With the temperatures turned down, nature’s colors turned up, and the kids back in school, fall is the ultimate time to book a trip to national parks. You not only get fewer crowds and even better landscape views, but your trip becomes a little more spontaneous thanks to the unpredictable weather—whether it’s extra-cool nights or a freak snowstorm.
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“Fall is my favorite season to visit national parks for a variety of reasons, depending on location,” says Heather Gyselman, REI adventure travel’s North American program manager. “In the west and midwest, the crowds are gone and there’s a hush in the air. You no longer have to jostle for a spot at favored overlooks, and it’s almost like the parks are letting out a deep long sigh. There are pops of colors here and there, which contrast beautifully against bright blue skies, shades of evergreen trees, and jagged peaks. And in the east, parks just show off. It’s nature’s firework show and a finale to the long hot summer.”
To help you choose the location that serves up nature’s best scenes, we asked Gyselman and a few other experts their go-to spots for the season. Book a trip, plan your activity of choice, and enjoy the colorful display.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Blue Ridge Parkway If you’re chasing expansive autumn views, the Great Smoky Mountains have it covered in some of the country’s brightest hues. And this year, peak time to peep fall landscapes should actually extend from October to November, says Gyselman. She suggests making sure you take a drive over the Blue Ridge Parkway, where you can see a jaw-dropping line-up of leaves. You’ll also get your wildlife fix; there are herds of elk scattered throughout the grounds.
For guided backpacking and camping trips through this southern nature escape, check REI’s site for options. Leaders will take you to some of the season’s best viewing spots.
Isaiah N Lilly / Shutterstock Shenandoah National Park East Coasters, this one’s for you—and a fall go-to for Gyselman. Just 75 miles from Washington D.C. and fewer than 300 miles from New York City, you can easily drive to this park, making it easier on the wallet and ideal for a weekend getaway. Choose from more than 500 miles of hiking trails when you arrive—no matter where you stroll, you’ll spot a landscape splattered with orange, yellow, and red throughout the season. Old Rag, which you can access off Route 600, offers the most popular route in the park. (It can also be dangerous, so check out this page to get familiar with what you’re in for before you go.) You also have options to watch waterfalls and trek the Appalachian Trail—two must-dos for many hikers. Scott Wurzel / Shutterstock Yosemite National Park All your friends might have gone to Cali to catch Yosemite in summer, but if you want the inside scoop, fall reaps even more adventurous rewards without the crowds and the intense sun and temperatures. Gyselman suggests hiking around the valley or down into the valley so you can see patches of colors mixed among evergreen trees. Try the Yosemite Valley Loop Trail, an 11.5-mile route, or a quicker jaunt on the Sentinel and Cook’s Meadow Loop that spans 2.25 miles.If you’re looking to camp out for the night (who doesn’t want to wake up to a view of Half Dome or El Capitan come morning?), check whether you need a reservation. And don’t forget extra layers because the nights can get pretty chilly. Bill45 / Shutterstock Mount Rainier An active volcano rising more than 14,000 feet above sea level, this western destination rings in as a must-see for many reasons. “Each time I travel through Rainier in the fall, the park reminds me of what I’d imagine a fairytale land to look like—it’s absolutely gorgeous,” Gyselman says. Her top pick for an area to visit is one appropriately named Paradise, where she suggests checking out the lower part of the Skyline Trail up to Myrtle Falls and the Golden Gate Trail. You’ll catch a breathtaking display of Mount Rainier and Tatoosh Range.On another morning, Gyselman says to opt for an easy walk through the Grove of Patriarchs, surrounded by old evergreens and maple trees. It provides a serene place to take in all the views and practice a little mindful strolling or picture-taking. Kelly vanDellen / Shutterstock Zion National Park The Observation Point hike gets the rep as the most iconic route in the park for a reason: You see down into the valley with an amazing contrast of colors from the copper sandstone, blue skies, and yellow, orange, and red trees, Gyselman says. You also get a nice mix of cool, but not too cold, temperatures. Andy Austin, a photographer and guide for