Celebrate Fall In 6 Ultra-Autumnal National Parks

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View of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Asboard90 | Dreamstime.com

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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