There’s no better time than the fall to visit the best national parks in the US because this is a glorious time of year to head outdoors and embrace this country’s vast natural beauty.
From late September until December, national parks across the country enjoy milder climes that are perfect for experiencing your favorite outdoor activities in seriously epic locations. Go hiking in Yosemite, see bison migrations in Grand Teton, and camp out in Death Valley, where the temperatures drop from summer highs of “deadly” to just “scorching hot” in the fall.
Despite the picture-perfect autumnal colors, the fall is generally a quieter, more peaceful time to travel to popular national parks that are often heaving with crowds in the summer. In Yellowstone National Park (the oldest national park in the US), you can admire great geysers and hot springs with few other tourists around.
In Utah, the red rock landscapes of Arches National Park become an empty adventure playground for the intrepid, while in Arizona, you’ll be able to squeeze past other onlookers for a long look at the iconic Grand Canyon!
With so many national parks to visit, you might not know where to go first. That’s why we’ve compiled our list of the best US national parks to visit in the fall for you. Keep to these beautiful national park recommendations, and there’s no doubt you’ll have an amazing time exploring the US this fall!
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The 15 Best National Parks to Visit in the Fall
1. Take a Hike in Yellowstone National Park
We don’t need to introduce you to Yellowstone National Park. After all, this gorgeous area of pristine wilderness was the first national park in the United States. With a protected status dating back to 1872 (and a geological history dating back millennia), this classic national park destination is one that never fails to astound.
With some 3,500 square miles of waterfalls, lakes, rivers, and canyons to explore in a national park that sprawls across the state borders of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, we know you’re going to love visiting Yellowstone in the fall. Although the temperatures are certainly starting to drop from September onwards, the falling foliage and magnificent fall colors more than make up for the unpredictable weather.
Better yet, though, you won’t have to contend with the packed summer crowds that, in peak season, somehow manage to make even this vast outdoor area seem devoid of empty spaces. With high elevations reaching well above 6,500 feet, you might even start to see the first snowfall of the winter season toward the end of October.
Of course, Yellowstone National Park is best known for its geothermal activity, and the sight of spurting geysers and hot springs is enough to warm you on even the most chilly fall days. Make sure to visit iconic Yellowstone features like Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, and the Grand Prismatic Spring for a truly inspiring national park experience. If you’re looking for beautiful places to visit in the fall, it doesn’t get much better than Yellowstone!
2. Avoid the Massive Crowds in Yosemite National Park
One of the best national parks to visit in the fall is Yosemite National Park, where you can escape the crowds with an off-season visit to one of California’s most incredible outdoor destinations.
Yosemite National Park is located three hours east of San Francisco in the mighty Sierra Nevada Mountains, and although it wasn’t the first US national park to be designated, it did play a pivotal role in the creation of the parks system when preservation efforts first began here in the 1860s.
You’ll soon know why (even 160 years ago) Americans were looking to protect this spectacular area of unique geology, granite domes, and pine forests. The glacial Yosemite Valley is around 7 miles long, and it’s home to the best sights in the national park, including Tunnel View (a spectacular viewpoint), Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and El Capitan.
You’ll love the iconic granite rocks and mountain peaks that rise abruptly above the valley, and in fall, you might just start to see the first sprinklings of mountaintop snow. Conditions in the fall are mild but beautiful – although remember to keep an eye on weather warnings and to wrap up warm if you’re camping out.
The majority of visitors make their way to Yosemite in the warmer summer months, but we think you’ll prefer this national park without the crowds. And even if it is still a little too busy for your liking in Yosemite Valley, then remember, there are some 1,200 square miles of wilderness for you to explore!
3. Go Birdwatching in Haleakala National Park
A trip to Hawaii is one of the best fall vacations in the US, with warm climes making this the perfect place for a Pacific island escape. Best of all, though, is the fact that fall is the transition period between hurricane season and rainy season in Hawaii, so if you don’t mind a few downpours, you’ll escape both the crowds and the high season prices!
And in our opinion, there’s no better place to visit than the otherworldly landscapes of Haleakala National Park. Located in the southeast of the Hawaiian island of Maui, this is one of the most unique national parks in the US.
Haleakala National Park might only cover some 52 square miles of wilderness, but it’s a vital home for many of Maui’s most endangered bird species. You might spot the rare Maui Parrotbill or the elusive Scarlet Honeycreeper when you’re exploring the park, while birdwatchers will have a field day knowing there are more rare birds protected here than in any other national park in the United States.
The park is also home to Haleakala, the namesake volcano (now dormant) which dominates Maui. The volcano’s highest point is some 9,800 feet above sea level, making this an epic outdoor destination. You can hike or drive to the Haleakala Crater, where you’ll find an unusual landscape of volcanic rock formations and lava flows that’s often set well above the cloud level.
4. Spot Majestic Wildlife in Rocky Mountain National Park
When the aspen trees begin to shed their leaves, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most beautiful places to visit in the fall. Visit from late September to early November, and you’ll be in the midst of the “quake” when foliage from the aspens blankets the mountains in a surreal haze of gold, brown, and bronze colors.
