Travel

A Visual Guide to the 9 Best National Parks to Visit in the Fall

As the scorching heat of summer yields to the gentle autumnal breeze, a magnificent transformation unfolds across the landscapes of our nation’s most treasured natural wonders.

During this season, vibrant shades of green, gold, and crimson paint the scenery as trees engage in a mesmerizing dance with the shifting seasons. For those with a taste for adventure and a love for nature, fall unveils a unique opportunity to explore the splendor of the great outdoors in a whole new dimension.

From the serene shores of pristine lakes to the towering peaks of majestic mountains, the 15 best national parks to visit in the fall of the United States offer a front-row ticket to this captivating spectacle. In this article, we embark on a journey through the top national parks that shine their brightest in the fall. In these hallowed grounds, every trail, vista, and overlook promises a symphony of colors and an opportunity to witness nature’s grand finale before winter’s embrace.

So, prepare your bags, grab your camera, and let’s unveil the captivating allure of these remarkable destinations that come to life with the enchantment of fall.

Best National Parks in USA to Visit this Fall

In this visual guide, we’ll lead you on a journey through the 15 best national parks to explore during fall, when the landscapes are adorned in rich hues of red, gold, and orange. From the iconic Acadia National Park in Maine to the enchanting Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, these parks offer a front-row seat to nature’s grand finale.

01. Zion National Park

Zion National Park

Zion National Park stands out as an exceptional fall destination for several compelling reasons. First and foremost, the autumn weather offers a much more pleasant experience compared to the scorching summer temperatures. Secondly, the changing colors of cottonwoods and the surrounding vegetation beautifully complement the towering sandstone walls within Zion Canyon. Lastly, the fall season brings a welcome respite from the bustling crowds that characterize the peak summer holiday period. While it can still be moderately busy with visitors eager to witness the seasonal transformation, the crowds are notably thinner than during the summer months.

LocationπŸ“: 

Zion National Park is situated near the charming town of Springdale in southwestern Utah. 

How to Get There 🚘: 

There are various ways to access Zion National Park, with some of the most popular options being:

  • Flying into Las Vegas and embarking on the scenic 2.5-hour drive to Springdale.
  • Flying into Salt Lake City and journeying south for approximately 4 hours to reach Springdale.
  • Driving north for 4.5 hours from Grand Canyon National Park and entering via Springdale.
  • Driving west for 2 hours from Bryce Canyon National Park.

02. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) is renowned as one of the country’s most iconic fall destinations. The park’s abundant deciduous trees adorn the mountains with a splendid tapestry of red, orange, and yellow hues. It’s a truly mesmerizing sight, drawing visitors from all corners of the country who seek to witness the peak of autumn colors here.

Location πŸ“: 

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. 

How to Get There 🚘: 

There are several entrances to the park, with the main three being the northern entrances in Gatlinburg (TN), Townsend (TN), and the southern entrance in Cherokee (NC).

Best Time to Visit ⏲️: 

While the exact timing can vary from year to year depending on the weather, the prime period for vibrant fall colors typically occurs around mid-October.

Where to Stay πŸ›οΈ:

The park offers multiple campgrounds that provide excellent accommodations during your visit. Some of the most popular options include Cade’s Cove, Cosby, Elkmont, and Smokemont campgrounds. For those who prefer not to camp, there are hotel choices in nearby towns, with Gatlinburg being a convenient location. The Greystone Lodge on the River is an affordable and appealing option right in the heart of town. Alternatively, you can opt for a beautiful cabin with a hot tub that offers breathtaking mountain views.

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03. Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park has long been a beloved fall destination for East Coast travelers in the United States. It offers a picturesque setting for scenic drives, immersion in nature, and the opportunity to unwind in Bar Harbor while savoring delectable meals. A fascinating tidbit is that it is home to the first place in the United States where you can witness the sunrise each morning. 

Location πŸ“:

Acadia National Park is situated on the coast of Maine, near the northeasternmost point of the U.S. 

How to Get There 🚘: 

Most visitors access Acadia National Park by flying into Portland (ME) and then embarking on a 3-hour drive north to the park. Alternatively, they may undertake an extended road trip from their residences in the northeastern states. 

Best Time to Visit ⏲️: 

The prime time to experience the vibrant fall foliage in Acadia is generally from early October to mid-October. You may want to explore my New England Fall Road Trip Itinerary as a valuable complement to your October adventure in Acadia.

Where to Stay πŸ›οΈ:

Acadia National Park is unique in that it shares an island with residential areas and the charming town of Bar Harbor. Consequently, you have a plethora of accommodation options in close proximity to the park. One choice is the Bar Harbor Grand Hotel, conveniently located in downtown Bar Harbor, near delightful dining options (consider checking out Side Street Cafe!). Alternatively, you can opt for a cozy homestay in the Albert Meadow Hideaway.

04. Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park is undeniably one of the top national parks to explore during the fall season. The summer crowds have dissipated, the aspen trees transformed into a resplendent golden hue, and there’s even a chance that the mountains might receive a dusting of snow, creating a picturesque landscape. As if that’s not enough, the elk rut is in full swing, offering the opportunity to witness male elk engaging in fierce battles to demonstrate their strength and win the affections of the females in their herd. The echoing bugling of elk is a mesmerizing spectacle.

Location πŸ“:

Rocky Mountain National Park is situated in Northern Colorado, just outside of Estes Park. To navigate there, rely on Google Maps for precise directions.

How to Get There 🚘: 

The majority of visitors access Rocky Mountain National Park via a scenic 1.5-hour drive from Denver.

Best Time to Visit ⏲️: 

The peak of fall colors in Rocky Mountain National Park is usually experienced in mid-September. However, like in many other parks, this can vary significantly from year to year, depending on the weather. Nonetheless, mid-September is typically a reliable timeframe for vibrant foliage.

Where to Stay πŸ›οΈ:

Rocky Mountain National Park boasts several campgrounds, with the most popular ones being Moraine Park Campground, Glacier Basin Campground, and Timber Creek Campground (the sole option on the park’s west side).

For those seeking more conventional hotel accommodations, the nearby town of Estes Park offers numerous choices. The Stanley Hotel famously featured in the movie “The Shining,” is a unique and intriguing option. Alternatively, you can consider staying at the Downtown Luxury Loft or the Mountain Retreat Cabin.

05. Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park is undoubtedly one of the most exceptional national parks to explore during the fall season. As the cool temperatures gradually settle in the region, the shifting colors impart a heightened beauty to Jackson Hole. The mountains may receive a delicate dusting of snow, adding to the majestic atmosphere of these towering peaks. Wildlife becomes more active as they prepare for the winter, and everyone savors the last moments of regular outdoor activities before the snow blankets the landscape. While Grand Teton National Park’s allure spans all seasons, fall stands out as a personal favorite.

Location πŸ“:

Grand Teton National Park is situated in northwestern Wyoming, near the Idaho border. You can find precise directions on Google Maps.

How to Get There 🚘: 

Accessing Grand Teton National Park can be a bit challenging due to its remote location. The park is close to Jackson Hole Airport, but it’s a small and potentially pricey option. A more viable choice is to fly into Salt Lake City, Utah, and drive for approximately 5 hours to reach the park. Alternatively, you can opt for a flight to Denver, although the drive from there takes about 8.5 hours and is relatively uneventful. If you have extra time, consider visiting Yellowstone National Park, which is nearby.

Best Time to Visit ⏲️: 

Fall colors often peak during the third week of September, however, this is extremely unpredictable and might vary depending on the weather that year.

Where to Stay πŸ›οΈ:

Thankfully, given the park’s proximity to Jackson, you have numerous lodging options. You can stay within the park itself at one of the many lodges or campgrounds (Jenny Lake is highly recommended), keeping you in close proximity to the park’s attractions.

Alternatively, after your adventures, you can take a short drive to Jackson and conclude the day with a delightful restaurant meal and stay in a more upscale hotel such as you could stay at the Mountain Modern Motel or the Springhill Suites by Marriott. If you’re interested in renting cabins, Teton Village offers better options, like a bright and spacious condo with access to a pool and jacuzzi.

06. Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park, adorned with deciduous trees, transforms into a golden paradise in the fall. Similar to the Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah is an iconic destination for experiencing the abundance and vibrancy of fall colors on the East Coast. The park undergoes a breathtaking metamorphosis as the hues of autumn envelop it, and there’s nothing quite like embarking on scenic drives through the park while the fall leaves gracefully descend around you. If you’re planning a visit, be sure to check out my comprehensive guide to the Best Things To Do in Shenandoah National Park.

Location πŸ“:

Shenandoah National Park is situated in Northern Virginia, approximately 5 hours to the Northeast of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You can obtain precise directions on Google Maps.

How to Get There 🚘: 

The nearest major airport to Shenandoah is located in Washington D.C. From there, it’s only about an hour’s drive to the park’s northern entrance. Additionally, several other major cities are within a 4-hour drive from the park, including Charlotte (NC), Baltimore (ME), and Pittsburgh (PA).

Best Time to Visit ⏲️: 

The prime time to witness the stunning fall colors in the park is typically around mid-October. However, this can vary based on elevation and weather conditions, but mid-October is usually a reliable estimate.

Where to Stay πŸ›οΈ:

Shenandoah National Park offers some exceptionally picturesque campgrounds, especially during the fall season. Among the most popular ones are Loft Mountain Campground, Big Meadows Campground, and Mathews Arm Campground.

There’s also a range of lodging options, such as the upscale Skyland and the Big Meadows Lodge. Additionally, you might consider private cabins like the Overlook Cabin and the Falling Leaf Cabin.

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07. Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park, with its scorching summer temperatures, is a destination I typically avoid from April until the end of September. However, once the cooler fall temperatures settle in, Death Valley truly becomes a magical place to explore.

