As the end of summer draws near, you might be anticipating more cozy time at home. But don’t forget that autumn is one of the best seasons for outdoor exploration in the United States. Fortunately, there are natural wonders in our own backyards.
“Fall is my favorite time of year to visit the national parks,” Jim Pattiz, co-founder of the organization More Than Just Parks, told HuffPost. “The crowds and travel prices of the peak summer season have receded and many of the parks are ablaze with beautiful fall foliage. Animals are on the move at this time of year as they prepare for the winter, giving you great opportunities to see each park’s unique wildlife.”
Of course, some parks are better suited for autumn visits than others. We asked Pattiz and other experts to share the national parks they believe are best to visit during the fall season.
Acadia National Park
For Riley Mahoney, creator of the website The Parks Expert, Acadia National Park in Maine is one of the best options for the fall season.
“The fall colors are astounding, with deep reds, oranges and yellows in the best years,” she said. “The fall also brings cooler weather, excellent for hiking.”
Mahoney recommends experienced hikers consider exploring one of the park’s most popular experiences, Precipice Trail, which is open in the fall after peregrine falcon nesting season ends.
“This harrowing trail is not for those with a fear of heights or small children, but perfect for anyone seeking a memorable adventure overlooking the gorgeous fall colors below,” she noted.
Rocky Mountain National Park
“Rocky Mountain National Park is painted with beautiful yellow aspen trees each fall, lining the famous Trail Ridge Road,” Mahoney said. “Additionally, as you hike, you may hear the incredible sound of elk bugling. This only occurs during mating season, which also happens to be in the fall.”
Although the cooler fall temperatures are perfect for hiking around Rocky Mountain National Park, she also warned that it might snow, so it’s important to arrive prepared for that possibility.
Will Pattiz, the other co-founder of More Than Just Parks, similarly endorsed this park for a fall visit, thanks to the incredible views and smaller crowds that allow for a more intimate experience.
“Here, you can find kaleidoscopic displays of fall foliage that blankets the valleys and mountainsides in orange, gold and yellows,” he said, adding that elk rutting season is also amazing to witness. “During the day you can see the elk roaming the open spaces of the park and locking antlers with one another. At night the unforgettable sounds of the elk bugles steal the show as the males search for mates.”
Congaree National Park
Although people associate the season with mountain vistas for viewing fall foliage, Janisse Ray ― a naturalist and author of “Wild Spectacle: Seeking Wonders in a World Beyond Humans” ― recommends the swampy environment of Congaree National Park for your next autumn trip.
“The 26,000-acre wildland, added to the national park system in 2003, is located in central South Carolina,” she said. “It’s a terrific example of what’s left of the bottomland forests of the South.”
Ray praised Congaree’s UNESCO-certified biodiversity, from old-growth forests to champion trees.
“Autumn temperatures lower the intense heat and humidity of South Carolina, and something else happens as well,” she added. “Swamps, known to be mysterious, magical places, shape-shift in fall. In the wetlands, the cypress needles turn a vibrant, stunning orange, creating scenes so lovely they catch in your throat. Although sometimes more subtle and without a color peak, Congaree is a magnificent place for leaf-peeping.”
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
“The largest park in the National Park Service is also one of the first to show fall colors,” said national parks travel expert Mikah Meyer. “Due to its location in Alaska, leaves begin changing color in August and hit their peak earlier in September than parks in all the other United States. This means you can get an early jump on fall if it’s your favorite season, like me!”
He noted that you’ll encounter fewer tourists and bugs visiting Alaska during the fall instead of the high tourist season of summer.
“This will make your hikes around abandoned Kennecott Mines more beautiful due to the changing colors, plus less buggy!” Meyer said.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
“It’s really hard to beat the scenery of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina in the fall,” Jim Pattiz said.
He’s believes the fall colors and views are among the most spectacular in the world.
“By October, the summer crowds have dissipated at America’s most visited national park and the misty old hills of southern Appalachia are bursting with beautiful reds, oranges, golds and yellows,” Pattiz said. “The park’s many overlooks provide perfect opportunities to stop and look out at the rolling mountains awash in the colors of the season. There’s a charm about the Smokies in autumn that keeps me coming back to watch the brilliant leaves of old trees float to the ground amidst the quiet splendor of a creek or a weathered pioneer cabin.”
