Many regard America’s national parks as great summer getaways, and they’re completely right to do so. There’s another incredible way to experience ’em, however. When the parks are shrouded in fall foliage and see less visitors after the summer rush, they offer an entirely different experience — one that can’t be missed. Lower temperatures (but not too low yet), bright washes of gold and crimson leaves, and new levels of tranquility should be enough to get you packing for an autumnal extravaganza.
Take a gander at four of our favorite national parks to visit during fall:
A very simple rule of thumb applies to our logic in adding the Smokies to our list. Giant sprawling forests = giant sprawling fall colors. ‘Nuff said. Leaf-peeping might as well be a sport here, between river valleys and towering ridges that offer awe-inspiring glimpses from varying heights. Another plus: The season of fall foliage kicks off around mid-September, yet lower elevations often won’t even peak until November. Thanks to that, the fall travel window is pretty wide.
Distance from Nashville: 3.5 hours
Peak time for fall colors: Varies depending on elevation. Starts early September and runs though November
You wouldn’t exactly think of the middle of the desert when it comes to seeing fall colors, but that’s exactly what makes Zion National Park such an interesting place to be in late October and early November. Massive orange sandstone cliffs provide sturdy walls to the flourishing valleys below, where pops of color emerge all autumn long. You’ll get all the same amazing scenery at a slower pace than high season. And believe us, when you see some of those high-elevation hikes, you’ll be even more grateful for the extra space.
Distance from Phoenix: 6 hours
Peak time for fall colors: Early November
This lesser-known national park packs canyons, mountains, deserts, and fall colors into one surprising landscape. While it’s a little bit of a hike to get there from Austin, there’s plenty of exploring around the area to keep you occupied — meaning it’s great for a multi-day getaway. Horseback riding, stargazing, and birding are a few visitors favorites along with wide spanning trails that’ll take you through the backcountry. Peak season begins in mid-October and runs through mid-November, so it makes for an ideal last-minute leaf peeping conquest.
Distance from Austin: 7.5 hours
Peak time for fall colors: Late October
And one for a longer excursion…
If you’re a fan of the color yellow, newsflash, Rocky Mountain National Park is the place to be. Unlike any other national park on our list, this landscape transforms into a gorgeously cheerful blanket of gold due to aspen trees. It’s a striking sight to behold — especially if you weren’t expecting a monochromatic scene. Since it’s a bit farther from our pickup locations (and there’s so much to see) we recommend taking as many days as you can for this one.
Distance from Minneapolis: 14 hours
Distance from Phoenix: 13 hours
Peak time for fall colors: Late September through October
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