Summer trips through the USA’s national parks are a rite of passage. But what if someone told you they’re at their best a couple of months later?
Come fall, our favorite destinations do a costume change, offering new experiences for those looking for an outdoor escape that won’t have them sweating in their tents.
Explore woodlands, deserts and shorelines, observing nature’s brilliant nuances as the season changes – think glorious leaves, more wildlife or clearer views of our galaxy. Below are reasons to visit 10 parks across the country that will make for a perfect autumn getaway. And no, it’s not too late to set off on one.
Some of the world’s biggest trees at Olympic National Park, Washington
You can find plenty of big trees on a road trip around Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, particularly within the boundaries of Olympic National Park. In the park’s one-million-plus acres (400,000 hectares) of wilderness, you can hike into the mountains, wander along the coast and explore the old-growth temperate rainforests. Head for the lowlands of the Sol Duc or Elwha Valleys for groves of Douglas fir and western hemlock. Deeper in the park, moss-covered Sitka spruce and western hemlock stand tall amid the ferns and lichens in the jungle-like Hoh Rain Forest and Quinault Area. And if you’d like to add some vampire lore to your rainforest adventures, stop in the town of Forks, the setting for Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels, where teen Bella Swan falls for an ever-so-handsome vampire.
Eye-catching colors at Acadia National Park, Maine
We couldn’t make this list without including the only national park in New England, a region globally recognized for having some of the most eye-catching autumn colors on the planet. The park is an ideal spot to participate in all the leaf-peeping you can handle. Colors tend to peak around the beginning of October; if you want to track where and when they’re at their best, the Maine state government maintains status updates on its website. The park contains 158 miles of trails that loop around lakes and forests and along rocky shorelines, giving you all the chances to see the many sides of Maine.
Acadia originally belonged to the Wabanaki people, who called the area Pemetic, meaning “the sloped land.” The area was popularized by writers and artists in the late 1800s, and Acadia National Park was established in 1916, the first national park east of the Mississippi.
The many waterfalls and geysers of Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Yellowstone is nature’s tour de force. As part of its unique “supervolcano,” visitors will find half of all the geysers on Earth, the country’s largest high-altitude lake and a mass of blue-ribbon rivers and waterfalls. And all that is before you see one animal – and you can expect to see many. Bear (or bison) “jams” are sometimes an issue from Yellowstone Lake on. Beyond the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, head east toward Lamar Valley, sometimes called the “Serengeti of North America” for its herds of bison, elk and the occasional grizzly or coyote.
Otherworldly tree silhouettes at Joshua Tree National Park, California
About 250 miles south of Death Valley, this surreal park encompasses 1235 sq miles (3199 sq km) and two distinct desert habitats, the Mojave and the Colorado, each with their own unique flora and fauna. This includes, of course, the eponymous Joshua tree, Yucca brevifolia, which can survive severe droughts and is superbly adapted to cope with the arid desert environment. It’s a strange landscape, with strange plants and even stranger people (residents are famous for their alternative lifestyles).
Go rock climbing in Echo Cove, hike the Arch Rock trail and experience the old-timey vibes of Pioneertown – and don’t miss the knockout vistas from Keys View. There are many backcountry roads to explore, either on foot, on horseback or in a 4WD – but it’s essential to stick to the trails, as the desert ecosystem is fragile, and tracks left here can last for decades.
The total wilderness of Denali National Park, Alaska
In a clearing in the midst of the dense spruce forest, by the banks of the turquoise-colored Jack River, stands a rusty green bus. It’s the movie-set replica of the bus where Chris McCandless (aka Alexander Supertramp) spent the last months of his life – a story famously recounted in Into the Wild. The actual bus stood west of the one-street town of Healy, some 50 miles (80km) further north, and became a focal point for fans until its removal in 2020, after at least two people were swept away by the Teklanika River while trying to reach it. From Anchorage, the supremely scenic Parks Hwy winds north to Healy, with views of the snowcapped peaks of Denali National Park to your west. Watch out for caribou wandering onto the road and be prepared for adverse driving conditions in the coldest months.
