9 of the best national parks to visit in the fall
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If you’re thinking about visiting a national park this fall, you’re in luck. There’s a secret many travelers with flexible schedules have long known: national parks are best in autumn.
Of course, that’s not true of every national park — there are more than a few that are best visited at other times of the year. But, generally speaking, fall can be a spectacular time to visit the nation’s parklands. The temperatures have dropped and the crowds have thinned, meaning you can enjoy the scenery without breaking a sweat or competing with other visitors for a photo.
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Best of all, depending on when and where you travel, you may get the added bonus of experiencing a vibrant display of fall foliage. Just remember, as winter draws nearer, snow can cause road closures at Glacier, Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain National Park.
So plan ahead and get the timing right, and these will be nine of the best national parks to visit in the fall.
Fall is arguably the absolute best time to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park and take in the colorful display of leaves from the observation deck at the peak of Clingman’s Dome.
Or, if you prefer a scenic drive, admire the autumnal hues from Cade’s Cove Loop Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway or the Foothills Parkway (also known as “the Tail of the Dragon”). Fall temperatures in the Smokies are also a great alternative to the oppressive heat that comes with summertime in Tennessee and North Carolina.
TPG social media lead Caitlin Riddell says to be sure to stop by the Apple Barn Village on your way out of the park for their world-famous apple cider, apple butter and pumpkin bread, all of which simply taste better in the fall.
Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado is spectacular during the long, warm days of summer, but it pulls out all the stops for travelers who visit in the fall. Beginning in mid- to late-September, the weather cools down enough for a light jacket in the day, and the crisp evening chill demands a cozy jacket, a warm campfire and a steaming mug of hot cocoa.
During those magical weeks when summer gives way to fall, the aspens are ablaze with shades of gold, while other trees pepper the mountains and fields with pops of orange, red and yellow. Another draw of fall in the Rockies is the elk rut, during which you can hear the elk bugle across the park and neighboring Estes Park. In late September, the area even hosts an annual Elk Fest!
Truthfully, fall is one of the best times to visit many parts of Colorado, so you’ll have your pick of natural wonders even beyond Rocky Mountain National Park.
Related: The best Airbnbs in Colorado
It’s no secret the Northeast has a leg up much of the rest of the country when it comes to experiencing fall foliage at its finest. Acadia National Park starts cooling down in late August, and by mid-October, the park on the coast of Maine is usually experiencing its peak weeks for fall foliage.
As an added bonus, beginning in early October, and lasting until early March, Acadia also has the distinction of being the first place in U.S. to see the sunrise each morning from the 1,530-foot summit of Cadillac Mountain. As the weather cools off and Bar Harbor begins to close down, you can enjoy Acadia with fewer tourists, too — and even grab popovers at the Jordan Pond House Restaurant, before it shutters for the season, without enduring a multihour wait.
If you want to put your points to good use, you can stay at the Holiday Inn Resort Bar Harbor using IHG points. Award rates in October currently start around 27,500 IHG points each night. If you stay on points and have the IHG® Rewards Club Premier Credit Card, the fourth award night will come at no additional charge.
Zion National Park is a very popular national park, which can create crowding issues during the peak summer months. But in fall — especially if you can delay your visit until late in the season — the crowds taper off along with the temperatures.
If you have your heart set on some of the more popular trails, such as Angels Landing or the Narrows, a less-busy autumn day will be a far more enjoyable experience. (Just avoid the fall break, when Utah schools let out for a four-day weekend or an entire week, often in mid- or late-October.)
Fall colors make their way to Zion in late October and early November, and November temperatures often range from the 30s to the 50s — so pack plenty of layers. Also, remember that as visitors disperse for the winter, Zion’s shuttle buses begin running a little less frequently and for fewer hours each day. And the Human History Museum closes at the end of November, after Thanksgiving.
A great place to stay near Zion is at the Springhill Suites in the shadow of the park. You can even redeem the annual up to 50,000-point award night certificate from the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card on nights that cost 50,000 points or fewer.