It’s a beautiful time to experience Colorado’s most iconic national park, and among the fallen leaves, you’re likely to spot an abundance of wildlife in the autumn season. Elk, with their distinctive antlers, are in rutting season, while moose and bighorn sheep are all out and about on the mountainsides.
Like the wildlife, you’ll want to make the most of the last warm weather before the winter snow begins, and you’ll want to lace up your hiking boots and head out onto the mountain trails. There’s a reason this is one of the best fall destinations in the US!
5. Soak Up the Sun in Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park has the extreme distinction of being the hottest place on the planet. The highest temperature ever recorded here was 134.1°F, but that was in the summer.
In the fall season, Death Valley’s temperatures aren’t quite so extreme, but they’re still outrageously hot given the season. In October and November, you can expect temperatures to reach highs of 84°F, while at night, they can drop to 53°F and possibly lower. For Death Valley, that’s mild, which is why fall is the time of year when camping season officially begins.
It’s also the start of the hiking season, and you can hike to vantage points like Zabriskie Point and Dante’s View for epic panoramas of the desert landscapes below. Try sandboarding at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, explore Titus Canyon, and visit one of the many abandoned ghost towns that litter the valley.
At the start of November, you’ll also catch the annual Death Valley 49ers Encampment, a living history event that celebrates the pioneering history of the early settlers who dared to cross the desert on their way westward.
6. Marvel at Herds of Bison at Grand Teton National Park
If you’re looking for beautiful places to visit in the fall, hikers will love tackling the mountain trails of Grand Teton National Park. The summer crowds dispersed long ago, but the weather is just about as perfect as it could be for backpacking. And with well over 200 miles worth of hiking trails within this epic national park, it’s one of the best fall destinations in the US for an outdoor adventure.
Grand Teton National Park is located to the south of Yellowstone National Park (which is Wyoming’s better-known national park!), covering some 800 square miles of mountain peaks and valleys in and around the Teton Range.
In fall, you’ll love how the autumnal foliage is well in season. The green summer colors are changing to vibrant shades of red, brown, yellow, and gold, while the tallest mountain peaks in the range see the first snowfall high above the plains.
Fall is a wild time for animal lovers in Grand Teton National Park, too. It’s migration (and mating) season in the mountains, as herds of bison make their annual journey to winter pastures in one of the largest mass movements of animals in the USA.
7. Spot Otherworldly Rock Formations in Arches National Park
If you’re a big fan of unusual rock formations (and let’s face it, who isn’t?), then why not take a trip to Arches National Park this fall?
This unique area of sandstone arches, pinnacles, and monoliths is found just north of Moab, Utah’s adventure and outdoor capital. Magnificent hiking trails lead through red-rock canyons and desert-like valleys that wouldn’t be out of place on Mars, with over 2,000 individual arches (at the last count) formed by millennia of erosion.
Fall is the perfect time to explore, with daytime temperatures still reaching highs of 79°F. It’s a little colder at night, so wrap up warm when you head out under the cover of darkness to admire the night sky of one of the most spectacular dark sky destinations in the USA.
Don’t forget that Arches National Park is just one of five individual national parks designated across Utah. You can combine a trip here with visits to Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and Zion National Park.
8. Go Leaf Peeping in Zion National Park
Zion National Park truly has to be seen to be believed. Located in southwest Utah, the best way to describe this national park is “epic.”
Zion National Park covers some 230 square miles of wilderness, with the centerpiece being the remarkable sandstone cliffs of Zion Canyon. Stretching for some 15 miles across the national park, the canyon reaches incredible depths of 2,624 feet at its greatest extent.
Surrounding peaks rise as high as 8,530 feet above sea level. When you’re standing in the depths of the canyon, you’ll be dwarfed by the scale of the canyon walls rising around you. If there’s anywhere in the US with the power to make you feel insignificant, it’s Zion Canyon.
In the fall, the hiking is wonderful, and you’ll love making the walk to Angels Landing for magnificent views of the canyon. The canyon is known for its unique ecosystems, which are protected from the outside world by the impenetrable sandstone rock of the gorge.
This time of the year, the foliage is turning from green to red, brown, gold, and bronze, and you’ll be immersed in every shade of fall as you hike through Zion National Park. If you’re looking for the best national parks for fall foliage, you really can’t go wrong with a trip to Zion!
9. Escape the City in Cuyahoga Valley National Park
For a pleasant autumnal excursion, there’s no better place than Cuyahoga Valley National Park. This is Ohio’s only national park, and while it protects just 50 square miles of the Cuyahoga Valley, it’s a vital conservation area separating the ever-expanding suburbs of Cleveland and Akron.
You’re never more than a few miles from the city, but when you’re exploring the woodlands and riverside scenery of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, you’ll feel as if you’re a world away. On either side of the Cuyahoga River, winding trails lead hikers into the forests, while cyclists will find plenty of adventure among the park’s many biking trails.