Austin Adventures, suggests watching the sunset from the Canyon Junction Bridge, which crosses over the Virgin River. If you’re up early, aim to spot the sunrise at the Towers of the Virgins, located behind the museum. Because it’s at a lower altitude than other parks, autumn also tends to hit Zion a little later in the year, around November—in other words, you still have time to get there and see the changing leaves. Julius L. Zahn / Shutterstock Glacier National Park Austin calls out Glacier for a few next-level viewing areas, including Bowman Lake. It features a background painted with larch trees—the ones that turn a bright yellow come fall and offer a pretty breathtaking landscape against the glassy water. Another area to check out: Many Glacier, swept with Aspen trees and snow peaks. It also houses two of the most popular hikes in the park: Grinnell Glacier Trail and Iceberg Lake Trail. According to the National Park Service, you could take a different route every day for a week in Many Glacier and still not cover the entire area. That means there’s plenty of room to explore, especially with a shuttle going right from Glacier National Park Lodge to Many Glacier.Expect erratic weather in Glacier this season, which is one reason the crowds typically clear out. It already got two big snowstorms this year, so you’ll want to check the forecast before packing. EB Adventure Photography / Shutterstock Yellowstone National Park Typically teeming with wildlife, you’re likely to see bison throughout most parts of Yellowstone, as well as elk, bears, wolves, antelope, deer, and big-horn sheep. “Elk bugling in Yellowstone is surreal—you’ll never hear anything like it and the noise travels for miles and miles,” says Dan Austin, founder of Austin Adventures. If you want to watch the elk, Andy Austin suggests Mammoth Hot Springs. The landscape here also offers its own outstanding view, courtesy of the limestone formations and thermal pools (a unique staple of Yellowstone).Want to catch the fall colors? Andy suggests heading to the Lamar River in Lamar Valley. To see the park from a different point of view, try a horseback ride, a popular activity in Yellowstone.Many lodges and stores in the park close come mid-October, so make sure you plan where you want to go and what you need to make it happen before you visit. Harry Beugelink / Shutterstock Grand Teton National Park If you love the outdoors for its snowy, insanely picturesque mountain ranges, put Grand Teton on your must-visit list right now. Austin suggests waking up early to catch the sunrise at Schwabacher Landing, where it reflects over the Snake River, an Instagrammer’s dream. Hit the hiking trail after or set out to raft on the river before it freezes over. You have easy access to both at the landing.If you prefer pedaling to strolling, Grand Teton has plenty of options for getting your cycling fix satisfied. Leave from Jackson and a paved pathway leads you to Antelopes Flats Road. You can spin past beautiful Aspen groves through Moran Junction (another of Andy’s favorite areas), complete with a grand view of the Grand Teton Mountains. Tom Tietz / Shutterstock Bryce Canyon National Park Red rocks and hoodoos (or tall, irregular spires of rock) fill this western park, giving you a new, fantastic view every time you turn around. Fall offers the perfect time to check out Scenic Byway 12, a 37-mile round-trip drive that cuts through the limestone amphitheaters of the park. You can also access portions of the 50 miles of hiking trails Bryce Canyon has to offer from this road.One of the top-rated paths to hike on All Trails is the Navajo Loop and Queen’s Garden Trail, stretching 2.6 miles in a loop with amazing panoramas of the park. To hike longer and climb higher, reviewers also love the Fairyland Loop Trail, spanning 7.4 miles and reaching more than 1,500 feet as it stretches along the rim and down into the canyon. Just beware, it can get challenging. Natali Glado / Shutterstock Death Valley National Park While the temperatures spike well over 100 degrees in the summer at this park, which straddles two states, autumn brings cooler, much more comfortable temperatures. A stand-out spot according to Tyler Drake, founder of The Outbound Collective, the land sits below sea level. Because of its location, you get a big blend of landscapes from sand dunes and rock formations to occasional greenery and this colorful view at Artist’s Drive. Drake suggests checking out the panoramic views at Zabriskie Point. The out-and-back trail spans just under a half mile, so it’s doable for any level and offers an ideal place to watch the sunrise or set, according to All Trails. VIKVAD / Shutterstock