National parks are synonymous with summer road trips, but what if we told you to wait a few months to book your visits? Come fall, our favorite destinations do a costume change, offering a new experience for those looking for an outdoor escape that won’t have them sweating in their tent. 

Explore woodlands, deserts and shorelines in the fall and discover the nuances introduced with the changing of the seasons, whether they are changing leaves, more wildlife,or clear views of our galaxy. Here’s our list of 10 parks that will make for a perfect autumn getaway.

Introducing the USA's National Parks

Some of the world's biggest trees at Olympic Peninsula, Washington

You can find plenty of big trees on a road trip around Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, particularly within the boundaries of Olympic National Park. In the park’s 1 million plus acres (400,000 hectares) of wilderness, you can hike into the mountains, wander along the coast and explore the old-growth temperate rainforests. Head for the lowlands of the Sol Duc or Elwha Valleys for groves of Douglas fir and western hemlock. Deeper in the park, moss-covered Sitka spruce and western hemlock stand tall amidst the ferns and lichens in the jungle-like Hoh Rain Forest and Quinault Area. And if you’d like to add some vampire lore to your rainforest adventures, stop in the town of Forks, the setting for Stephenie Meyer’s "Twilight" novels, where teen Bella Swan falls for an ever-so-handsome vampire. 

Introducing Washington's national parks

Yellowstone Falls in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
A young woman walks up a narrow stair set winds down to an overlook of Yellowstone Falls in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming © Patrick Orton / Getty

The many waterfalls and geysers of Yellowstone, Wyoming

Yellowstone is nature’s tour de force. Its unique supervolcano features half the world’s geysers, the country’s largest high-altitude lake and a mass of blue-ribbon rivers and waterfalls. To the south, Grand Teton National Park complements with craggy peaks, peaceful waterways and sublime alpine terrain. Wildlife spotting can start at Jackson, where elk, bison and bighorn sheep congregate in winter at the National Elk Refuge, and grizzly sightings are not uncommon as soon as you head out onto the Moose-Wilson Rd. The wet lowlands at Oxbow Bend provide a scenic spot to view moose, elk, bald eagles and other birds, while bear (or bison) jams are sometimes an issue from Yellowstone Lake on. Beyond the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, head east toward Lamar Valley, dubbed the Serengeti of North America for its herds of bison, elk and the occasional grizzly or coyote. 

10 of the most spectacular waterfalls at Yellowstone National Park and how to see them

Joshua Tree National Park at sunset, California
Joshua Tree National Park at sunset © roman_slavik / Getty

The other-worldly tree forms at Joshua Tree National Park, California

About 250 miles south of Death Valley, this surreal park encompasses 1235 sq miles (3199 sq km) and two distinct desert habitats, the Mojave and the Colorado, each with their own unique flora and fauna – including the eponymous Joshua tree, Yucca brevifolia, which can survive severe droughts and is superbly adapted to cope with the arid desert environment. It’s a strange landscape, with strange plants and even stranger people (residents are famous for their alternative lifestyles). Go rock climbing in Echo Cove, hike the Arch Rock Trail and experience the old-timey vibes of Pioneertown – and don’t miss the knockout vistas from Keys View. There are many backcountry roads to explore, either on foot, on horseback or in a 4WD – but stick to the trails, as the desert ecosystem is fragile, and tracks left here can last for decades.

Getting to know Joshua Tree National Park

Grizzly bears are the pre-eminent predators in Denali National Park
Grizzly bears are the pre-eminent predators in Denali National Park © Michael Heffernan / Lonely Planet

Driving deep into the wild at Denali National Park, Alaska

In a clearing in the midst of the dense spruce forest, by the banks of the turquoise-colored Jack River, stands a rusty green bus. It’s the movie-set replica of the bus where Chris McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, spent the last months of his life in the real-life story, "Into the Wild". The actual bus stood west of the one-street town of Healy, some 50 miles (80km) further north, and became a focal point for fans until its removal in 2020, after at least two people were swept away by the Teklanika River while trying to reach it. From Anchorage, the supremely scenic Parks Hwy winds north to Healy, with views of the snowcapped peaks of Denali National Park to your west. Watch out for caribou wandering onto the road and be prepared for adverse driving conditions in the coldest months.

Top 8 road trips in Alaska

Introducing Yosemite, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

The stunning sequoias at Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, California

Superlatives abound in Kings Canyon and Sequoia, two adjacent national parks marked by their enormous sequoia trees, powerful waterfalls and glacial valleys. Kings Canyon Scenic Byway drops for 30 dramatic miles (48km) within its namesake canyon, twisting past chiseled rock faces laced with waterfalls. Hiking trails to Mist Falls and Zumwalt Meadow begin near Roads End, which overlooks the mighty Kings River. Enormous sequoia trees cluster at General Grant Grove, with more big trees visible along the Generals Hwy, which links Kings Canyon National Park with Sequoia National Park to the south. Here, the General Sherman Tree, the world's biggest tree by volume, rises 275ft (84m) in the Giant Forest. Drive Crescent Meadow Rd to the Tunnel Log, then tackle the dizzyingly scenic drive into Mineral King Valley

Where to find the USA's 11 newest national parks 

One of the most photographed bridges in Acadia National Park, Maine
One of the most photographed bridges in Acadia National Park, Maine © f11photo / Shutterstock

New England's only national park: Acadia National Park, Maine

We couldn’t make this list without including the only national park in New England, a region globally recognized for having some of the most eye-catching autumn colors on the planet. The park is an ideal spot to participate in all the leaf-peeping you can handle.

