As summer ends and fall begins, temperatures get cooler, crowds thin out, wildlife gets more active and easier you spot and – of course – many of the national parks turn ablaze with the reds, oranges and yellows of fall foliage. Here is our hand-picked list of the best national parks to visit in the fall in the USA.
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Zion National Park
Our first contender for one of the best national parks in fall is Zion National Park. The park is fairly small, but extremely popular – especially in summer. As fall begins, the crowds thin out and temperatures become more pleasant. As it gets deeper into fall, the air and water temperatures continue to fall, so dress appropriately.
Most of the trees on the canyon floor that line the river turn beautiful colors in the fall, making this a wonderful time to visit Zion.
WHEN IS THE BEST FALL FOLIAGE? The fall color peaks in Zion National Park late October – early November*.
READ MORE: Guide to Zion National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park
If you want to see fall foliage, Rocky Mountain National Park is a great choice. The aspen trees that fill much of the park turn bright yellow and other trees provide red, orange and gold accents. Fall is also a great time for wildlife. The elk come out and are in rutting season, so their loud bugles are a frequent aural accompaniment to your visit.
Late September or early October is the Estes Park Elk Fest when you can celebrate the annual elk rut with food and drink, music and native American storytelling, and games and educational events. Other wildlife including black bears, bighorn sheep and moose are also very active on the fall.
Great fall hikes include the Twin Sisters and Hidden Valley trails.
WHEN IS THE BEST FALL FOLIAGE? The fall color peaks in the Estes Park area of Rocky Mountains National Park late-September to early-October*.
READ MORE: Rocky Mountain National Park Guide
Acadia National Park
The American northeast is famous for its fall foliage, so it is no surprise that Acadia National Park is one of the best national parks in autumn. Acadia National Park fall foliage is some of the most spectacular in the country. The cooler weather makes for comfortable hiking, though come October, the winter chill starts to set in.
Be sure to catch the sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain – from early October to early March this is the first place in the United States that the sun rises.
WHEN IS THE BEST FALL FOLIAGE? Acadia National Park fall colors are at their peak in late September – mid-October*.
READ MORE: Guide to Acadia National Park
Yellowstone National Park
Montana, Wyoming, Idaho
Another of the best fall national parks, Yellowstone sees fewer crowds and cooler temperatures almost as soon as summer ends. The meadows become a golden carpet, the aspens pop with gold and shrubs blaze with reds. Even better? Fall is a great time to see Yellowstone’s wildlife as they are very active at this time of year.
Be aware though, that the weather can be very unpredictable in the fall and one day you may be wearing short sleeves and the very next day snowed in (I speak from experience!)
WHEN IS THE BEST FALL FOLIAGE? In Yosemite, fall colors peak late September to early-October*.
READ MORE: Guide to Yellowstone National Park
Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park, with its towering mountain peaks, sparkling lakes and flowing river, is always beautiful, but when the aspens, cottonwoods and willows turn golden, it is truly breathtaking. Take in the views from Snake River Overlook, Schwabachers Landing and Oxbow Bend for sensational fall color views.
Fall is also a great time to see wildlife and you will have good chances of seeing elk, black bears, moose and bison at this time of year. Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to see wildlife and the best light for photography.
WHEN IS THE BEST FALL FOLIAGE? The fall colors in Grand Teton National Park are at their peak in late September (the third week in September is usually the peak week)*.
READ MORE: Guide to Grand Teton National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Tennessee and North Carolina
The Great Smoky Mountains are covered in woods that change color with the seasons, making this one of the best national parks for fall foliage. Because the national park covers the mountains, the color peaks at different times, so this is also one of the easiest parks to see color, as all you need to do is change altitude and the colors change. The beautiful blazing birch and beech trees and fiery maples and oaks make the park less ‘smoky’ and more ‘aflame’ in the fall. Add to that fields of autumnal wildflowers and Great Smoky Mountains National Park is hard to beat.
Top places to see the show are from Looking Glass Falls, the observation deck at the peak of Clingman’s Dome, the Cade’s Cove Loop Road, and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
WHEN IS THE BEST FALL FOLIAGE? The Great Smoky Mountains fall foliage peaks overall mid-late October. The upper reaches start mid-September and lower reaches end early November. *
READ MORE: Great Smoky Mountains National Park Guide
Denali National Park
Denali may be a surprising addition to a list of the best national parks in the fall, but the fall color is stunning. Given that this is Alaska, less surprising is that fall comes early, so be sure to visit before the end of September, when winter sets in. This is also a great time to see wildlife – grizzly bears, caribou, moose and even golden eagles are very active.
WHEN IS THE BEST FALL FOLIAGE? The fall color peaks in Denali National Park late August – mid September*.
Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah is another of the best national parks for fall colors. The entire park turns into a vibrant red, yellow and orange carpet. A popular way to enjoy the spectacle is the 105-mile Skyline Drive that traverses the length of the park. There are 75 scenic overlooks, including Hemlock Springs Overlook, Range View Overlook and a short walk to the gorgeous four waterfalls of Rose River Cascades around Mile 49. If you want to get out of your car, there are also plenty of amazing hikes in the park.
WHEN IS THE BEST FALL FOLIAGE? The fall color peaks in Shenandoah National Park mid-October*.
Glacier National Park
Glacier is another of the great autumn national parks. Fall foliage provide a stunning foreground for the glaciers and mountains that dominate the park. Much of the color comes from larch trees – deciduous conifers that turn a beautiful golden color.
This is also a great time to see bighorn sheep, mountain goats and even grizzly bears.
Drive the Sun Road, hike the Highline Loop trail and head up to Cracker Lake for a picture-perfect reflection of the fall foliage in the mirror-like lake.
WHEN IS THE BEST FALL FOLIAGE? The fall color peaks in Glacier National Park early October*.
READ MORE: Glacier National Park Guide
Mount Rainier National Park
Although Washington is the “Evergreen State’, high elevation huckleberry bushes and larch trees make Mount Rainer another top pick for the best national park for fall colors. It is also a great time and place to see elk and moose.
An added bonus? You can get a special mushroom-picking permit for here and the nearby Gifford Pinchot National Forest to pick wild mushrooms!
WHEN IS THE BEST FALL FOLIAGE? The fall color peaks in Mount Rainier National Park the last week of September to Mid-October *.
* When the fall color peaks depends on several factors that vary each year, so the times of year given here are typical timings, but they can vary from year to year.
Enjoy your fall trip!
Do you have another national park that you’d pick as the best national parks to go to during your summer vacation? I’d love to hear about it. Comment below.
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Read about other great U.S. national parks to visit:
- The Best Parks to See Fall Foliage
- The 12 Best US National Parks
- The Best US National Parks to Visit in Winter
- The Best US National Parks to Visit in Spring
- The Best US National Parks to Visit in Summer
- The Best Lodges in US National Parks
- The Most Scenic Drives in US Parks
- The Best National Parks Beaches
- The Complete List of all 63 US National Parks
James Ian has traveled to 82 countries and all 7 continents. He has visited all of the main national parks in the United States, as well as many national monuments and state parks.
He has rafted through the Grand Canyon; rappelled down slot canyons near Zion and Arches; hiked among the hoodoos in Bryce and the enormous trees in Sequoia; admired the waterfalls in Yosemite and the colored hot springs in Yellowstone; seen moose in Grand Tetons and seals in the Channel Islands, and much more.