Once summer’s heat begins to fade, nature likes to put on a show in many parts of the US, and fall foliage is a great reason to pull on your best fleece jacket and head to some of the country’s fabulous National Parks. Our pick of the best National Parks for fall colors offer leaf peepers across the country opportunities to catch the dazzling displays of red, orange and golden hues across high mountain ranges, rolling hills, river basins and rainforests as we transition into the colder months. Ditch your car and grab your hiking boots to enjoy the autumnal colors up close on the incredible hiking trails in these parks.
1. Acadia, Maine
When it comes to fall colors, New England reigns supreme and true leaf peeping aficionados should head to Acadia National Park at least once in their lifetime. Be warned, however, that the season can be short and lodging books up well in advance. Southwest of Bar Harbor, the Park protects areas of coastal Maine, including 19 of its outlying islands and boasts rugged beaches as well as lush forests and the highest mountain on the East Coast, Cadillac Mountain. Cadillac summit is one of the best spots to enjoy the turning of the leaves on the maple, birch and poplar trees that populate Mount Desert Island. The best time to visit is late September through mid-October.
2. Shenandoah, West Virginia
Further down the eastern seaboard, Shenandoah offers a longer foliage season than Acadia’s, albeit with more golden colors of chestnut trees and birch combined with splashes of red and orange from red oak and maple. Just 75 miles from DC, Shenandoah delivers you from the hustle and bustle of the capitol to the startling tranquility of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains in just over an hour. This long, narrow park is centered around a 70-mile stretch of the mountains, which make up part of the Appalachian Range. The best hikes in Shenandoah National Park deliver shaded forest trails, cascading waterfalls, rocky lookouts and ample opportunity to explore sections of the historic Appalachian Trail while you’re admiring the leaves. Foliage season lasts from September all the way through October and you can use the park’s webcams to keep an eye on progress and choose the peak time to go.
3. Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina and Tennessee
Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, the sprawling Great Smoky Mountains National Park houses endless acres of lush old-growth forests, cascading waterfalls, rocky bluffs and ancient mountains. Foliage season here comes a little later – from mid-October to early November, meaning you can stretch the leaf peeping season out if you’re keen. To enjoy the red, orange, golden and yellow hues cast by over 100 tree species here, you have over 800 miles of hiking trails to choose from including a 71-mile stretch of the world-famous Appalachian Trail.
4. Cuyahoga, Tennessee
Sandwiched between the urban centers of Cleveland and Akron, you might well be surprised to discover the natural oasis provided by Cuyahoga, which may not provide the grandeur of popular parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone, but certainly offers the best leaf peeping in the area within its dense forests, rolling hills and scenic waterfalls. There are 125 miles of hiking trails here such as the Brandywine Gorge Trail where you can enjoy beautiful fall colors, typically in the third week of October.
5. Yosemite, California
It’s true that most of us visit majestic Yosemite Valley for the hulking granite summits of El Capitan and Half Dome and to view the cascading waterfalls of Bridal Veil, Vernal and Yosemite Falls, but those dogwood trees that line the Merced River turn a deep red come fall that would put a rose to shame. Along with its maple trees, this park is a worthy destination for fall colors come mid-October, when the best hikes in Yosemite will even be a little quieter than during the busy summer months.
6. Rocky Mountain, Colorado
Colorado isn’t exactly known for a huge diversity of trees – the entire state has only about half the types of native trees as Great Smoky Mountains National Park – but its abundant aspen trees in the fall are nothing to scoff at. If you time it right, before the snow comes, you can catch the aspens set the Rockies ablaze in their brilliant yellow hues as you take a scenic drive across Trail Ridge Road or enjoy some of the best hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park within its 415 miles of alpine wilderness. Late September through mid-October is usually the best time for foliage.
7. Olympic, Washington
Few if any of America’s National Parks offer as diverse a landscape as Olympic National Park, which protects a vast wilderness on the Olympic Peninsula and boasts three distinct ecosystems. The 34-mile Hoh River Trail is one of the best hikes in Olympic and offers particularly stunning views of orange, yellow and scarlet leaves as it winds from lush rainforest to wooded coastline. The foliage season here begins in mid-September up high and continues through mid-October at lower levels.
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Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.