Celebrate Fall In 6 Ultra-Autumnal National Parks

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
September 30, 2019
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From stunning foliage in the mountains to cool temperatures in the desert, we’ve rounded up the finest park getaways for fall.

If you associate fall travel with perfect weather, elbow room, and a dose of vibrant foliage, you’re thinking like a Budget Traveler. So, what makes a national park ideal for autumn? Our criteria includes moderate temperatures, a low risk of tropical storms, and either small crowds or a hack or two to manage the hordes. And by choosing a national park for your getaway, you’re guaranteeing value – each park is adjoined by affordable lodging, and ample camping opportunities abound. Here, six national parks that provide something special in October and November–and one that’s even balmy and inviting well into December.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee & North Carolina

Best Time for a Fall Visit: October through mid-November

Hands-down the best national park for fall foliage, the Great Smoky Mountains are also a balmy place to enjoy hiking and camping into mid-November. At press time, vibrant colors are already starting to pop in the higher elevations, but the foliage forecast for 2019 suggests that the park’s maples, oaks, and autumn wildflowers will peak in November this year, leaving plenty of time to plan your trip.

Bear in mind that autumn is a peak season for visitors to GSMNP – it can be as busy as summer. But we’ve got a hack for that: It’s a good idea to see the sights early in the morning or later in the afternoon to avoid crowds and traffic. Midday, explore one of the park’s gateway communities, such as Gatlinburg, TN, which Budget Travel named one of the Coolest Small Towns in America. We’re also quite psyched that the state of Tennessee has installed “colorblind viewfinders” in the park, which will help visually challenged visitors experience the vibrant colors as Mother Nature intended.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

Best Time for a Fall Visit: October through mid-November

Fall can be a time to discover a national park you’ve never heard of before, and the Guadalupe Mountains, east of El Paso, fit the bill. Here, you’ll experience gorgeous mountains, canyons, and even desert sand dunes, all accessible via miles of hiking trails. Don’t miss the chance to hike to the “Top of Texas,” elevation 8700ft, on the Guadalupe Peak Trail (and be ready for some Instagrammable moments at the top). Visit the ruins of a stagecoach station at the Pine Spring visitor center, and see a restored ranch and its accompanying museum near the Smith Spring trailhead.

Though Texas may not be especially known for its fall colors, the hardwood trees along the McKittrick Canyon Trail in Guadalupe’s northern section put on quite a show starting in mid-October. And consider stretching your stay with a trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, about a half-hour’s drive north, in New Mexico.

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Best Time for a Fall Visit: October through mid-November

An easy escape from Mid-Atlantic and Southeast cities like Baltimore, DC, and Richmond, Shenandoah National Park is a good idea any time of year, but in autumn you’ll find fewer crowds, moderate temperatures, and the vibrant colors of the park’s maples, sumacs, and sassafras. Ideal for hiking, or just auto-touring the majestic Skyline Drive, Shenandoah is also one of the finest environments in the US for birdwatching and viewing the night sky.

Drop by the Dickey Ridge visitor center for a schedule of upcoming ranger-led programs, which include talks about the park’s history and wildlife, hands-on programs, and ranger-led hikes that can feel like the ultimate outdoor classroom.

Yosemite National Park, California

Best Time for a Fall Visit: October and November

Yes, Yosemite is spectacular year-round, but autumn is a sweet spot during which temperatures in the Yosemite and Wawona Valleys can remain in the 60s and 70s but summer crowds have vanished. (That being said, it’s important to remember that at higher elevations, lows in the 30s and the chance of snow arrive with fall, so short-term closures of some roads and areas are possible after September.)

Enjoy independent or guided hikes and iconic sights such as Half-Dome, El Capitan, and Vernal Falls (rivers and waterfalls, including the famous Yosemite Falls, tend to run low or even dry in fall). In mid-October, you may spot some fall foliage among the park’s sugar maples, black oaks, cottonwoods, and dogwoods, but overall the forests of Yosemite are filled with evergreens, whose deep greens can evoke a feeling of endless summer on a sunny autumn day.

Zion National Park

Best Time for a Fall Visit: October and November

We’ll be honest: The number-one reason to visit Zion in October or November is the cool temperatures, a relief from summer’s mind-blowingly intense heat. Minus summer’s heat and crowds, Zion is a perfect place for taking in the splendor of red sandstone cliffs by day and stargazing by night (the state of Utah has taken exceptional measures to reduce light pollution). The park is closed to private vehicles, and a spectacular shuttle system takes you to trailheads and other points of interest. Epic hikes such as the Narrows are the main draw here.

