Visiting a National Park in the Fall?
Fall is always a great time to get outside and visit the national parks. Not only is the weather cooler and crisper, but the busy crowds of summer are finally gone and the leaves in many parks are turning brilliant colors.
So let’s talk about the 10 best national parks to visit in the fall. Some of them may come as a surprise!
About My Travels to the National Parks in the Fall
Fall is without a doubt my favorite time of year and the national parks (and forests) are my favorite places to be. So beleaf me when I say (yes there will be leaf puns), I’ve been to a lot of national parks in the fall.
Every year for at least the past seven I’ve been lucky enough to spend much of the fall season in different national parks or forests capturing autumn in all its glory. Typically I’ll visit 3 or 4 forests or parks during the fall season just because it’s my favorite time to be out there.
Suffice to say I didn’t just make this list up out of thin air. I’ve had the great pleasure of spending nearly my entire adult life exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands. I’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues.
Our work here at More Than Just Parks (that’s me and my brother Will) has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.
I’m Jim Pattiz, and along with my brother, Will, we’re collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers. Our goal here at More Than Just Parks is to share the beauty of America’s national parks and public lands through engaging visual media in an effort to get Americans and the world to see the true value of land conservation.
Things to Know Before You Visit the Parks
Entrance Fees: Fees vary by park but you can expect up to $30 per vehicle. If you plan to visit more National Parks within the next 12 months we suggest you go ahead and purchase the America the Beautiful Pass (which can be found at the entrance gates to most national parks). This pass gets you into all National Parks, Forests, Monuments, and more including 2,000 sites for free after a one time $79 fee.
Sunscreen: Depending on the park and the time of year you’re likely to be exposed to plenty of sun. Seriously, some of these parks can zap you if you don’t wear sunscreen. We happen to like this one because it works AND it’s not full of a bunch of chemicals.
Leave No Trace: We’re big fans of Leave No Trace, here at MTJP. Want to learn more? Read about the seven principals of Leave No Trace here.
Insect Repellent: You hope not to need it, but you want to have it. We typically bring an Eco-Friendly Insect Repellent with us just in case.
Dogs are not allowed on trails in most national parks due to their potentially disruptive presence with the natural ecosystem. The basic rule is they are allowed where cars can go so be sure to check the rules before bringing along your furry friend.
10 Best National Parks To Visit in the Fall
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Location: Tennessee & North Carolina, USA
There was never really any doubt about which park was going to clock in as the best to visit in the fall. Great Smoky Mountains National Park puts on the best fall color display of any of our 61 national parks – hands down. The park is home to some of the last remaining old growth forests of Appalachia.
Along the park’s many overlooks and within its vast hardwood forests you’ll find countless varieties of oaks, maples, birch, beech trees that produce the kaleidoscopic fall color the park is known for.
Best Things to Do
Clingmans Dome is perhaps the most iconic spot in the park, providing visitors with panoramic views of the mountains in every direction. In the fall visitors are treated to spectacular views of the seemingly unending colorful foliage all around you.
Newfound Gap Overlook is popular overlook providing sweeping views of the forest and rolling mountains in the distance. It’s particularly scenic in the fall when the hills are alive with kaleidoscopic color.
Where to Stay
- The Park Vista DoubleTree by Hilton
- Hampton Inn Gatlinburg Historic Nature Trail
- The Lodge at Buckberry Creek
- (There are countless lodging options in Gatlinburg)
Great Smoky Mountains Guide
2. Rocky Mountain National Park
Location: Colorado, USA
Here, in the heart of North America’s most iconic mountain range you’ll find plenty of reasons to fall for Rocky Mountain (see what I did there). Autumn brings the bugling of elk in the valleys as they kick off the rutting season by dueling for control of the herds.
The backdrop for these epic battles for supremacy is snow-capped mountains ablaze with some of the most brilliant oranges and yellows from vast stands of quaking aspen.
Trails along creeks are littered with gold and each autumn breeze brings with it yet more riches to adorn your path.
Best Things to Do
Bear Lake is a popular alpine lake in the park any time of year. The lake has a huge parking lot that is almost always full and is the jumping off point for many hikes into the interior of the park.
Trail Ridge Road is the highest road in the national parks system and provides breathtaking views of the Rockies in all directions.
Sprague Lake is a popular small lake with glassy mirrored reflections of the Rockies looming over it. Wildlife, including moose, can often be spotted here at the right times of day.
Where to Stay
More Colorado Parks
3. Acadia National Park
Location: Maine, USA
The secret is out about this coastal New England autumn wonderland, but that won’t stop it from clocking in our top 5.
Though tourists from cruise ships docked in Bar Harbor can flock to the park’s most iconic spots, there’s plenty of park for everyone.
Get out on a trail amidst the dense hardwood forests around you and watch the crowds melt away and lose yourself in this autumn postcard park. The vivid colors here will boggle the mind and are sure to challenge your previous fall color record holder.
Cadillac Mountain The high point of Acadia National Park and the tallest mountain on the eastern coastline, Cadillac Mountain provides a spectacular view of the park and the Atlantic Ocean far below.