Acadia originally belonged to the Wabanaki people, who called the area Pemetic, meaning “the sloped land.” The area was popularized by writers and artists in the late 1800s, and Acadia National Park was established in 1916, the first national park east of the Mississippi.

Colors tend to peak around the beginning of October, but if you’re worried about missing the best of them, the Maine state government maintains status updates on its website. The park contains 158 miles of trails that loop around lakes and forests and along rocky shorelines, giving you all the chances to see the many sides of Maine

The ultimate New England fall foliage road trip 

Skyline drive through the colorful autumn forest of Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Skyline drive through the colorful autumn forest of Shenandoah National Park, Virginia © OGphoto / Getty

The rolling hills of Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Almost 800 miles south of Maine sits the expansive Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, another fall foliage stunner that wows with its rolling hills and electrifying array of colors. Deciduous forests engulf  500 miles of hiking trails, and visitors will delight in the numerous mountaintop panoramas and abundant wildlife sightings (careful, black bears are most active in the fall!). 

Campgrounds are first-come-first-served, so be prepared to show up early to claim your spot. Also, the leaves aren’t exactly a secret – October is the park’s busiest month and weekends see intense traffic, so plan on a weekday visit. 

After being inhabited by several Native American groups including the Shawnee, the Cherokee, the Delaware and others for centuries, the park was proposed in the early 1900s. The government aggregated the land over the course of a decade largely through eminent domain; Shenandoah National Park was established in 1935.

A guide to Shenandoah National Park

Rocky needles at Canyonlands National Park
While you won't get vibrant fall colors at Canyonlands National Park, you will enjoy cooler temperatures © Elena Arrigo / Shutterstock

The breathtaking canyons of Canyonlands National Park, Utah

While Canyonlands National Park may not offer leafy autumn vistas like its more eastern counterparts, its rocky wonders are best enjoyed when one isn’t actively trying to seek refuge from the +100-degree temperatures. Visit in the fall for breathtaking views of the park’s namesake canyons and rich autumn sunsets, all with much more tolerable temperatures. 

The park's canyons were carved out by the Colorado and Green Rivers over millions of years. The Canyonlands area was first populated by the Ancestral Puebloans and the Fremont Culture, and later became home to the Ute, Paiute and Navajo Nations. Today the park encompasses 340,000 acres.

While you’re here, don’t miss neighboring Dead Horse Point State Park, which offers up one of the best sunrise and sunset viewpoints in Utah.

The 8 best road trips in Utah

Teton mountain range reflection on Jenny Lake during autumn
In the fall, diverse wildlife abounds at Grand Teton National Park © Krishna Wu / Shutterstock

The diverse wildlife of Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Grand Teton in Wyoming has it all: snow-dusted peaks, sparkling alpine lakes, sweeping valleys perfect for cycling and epic trails that zig-zag their way into and along the mountain range (the Shoshone called the region Teewinot, meaning “many pinnacles”).

In the fall, the park abounds with its diverse wildlife: mountain goats pick their way through the Tetons’ highest reaches while elk and moose engage in their version of National Park Tinder, searching out the perfect (or not so perfect) mate. 

Campers tend to jet straight to the campsites that are centrally located in the park, but we recommend seeking out a spot at Gros Ventre Campground on its southern boundary. The camping spots are bigger, and it’s situated close to the picturesque banks of the Gros Ventre River.

Pack up and set out on these wild Wyoming road trips

Milky Way Nightscape From Great Sand Dunes Nationa
Great Sand Dunes National Park is the perfect destination to scope out the Milky Way © Mike Berenson / Colorado Captur

The vast night sky at Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

The Great Sand Dunes of southeastern Colorado may not seem like the most obvious choice for a fall getaway, but a trip to this unique spot just might surprise you. Not only do the trees around the dunes change colors, making for a somewhat confounding landscape contrast, the area is also home to wildlife that appear in larger numbers in the fall.

Plus, the sand gets hot during the summer, reaching up to 150 degrees Farenheit in the sunny afternoon hours; a fall visit guarantees more comfortable sand temperatures. 

The dunes are remnants of an ancient lake that drained into the Rio Grande about 440,000 years ago, and the area is significant to several Native American groups, specifically the Ute and the Navajo/Diné Nations. One of the Navajo’s four sacred mountains, Sisnaajini, lies just south of the dunes. 

Great Sand Dunes is a Dark Sky Park, and the Milky Way is at its most visible on moonless nights in September and October. An autumn visit yields the best opportunities to gaze at our cosmos, and you can even backcountry camp underneath the stars with a permit. 

10 national parks in the US you can reach by train 

Kayakers passing through cypress groves in the waters of Cedar Creek at Congaree National Park
Kayakers passing through cypress groves in the waters of Cedar Creek at Congaree National Park © Brian W. Downs / Getty

Kayaking through the trees of Congaree National Park – South Carolina

Established in 2003, this relative national park newbie harbors the largest intact forest of old-growth hardwood trees in the southeastern United States. The park contains a few short trails and boardwalks, but the real highlight is Cedar Creek, its arterial waterway. Wind your way through Congaree’s impressive champion trees via kayak or paddleboard for up-close-and-personal views of its unique flora and wide range of bird life.

Why visit in the fall? The high heat and humidity associated with a South Carolina summer are gone, and the park’s ancient trees take on a golden hue, making for a memorable paddling experience. Heads up: boat rentals are not available in the park, so nab a vessel from the surrounding area or bring your own. 

Best national parks in the US for outdoor photography 

This article was first published September 2020 and updated August 2022

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