The 6 Best U.S. National Parks to See Fall Foliage
LEARN MORE ABOUT WHERE YOU CAN ENJOY STUNNING SCENERY AND CRISP TEMPERATURES THIS AUTUMN.
One of the best parts of fall—aside from the arrival of "spooky season" and the return of pumpkin spice—is the beautiful foliage. There's nothing quite like heading outside and noticing autumn has emerged, with trees displaying vibrant shades of orange, red, and yellow. If you love to immerse yourself in fall, or even call yourself a "leaf peeper," you might want to consider heading to a U.S. national park as the leaves begin to change. Read on to find out where travel experts say you should book a trip to enjoy crisp temperatures and the most stunning seasonal scenery.
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Acadia National Park
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If you're a fan of foliage, head to Maine, at the northeast tip of the U.S., for the most unbeatable views. If you want to take in the best sights in the state, Acadia National Park is a necessary stop.
"Virtually no matter where you go you'll be treated to incredible views, whether you're hiking a trail or kayaking Jordan Pond," Melissa Rowe, teacher and blogger of Wandering through Maine, says. "However, for the most incredible view, head to the top of Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the eastern seaboard. Here, you will have unbelievable views of mountains, forests, small islands, and the ocean. It's breathtaking."
Rowe recommends visiting during peak foliage season in October. You can even be the first person in the U.S. to see the autumn sunrise—at least for that day—if you choose to hike to the top of Cadillac. If you prefer to drive through the park, Rowe recommends heading up the Park Loop Road, which will allow you to take in the foliage along the 27-mile road.
In addition to changing leaves, Acadia simply thrives in the autumn, Rowe tells Best Life. "Fall's main activities, after leaf peeping, in Acadia National Park are the Mt. Desert Island Marathon and Oktoberfest, a 10-day celebration of all things Maine including a brewfest, wine tastings, music, food, and everything else you would expect to be at a 10-day celebration," she says, adding that by visiting in October, you'll also face fewer crowds.
Rocky Mountain National Park
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Another aspirational autumn addition is Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, which is recognized as one of the most beautiful destinations in the U.S., Adam Marland, travel photographer and blogger of We Dream of Travel, explains.
"The entirety of Colorado is extra spectacular in the fall, so it should come as no surprise that Rocky Mountain stands out as a premier leaf-chasing destination," Marland tells Best Life.
Throughout this national park, you can see the vivid colors of the changing aspen trees. "The leaves of the aspen begin 'quaking' in late summer and early autumn, beginning at the highest elevation and moving gradually lower," Marland says. "This term refers to the beautiful golden color range and sensitivity to wind the leaves take on in the autumn season."
For the best views, take a hike along Bear Lake Road, drive through 10 miles of "prime aspen country" in Kawuneeche Valley, or head to the overlook at Farview Curve, the National Park Service (NPS) suggests.
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Grand Teton National Park
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If you're looking to observe changing leaves among the mountains, check out Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
"Grand Teton offers breathtaking views of the Rocky Mountains, and in the fall, the mountains are draped in a blanket of color," Fred Baker, senior travel editor of Travelness, explains. "As the leaves of the aspen and other trees change color, the contrast against the snow-capped peaks is simply stunning."
Baker recommends visiting between mid-September and early October. During this time, the NPS suggests hiking Valley Trail for some of the best fall vantage points, or looping around Emma Matilda Lake, where you'll also see wildflowers and a view of the Teton Range.
Animals are migrating through Grand Teton during the fall as well, ahead of the colder winter temperatures, according to the NPS. Head to Timbered Island to catch a view of elk, watch bison and pronghorn graze along Mormon Row, or head to the Snake River to catch a glimpse of bald eagles, ospreys, and beavers.
Zion National Park
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Zion National Park is well known for many reasons, but you might be surprised to see it on this list.
"It is unusual to see a desert biome make the list of best fall destinations, but Zion National Park has become a true autumn crowd pleaser," Sophie Clapton, travel blogger for We Dream of Travel, explains. "Cottonwood and quaking aspen are the main performers, each taking on yellow-to-golden colors as the temperatures begin to drop around October."
Zion is one of the more popular national parks, and visiting in the fall also has its perks when it comes to crowds. "Beyond the added magic of fall colors, this is also a great time to visit Zion National Park as the summer crowds and restrictions have eased," Clapton says. "Visitors are no longer confined to buses and shuttles to explore, but can instead enjoy the park on a self-drive tour."
If you're trying to hike one of the park's most popular spots, Angel's Landing Trail, Clapton also says that cooler temperatures make the process "a bit more manageable."
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New River Gorge National Park
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Head to the newest national park, New River Gorge, and embrace the autumnal atmosphere. Nestled in West Virginia, this park was first designated in Dec. 2020, and fall foliage is best observed between mid- to late October, Becky Sullivan, executive director of the New River Gorge Convention & Visitors Bureau, says.
"The best views can be found at the New River Gorge Bridge, located just outside of Fayetteville," Sullivan explains. "There are spectacular views at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center … which has two overlooks of the gorge and bridge."
You can also "get a bird's-eye view" of the gorge by taking on the Bridge Walk. This walk takes two to three hours, spanning a catwalk 25 feet below the New River Gorge Bridge. The park even organizes an annual "Bridge Day" on the third Saturday in October, "due to the peak fall foliage season," Sullivan says.
"This event celebrates the bridge by allowing pedestrians, BASE jumping, rappellers, vendors, and more to set up along the roadway and bridge overlooking the gorge," she adds.
North Cascades National Park
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Setting your fall travel plans? You won't want to miss the display at North Cascades National Park in Washington. According to Jessica Schmit of the travel site Uprooted Traveler, not only is this park underrated in general, but it's also overlooked when it comes to fall colors.
"The foliage is unique for a couple of reasons—for one, the foliage is not just limited to the leaves of the towering trees here, but the wildflowers and shrubs blanketing the mountain slopes also turn vibrant shades of gold, orange, and red," Schmit tells Best Life.
And if you're willing to take a bit of a hike, you can also catch a glimpse of the larch trees, which grow exclusively on "high elevation, alpine hills," she says. "Come fall, [this tree] turns a spectacular shade of gold before its needles fall off for the winter," Schmit explains. "The changing of the larches is so beloved in Washington, it's known as 'larch madness!"
Schmit recommends checking out the Heather Maple Pass Loop or the Blue Lake Trail for the most scenic views in the fall.