Stop by a visitor center for a weather update, as flash floods can occur any time of year and pose a danger to hikers. And though Zion is not exactly a leaf-peeper’s mecca, October visitors will see their share of reds, yellows, and oranges. And the park is one of the finest for camping, with ample BLM sites available free of charge. Looking for something a little more luxe? Glamping sites just outside the park’s borders are increasingly popular.

Everglades National Park, Florida

Best Time for a Fall Visit: November and December

If you’re looking for a national park to visit in late fall, the Everglades, Florida’s peerless natural environment featuring beautiful waterways and wildlife that includes black bear and gators, is ideal. Though temperatures in this region of Florida tend to be balmy year-round, starting in November, the dry season begins, lasting into April.

Dry season means it’s not as hot and humid as the summer months (dry season temperatures range from highs in the upper 70s to lows in the mid-50s), the risk of tropical storms is, at least in theory, over, and pests such as mosquitoes and biting flies vanish. Wildlife viewing is enhanced in fall, as animals gather around ever-shrinking watering holes, and birdwatching is exceptional as many feathered species head to South Florida to escape the approaching chill up north.

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National Parks

American Airlines Is Adding More Flights to National Parks in the US

American Airlines has announced that it is adding more flights to Montana and Alaska, which will enable travelers to visit national parks there. This means that it will offer 17 routes to both states next summer. The airline will add four new seasonal flights to Montana from Philadelphia, New York City and Los Angeles. Based on the success of its new service to Glacier National Park Airport in Kalispell, it is also switching to a larger aircraft on the Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago flights. “National parks are a huge attraction for many families,” said Vasu Raja, vice president of network and schedule planning. “As soon as school’s out next year, our customers will have more than 145 weekly flights to and from Montana to choose from. This summer, we launched three new flights to Glacier National Park in Kalispell, and next summer, we’re expanding with more services to discover the natural wonders.” The airline will also introduce three new routes to Alaska. It is providing two new ways to get to Alaska’s second-largest city, Fairbanks, through Dallas Fort-Worth and Chicago. The new routes will serve travellers who are looking to explore Denali National Park, check out caribou or learn about the unique glaciers. With the daily service beginning in May 2020, the airline is offering one-stop connections from 56 new cities. It is also introducing a new service between Chicago and Anchorage. You can check out the flights on American Airlines' website here.

National Parks

How to Plan a Trip to Glacier National Park from Seattle by Train

In a remote region of North America, there’s a place where trekking across glaciers and through alpine meadows are a common pastime. A destination where wildlife outnumber people and bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and bears are common sights. Nearly 9 hours from Seattle, Glacier National Park only seems possible by sacrificing long hours behind the wheel. Many Seattleites and visitors to the Pacific Northwest opt for exploring the Olympic Peninsula or North Cascades instead. However, West Glacier and Whitefish are both a straight shot from the city by train, making the trip both budget-friendly and easier on the environment. Though taking the train to Glacier may simplify some things, it still requires a lot of planning, from purchasing train tickets to securing campsites. There are also a number of factors to consider to keep the trip affordable, particularly during the summer months. Getting There The Amtrak Empire Builder from Seattle to Glacier operates year-round, with one-way prices available for as low as $50, depending on the date. If your budget allows for a Superliner Roomette – starting at about $200 – it’s worth it for the extra space and included meals. The most common route is from Seattle’s King Street Station to West Glacier Station. However, if you’re traveling in the busy season, taking the train to Whitefish may help you save on accommodations. The train trip is about five hours longer than taking the same route by car, which is why many people opt for the overnight ride. Just keep in mind that you’ll have to plan alternative means of transportation to reach the park. What to Pack For backpackers, a lot of your trip should be planned around Apgar, as that’s where you’ll most likely stock up on food and supplies. In addition to packing bear spray, a food storage bag and the usual camping necessities, you’ll want to have an idea of how far you want to go in order to decide how much food and water you’ll need to have on hand. There are food options at lodges throughout the park, but they often have long lines during peak season and are not as budget-friendly. Water purifiers and lightweight camping stoves are also worth considering for those planning longer trips. Even if you’re planning to “glamp” or stay in a budget hotel, it’s important to carry many of the same essentials for long hikes or bike rides through the wilderness. Once You Arrive During the busy season, traffic in Glacier National Park may be enough to make you thankful you took the train. One perk during peak season, however, is the number of shuttles and tours operating throughout the park and surrounding areas, including a free shuttle service that runs the full length of Going-to-the-Sun Road. Another popular pick, the Red Bus Tours operate from early June through late September with departure points at Apgar Visitor Center, Lake McDonald Lodge and several other locations. There are also shuttle services that cart hikers directly from the West Glacier Train Station to Lake McDonald Lodge and the Village Inn. Biking is another inexpensive option for those who prefer to get a workout in. Rentals are available on the Gateway to Glacier Bike Path, less than a couple miles from the West Glacier entrance. The trail is paved and spans a little more than 10 miles from West Glacier to Hungry Horse, with lots of places to stop and eat along the way. If you’re staying in Whitefish or the surrounding area, the Glacier Express Shuttle travels back and forth between Whitefish and Apgar. There’s also a 24-hour taxi service that runs year-round throughout Flathead County with pick-up locations at Glacier National Airport and the Amtrak stations in both Whitefish and West Glacier. Where to Stay When booking campsites, the most important consideration to make is how you’ll get there. If they aren’t accessible by foot, make sure there’s a shuttle or taxi service that makes stops in an area that’s within walking distance of where you plan to stay. Backcountry permits can be obtained at any of the ranger stations and are $7 or less per night. If you plan on going north of Goat Haunt Ranger Station, you’ll also need to make sure you have your passport handy. If you prefer not to camp, the Belton Chalet is a convenient option, as it’s located directly across from West Glacier Station. Glacier Guides Lodge, Apgar Village Lodge and Glacier Raft Company’s accommodations are all on the less expensive end, as well as some of the yurts at Glacier Under Canvas. For those visiting in the off-season, be sure to check which lodging is still available. When to Visit Glacier National Park experiences some of its most stunning scenery (and lowest prices) during the shoulder seasons. Autumn is ideal for colorful foliage photos and floating on the river, while late Spring is a good fit for avid bikers and those who don’t mind a little snow. Cross-country skiers and snowshoeing enthusiasts should also take advantage of the low prices in January and February. It’s still possible to visit Glacier from July through September, but you have to be more strategic in order to save. Make sure to book all transportation far in advance and research which campsites allow reservations. Also note that most tours, shuttle services and park lodges don’t operate outside of peak season.

