8 Best National Parks to Visit in the Fall

8 Best National Parks to Visit in the Fall

Regardless of where you live, “leaf-peeping,” the act (more of an art form, really) of seeking out colorful displays of fall foliage, seems to be a universally loved activity.

There’s just something cozy and almost romantic about heading out into nature in crisp weather, searching for the most colorful trees you can find. 

Keep in mind, although we’ve provided the most optimal timeframe, several factors can affect the exact timing of color change. Many parks, such as Great Smoky Mountains, maintain live leaf-peeping webcams to monitor the color transformation.

Thankfully, our national parks are home to some of the best fall foliage displays anywhere. Whether you prefer to go for a leisurely scenic drive or tackle a backcountry hike to peep your leaves, we’ve got the best national parks to visit in the fall, including a month-by-month breakdown

8 of the Best National Parks to Visit in the Fall

Whether you want to explore some of the country’s biggest and most iconic parks or you’d prefer to get off the beaten path, there are several amazing places to go leaf-peeping this fall.

1. Cuyahoga

Brandywine Falls surrounded by colorful trees in Cuyahoga, one of the best national parks to visit in the fall

It may be one of the most underrated and overlooked, but Cuyahoga Valley is also one of the best national parks to visit in the fall. 

Situated near both Akron and Cleveland, Cuyahoga Valley is easily accessible but feels far removed from civilization. The serene park is defined by waterfalls, diverse wildlife, 125 miles of hiking trails, rich history, and come every October, spectacular fall color. 

In addition to hiking or biking, there are some unique ways to experience fall in Cuyahoga Valley. The park is home to a historic (as in a century-plus!) covered bridge, a whopping four golf courses, and the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad (CVSR). 

For the best leaf-peeping opportunities, check out Brandywine Falls and Pine Hollow, and drive through the “tunnel” of bright gold birch trees on the Octagon Shelter access road. 

Best time for fall colors in Cuyahoga Valley National Park: October

2. Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon with a few turning trees in the corner

When you think of the Grand Canyon, what comes to mind? Probably epic hiking trails, whitewater rafting on the mighty Colorado River, and dazzling desert sunsets. But fall foliage? Probably not. 

On the contrary, however, the Grand Canyon is one of the very best national parks to visit in the fall — and certainly among the most striking. 

The jaw-dropping elevation differences between the canyon’s floor and rim create a unique environment for a vast variety of deciduous trees, many of which aren’t found anywhere else in the state. You’ll find yourself noticing new areas in the vast expanses of the canyon, as your eyes are drawn to splashes of color standing against the red rock. 

The only catch? You’ll want to bypass the uber-popular South Rim and head up to the lesser-known North Rim, which often closes for the season by mid-October. 

Best time for fall colors in Grand Canyon National Park: Late September to early October

3. Great Smoky Mountains

Tree-covered valleys in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

You simply can’t have a list of the best national parks to visit in the fall without including Great Smoky Mountains. In fact, we’re willing to bet this eastern Tennessee park is exactly what comes to mind for most people when they think of fall foliage. 

Part of the Appalachian Mountains straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, the Smokies are made up of seemingly infinite gently rolling, tree-covered hills. 

Those trees? Well, there are over 100 native deciduous tree species in the Great Smokies. This diversity is what creates such large and colorful blankets across the hillsides every autumn, wowing visitors from every corner of the park. 

Drive scenic Newfound Gap Road, hike to the top of Clingmans Dome, and frolic in the meadows in Cades Cove for the best displays of fall color. 

Best time for fall colors in Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Late September through early November

4. Guadalupe Mountains

Colorful fall trees in front of a mountain in Guadalupe Mountains National Park

We know what you’re thinking: how does a destination in far west Texas end up on a list of the best national parks to visit in the fall?

Well, Guadalupe Mountains National Park will surprise you — in the best way. The park is home to Guadalupe Peak, the tallest mountain in Texas at 8,749 feet. In stark contrast to the region’s harsh desert, this creates geographical diversity that really comes to life in autumn. 

Once you get to Guadalupe Mountains, make a beeline for McKittrick Canyon. The canyon is home to the park’s sole body of water — a small stream — which allows several unexpected trees to thrive. 

