I’m a retired National Park Service ranger. I spent a career working in parks from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from border to border. Fall is my favorite time to take my own vacation, and these are some parks I’d recommend.
Fall travel doesn’t always have to be about foliage. It can be about beating the heat, beating the crowds, or a combination of multiple factors.
In terms of foliage, Eastern parks have hardwood forests with a palate of vibrant colors. As for the evergreen forests of the West, not so much. Nature has provided the aspen and a few others out west, so you get yellow, with a bit of orange now and then. So some western parks will be on the list.
We’ll go over some all-time classics, some little-known gems, and some places where the fall means being at the right place at the right time.
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
I’d be remiss to start with anything other than this all-American fall color extravaganza.
The Great Smoky Mountains is America’s most visited national park, and fall color season means it’s going to be busy. Weekends will be busier than weekdays, but peak color season in the Smokies is like Mount Rushmore on the Fourth of July — an experience you’ll remember for a lifetime, and one you will not experience alone.
The NPS manages a corridor of fall color up and down the Appalachian mountains. It starts with Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the north, and continues 469 miles down the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Smokies in the South. It’s peak color somewhere along that route all autumn long, so if it’s a little early for peak color in the Smokies, head north on the Blue Ridge Parkway and you’ll find it.
Pro Tip: The most consistent way to beat the crowds is to be up to watch the sunrise.
2. Gettysburg National Military Park
The traditional time to visit a military park is on the anniversary of the battle; for Gettysburg, that’s early July. By visiting Gettysburg in the fall, two things can happen: the rolling hills of Pennsylvania give you amazing fall colors, or the leaves have fallen and you get a much improved view of much of the battlefield.
Pro Tip: Visit President Eisenhower’s home while you’re here. Many people are surprised to find that the only home the Eisenhowers ever owned is located adjacent to the park, in what is now Eisenhower National Historic Site. And the inevitable quip — since he acquired it in 1948, the farm has been known President Eisenhower’s Gettysburg address.
3. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
When talking about crowds, I mentioned Mount Rushmore and the Fourth of July. If you just wait until fall, you’ll see the Black Hills unlike most see them — with yellow aspens and without the summer crowds. The sculpture’s the same, but the environs are serene.
ProTip: A Mount Rushmore trip combines well with a visit to other nearby NPS areas: Wind Cave, Jewel Cave, Badlands, and Minuteman Missile.
4. Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park used to be named Congaree Swamp, which gives you a clue as to what the primary feature is like, and in summer, it can be rather warm. And of course, there are bugs. Sounds a bit like the Everglades.
What Congaree has over Everglades is trees. Lots of trees. Record-size old-growth deciduous trees, with lots and lots of big colorful leaves. So when cool weather arrives, it’s a leaf-a-palooza of colors wafting down and gently flowing on the waters. The bug situation improves as well, but bring spray.
Pro Tip: It’s a wetland. So although there are some boardwalks and some hiking, to fully appreciate this park, you need to canoe. The park website has a list of commercial tour operators and outfitters that can bring canoes into the park and take you on a tour.
5. Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument
Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument is as rough and remote an area as you’ll find in the lower 48. It’s managed by the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, and is accessed from St. George, Utah.
Because it’s difficult to access, the park is amazingly undisturbed in many areas. One can easily go a day or a week without seeing another vehicle. I’m putting it on this list because this type of experience is on the endangered list. While the park is protected, eventually the area will be affected by population increase and improved transportation.
Travel with a commercial tour operator that has a permit from the NPS to operate in the park. This requires pre-planning. This is a no-pavement park, and one for only the seriously prepared. (You wouldn’t think about taking your car on one of those Moab Jeep tours — this is in the same vein.)
If you’re a 4×4 owner, have off-road tires and travel as part of a 4×4 owners club for your first visit. Your cell phone isn’t going to work. You’re going to want a quality map (a paper one) and not your phone or in-car map. A real GPS is good. Oh, and you’ll want to rent a satellite communications device. I mentioned this is a remote area, right?
Why go in the fall? The roads can get quite muddy starting mid-summer due to monsoon rains. They’ll be muddy and snowy in the winter, and muddy in the early spring as the snows melt. Early fall is one of the prime opportunities to experience this park when the roads can be in good shape, and even if you’re on a commercial tour, this means much smoother going.
6. Zion National Park
Visitation at Zion continues to climb due to population growth in the region as well as improved transportation and infrastructure. Wonderful fall weather will ensure the park will be busy. So why is it on my list? Fall color in the less-traveled high country.
There’s a remote section of the park at a higher elevation that’s off the regular tourist run — Kolob Terrace. The Kolob Terrace view is breathtaking, vast, and accessible by a well-maintained paved road. (The road turns to dirt beyond Kolob Reservoir and can turn sketchy, so I can’t recommend it, especially in any sort of wet weather, and especially not for sedans.)
If you’re looking to get above the warmth of the desert quickly and look out over a patchwork of aspen glades, this is worth the drive.
7. Olympic National Park
The compelling reason to visit Olympic in the fall isn’t so much the leaves that turn color — the fish do.
While the rivers of the Olympic peninsula have regular salmon runs in the spring and late summer, the fall classic is the cutthroat trout and steelhead on the Sol Duc River due to its ease of access from the viewing terrace at the Salmon Cascades.
Fish aren’t the only wildlife viewing opportunity. Winter migration means opportunities for birders, especially around the lakes and seashores.
For colorful foliage, check out the areas around Lake Crescent and the Elwah River.
For purposes of avoiding winter weather, consider fall travel in the months of September and October. November is a big question mark depending on elevation and latitude. When traveling in shoulder seasons, it’s wise to keep an eye out for changes in operating hours, whether due to shorter days, weather, or snow. For example, Yosemite’s Tioga pass closes for the winter, usually in early to mid-November, and sometimes with little advance notice.
Finally, the most colorful thing in fall needs to be you whenever you’re out in the woods near any place where it’s hunting season. While many people think hunting isn’t allowed in national parks, it is allowed in several — and on lands adjacent to national parks.