Location πŸ“:

Death Valley National Park is situated in Eastern California and reportedly extends into Nevada as well. 

How to Get There 🚘: 

The nearest major city to Death Valley is Las Vegas, which is less than a 2-hour drive from the park’s eastern entrance. Alternatively, if you’re traveling from Los Angeles to the west, it’s about a 4-hour drive to the park entrance. If you’re coming from LA, you might consider adding a visit to Joshua Tree National Park to your itinerary.

Best Time to Visit ⏲️: 

In my opinion, the optimal time to visit Death Valley is from mid-October until mid-November. During this period, daytime temperatures are comfortably warm, and the nights are pleasantly cool without being too cold. However, any time from the beginning of October through mid-December is also a great choice.

Where to Stay πŸ›οΈ:

Due to the park’s vast size, staying within the park itself is crucial if you want to avoid long daily drives. Fortunately, there are several resort and hotel-style accommodations within the park, including The Ranch at Death Valley and the Panamint Springs Resort. For camping enthusiasts, there are various options to choose from, such as the popular Furnace Creek Campground, Sunset Campground, and the campground at Stovepipe Wells.

08. Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park is an incredible destination to explore in the fall and boasts some of the most breathtaking scenic drives in the country. Visitors who venture to Glacier National Park during the autumn season can expect a quieter park, abundant wildlife sightings, and mountains adorned with golden trees. While some facilities may close in the fall, requiring a bit more self-sufficiency, it’s an exceptionally beautiful time to experience the park!

Location πŸ“:

Glacier National Park is situated in Northern Montana, near the Canadian border. 

How to Get There 🚘: 

Getting to Glacier National Park can be a bit of a journey due to its remote location. Your closest option is to fly into the small Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, MT. However, flights here are limited and can be relatively expensive. Alternatively, you can consider flying into Missoula (MT), Calgary (Canada), or Great Falls (MT) with some additional driving. An unusual but scenic option is to take the Amtrak, which stops year-round at the west entrance of the park and seasonally at the east entrance.

Best Time to Visit ⏲️: 

While the exact timing can vary slightly from year to year, the peak of fall colors in Glacier National Park is usually observed in late September and early October.

Where to Stay πŸ›οΈ:

The park offers many beautiful campgrounds operated by the National Park Service, which are excellent choices for staying as close as possible to the natural beauty. For a more unique experience, I can personally recommend Johnsons of St. Mary Campground at the eastern entrance, where you shouldn’t miss their delicious home-cooked meals.

Additionally, there are hotel accommodations available at both the west and east entrances. On the west side, consider the Great Northern Resort and Lodge, and on the east side, the St. Mary Village Hotel is a convenient option. If you prefer a cabin experience, West Glacier offers options like the Adobe House, which can comfortably accommodate up to five guests.

09. Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park offers a delightful experience once the scorching summer temperatures wane and the cool embrace of fall takes hold. While it might not be renowned for its fall foliage, Big Bend is a fantastic destination for exploration in the autumn. This is due to the pleasant temperatures and the relative ease of escaping the crowds.

Location πŸ“:

Big Bend National Park is situated in Southwest Texas, right along the Mexican border.

How to Get There 🚘: 

The closest airports served by major airlines are located in Midland/Odessa (TX), approximately 230 miles away, and El Paso (TX), just over 300 miles away. Given the park’s remote location, flying in and renting a car is the most practical option.

Best Time to Visit ⏲️: 

The ideal time to visit Big Bend National Park is from October through November. During this period, you can expect beautiful warm days with moderate humidity, followed by cooler nights that remain comfortably mild.

Where to Stay πŸ›οΈ:

There are several lodging options near Big Bend National Park. The Terlingua Ranch offers eco cabins powered by wind and rain, providing incredible views across the park. The Chisos Suite is another attractive choice. Additionally, there are four different campgrounds within the park itself, catering to budget-conscious travelers and those seeking a more immersive outdoor experience.

Bottom Line

As we conclude our visual journey through the 09 best national parks to visit in the fall, we hope you’re inspired to embark on your own adventure and witness the captivating beauty of autumn. The United States is blessed with an array of parks, each offering a unique perspective on the season’s vibrant transformation. So, grab your camera, don your hiking boots, and set out to explore the kaleidoscope of colors that nature unfurls during this magical time of year.

FAQs

1. When is the best time to visit these national parks in the fall?

Fall foliage in these parks typically peaks from late September to mid-October. However, exact timing can vary by park and elevation.

2. What should I pack for a fall visit to these national parks?

Be prepared for varying weather conditions, so pack layers, warm clothing, and waterproof gear. Don’t forget sturdy hiking boots and a camera to capture the stunning landscapes.

3. Are these parks crowded during the fall season?

Fall is a popular time to visit, so expect moderate to high crowds, especially during weekends and peak foliage times. Consider visiting on weekdays for a quieter experience.

4. Can I camp in these national parks during the fall?

Yes, many national parks offer camping facilities. Be sure to make reservations in advance, as campgrounds can fill up quickly during the fall season.

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