Maple, oak, ash, and walnut trees grow well here, creating stunning pops of fall color. In fact, McKittrick Canyon is highly regarded as one of the best leaf-peeping destinations in all of Texas! 

Best time for fall colors in Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Late October to mid-November

5. Mount Rainier

Mount Rainier and color-turning fall foliage in Mount Rainier National Park

Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park is breathtaking in autumn. Not only do the trees’ leaves change throughout the park, but the entire ground transforms with color as well, thanks . largely to the abundance of huckleberry bushes.

In addition to deciduous trees such as maples, Mount Rainier is also home to Tamarack, or Western Larch, trees. These unique trees look like pines and appear to be coniferous, meaning they keep their needles. 

However, Tamaracks turn a brilliant, striking golden hue and later drop all of their needles when fall officially arrives. People come from all over the world just to witness this phenomenon, making Mount Rainier one of the best national parks to visit in the fall. 

For some of the best color and photo ops (not to mention some of the best hiking trails in the country!), head to Tipsoo Lake and Yakima Peak.

Best time for fall colors in Mount Rainier National Park: Late September through October

6. Rocky Mountain

Aspens in front of a mountain peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, one of the best national parks to visit in the fall

Truly, Colorado is always a good idea — especially when it involves visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. Especially especially when it involves visiting the park during the fall. 

The park’s high altitude and alpine terrain give it a completely unique take on fall. Of course, the gorgeous golds, reds, and oranges are there, but RMNP is known for something else: the distinct “quaking” of the aspens.

Aspens turn a deep golden color every fall and when they do, they have a unique sound and appearance when the wind rustles them. It sounds as if the entire tree is being shaken, but it’s a lovely melodic sound. In addition, the “quaking” makes it appear almost as if the trees are on fire. It’s fascinating!

For the best views, start by driving Bear Lake Road and then hike Glacier Gorge Trail or Twin Sisters. And for a chance to spot fall foliage and hundreds of migrating elk, head to Hidden Valley. 

Best time for fall colors in Rocky Mountain National Park: September through mid-October

7. Shenandoah

Skyline Drive during autumn in Shenandoah, one of the best national parks to visit in the fall

Every fall, Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park seems to literally glow. It’s not just the trees that change color, but the entire hillsides. Even the sunsets take on a deep golden hue. 

There’s no question that Shenandoah is one of the best national parks to visit in the fall. Even better, you couldn’t find a bad view if you tried here, so it’s easy to get your fill of fall. 

Something unique to Shenandoah is that many of its best views are some of the most accessible. Regardless of how much time you have to visit, cruise Skyline Drive, hopping out at overlooks to take in the views (and snap a few photos!).

One thing to note is that because of Shenandoah’s proximity to Washington, D.C., it gets packed on autumn weekends. Go extremely early or on weekdays if possible.

Keep in mind, the park is close enough to Great Smoky Mountains that you can get more bang for your buck and visit both on a road trip.

Best time for fall colors in Shenandoah National Park: October

8. Yosemite

Yosemite Valley looking at El Capitan and the Three Brothers in Yosemite, one of the best national parks to visit in the fall

There’s something especially dramatic about pops of fall color against gigantic rock formations. Luckily, Yosemite has plenty of both, making it one of the best national parks to visit in the fall. 

Unlike parks such as Cuyahoga and Shenandoah where the entire region is drenched in fall colors, Yosemite’s autumn display features sporadic bursts of color.

This makes the already-picturesque scene even more impressive, as you never know where you’ll stumble upon a stand of changing aspens or dogwoods amidst dark green pines. 

Some of the best spots in the park for fall foliage include Yosemite Valley and Wawona Meadows. Both areas are easily accessible, plus serve as central jumping-off points for several hiking and biking trails. 

One thing to note about fall in Yosemite is that the season is particularly short. You want to time your visit just right, as major park roads like Glacier Point begin to close for the season when snow starts to fall — usually by early November. 

Best time for fall colors in Yosemite National Park: Late September to late October

So which one of these national parks to visit in the fall is first on your list? Whether you plan to visit one or all eight, don’t overlook commemorating the trip in a fun way!

A Wander Chain from The Wander Club, combined with a few of our U.S. National Park Tokens, will ensure you never forget your trip. And bonus, the tokens are customizable, so you can have yours engraved with the date of your visit or a meaningful word that sums up the trip. Happy leaf-peeping!