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Kurt Repanshek, founder of National Parks Traveler, believes you should head to the Midwest for the best fall park experience.
“Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota requires some determination to reach because of its location, but in fall, the cottonwoods in the two campgrounds and along the Little Missouri River shower gold across the landscape,” he said. “There are bison and feral horses moving about, and flocks of sandhill cranes swing through during their fall migration.”
Arches National Park
“We treasure the cooler temperatures and reduced crowds at iconic Arches National Park,” said Derek Wright and Amy Beth Wright, outdoor enthusiasts and creators of Parks and Points. “Arches is so popular during summer that the National Park Service has recently instituted a reservations system. However, this seasonal policy concludes on Oct. 3, as many return to work and school — as the crush of visitors tapers dramatically, this otherworldly expanse of sandstone formations and monoliths becomes a wide-open, easy space to explore.”
They noted that the hot temperatures during the summer limit the amount of hours during the day you can spend exploring Arches, while the fall brings average temperatures of 85 degrees in September and up to 55 degrees in November.
“Early mornings can be a bit chilly, but who doesn’t love exploring a national park in a cozy autumn sweater!” the pair added. “Another exceptional reason for an autumn visit to Arches are the sunrises and sunsets. Due to the nature of the desert landscape, no massive forests block your view, and photography, even on your cellphone, is magical. Colors become richer, and deep shadows and rays of light create vivid effects on iconic formations like Double Arch, Balanced Rock, The Windows, Delicate Arch and Devils Garden.”
Shenandoah National Park
“Hands down the best park for fall exploration is Shenandoah National Park,” said Michael Collins, REI experiences program manager. “Fall in Shenandoah is all about expansive views of the changing leaves, crisp beautiful weather, and great opportunities to see wildlife.”
In addition to the “jaw-dropping” vistas, he touted the park’s proximity to Washington, D.C., and thus multiple major airports.
“The only public road through the park is Skyline Drive,” Collins added. “True to its name, it runs 105 miles along the ridgeline of the Blue Ridge Mountains and has 75 pull-offs allowing you to soak in views of the Shenandoah Valley and Massanutten Mountains to the west and Virginia’s Piedmont region to the east. If fall foliage views aren’t enough, come for the chance to see one of the park’s wild black bears getting ready for winter or try to keep track of the number of white tail deer eating along Skyline Drive.”
Yellowstone National Park
For Kate Brassington, co-founder of The Family Vacation Guide, the best national park to visit in the fall is Yellowstone.
She pointed to its 2.2 million acres of wilderness, 37 landmarks (such as the Old Faithful geyser and the Grand Prismatic Spring) and over 50 mammal species, many of which are most active during the fall.
“Throughout the fall season, Wyoming is an absolute delight,” Brassington said, noting that summer warmth extends into autumn. “It is one of the most picturesque states to experience fall foliage around late September to mid-November, as the scenic park will offer beautiful changing colors.”
“The West American state is also the least occupied state, offering mountain ranges, high plains and dense forests,” she added. “One of the greatest spots for leaf peeping!”
With the recent flooding in Yellowstone, be sure to look into the park’s accessibility and road conditions before planning your trip.
Yosemite National Park
“It’s hard to beat Eastern parks like Acadia and Shenandoah when it comes to autumn colors, but I’m partial to some of the parks where you don’t expect the trees to run riot in the fall. There’s nothing more photogenic than a flash of red, orange and yellow leaves against the gray granite walls of Yosemite Valley.” said Joe Yogerst, travel expert and author of National Geographic’s “50 States, 500 Campgrounds.”
He also encouraged parkgoers to be understanding when it comes to timing their visits for peak fall foliage.
“Although the National Weather Service and The Weather Channel try to predict when the leaves will change, climate change has made the forecast a lot harder than it used to be,” Yogerst said. “Over the last few years, I’ve tried to catch the peak colors at various places and always seem to get there a week too early or a week too late. Unfortunately, it’s not an absolutely exact science.”