The 10 Best U.S. National Parks to See Fall Foliage
Learn more about where you can enjoy stunning scenery and crisp temperatures this autumn.
One of the best parts of fall—aside from the arrival of "spooky season" and the return of pumpkin spice—is the beautiful foliage. There's nothing quite like heading outside and noticing autumn has emerged, with trees displaying vibrant shades of orange, red, and yellow. If you love to immerse yourself in fall, or even call yourself a "leaf peeper," you might want to consider heading to a U.S. national park as the leaves begin to change. Read on to find out where travel experts say you should book a trip to enjoy crisp temperatures and the most stunning seasonal scenery.
10 Best National Parks to See Fall Foliage
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina and Tennessee)
Great Smoky Mountains National Park spans two states—and offers some of the greatest fall foliage spectacles.
"The Smoky Mountains have some of the tallest peaks east of the Rockies and none really go past the tree line, meaning the peaks are completely covered with trees," Adrian Todd, occupational therapist, hiking coach, and the founder of the travel blog Great Minds Think Hike, tells Best Life. "This makes for a stunning sight during the fall where rolling peaks can be seen for miles covered in various warm colors. Pair this with a foggy day at the Smokies and you have an unforgettable sight."
Todd recommends specific leaf-peeping spots, including the highest peak in the park: Clingmans Dome. "If you have extra time and want to do a moderate difficulty hike I suggest Sugarland Mountain Trail which is right off of Clingmans Dome Road," he says. "For a further road trip for the fall season, I recommend driving through the park's main road or hopping on the Blue Ridge Parkway at the southern portion of the park for expansive views of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the fall."
2. Acadia National Park (Maine)
If you're a fan of foliage, head to Maine, at the northeast tip of the U.S., for truly unbeatable views. And if you want to take in the best sights in the state, Acadia National Park is a necessary stop.
"Virtually no matter where you go you'll be treated to incredible views, whether you're hiking a trail or kayaking Jordan Pond," Melissa Rowe, teacher and blogger of Wandering through Maine, says. "However, for the most incredible view, head to the top of Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the eastern seaboard. Here, you will have unbelievable views of mountains, forests, small islands, and the ocean. It's breathtaking."
Rowe recommends visiting during peak foliage season in October. You can even be the first person in the U.S. to see the autumn sunrise—at least for that day—if you choose to hike to the top of Cadillac. If you prefer to drive through the park, Rowe recommends heading up the Park Loop Road, which will allow you to take in the foliage along the 27-mile road.
In addition to changing leaves, Acadia simply thrives in the autumn, Rowe tells Best Life. "Fall's main activities, after leaf peeping, in Acadia National Park are the Mt. Desert Island Marathon and Oktoberfest, a 10-day celebration of all things Maine including a brewfest, wine tastings, music, food, and everything else you would expect," she says, adding that by visiting in October, you'll also face fewer crowds.
3. Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)
In the northern portion of Virginia, you can explore the festive fall hues at Shenandoah National Park.
"Shenandoah truly shines during the fall season when foliage starts to change," Todd says. "I highly recommend driving the Skyline Drive—which runs about 105 miles north and south along the Blue Ridge Mountains—to see incredible views of fall colors. Just a heads up, most of the stopping points are on the west side of the road which makes for better sunset opportunities than sunrise but, either way, it will be worth it."
If you prefer to see changing leaves while out exploring, Todd suggests hiking up Hawksbill Mountain. If you're more interested in chasing waterfalls, be sure to check out the Dark Hollow Falls trail, too.
"If you have the time planned, you can do the ultimate fall season road trip," he adds. To do so, start in the northwestern portion of the Great Smoky Mountains and drive south through the park heading south to the Blue Ridge Parkway. From there, take the Blue Ridge Parkway back up north to Shenandoah National Park and hit Skyline Drive.
4. Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado)
Another aspirational autumn addition is Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, which is recognized as one of the most beautiful destinations in the U.S., Adam Marland, travel photographer and blogger of We Dream of Travel, explains.
"The entirety of Colorado is extra spectacular in the fall, so it should come as no surprise that Rocky Mountain stands out as a premier leaf-chasing destination," Marland tells Best Life.
Throughout this national park, you can see the vivid colors of the changing aspen trees. "The leaves of the aspen begin 'quaking' in late summer and early autumn, beginning at the highest elevation and moving gradually lower," Marland says. "This term refers to the beautiful golden color range and sensitivity to wind the leaves take on in the autumn season."
For the best views, take a hike along Bear Lake Road, drive through 10 miles of "prime aspen country" in Kawuneeche Valley, or head to the overlook at Farview Curve, the National Park Service (NPS) suggests.
5. Hot Springs National Park (Arkansas)
Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas is the oldest national park in the U.S., Todd notes, starting as Hot Springs Reservation in 1832. (Yellowstone wouldn't be designated a national park until March 1872).
But beyond visiting to be immersed in its impressive history, Todd says it's also a great place to view spectacular foliage: "The park itself is nestled in the smaller Ouachita Mountains, which become covered in stunning warm colors in the fall."
Describing the park as "a little more urban" than others, Todd says that there's still plenty to do outdoors, including biking, walking, and hiking. If you're looking for a specific hike, try taking the Gulpha Gorge trail to Goat Rock Trail to the overlook "for a stunning 180-degree view of the Ouachita Mountains," Todd adds.