The Cuyahoga Valley is one for history lovers, too, and you can follow the route of the historic Ohio and Erie Canal as you tackle the Towpath Trail on a bike or on foot as the foliage falls around. You can even combine your trip with a ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, cycling one way and catching the train back through the national park.
10. Take in the Colorful Fall Foliage Views in Acadia National Park
Head to Maine if you’re hoping to be blown away by those quintessential fall scenes because the northeastern state sure knows how to put on a colorful show. More specifically, we’d recommend heading to Acadia National Park, which is particularly renowned for its fall showing.
In fact, this is one of the best national parks for fall foliage, and you’ll quickly fall for the brightly colored palettes of red, yellow, brown, bronze, and gold that cover some 77 square miles of protected coastal landscapes.
Importantly, Acadia National Park offers hikers a unique array of landscapes within a compact area of Maine. The national park overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and includes mountain peaks, multiple islands, and part of the mainland within its boundaries.
One minute you’ll be awed as waves crash against the cliffs as you explore Mount Desert Island. Next, you’ll be surveying fall colors from above as you reach elevated vantage points like the summit of Cadillac Mountain (which, at 1,530 feet tall, also happens to be the highest mountain on the eastern coastline).
If you’re looking for the best national parks to visit in the fall, look no further than Acadia National Park!
11. See More Fall Colors in Shenandoah National Park
Another one of the best national parks for fall foliage is Shenandoah National Park. This beautiful area of mountains and forest is located in Virginia, and being just 75 miles to the west of Washington, DC, it’s long been a favored place for city dwellers looking for a nature-filled escape!
Shenandoah National Park covers over 300 square miles of wilderness in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the fall, you’ll find glorious scenes of autumnal nature, as forested mountains and scenic meadows are resplendent in deep, rich shades of green and gold foliage.
One of the best ways to make the most of the fall vibes in Shenandoah National Park is to road trip the Skyline Drive. This winding scenic roadway takes you to the best viewpoints in the national park, where you’ll be awed by panoramic vistas in the fall.
The Skyline Drive is 105 miles long, features 75 viewpoints, and links up with the much longer Blue Ridge Parkway drive that connects Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
If you’d rather travel on foot, then don’t worry because Shenandoah National Park also contains an epic section of the Appalachian Trail. You can hike mountains, walk to waterfalls, and enjoy the pleasant fall climes and foliage as you backpack on the world’s greatest long-distance trails.
12. Experience a Less-Crowded Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most popular outdoor destinations in the US, and you’ll soon understand why when you look out over epic mountain scenes from lofty viewpoints above old-growth forests.
The national park is the most-visited national park in the country, but things are starting to get a little quieter towards the end of the fall. And with over 800 square miles of wilderness to explore, it’s never that difficult to get away from the crowds anyway!
The Great Smoky Mountains form the natural border between North Carolina and Tennessee. The mountains are a subset of the wider Blue Ridge Mountains, and the highest points in the park are above 6,500 feet.
Some of the best viewpoints are found along the Blue Ridge Parkway, a scenic drive that connects the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Shenandoah National Park in faraway Virginia!
13. Spot Gators and Manatees in Everglades National Park
If you love a little winter sun, then one of the best fall vacation ideas is a Florida getaway. The Sunshine State has wonderfully high temperatures all through the year, and even in November, you can expect highs in the 70s and 80s across Florida.
We recommend traveling far south to the Everglades National Park, where you’ll find a biodiverse wetland ecosystem covering 1.5 million acres of wilderness. This is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, and one of the best ways to get around is by boat.
Explore Everglades National Park on a classic airboat tour, and you’re guaranteed to run into a few alligators. You might even spot the odd manatee, while rarer still is the highly endangered Everglades Panther. There are opportunities for kayaking and canoeing across the Everglades and hiking and cycling in certain parts of the national park.
14. See Funky Joshua Trees in Joshua Tree National Park
The national park covers a huge area totaling some 1,200 square miles of desert-like landscapes. The east and west sides of the park offer unusually unique experiences, with different climates and geology resulting in distinct ecosystems that merge in the middle.
Joshua Tree National Park is named for the “Joshua Tree,” a type of yucca tree that grows in abundance across the Mojave Desert, which forms the western section of the park. The Mojave Desert is also home to bare rocks and otherworldly geological formations, and it sits at a higher elevation than the adjacent Colorado Desert, which forms the eastern side of the national park.
15. Be Humbled in Grand Canyon National Park
One of the best national parks to visit in the USA is the Grand Canyon National Park, a natural sight that we suspect you may have already heard of! The Grand Canyon is one of those great bucket list attractions, and the fall is a great time to tick it off the list.
Have no illusions – even in the supposed shoulder seasons, this iconic natural attraction is always going to have its crowds. But there are fewer visitors as the weather shifts for the colder from late October into November (Thanksgiving aside, of course).
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is a classic sightseeing destination, but you could switch things up and visit the North Rim instead. Although you can face the two sides down across the canyon, it’s a long way around if you want to get there. This means that the north side is often quieter than the south and, given its higher elevation, much cooler too.
There you have it! The 15 best US national parks to visit in the fall. What’s your favorite national park to visit in the US?
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