National Parks

The Yellowstone Loop: 9 Stops You Must Make

If you’re looking to combine a unique road trip with two of America's most epic national parks, look no further than the Yellowstone Loop. While many visitors to Yellowstone National Park fall into a rush-rush routine—flying into Salt Lake City, UT, renting a car, and racing straight to the park—the Yellowstone Loop invites you to slow it down and take a scenic and enjoyable path to the park. It’s the ideal way to experience everything this region has to offer. Here are our favorite nine stops between your arrival in Salt Lake City and the loop up to Yellowstone and back. 1. Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Brigham City, UT Amanda McCadams Detour into the Bear River Wild Bird Refuge for the 12-mile driving tour. This 74,000-acre National Wildlife Refuge is an important resting, feeding, and nesting area for migrating birds. Depending on what time of year you visit, you’ll get to see American avocets, white-faced ibis, Tundra swans, American white pelicans, Snowy plovers, and Black-necked stilts. 2. American West Heritage Center, Logan, UT Photojournalist Amanda McCadams hones her axe-throwing skills. (Courtesy Amanda McCadams) Step back in time 100 years and take your turn at hatchet throwing, spinning wool, or have tea while playing parlor games. This living history museum inspires visitors to learn, live and celebrate what life was like in the Cache Valley between the years of 1820-1920. Spread across nearly 300 acres of open space are a historical farm, pioneer settlements, native American exhibits, a mountain man camp and more. 3. Bluebird Candy Company, Logan, UT Amanda McCadams The Bluebird Candy Company has been creating hand-dipped candies and treats in their factory since 1914. Walk through the door and immediately the sweet smell of chocolate will beg you to start looking for the samples (FYI: they are by the register). After you’ve grabbed a taste, turn your attention to the picture window and watch the chocolates being hand dipped. Their irresistible clusters, caramels, truffles, and chocolates are made using locally sourced ingredients, which don’t have any preservatives or waxes, and their candy centers are made daily. Each are hand dipped then given a unique signature. 4. Lava Hot Springs, ID Amanda McCadams When you are ready to relax, head to the natural thermal springs of Lava Hot Springs. Every day over 2.5 million gallons of natural, chemical-free water courses through five soaking pools before being diverted in the Portneuf River. The pools range in temperature from 102 to 112 and are laden with minerals. And, thank goodness, this mineral water does not contain sulfur, so you won’t have to endure the rotten egg smell while you unwind from being on the road. The springs are open year-round except for Thanksgiving and Christmas. 5. Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, West Yellowstone, MT Amanda McCadams You might not see a grizzly during your visit to Yellowstone National Park, but you can get up close to one at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, MT, just a short drive from the park’s western entrance. All of the grizzlies, wolves, owls, eagles, and hawks that reside here are unable to survive in the wild, so instead they serve as ambassadors to their wild counterparts. Throughout the day naturalists on staff lead a variety of demonstrations, including how to properly use bear spray (hint: you DON’T spray it on like bug spray) and general bear safety. Kids-only programs include helping a naturalist hide food in the bear habitat, then watching how a bear uses the sense of smell to find food. 6. Yellowstone National Park, WY, MT, ID Amanda McCadams You could spend weeks in Yellowstone National Park and never still see it all. Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Springs, herds of buffalo, are all the high-points you’ll definitely want to see. Our advice here is to drive slowly through the park, take your time and visit during shoulder season (it's also beautiful in winter, though most roads are closed). Following this advice, you’ll see more, the crowds will be smaller, and the cooler temperatures will have the wildlife still at a lower elevations, along the primary roads. 7. Grand Tetons National Park, WY Grand Tetons could be an entire, epic trip all by itself, but if you are thinking of “saving it for another time,” while you focus on Yellowstone it's a good idea to just drive through it on your way back to Salt Lake City. The scenery is breathtaking and it’s no wonder this park is a magnet for photographers, painters and landscape enthusiasts. Along your route you should definitely make a stop where Ansel Adams made his famous “Tetons and Snake River" photograph. There is even a marker there, so you too can test your photography skills and shoot where the master did. 8. Bear Lake, Garden City, UT Amanda McCadams Bear Lake is known as the Caribbean of the Rockies. After seeing the stunning turquoise water and white beaches, you’ll understand why. There is no shortage of recreational activities that happen year-round here. There are thousands of square miles of fun that include beaches, boating, fishing, water sports, hiking, snow skiing, ice fishing, snowmobiling, exploring, history, and so much more. 9. Conestoga Ranch, Garden City, UT Located on 18 acres along the shores of Bear Lake is Conestoga Ranch. This is glamping at its finest. Stay in a modern version of a covered wagon (with a plush king-sized bed and electricity), or a traditional (yet very roomy) tent. Each spot comes with campfire valet service (s’mores kit included) and there is resort-wide wifi. Some tents have their own shower and bathroom facilities, but if yours doesn’t, there are private shower rooms available 24/7 (none of that public bathhouse stuff with a flimsy curtain and lukewarm water). The on-site Campfire Grill restaurant offers upscale yet casual dining and a wine and craft beer list to go along with it.

