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Ten Best National Parks to Visit in the Fall

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Fall is the best time of year to visit our national parks. The weather across the country begins to cool and the leaves change their colors. The crowds have begun to return home, dropping from their summer highs. For many of our national parks, there is no better time than visiting during the fall months of September, October and November. That’s certainly the case for this top ten list of the best national parks to visit in the fall. Much like with my top ten summer national parks, I’ve taken a comprehensive approach to ranking these parks. This include factors such as Weather, Crowdedness, Beauty, Uniqueness, Lodging, Activities, and Accessibility. Without a doubt, you’ll find no better analyzed take on what the best national parks to visit this fall are. Don’t just take my word for it though, get out there and check them out for yourself!

All images included are courtesy of the National Park Service

10. Congaree National Park, South Carolina

It might seem strange to pick the only national park in South Carolina for a list like this, but that’s exactly why I’ve done so. Congaree is a highly underrated national park that often gets bypassed in favor of its more popular cousins like Great Smoky Mountains NP or even the Blue Ridge Parkway. However, when it comes to the best national parks to visit in the fall, you definitely need to include Congaree in the conversation. Congaree’s primary feature is the primeval old-growth forests it protects, providing wonderful fall colors. Those coming for the leaf peeping will find its season much later than most on this making it a great choice for families.

Congaree National Park is one of the ten best national parks to visit in the fall
Even the deep south can have some amazing fall colors

These old-growth forests also provide ample opportunities to simply enjoy nature. For those who love water, Congaree offers opportunities for canoeing and kayaking. This is a great way to enjoy Congaree’s beautiful fall weather and colors. Additionally the park has miles of parks which wind through its old growth forest. With it’s status as one of the least visited national parks, you’ll find plenty of solitude here. It’s exactly the kind of park that is ideal for lovers of nature’s simple gifts.

Congaree truly brings a swampy southern feel with fall

Despite all its great traits for a fall trip, it does have a couple of drawbacks to consider. The first being that outside of some hikes and canoeing, you’re not gonna find much else to do. Congaree doesn’t feature stunning vistas or breathtaking views, so make sure you enjoy the smaller beauties it does offer. The park is relatively close to Columbia, SC which provides most of the lodging opportunities. It still remains one of the more difficult parks to reach unless you live within a days drive. However, if you’ve got #4 in your plans, consider adding Congaree as well!

9. New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, West Virginia

America’s newest national park is also one of the best national parks to visit in the fall. New River Gorge has been a national preserve for many years, but it’s upgrade to national park has given it additional attention. It’s located in an absolutely beautiful part of the Appalachian Mountains as they run through West Virginia. The fall colors in this park are some of the absolute best in this country, though they come fairly early in the season thanks to their elevation. However, leaf peeping isn’t the only reason to make a trip to West Virginia to visit New River.

New River Gorge's iconic bridge is why it's one of the ten best national parks to visit in the fall
One of America’s most iconic bridges is even more amazing surrounded by fall foliage

New River Gorge is a sportsman’s paradise. In keeping its status as a national preserve, New River continues to allow hunting on a large portion of its lands. Plenty of fun can also be had on the water. Fishing, white water rafting, and paddleboarding are all popular activities. Hikers can enjoy hundreds of miles of rugged trails across the park. Even climbers can get in on the action! With this multitude of ways to spend time among the crisp air and vibrant colors of the park, its easy to see why its on this list.

Sandstone Falls is a sight to behold at New River Gorge

Yet, when we take a look at New River Gorge through the lens of my analytical analysis, this is where it struggles to get higher up this list. One of the biggest drawbacks is the relative remoteness. It’s more than five hours from Washington, D.C, three hours from Roanoke, and even over an hour from Charleston, WV. It also has a pretty severe lack of camping, all of which is primitive. Even when looking at motels or hotels nearby, you’ll be hard pressed to find much. Despite these drawbacks, New River Gorge is still easily one of the top ten national parks to visit in the fall!

8. Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon brings a couple of its own unique traits to this top ten list. For one thing, it is a massive canyon (something the other parks can’t claim). Two, it’s the only park on the list that doesn’t really have any fall foliage to speak of. However, this doesn’t make it an less worthy of addition to this group. Grand Canyon National Park is still one the best fall national parks to visit for all of its other outstanding qualities.

