10,000 feet.
Because it straddles the continental divide, the eastern and western sides of the Rocky Mountains each have a distinct climate. The east tends to be more arid while the west tends to be wetter and more wooded.
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