Forget Summer: Fall is the Best Time to Visit National Parks


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If you’ve ever been to a national park in the sultry heat of August, you know it’s possible to spend hours sitting in touch-and-go traffic to get to all those postcard-perfect views (Yellowstone, we’re looking at you!). But by mid-October, visitor numbers plummet — just when the trees put on their megawatt fall foliage displays.

Read on for our favorite places to #FindYourPark, right now.

Yosemite National Park, California


Yosemite’s combination of lakes, mountains, and fall foliage is simply stunning. (Photo: Topic Photo Agency/Corbis)

The grand dame of California turned 125 on October 1st, but she’s never looked better: just ask the experts. “Fall colors in Tuolumne meadows are incredible, all the way up to the East Side of the Sierra,” says ranger Scott Gediman. “The weather is perfect, trails are way less crowded, and days are still long.”

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His favorite hike? Cathedral Lakes, an eight-mile loop around two mirror-like alpine pools. And it’s all surrounded by the granite peaks that made Yosemite — and photographer Ansel Adams — famous.

Glacier National Park, Montana


Bright yellow trees surround Lake McDonald and McDonald Creek. (Photo: Getty Images)

All concession services inside Glacier, from lakeside hotels to ice-cream scoopers, close their doors by the end of September. Translation: you’ll likely share the park only with the bears, who forage for up to 20 hours a day this time of year. In mid-October, a hike from the Sperry Trailhead along Lake McDonald is a must; the larch trees are turning canary yellow — a golden hue when reflected in the water — and all campgrounds are half-price.

Denali National Park & Preserve, Alaska


Who knew Alaska in the fall was so vibrant and colorful? (Photo: Getty Images)

“During fall in Denali, even the tundra turns red,” says Johnathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service. We’d go just to see that expanse of crimson fields. But we also want to meet the 30-some Alaskan huskies in the sled dog kennels and see the 20,322-foot peak of Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley) bathed in warm autumnal light.

Related: The Most Amazing Instagrams of National Parks

Note for thrifty-types: after mid-September, fees aren’t charged at Riley Creek Campground — come one, come all, free.

Zion National Park, Utah


Zion National Park in autumn is a dreamy mix of reds, yellows, and greens. (Photo: Getty Images)

An average August day in Zion is a searing 96-degrees—which is why October (average high: 78) is so refreshing. Take the Temple of Sinawava Trail alongside trees so red they match the sandstone cliffs — and eventually you’ll end up wading the famed Narrows, a slot canyon created by the Virgin River. Your Instagram feed will never be the same.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado


Autumn in Rocky Mountain National Park is as much about the fauna as it is about the flora. (Photo: Getty Images)

“Fall is a great time to hear elk bugling in Rocky Mountain National Park,” Jarvis says (for the record: it sounds like this, but catching the live show is better). You’ll have a better chance of hearing them if you get off-the main roads with a hike. One of our favorites? Aptly-named Dream Lake, at the base of craggy Hallett Peak and Flattop Mountain.

Acadia National Park, Maine


There’s a reason why New England autumns are so legendary. (Photo: Alan Copson/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis)

Coastal Maine is a classic summer destination — as everyone from the Obamas to the Bush clan will attest. But consider coming back in autumn, when the hordes are back home indoors — and the foliage is decidedly out, at its best October 13-22.

Related: Secret Maine Beaches You Need to Know About

Most people climb Cadillac Mountain for a sweeping overlook of the water, but the Beehive, a granite peak with a prime birds-eye view of Sand Beach, is equally stunning. It includes several iron rungs you’ll have to scramble over; this hike is not for the faint-of-foot.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee


The Smokies are always beautiful, but all lit up in fall colors, they truly are stunning. (Photo: Getty Images)

Leaf-peepers have long flocked to the Smokies in autumn for one thing: to see its more than 520,000 acres — swathed in dogwood trees, Virginia creeper vines, and birch — awash in pumpkin-spice hues, especially above the 4,000-foot mark. The best way to see them? Drive Clingmans Dome Road or the Blue Ridge Parkway, but get out of your car for a hike to rushing Cataract Falls. Deep in the forest, you’ll spot purple asters, black-eyed Susans, and hearts-a-bustin’ (that’s a bush, not a Dolly Parton song).

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