Cadillac Mountain is the first place in the U.S. to see the sunrise so be sure to wake up early and check that one off your bucket list.
Bass Harbor Lighthouse Built in 1858, the Bass Harbor Head Light Station, or Bass Harbor Lighthouse as it is more commonly known, is one of the most visited spots in the park and an iconic feature of the rugged Maine coastline.
From the parking lot you’ll proceed down a short trail followed by a stairway leading to a shoreline viewpoint. Here you can wade through the other photographers, and there will be plenty of other photographers, and get your very own iconic sunset picture.
Jordan Pond This popular lake’s shores are a kaleidoscope of fantastical fall colors when autumn arrives. Here you’ll see a beautiful glacier-slupted lake that’s been lovingly cared for by philanthropists and the national park service for more than a century.
The lake has some of the clearest recorded waters in Maine. It’s not uncommon to see eagles fishing for a meal as you stroll the rim of the pond taking in the view.
Note: Parking for Jordan Pond can be difficult to come by to put things lightly – so plan ahead. The park has shuttle buses and other parking areas that may involve a longer walk.
Where to Stay
- The Inn on Mount Desert
- Bar Harbor Inn
- Acadia Hotel
- Bass Cottage Inn
- Balance Rock Inn
- Bar Harbor Grand Hotel
Acadia National Park Guide
4. Voyageurs National Park
Location: Minnesota, USA
Yes it’s safe to say I have an affinity for Voyageurs National Park. But can you blame me? With its endless web of interconnected lakes and mossy, forested islands, this park is unlike any you’ve ever visited in all the best ways.
Solitude and beauty is the name of the game here and you’ll never find it in short supply, particularly during the fall season.
With the bustle of summer fishing and house-boating a distant memory and the park’s shores and trails ablaze with magnificent autumn reds, yellows, and oranges, fall looks kindly upon this Northern Minnesotan paradise.
You’ll find few visitors, but all of the opportunities of summer with the added benefit of no bugs and fabulous fall colors.
The waters of the giant lakes are calm and quiet save for the occasional passing fisherman or loon call. Sunrises and sunsets are reflected on the still waters of the lakes and the northern lights dance above by night.
Fall is a feast for the eyes at Voyageurs and is bound to make an unforgettable national park experience.
Ellsworth Rock Garden On the quiet shores of Lake Kabetogama lies this incredibly unique garden featuring countless works of art made entirely out of stone. Some of the stones are massive monoliths balanced delicately upon other stones.
This fascinating attraction is entirely the work of one man, a humble carpenter from Chicago named Jack Ellsworth, who built these amazing works of art over the course of 20 years starting in the 1940’s.
Gold Portage is a terrific place to spot some of the park’s more elusive and iconic wildlife such as moose, bears, foxes, and maybe even wolves if you’re very lucky. Here you’ll find a half-mile trail that connects Rainy Lake with Kabetogama Lake.
Hikers, canoeists and kayakers can make their way between the lakes using this scenic portage route.
Kettle Falls is located in the heart of the park and is, of course, accessible only by water. Here you’ll find a quirky red-roofed historic hotel with an old slanted dance floor and plenty of northwoods charm.
Where to Stay
- Kettle Falls Hotel
- Cantilever Hotel
- The Voyagaire Lodge
- Thunderbird Lodge
Voyageurs National Park Guide
Interested in learning more about Voyageurs National Park? We made a beautiful and easy to use guide with helpful tips, photos, video, & more! Click here for the guide.
5. Grand Teton National Park
Location: Wyoming, USA
Grand Teton gets a lot of love as a top notch national park, but few think of it as a fall destination. I’m here to tell you that it most certainly is. With the summer tourists mostly gone and the mountain peaks dusted with fresh snow, fall is a great time to visit Grand Teton.
And contrary to most of the pictures you’ll see when googling the park, Grand Teton is home to some incredible fall color. Aspens turn brilliant shades of yellow along the banks of the park’s pristine lakes and streams, and streak down the mountain sides in vivid displays.
You’ll also find bright yellow cottonwoods and golden willows around the park’s many bodies of water.
Snake River Overlook is the iconic overlook in the park made famous by famed photographer and conservationist Ansel Adams. Here you’ll be treated to a spectacular view of the Teton Mountains and the Snake River winding beneath them.
Jenny Lake is a popular lake tucked into the foot of the Teton Range. Here you can kayak, canoe, hike, or just gaze at the spectacular views.
Phelps Lake is is on the southern end of the park and provides great fall hiking opportunities with plentiful aspen.
Where to Stay
- Jackson Lake Lodge
- Jenny Lake Lodge
- Triangle X Ranch
- Signal Mountain Lodge
6. Shenandoah National Park
Location: Virginia, USA
Shenandoah National Park is grand monument to the beauty of the Appalachians.
Here you’ll have the opportunity (like in the Great Smoky Mountains) to see what this immensely beautiful part of the country looked like before it was logged, developed, and some might say spoiled. The park is without a doubt home to some of the best fall color in the world.
Skyline Drive is the main road and a perfect way to tour the park and stop off at the many overlooks and take in spectacular views of the surrounding hills and mountains.