The Grand Canyon's amazing vistas are one of the reason it is one of the ten best national parks to visit in the fall
There is an immense amount of history in this single photo

The park is one of the more touristy of all the national parks, unless you’re willing to brave hikes down into the canyon. However, the beauty of the vistas is nearly unmatched. Fall still sees large crowds, but they begin to decline throughout October and into November. This means you can take in all there is to see, without seeing quite so many others doing the same. The weather also is greatly improved. You’ll find much cooler temps that make camping or hiking easier.

The colors might not change, but neither do these stunning vistas

The downsides to all this is that the park is still very busy. It remains the third busiest park in the country throughout the fall. This peaks dramatically during weekends or any holidays. While the park is by no means remote, it is very difficult to do much more than stand on the edge and look down unless you’re going all the way in. Keep that in mind when choosing which park you’ll make a trip to this fall. The Grand Canyon is still a stellar option, but keep reading to see even better ones!

7. Acadia National Park, Maine

For many, Acadia National Park is THE national park to visit in the fall. It’s well known for its stunning fall colors. As New England’s only national park, it grabs attention for a large portion of the population. Acadia is a beloved park among NPS enthusiasts, and rightfully so. It’s situated on the rocky Maine coastline, and the only park on this list that features both breathtaking ocean views with gorgeous fall foliage.

Acadia National Park is one of the ten best national parks to visit in the fall
Fall starts to arrive in Coastal Maine by early September

One of the standout features of Acadia is it’s accessibility. It scores the highest of all national parks in this category, which makes it a fantastic choice for everyone. The park is also one of the premier locations for enjoying the fall foliage. The season here isn’t the longest, but it’s hard to beat the peak weeks. Pretty much every hike will feature fabulous colors during the autumn. Visitors will also be able to easily access the town of Bar Harbor as well. The Island Explorer shuttle is a highly recommended way for everyone to access the park during the fall.

Acadia’s wonderful colors truly shine in the fall

People flock here from around the country to enjoy this fantastic combination, which contributes to one of the reasons it doesn’t rank a bit higher on this list. It’s the fifth busiest park on average during the fall months. Combined with it’s relatively compact size, and it can be extremely crowded during these months. To beat the crowds (and associated increased hotel costs), consider visiting late in the season or middle of the week when families are at home. Despite the crowds, Acadia is still a top-notch park that simply must be seen during the fall.

6. Zion National Park, Utah

Fall in Zion National Park is one of those things that will catch you off guard. It’s not necessarily known for its brilliant colors like some others on this list. Yet, it still receives a yearly makeover as the weather begins to cool. Considered by many to be one of the most beautiful parks in the entire country, this subtle change is a refreshing way to see the park.

Zion National Parks color changes might be subtle but it is still one of the ten best national parks to visit in the fall
Zion’s desert landscape is only highlighted further when fall arrives

Zion’s natural beauty changes little with these seasonal changes. What does change is the weather. Like many of Utah’s Mighty Five, Zion is a desert. This means when the fall months arrive, so do cooler temps. As a park focused all about getting out and hiking, fall is the absolute best time of year to take advantage of this. I recommend making your trip in Late October. You’ll find crisp air, as well as far fewer visitors than the rest of the year.

Even out of the way locations in Zion feature brilliant colors

Speaking of visitors, Zion is by no means a quiet place in the fall. Much like Acadia and others on this list, the park can see in excess of 15,000 people a day! You’ll still need to arrive early to beat these crowds. You’ll also be somewhat limited in where you can stay inside the park. Zion only has 300 campsites and a single lodge on site. This means you’ll be at the mercy of potentially expensive hotels or motels just outside the park. While Zion doesn’t quite crack the top five of this list, combining it with a visit to any (or all) of Utah’s other national parks is a fantastic way to spend a week or so in the fall!

5. Glacier National Park, Montana

When thinking of great national parks to visit in the fall, Glacier sometimes slips past people’s consideration. Despite being one of the most beautiful national parks in the country, it’s also one of the most remote in the lower 48 states. Glacier is also most often thought of as a summertime park. However, I’m here to dissuade you from that notion. The colors of fall come early to Glacier, which makes it a prime candidate for an early fall vacation.

Glacier National Park might have a short fall season but that doesn't stop it from being one of the ten best national parks to visit in the fall
Hard to top a fall sunrise like that!

Visiting Glacier in the fall is all about timing. The park will remain extremely busy throughout the early weeks of September. Yet as cooler temperatures roll in, the crowds greatly disperse. The visitation in October is only 27% of what it is in September. This provides far less people on the trails, better access to Going-to-the-Sun Road, and better availability for sleeping arrangements. On the flip side of this, best fall foliage colors will come in mid-September which is likely to be the tail end of the busy season.

