Autumn is my favorite time to visit our national parks. Not only are the summer crowds gone as families get their kids back to school, but fall is when the leaves start changing colors, offering awe-inspiring vistas brilliantly bathed in gold, scarlet, orange and more.
Most Americans live within a half-day’s drive of a national park. For a modest entrance fee, you can take a scenic drive to a spectacular look-out, or hike along a trail, often ending up at a lake, river or waterfall. Do this during the fall, and you’ll be doubly rewarded for your effort by the swirl of colors all around.
Of the 58 parks in the U.S. to choose from, those with the best color will be ones that contain deciduous or leaf-dropping trees, like maples, oaks, elms, and hickory. Many trees start changing color by mid-August, when the air gets cooler and the days get shorter. “Peak” season is usually in September and October. Most park websites will provide an update on the status of their leaf color so you can plan your visit.
Here are five national parks where you’ll find truly spectacular fall foliage.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia – This park sports 500 miles of trails, 101 of which are officially part of the Appalachian Trail system. Not interested in hiking? Cruise along Skyline Drive, and enjoy the peak of the Blue Ridge Mountains before you drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Acadia National Park, Maine - This is red maple leaf country, and there’s no mistaking it. You can go horseback riding, hiking, canoeing, or mountain biking. But be a little ambitious and trek up to the summit of Cadillac Mountain. You won’t be disappointed!
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming – Rather than scarlet-hued maples, this park flames with the bright yellow its millions of aspen trees turn in the fall. Hikes range from a simple walk out to a lake where you can fish, to the steep. Huff and puff your way to the top of a ridge, then sit down and enjoy the glow of this majestic landscape in autumn.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina – How can you beat the Smokies? In addition to breathtaking reds and scarlets, the sugar maples, scarlet oaks, sweetgum, red pale and hickories are shining with golds, oranges, and more. Remember the orange/red/yellow section of your Crayola crayon box? You’ll find most of those colors here in September and October.
Denali National Park & Preserve, Alaska – If you’ve always wanted to go to Alaska but feared summer’s big mosquitoes or winter’s smothering snow falls, autumn may be the perfect compromise. You’ll be rewarded not just with eye-popping leaf color, but possibly views of moose, caribou, and bears, too. Fall comes early to Alaska, so aim for late August and early September for the best color palette.