He also recommends walking down the Grand Promenade and checking out the historic Bathhouse Row, where you can visit a facility to soak and submerge in the park's famous thermal water. According to the NPS, thermal springs are piped directly into two bathhouses "offering users a true and authentic experience of the water." Todd especially recommends visiting Bathhouse Row during the cooler weather.
6. Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming)
If you're looking to observe changing leaves among the mountains, check out Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
"Grand Teton offers breathtaking views of the Rocky Mountains, and in the fall, the mountains are draped in a blanket of color," Fred Baker, senior travel editor of Travelness, explains. "As the leaves of the aspen and other trees change color, the contrast against the snow-capped peaks is simply stunning."
Baker recommends visiting between mid-September and early October. During this time, the NPS suggests hiking Valley Trail for some of the best fall vantage points or looping around Emma Matilda Lake, where you'll also see wildflowers and a view of the Teton Range.
Animals are migrating through Grand Teton during the fall as well, ahead of the colder winter temperatures, according to the NPS. Head to Timbered Island to catch a view of elk, watch bison and pronghorn graze along Mormon Row, or head to the Snake River to catch a glimpse of bald eagles, ospreys, and beavers.
7. Zion National Park (Utah)
Zion National Park is well known for many reasons, but you might be surprised to see it on this list.
"It is unusual to see a desert biome make the list of best fall destinations, but Zion National Park has become a true autumn crowd-pleaser," Sophie Clapton, travel blogger for We Dream of Travel, explains. "Cottonwood and quaking aspen are the main performers, each taking on yellow-to-golden colors as the temperatures begin to drop around October."
Zion is one of the more popular national parks, and visiting in the fall also has its perks when it comes to crowds. "Beyond the added magic of fall colors, this is also a great time to visit Zion National Park as the summer crowds and restrictions have eased," Clapton says. "Visitors are no longer confined to buses and shuttles to explore, but can instead enjoy the park on a self-drive tour."
If you're trying to hike one of the park's most popular spots, Angel's Landing Trail, Clapton also says that cooler temperatures make the process "a bit more manageable."
8. New River Gorge National Park & Preserve (West Virginia)
Head to the newest national park, New River Gorge, and embrace the autumnal atmosphere. Nestled in West Virginia, this park was first designated in Dec. 2020, and fall foliage is best observed between mid-to-late October, Becky Sullivan, executive director of the New River Gorge Convention & Visitors Bureau, says.
"The best views can be found at the New River Gorge Bridge, located just outside of Fayetteville," Sullivan explains. "There are spectacular views at the Canyon Rim Visitor Center … which has two overlooks of the gorge and bridge."
You can also "get a bird's-eye view" of the gorge by taking on the Bridge Walk. This walk takes two to three hours, spanning a catwalk 25 feet below the New River Gorge Bridge. The park even organizes an annual "Bridge Day" on the third Saturday in October, "due to the peak fall foliage season," Sullivan says.
"This event celebrates the bridge by allowing pedestrians, BASE jumping, rappellers, vendors, and more to set up along the roadway and bridge overlooking the gorge," she adds.
9. North Cascades National Park (Washington)
Setting your fall travel plans? You won't want to miss the display at North Cascades National Park in Washington. According to Jessica Schmit of the travel site Uprooted Traveler, not only is this park underrated in general, but it's also overlooked when it comes to fall colors.
"The foliage is unique for a couple of reasons—for one, the foliage is not just limited to the leaves of the towering trees here, but the wildflowers and shrubs blanketing the mountain slopes also turn vibrant shades of gold, orange, and red," Schmit tells Best Life.
And if you're willing to take a bit of a hike, you can also catch a glimpse of the larch trees, which grow exclusively on "high elevation, alpine hills," she says. "Come fall, [this tree] turns a spectacular shade of gold before its needles fall off for the winter," Schmit explains. "The changing of the larches is so beloved in Washington, it's known as 'larch madness!"
Schmit recommends checking out the Heather Maple Pass Loop or the Blue Lake Trail for the most scenic views in the fall.
10. Cuyahoga Valley National Park (Ohio)
The Wilderness Society, which works to protect over 112 million acres of wilderness in 44 U.S. states, recommends several parks for leaf peeping, including Cuyahoga Valley National Park, described as "Ohio's best-kept secret."
This is a great park to visit if you're not into too much hiking, as you can see the park while taking a scenic train ride. Per the NPS, the red and sugar maples are typically the first to transform and boast a range of beautiful fall colors, followed by the white and pin oak (which turn brownish red), and then black gum, dogwood, and northern red oak (which turn many shades of red), and finally the tulip tree, bigtooth aspen, silver maple, and black maple (which turn yellow).
If you're able to visit in mid-to-late October, you're likely to see the best colors, with the NPS recommending Brandywine Falls and the Ledges area trails.
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- Source: https://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/aspen.htm
- Source: https://www.nps.gov/hosp/learn/historyculture/index.htm
- Source: https://www.nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/fall-hikes.htm
- Source: https://www.nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/wildview.htm
- Source: https://www.nps.gov/cuva/planyourvisit/train.htm
- Source: https://www.nps.gov/thingstodo/best-fall-colors-cuyahoga-valley.htm