The stunning nature of Glacier National Park is highlighted in the fall

Whenever you do choose to visit, you’ll be in for a real treat. The hundreds of miles of hikes in the park offer something for everyone. This includes a plethora of options for backcountry hiking and camping. This is a wonderful way to get some solitude and avoid crowds if you visit during September. You’ve also got access to some wonderful lakes and rivers. These provide plenty of ways to enjoy time near the water as the season comes to a close. Glacier is a busy park right til the moment it’s not. However, don’t let that dissuade you from making a visit in the fall.

4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NC/TN

Much like Acadia before it, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is often at the top of best fall destinations. These ancient, rolling mountains draw in visitors from around the world. Their mystical beauty is further enhanced during the fall. The vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows take on new life in the Smokies, beyond their already beautiful nature. I love the Smokies and it’s by far one of my favorite national parks to visit in the fall.

The golden colors abound in the Smokies making it one of the ten best national parks to visit in the fall
Golden trees create gold medal views

However, much like Acadia, it also has one major drawback that keeps it a bit further down this list. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is FAR busier than any other park in the country. This only gets turned up to 11 during the fall. The sheer number of people who visit don’t just make it the most popular park, but the most crowded as well. It’s the closest park to Atlanta, Charlotte, and other metros in the southeast. With its rugged nature, most people will stick to the easily accessible areas. These are great for leaf peeping, if you can see past everyone else around you.

Cades Cove is a class spot to spend time in the Smokies

Should you be willing to do a bit of hiking, however, you’ll be really rewarded with some solitude. The weather this time of year is absolutely perfect for hiking and camping (or even overnight hikes). It’s also a very family friendly park that makes for a great family vacation. While the crowds will flock to places like Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, these towns offer ample lodging. Alternatively, stay in some of the smaller towns in North Carolina to still be close to the park without quite as many people. GSMNP is all-around a top tier park, that you’ve got to see at least once during the fall.

3. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Spoiler Alert: Yellowstone National Park is not on this list. The biggest reason for that is Grand Teton National Park beats it out for beauty during the fall. That’s not a knock on Yellowstone per se, but an acknowledgement that if you’re gonna travel to Wyoming to visit one of the best national parks in the fall, it should be Grand Teton. Honestly, fall is probably the best season to visit Grand Teton National Park. It features some stunningly beautiful hikes that are hard to beat.

Grand Teton National Park beats out Yellowstone to become one of the ten best national parks to visit in the fall
Take some time in the back country while in Grand Teton National Park

Mother Nature will be on full display during your visit to Grand Teton National Park. Many animals will follow their yearly migration paths through the park in the fall. It’s mating season for many, so you’ll often hear the sounds of bull elk across the park. With the stunning beauty of the park bathed in bright yellows, its easy to feel like there is no more serene place on earth. Beyond the bounty that mother nature has to offer, Grand Teton features numerous ways to enjoy them. Boating or fishing on Jenny Lake, horseback riding along the trails, or even some mountaineering for the adventurous.

How do you beat a view like this during the fall?

The park scores highly in a number of areas, but does notch a couple low scores. The first comes from its remoteness. There are no top 25 airports, top 50 metros, or even interstates nearby. A few US highways provide access, but its one of the more remote parts of the lower 48 states. You can lump a trip to Yellowstone in to increase the bang for your buck however, so that does help out. The second drawback is the short season. Most of the park begins to close by Mid-October, yet snow can fall as early as Labor Day. If you make it to this park early in the season, you’ll quickly understand why it’s one of America’s best national parks to visit in the fall.

2. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Ranking Shenandoah above the Great Smoky Mountains NP might be controversial among national park lovers, but I don’t think its a hard choice to make. Shenandoah National Park benefits heavily from its stunning fall colors. Add on to that the absolutely fabulous Skyline Drive which runs through the entire length of the park, and you’ve easily got one of the best scenic drives for fall foliage in America. Shenandoah is simply a fantastic park all around, making it one of the must visit national parks each fall.

Shenandoah’s colors are nearly unmatched during the fall

This is certainly the busiest time of year for Shenandoah National Park. Yet, even with that being the case the park won’t necessarily feel as crowded as many other parks. Most of the camping or other lodging will be filled on the weekends, but you’ll still be able to find places to stay during the week. As one of the closest parks to Washington, D.C it becomes a popular getaway for those folks. Other than the potential for some crowds, there really isn’t much bad to say about Shenandoah.