National ParksFamily

Gettysburg National Military Park: How to Visit With Kids

As a little boy visiting the Gettysburg National Military Park for the first time, I didn't need to know that this piece of Pennsylvania farmland was the site of the turning point of the Civil War, or how many people had died here over the course of three days in July 1863. On that first trip, historical facts and statistics were trumped by the words "Devil's Den." My father's gentle description of the firefight that had occurred amid the towering gray boulders there, where Union and Confederate soldiers had once crouched for cover, was enough to inspire a blend of fear, awe, and respect that I associate with the place to this day. As an adult, I've caught myself saying, "I don't believe in ghosts, but I believe in Gettysburg." Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, is located just north of the Mason-Dixon line about an hour and 20 minute's drive from Baltimore and two hours and 20 minutes from Philadelphia. Here, in early July, 1863, General Robert E. Lee led his rebel Army of Northern Virginia across the Pennsylvania border in an attempt to seize Washington, D.C., and force a Union surrender. What happened here, with American fighting American, often hand-to-hand, changed the course of U.S. history, with Lee's army eventually forced to retreat. Each summer, as the battle anniversary nears, the museum, the cemetery where President Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address in November of 1863, and the winding trails of national parkland play host to armies of tourists and history buffs. And, yes, for better or for worse, children will be cajoled, bribed, or dragged into the action. But Gettysburg ain't Disney. How you introduce kids to a place like this can mean the difference between igniting a spark of historical curiosity and sending them screaming for the snack bar. Here, some expert advice on showing your little ones how to tread lightly on hallowed ground. PLAN YOUR VISIT IN ADVANCE I spoke with Barbara J. Sanders, education specialist at Gettysburg National Military Park, for her suggestions about the best way to introduce children to this historical site and the troubling chapter in American history that it represents. Sanders suggests visiting the park's website (nps.gov/gett) as well as the website of the park's partners, the Gettysburg Foundation. "By planning the trip together and allowing each member of the family to select an activity of interest, everyone will become involved and excited about their upcoming visit," Sanders suggests. She also recommends reading some age-appropriate books about the battle of Gettysburg, or about the Civil War, together prior to the visit. At Gettysburg, or What a Girl Saw & Heard of the Battle is an autobiographical account of the battle written by a woman who witnessed it as a young girl—appropriate for grades four and up. Jimmy at Gettysburg is the true story of Jimmy Bighams, who also experienced the battle first-hand as a boy—suitable for grades three and up. For parents who could use a little grounding in Civil War history, Ken Burns's documentary film The Civil War remains the gold standard for its clarity, elegance, and emotional wallop. For a deeper dive, Shelby Foote's trilogy, The Civil War: A Narrative, reads like great fiction. The park's website also features a robust "For Teachers" section intended to help with planning class trips but easily adapted by parents who are wondering where to start, what elements to teach their children, and what they might want to leave out. ARE YOUR KIDS READY FOR GETTYSBURG? "There's something at Gettysburg for all ages," Sanders insists. She points out that even very young kids often shout "Abraham Lincoln!" when they see the president's statue in front of the park's visitors center, and even if that's their only touchstone here, they can see the spot at the Soldiers' National Cemetery where he delivered his Gettysburg Address in November 1863, and even stand in his footsteps at the train station where he arrived in town. Of course, for elementary and middle school kids, there are themes presented at Gettysburg that will require either preparation or explanation. A film, dramatic 360-degree painting, and museum all help to put the conflict, the issue of slavery, and the sheer loss of life that occurred here in their historical context. The National Park Service and the Gettysburg Foundation offer a variety of children's education programs in summer that allow young visitors to learn as much—or as little—as they feel is right for them. "The focus of the trip should be to connect to the place and the people, and ignite a spark of interest in the minds of the kids," says Sanders. CHILDREN'S PROGRAMS For a summertime visit to a place as big as Gettysburg (a typical auto tour covers 24 miles), a friendly guide and some kid-friendly activities may be as essential as sunscreen, insect repellent, and water. Sanders recommends that you consider booking a personalized tour of Gettysburg. You can book a Licensed Battlefield Guide in advance, or take your chances with a first-come-first-served sign-up each morning at 8 a.m. The guide can accompany you in your car on a two-hour battlefield tour—it's essentially like having a teacher along for the ride to lead you to the most important sites and answer your family's questions. Gettysburg also offers free summer ranger field programs—sign up first thing at the visitors center information desk as space is limited, and pick up Junior Ranger activity booklets. A GETTYSBURG ITINERARY The most common approach to Gettysburg National Military Park is to start at the visitors center and museum, then embark on the 24-mile self-guided auto tour (an annotated map shows you the route and points out the major battle sites along the way). While the museum is a must-see with an extensive collection and interactive education stations, and visitors should try to plant their feet on key spots around the park, such as the site of Pickett's Charge (the doomed Confederate attack that turned the tide of the three-day battle), there are other, better ways for kids to really experience Gettysburg. "My recommendation is for families to find a specific person, or a specific regiment that they are interested in learning more about," says Sanders. As many families have experienced when visiting a museum dedicated to, for instance, immigration, or tolerance, or slavery, sometimes tracking the progress of just one person through a difficult chapter of history is far more rewarding than trying to understand the bigger picture, especially for grade-school children. "For example, if a family is coming from Alabama, they could research the 15th Alabama Infantry and follow their path from July 2, 1863 as they launch repeated attacks on the end of the Union line, occupied by the 20th Maine Infantry," Sanders suggests. "Or if a family is interested more in the farmers and civilians, they could learn about the John Slyder family, and then visit their farm at the base of Big Round Top, or Abram Bryan, a free black farmer whose house and barn was located near the very center of the Union line on July 3." Got a dog? Tell your kids the story of Sallie, the canine mascot of the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry, and a visit her monument near Oak Ridge. LET YOUR KIDS TAKE THE LEAD Give the little ones the elbow room to experience the place on their own terms—as Sanders suggests, and as my own parents did for me all those years ago. You may not entirely understand why your child is, say, fascinated by a particular field, or artifact, but be assured that they are processing this complex chapter in our history the very best they can. A visit to Gettysburg is not a time for lectures. Whether they come home with a solid sense of history's sweep or just the indelible memory of one soldier's few days on this rolling farmland, you'll have ignited a spark. HOW TO GET THERE Gettysburg National Military Park, Museum and Visitor Center entrance at 1195 Baltimore Pike, Gettysburg, Penn., visit nps.gov/gett.