While the back-to-school season sometimes puts a damper on many families’ travel plans, it invigorates me for a new season of travel. Traveling in the fall brings the chance to see amazing autumn colors as well as to enjoy outdoor adventures like hiking in the brisk cooler temperatures that the season brings. And no place is better for both foliage and outdoor fun than many of America’s national parks.
But fall foliage shouldn’t be your only reason to visit national parks in autumn. There is a more practical reason as well: crowd avoidance! Summer can be peak season at a number of the most popular national parks. Sometimes the only way to find solace in nature at many of these destinations is to go during the shoulder or low seasons. The fall can also be the best time to avoid blazing hot temperatures that make hiking more challenging too.
My family lives within driving distance of several very popular national parks in Northern California, and fall is one of our favorite times to squeeze in a visit to a few of them. In fact, we have lodging reservations at two parks coming up just this September.
So whether you are in search of peak foliage, a less crowded national park experience, or better hiking weather, check out one of these top 7 national parks to visit in the fall.
7 Top National Parks to Visit in Fall
1. Acadia National Park
Best time to visit: October
If you’ve ever visited New England in the fall, you can probably guess why Acadia National Park in Maine is a top national park to visit in the autumn months. When it comes to breathtaking fall foliage, New England knows no rival. The reds, oranges, and yellows are as vibrant there as they are anywhere else in the United States. Peak season is usually in mid-October, but the exact dates vary year by year.
Although the leaves certainly bring some extra visitors, the crowds at Acadia still are not as significant as they are in the high summer season. Hiking is especially pleasant in the autumn months with the summer humidity gone.
2. Yosemite National Park
Best time to visit: After Labor Day through the end of October.
There are a lot of reasons to visit Yosemite in the fall, but the most important one is probably crowd avoidance. As my family knows all too well living nearby in the San Francisco Bay Area, Yosemite has been a but of a victim of its own success. Peak summer crowds can often choke limited roads. The wildfires of the last several summers that often result in summer park closures have made the demand worse when the park is open.
Dodge the worst of the crowds and come in the fall instead! After Labor Day weekend, the visitor numbers drop significantly at Yosemite. Thankfully, the weather is still warm enough to hike, bike, and camp for at least the month or two that follows.
Yosemite doesn’t have as many of the vibrant fall colors as some parks on the East Coast, but there is plenty of fall foliage to get your fix. Just don’t wait too late in the fall season or you might have winter weather driving as part of the challenge. Snow usually starts by early or mid-November.
3. Zion National Park
Best time to visit: September and October
Like Yosemite, crowds have become a major pain point for visitors to Zion National Park in Southern Utah. Going in the fall brings lower crowds and cheaper lodging prices. The area also has some beautiful fall colors that usually peak at the end of October, so plan your trip for a bit later in the season if leaf peeping is highest on your list of things to do.
The fall is also often an ideal time to hike the famed Zion Narrows, particularly if you want to attempt the full overnight top-down experience. By then, the water levels are reasonable and more navigable. My husband did the trip a few years ago in October with some friends and the timing worked well.
4. Death Valley National Park
Best time to visit: November
As its name implies, Death Valley is not a place you want to visit in summer. Its high season is during the winter months when the 100+ degree temperatures are long forgotten. But guests who visit a little before the peak winter season in the late fall can still enjoy cooler temperatures along with lower crowds.
If you want the full experience, it’s wise to wait at least until mid-November when ranger talks and walks typically resume. Just watch out for the annual 49ers encampment in November that brings a major celebration and accompanying crowds in for a few days.
5. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Best time to visit: mid-September through end of October
Fall colors all along the Appalachian Mountains are a sight to behold, and few places are prettier than in the Smokies. The blue hills of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina turn breathtaking shades of turn red, orange, and yellow. Schedule an easy hike to Clingman’s Dome to get a birds eye view of some of the colors.
If you plan to visit some of the other area attractions like Gatlinburg or Dollywood, the reduced humidity in the fall really makes for a much more pleasant travel experience too. Just be aware that September can still be quite hot in the South during the day, so check conditions and pack accordingly!
6. Rocky Mountain National Park
Best time to visit: September and October
Fall in Colorado always brings refreshing mountain weather perfect for hiking. But the real selling point of fall in the Rockies are the aspen tree leaves changing to a lovely golden hue. It’s a unique fall foliage look that is very different from what East Coasters might expect.
Fall is also elk mating season, so you are much more likely to see wildlife out and about on a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park in autumn months.
7. Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Best time to visit: late September and October
When most travelers think of iconic national parks destinations, Ohio usually isn’t in the front of anyone’s mind (no offense to Ohio – I lived there for a bit as a child!).
But the fall colors of this park in the northeastern part of the state are some of the best. Hike the Brandywine Gorge Trail to Brandywine Falls for one of the best places to photograph the leaves, especially in the late afternoon.
More National Park Tips
These 7 national parks are only scratching the surface of what’s possible for national parks travel in the fall or any other time of year. Our family was bitten by the national parks travel bug several years ago. We’ve now visited everything from the Smokies to Joshua Tree to Haleakala to the Everglades.
This year promises to bring even more epic national park adventures for our family. With my son in the 4th grade this year, we are anticipating using his free “Every Kid Outdoors” annual parks pass to visit many more on our bucket list in the next 12 months.
Here are a few more of our very best national park tips:
- Beginners Guide to National Parks Travel
- Ultimate Guide to National Parks in Northern California
- 7 Iconic US National Park Lodges to Add to Your Travel Bucket List
- Tips for Visiting the Grand Canyon with Kids
This post was originally published in partnership with sponsor Moon Travel Guides. It has been updated independent of that relationship since that time. As always, all opinions are my own.