Old Rag Mountain is a popular hike to the summit of, you guessed it, Old Rag Mountain. It’s a challenging hike, but pays off with a panoramic view of Shenandoah in all directions. It’s particularly beautiful in the fall when the park’s forests display their vibrant foliage.
The Appalachain Trail runs through the park on its way up to Maine. Visitors can hop on the trail for a mile or two and cross of a bucket list item. The trail also leads to several points of interest including an old homestead.
Where to Stay
7. Great Basin National Park
Location: Nevada, USA
Surprised? Tucked into the remote desert of central Nevada is this alpine paradise. Here you’ll find verdant forests of aspen and Ponderosa Pine teeming with wildlife high above the baked desert floor below.
Climb higher and you’ll reach the realm of the ancients, a rocky area inhabited by still-living bristlecone pines that date to prehistoric times.
In the fall the park’s many aspen display their vivid oranges, yellows, and reds, offering a stunning backdrop for your next adventure.
Wheeler Peak is the highest point in the state of Nevada at an astonishing 13,063 feet. Visitors can hike to the summit and look out on the vast desert far below, an unforgettable experience.
Bristlecone Pine Trail at the base of Wheeler Peak gives visitors the opportunity to stroll past some of the oldest living trees on earth. Some are estimated to be more than 4,000 years old! Here you’ll also have an opportunity to view the only glacier in the state of Nevada.
Where to Stay
- Lower Lehman Creek Campground
- Upper Lehman Creek Campground
- Wheeler Peak Campground
- Baker Creek Campground
- Grey Cliffs Campground
8. Glacier National Park
Location: Montana, USA
Glacier National Park is one of the grandfathers of the National Park Service and continues to stand the test of time.
This exceedingly beautiful mountainous park and it’s jaw-dropping vistas make other park overlooks seem tame by comparison.
In the fall the park is studded with vibrant shades of yellow and gold from forests teeming with larches and aspen.
Lake McDonald to the Channel Islands from mainland California is one of the coolest parts of the adventure. The ride itself is about 1 hour each way and costs about $65 per person for a round trip ticket.
Going-To-The-Sun Road is one of the most famous national park roads in the world. This engineering marvel takes drivers through an alpine wonderland and into the high elevations of the park in truly stunning fashion. Visitors may recognize the road from it’s part in the opening scene of the 1980 horror film The Shining.
Where to Stay
9. Zion National Park
Location: Utah, USA
Most people think of Zion as a summer destination and I still can’t understand why! Sure people tend to have more time off in the summer, but at what cost!
While the summer brings infamously mind-boggling crowds to this southwestern jewel, the fall sees the monstrous crowds finally taper off leaving a beautiful and more quiet park to explore.
Luckily fall arrives late in Zion and the leaves don’t start to change until late October in many places, giving you more time to let the crowds die away. The cottonwoods turn brilliant yellows and the park’s scattered maples turn a deep red.
Fall in Zion National Park Highlights
Zion-Mount Carmel Highway is a scenic highway taking you through many of the red rock features that make Zion so special. Here you’ll also find bright yellow cottonwoods in the fall.
Canyon Overlook Think Angels Landing without the strenuous hike. Here you’ll find a spectacular overlook of Zion Canyon in all its glory.
Where to Stay in Zion National Park
10. Yosemite National Park
Location: California, USA
Speaking of parks that are crowded in the summer, here’s another that has become practically Disney World. But fortunately in the fall those stupefying crowds of summer have melted away and revealed a park that can be visited and enjoyed.
Add to that a surprising abundance of fall color and plentiful mild weather and Yosemite should be on your list for next fall!
Taft Point is one of the iconic overlooks in the park affording visitors with mind-blowing views of the Sierras and Yosemite Valley.
Tunnel View is probably the most photographed spot in the park and once there you’ll see why. From the overlook you’ll be presented with the iconic view of Yosemite Valley unfolded beneath you. You just can’t help but snap a few shots.
Mariposa Grove This famous grove of giant sequoias once played host to John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt as they plotted to protect America’s grandest natural wonders.
Boardwalks will take you through the ancient grove of towering trees and transport you to another world. Be sure to stay on the trail, the giant trees have been damaged by visitors charting their own course and need our help to last well into the future!
Where to Stay
Map of the 10 Best National Parks to Visit in the Fall
Check out our handy map of the best national parks to visit in the fall!
10 Best National Parks to Visit in the Fall
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Rocky Mountain National Park
- Acadia National Park
- Voyageurs National Park
- Grand Teton National Park
- Shenandoah National Park
- Great Basin National Park
- Glacier National Park
- Zion National Park
- Yosemite National Park
Leave us a comment below!
So there you have it! The 10 best national parks to visit in the fall. Hopefully we’ve made your autumn park plans a little easier! Let us know what parks we missed in the comment section below or what’s more important to you in a fall outdoor destination.
Is it fall color, less crowds, good weather, or all of the above?
See Our Full National Park Rankings
We actually ranked ALL 63 National Parks from best to worst using the same point system featured in this article here. Curious to see how California’s parks stack up against the rest of the parks nationwide? Click here!
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