Another Utah park best seen in autumn is Arches National Park. In addition to glimpses of changing leaves, the temperatures are much more tolerable, with highs in the 70s in October (compared to daily highs in the 90s from June through August). Trust us: The 3-mile hike to the Delicate Arch is easier to manage when the air is cooler.
If you’re hoping to capture some amazing photographs, the autumnal light cast on the red rocks is spectacular — and you’re also more likely to see wildlife if you’re camping in the area. Just remember to visit to avoid before or after those Utah school breaks: Your crowd-free shots will reward you for your efforts.
If you want to use points to stay in nearby Moab, you have many choices including the Hyatt Place Moab for just 8,000 World of Hyatt points per night. The more upscale Hoodoo Moab, a Curio Collection property by Hilton, can be booked in the fall from around 28,000 Hilton Honors points per night.
Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park in Virginia may not have the same nationwide recognition as Arches or Zion, but it holds treasures of its own, especially in the fall.
Shenandoah is known for its fall foliage, which usually peaks in late October or early November. The red, orange and yellow hues signifying the changing of the season can be enjoyed not only during hikes within the park, but also from the serpentine Skyline Drive that runs 105 miles north and south along the Blue Ridge Mountains right through the national park.
As an added perk, you may be able to get some awesome baked goods as a reward for your hike. TPG writer Katie Genter has fond memories of epic blackberry pie here, so be sure and drop by a spot like Skyland for that local specialty.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
On the border berween Texas and New Mexico is Guadalupe Mountain National Park, home to the highest peaks in Texas, along with canyons, dunes, desert, clear night skies and a fossil reef.
The elevation in this park ranges from 3,000 to 8,000 feet, so it isn’t as hot in the summer as you might guess for West Texas, though it can still be warmer and rainier on average than October and November.
A highlight of autumn in the Guadalupe Mountains is the kaleidescopic colors you’ll find in McKittrick Canyon and Pine Canyon. Here, the bigtooth maple trees star in the very colorful foliage show that usually occurs in late October and early November.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park isn’t all that close to, well, anything else, but it could make for a great add-on to a road trip that also includes one of the country’s newest national parks, White Sands, which is approxiamtely 3 hours away in New Mexico.
Not to be confused with the aforementioned White Sands National Park, you’ll find Great Sand Dunes National Park in south-central Colorado.
These dunes cover about 30-square miles and soar to a height of almost 750 feet, making them the highest dunes in North America. And while the dunes are the star of the park, you’ll also find lakes, waterfalls, mountains and forests in this park and preserve. The National Pak Service you’ll enjoy some of the best weather of the year here in September, with an average monthly high of 71 degrees and of low of 42.
Bundle up, and you can head outside after sundown to gaze up at the velvety night sky. This is, after all, one of the nation’s newer Dark Sky Parks, meaning it’s an extraordinary destination for stargazing thanks to the dry air, high elevation and the Sangre de Cristo mountains, which shield the park from light pollution from nearby cities.
Grand Teton National Park
The Tetons are indeed grand in every way, and this park is also very accessible if you can fly into Jackson Hole Airport (JAC), which is located within the national park boundary, just at the base of the mountain range. And if you make the trip, you can use Marriott points per night to stay in nearby Jackson at the Springhill Suites.
According to the National Park Service, the fall season in the Tetons runs from early September until mid-October, with the foliage often peaking around the third week of September. And when the cottonwood trees along the Snake River and the aspens on the hillsides ignite with color, the animals are out preparing for the oncoming winter. You may hear elk bugling, and even see them sparring with each other. Just be aware that late-fall visits here could be met with some closed roads. For example, Teton Park Road closes to cars for the season on Nov. 1.
It’s hard to go wrong with a trip to a national park during the fall. After all, September, October and November are really the best times to get out there and enjoy the crisp, autumnal air before winter blankets everything with snow. Whether you’re seeking lower temperatures and smaller crowds, or you’re purely in pursuit of peak foliage, pack your jacket, bring the camera and get ready to have an unforgettable trip.
Featured image by Matt Anderson Photography/Getty Images
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