Skyline Drive is a big reason why Shenandoah National Park is one of the ten best national parks to visit in the fall
Skyline Drive is one of those must do road trips

As probably the best park in the country for fall colors, a visit here in the fall is simply a must. Skyline Drive is a simply sublime road trip. A pro-tip for the fall is to start in the south and head north to avoid traffic. It’s easy to do the trip in two days, but take your time in exploring the park. There is an absurd number of great hikes throughout the park. Really no matter what you’re looking for in a hike you’ll find it. Stunning vistas, gorgeous waterfalls, and backcountry trips are all on offer here. For the brave, you could even hike the Appalachian Trail through the park. I love Shenandoah National Park and I’m sure it’ll be one of your favorite national parks to visit in the fall!

1. Yosemite National Park, California

Considered by many to be the crown jewel of the national park system, Yosemite National Park is nearly in a league of its own. Fall is a fantastic time to visit this national park and it takes the top spot on this list for a plethora of reasons. While I normally shy away from naming one of the big dogs at the top of a list like this, it wouldn’t be doing the beauty of Yosemite justice by leaving it off or pushing it down from its well deserved #1 spot of the best national parks to visit in the fall.

Yosemite National Park is hands down one of the ten best national parks to visit in the fall
Yosemite Falls can be breathtaking if you can catch it during the fall

Before diving into why Yosemite is the #1 park on this list, it’s important to call out few important points. The first is that Yosemite Falls is often dry by this time of year. Other falls, like Bridalveil, are often at their weakest flows as well. It’s also not a park known for spectacular fall foliage, simply because most of the trees are evergreens. There is certainly color change, but it’s not the main draw.

Yosemite’s colors aren’t the biggest draw during the fall

What is the main draw for visiting Yosemite National Park in the fall is the mind-blowing beauty of it all. Yosemite Valley is in many ways mother nature’s finest work. The scenic drive along the Tioga Road stuns for nearly it’s whole length. Even if you aren’t planning to take on Yosemite’s famous climbing yourself, you can watch others do it. Plus, there are hikes for literally all skill levels making it one of the best parks for the entire family. Fall sees the crowds begin to diminish and cooler weather arrive to the valley floor. It’s honestly hard to do this park justice with just words. It all really must be seen to be believed, if you can even believe it once you’re there!

Other Great Fall National Park Service Locations

While this post obviously focused on which national parks you should visit in the fall, there are a lot more than “proper” national parks you could see. The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the best fall foliage options out there. The Blue Ridge Parkway links Shenandoah National Park with Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Doing a road trip along its length (and Skyline Drive) is one epic way to take in the amazing autumn colors.

Looking Glass Rock is an iconic sight off the Blue Ridge Parkway

The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway is another choice for those who want to spend some time on the water. There is canoeing and kayaking available for most skill levels. You’ll get a chance to enjoy some solitude in one of the least developed portions of the Midwest. Yet, you’ll still be able to easily access this thanks to it’s relative closeness to Minneapolis. It’s pretty much the waterborne version of the Blue Ridge Parkway!

Effigy Mounds National Monument combines some brilliant fall colors with Native American history. It’s one of the best preserved mound sites in America. It also provides some amazing opportunities to enjoy fall along the Mississippi River. If you’re driving the Great River Road through Iowa, you’ll come right past it so make sure to stop along the way.

Fire Point at Effigy Mounds provides an amazing fall vista of the Mississippi River

If you want to combine pristine night skies with your day time leaf peeping, check out Buffalo National River. It has recently been classified as a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association. Located in North Central Arkansas, Buffalo River is a perfect mix for day and night. As a national river, it also has ample opportunities for boating and paddling you can take full advantage of.

Final Thoughts On Visiting National Parks in the Fall

Fall is probably my favorite season for visiting our national parks. Crowds are typically (though not always) lower. Temperatures are cooler and more pleasant. The changing of the seasons bring new life to each of these wonderful parks.

In every case though, you’ll need to plan ahead. Look to still visit in the middle of the week. Be willing to stay a bit further away in order to reduce costs if you can’t camp in the park. Lastly, find a way that’s most enjoyable for you to see a park. Scenic drives and casual hikes are great for me. However, there are plenty of ways to venture into the backcountry and away from the crowds. Whatever suits your style, there is plenty of adventure out there among America’s best national parks to visit in the fall.

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