Fall is a special time of year–when the leaves are changing from green to a brilliant display of yellows, oranges, and reds. A road trip during this season is rightfully on most travelers’ bucket lists. For outdoor enthusiasts in particular, plenty of national parks offer exceptional autumn scenery combined with opportunities for less-crowded adventures, like scenic drives, hiking, camping, and more.
But for those who have never experienced a fall colors trip, and even for those who have, figuring out all the details can be tricky. In this post, we’re going to provide a basic overview for how to plan a fall colors trip. Many people will often ask, what is the best national park to visit in the fall? Ultimately, there isn’t just one great park for fall foliage, but many. Below we’ll discuss how and why leaves change colors during fall, and we’ll share some of the best national parks for witnessing nature’s colorful show in person.
How Fall Colors Work: When and Where
Peak color change happens at slightly different times each year, depending on a variety of factors including seasonal conditions, latitude, elevation, and region. As a result, predicting the exact dates for peak color change is impossible. Because one key factor is decreasing daylight, in many parts of the country fall colors happen during relatively similar timeframes each season. In general, the leaves begin to change around mid- to late-September, the colors peak around mid-October plus or minus a week or so, and pockets of color can linger into late October and November.
During warmer years, the color change might begin slightly later in the season, and, during cooler years, slightly earlier. After dry summers, the color change might be muted with more browns, while after wet summers, the colors might be brilliantly enhanced. Fall colors often happen slightly earlier in more northern latitudes and progressively later in more southern latitudes.
The color change begins first at higher and colder elevations before progressing to lower and warmer elevations. This fact is one reason that national parks are such a great choice for fall colors trips. Since many national parks include mountainous terrain, and there are often a wide range of accessible elevations, autumn adventurers can simply drive or hike uphill or downhill while chasing the peak.
Finally, different regions have different types of fall colors. In the United States, the wetter climates of the Midwest and East are dominated by deciduous forests filled with oaks, maples, and other broad-leaf trees that lose their leaves each winter. In the early fall, as these leaves cease chlorophyll production, the green colors fade away, revealing the world-famous displays of color.
But fall colors happen in other parts of the country as well. In the drier desert climates of the Mountain West, most high-elevation forests are dominated by evergreen conifer trees like pine and fir. But interspersed throughout these evergreen forests are large groves of deciduous trees like aspens, generally found above 4,000 feet in elevation, which produce impressive fall foliage of their own kind.
Meanwhile, there are even fall colors in the sub-tropical Southeastern U.S., where swamp trees like bald cypress will change, often around December. In particular, check out Congaree National Park in South Carolina and Everglades National Park in southern Florida. Put it all together, and there are plenty of options for fall colors trip to national parks. Here are just some of the best.
Many people ask, where is the most beautiful fall foliage in the United States? The region perhaps most associated with fall foliage is the eastern U.S. and particularly the northeast. One of the best spots in this region for viewing fall colors is Acadia National Park. Despite the far northern latitude, Acadia is a coastal national park at sea level, meaning it has a fairly standard fall colors season. The leaves begin to change in late September and peak around mid-October. Acadia offers a wide range of activities with some of the most popular being scenic driving, hiking, camping, and cycling on the park’s unique system of gravel carriage roads. So not only is Acadia National Park good for fall colors, it’s a great place for outdoor adventures.
Perhaps one of the best-known national parks for fall foliage is Great Smoky Mountains, which straddles the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. Being located in a warmer, southern climate, the colors season is slightly later but also dependent on the park’s wide range of elevations. Above roughly 4,000 feet, colors start changing around mid-September and peak in early to mid-October. The lower elevations of the park lag behind by a week or more, with the peak sometimes pushed into late October or even early November. Given this is the most visited national park in the country, fall is a very busy time. Expect heavy traffic on roadways and fully reserved campgrounds. But for many the impressive autumnal show is well worth it!
For a less crowded but still popular alternative, one option is Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. The colors season is similar to Great Smoky Mountains, described above, given the slightly more northern latitude and slightly lower elevations. Highlights here include driving the scenic Skyline Drive, hiking to waterfalls and mountain summits, and camping. Another option in this region is New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia. This park has a similar season as well, but with the main highlights including river rafting, paddling, hiking, climbing, and more.
When it comes to Midwestern parks, there are several options to pick from. One of the best is definitely Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio. This low-elevation, northern park has a fairly typical season, with colors starting in late September and peaking in mid-October. Activities include scenic drives, hiking to waterfalls, and walking or cycling on the gravel Towpath, which follows a historic canal.
For a different kind of experience, consider a fall-colors paddling trip at Ozark National and Scenic Riverways in Missouri. The park unit protects two streams, with the abundant springs that feed the Current River typically providing plenty of water flow during this relatively drier season. Aim for mid-October for the peak, plus or minus a week. This national park unit falls along historic Route 66, which would make for an amazing long-distance road trip during fall!
By far, one of the most popular western spots for fall colors is Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. The target is aspen groves, and the predominant color on display are shades of yellow, ranging from bright lemon to golden and orange hues. With park elevations ranging from just under 8,000 feet to over 14,000 the peak happens slightly earlier here—typically mid- to late-September. And once again, the trees at the higher elevations change first followed by those in lower groves.
In general, Colorado is probably the most famous state in the West for fall colors. There are three other national parks, plus a handful of exceptional national monuments, that make Colorado a perfect destination for a fall colors road trip. From east to west, these parks include Great Sand Dunes NP, with dunes hiking, sand sledding, and more; Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP, with scenic drives, canyon viewpoints, and short hikes; and Mesa Verde, with cliff dwellings tours, hiking, scenic drives, and viewpoints.
Other western parks known for particularly scenic fall color displays include Glacier National Park in Montana, where several types of deciduous trees—aspens, cottonwoods, western larch, and more—are mixed into the forested mountains and valleys. Because of the northern latitude and higher elevations, this park’s show starts a little earlier, around early to mid-September with a peak in late September. A comparable experience with a roughly similar timeframe can be found at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
But, of course, there are many other national parks with exceptional fall colors. There aren’t just a few NPS units to visit in autumn, there are dozens. By now, we hope readers recognize that spotting fall colors in a national park is about understanding some of the key factors in play: time of year, latitude, elevation, and the presence of deciduous trees. With those considerations in mind, planning a great fall colors trip is definitely within reach!
Lead image: Great Smoky Mountains NP. Adobe/Sean Board