The soaring sequoias at Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, California
Superlatives abound in Kings Canyon and Sequoia, two adjacent national parks marked by their enormous trees, powerful waterfalls and glacial valleys. Kings Canyon Scenic Byway drops for 30 dramatic miles (48km) within its namesake canyon, twisting past chiseled rock faces laced with waterfalls. Hiking trails to Mist Falls and Zumwalt Meadow begin near Roads End, which overlooks the mighty Kings River. Enormous sequoias cluster at General Grant Grove, with more big trees visible along the Generals Hwy, which links Kings Canyon National Park with Sequoia National Park to the south. Here, the General Sherman Tree, the world's biggest tree by volume, rises 275ft (84m) in the Giant Forest. Drive Crescent Meadow Rd to the Tunnel Log, then tackle the dizzyingly scenic drive into Mineral King Valley.
Kayak rides through old-growth forests in Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Established in 2003, this relatively new national park harbors the largest intact forest of old-growth hardwood trees in the southeastern United States. While the park contains a few short trails and boardwalks, the real highlight is Cedar Creek, its arterial waterway. Wind your way through Congaree’s impressive champion trees via kayak or stand-up paddle board for up-close-and-personal views of its unique flora and wide range of bird life.
Why visit in the fall? The high heat and humidity associated with a South Carolina summer are gone, and the park’s ancient trees take on a golden hue, making for a memorable paddling experience. Heads up: boat rentals are not available in the park, so nab a vessel from the surrounding area or bring your own.
The rolling hills of Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Almost 800 miles south of Maine sits the expansive Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, another fall-foliage stunner whose rolling hills and electrifying array of colors are simply amazing. Deciduous forests engulf 500 miles of hiking trails, and visitors will delight in the numerous mountaintop panoramas and abundant wildlife sightings (careful: black bears are most active in the fall). Campgrounds are first come, first serve, so be prepared to show up early to claim your spot. Also, the leaves aren’t exactly a secret – October is the park’s busiest month and weekends see intense traffic, so we’d recommend a weekday visit if you can swing it.
After being inhabited by several Native American groups including the Shawnee, the Cherokee, the Delaware and others for centuries, the park was proposed in the early 1900s. The government aggregated the land over the course of a decade largely through eminent domain; Shenandoah National Park was established in 1935.
The breathtaking canyons (and cooler temperatures) of Canyonlands National Park, Utah
While desert-climate Canyonlands National Park may not offer leafy autumn vistas, its rocky wonders are best enjoyed when one isn’t actively trying to seek refuge from the 100+-degree temperatures. Visit in the fall for breathtaking views of the park’s namesake canyons and rich autumn sunsets, all with much more tolerable temperatures.
The park’s canyons were carved out by the Colorado and Green Rivers over millions of years. The Canyonlands area was first populated by the Ancestral Puebloans and the Fremont Culture, and later became home to the Ute, Paiute and Navajo Nations. Today, the park encompasses 340,000 acres. While you’re here, don’t miss neighboring Dead Horse Point State Park, which offers up one of the best sunrise and sunset viewpoints in Utah.
The diverse wildlife of Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Grand Teton in Wyoming has it all: snow-dusted peaks, sparkling alpine lakes, sweeping valleys perfect for cycling and epic trails that zigzag their way into and along the mountain range. (The Shoshone called the region Teewinot, meaning “many pinnacles.”)
In the fall, the park abounds with diverse wildlife: mountain goats pick their way through the Tetons’ highest reaches, while elk and moose engage in their version of national-park Tinder, searching out the perfect (or not so perfect) mate. Campers tend to head straight to the sites centrally located in the park – but we recommend seeking out a spot at Gros Ventre Campground on its southern boundary. The camping spots are bigger, and it’s situated close to the picturesque banks of the Gros Ventre River.
The vast night sky at Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
The Great Sand Dunes of southeastern Colorado may not seem like the most obvious choice for a fall getaway, but a trip to this unique spot just might surprise you. Not only do the trees around the dunes change colors, making for a somewhat confounding landscape contrast, the area is also home to wildlife that appear in larger numbers in the fall. What’s more, since the sand can reach a scorching 150°F on summer afternoons, a fall visit guarantees more comfortable sand temperatures – and dune explorations.
The dunes are remnants of an ancient lake that drained into the Rio Grande about 440,000 years ago, and the area is significant to several Native American groups, specifically the Ute and the Navajo/Diné Nations. One of the Navajo’s four sacred mountains, Sisnaajini, lies just south of the dunes.
Great Sand Dunes is a Dark Sky Park, and the Milky Way is at its most visible on moonless nights in September and October. An autumn visit yields the best opportunities to gaze at our cosmos; you can even backcountry camp underneath the stars with a permit.