Last Updated: 10/17/22 – Top 10 National Parks in Autumn to Visit
The national parklands in the national park system of the United States are among some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. Between the mountain, desert, ocean, rainforest, and other terrains that make up these stunning parks, there is a wide variety of beauty that can be enjoyed by travelers who visit. While these national parks are breathtakingly beautiful year-round, the national parks in autumn when the leaves are changing color and mother nature has painted the landscapes with vibrant colors are even more beautiful.
If you are looking for a new travel adventure, I would suggest reviewing my list of the Top 10 National Parklands for Seeing Autumn Colors for some inspiration. In this list, I outline the national parks in America that I believe are the most beautifully transformed during the autumn months. Believe me, enhances the beauty of a landscape more than stunning fall colors, and these are the parks that showcase that color for visitors the most. If you aren’t able to make it to one of these national parks in autumn, don’t fret. I have also put together a list of the national parks in the United States that I think are the most beautiful during the winter months. If you would like to view that list to get some inspiration for a winter adventure getaway, I have linked to that article below.
|Top 10 National Parks to Visit in the Wintertime|
10. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
While it isn’t technically classified as a national park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula of the state of Michigan has some of the most breathtaking coastline in the United States. During the summer months, visitors flock to Pictured Rocks to get out on the water in kayaks and boats to enjoy a day out on the vast expanses of Lake Superior and marvel at the breathtaking painted rock cliffs along the shore. Not only is Pictured Rocks one of the premier kayak destinations in the United States, the many miles of hiking trails within Pictured Rocks are also some of the best in the Great Lakes region.
As summer fades and the kayakers retreat from the waters off the shoreline of Pictured Rocks, the autumn months transform the parkland into a whole different type of beauty. The large swath of forest that line the shoreline of Pictured Rocks turns a beautiful combination of yellow, orange, and red. Whether you get out on the water during a warm autumn day, do some hiking along one of the many trails along the lakeshore, or just drive thru the parkland, you are certain to enjoy this breathtaking display of beauty.
|National Parks Service – Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore|
9. Capitol Reef National Park
When most people think of autumn colors at national parks, I am guessing that very few people would put any of the parks in Southern Utah on that list. After all, high desert landscapes aren’t typically the type of landscapes that are often associated with autumn colors and leaves changing. However, if you visit Capitol Reef National Park in Southern Utah in the autumn, I think you will be very pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the park during the autumn. Near the historic city of Fruita near the center of the park, there are orchards of cherry, apricot, peach, pear, apple, plum, mulberry, almond, and walnut trees that are absolutely gorgeous in the autumn. The colors are beautiful contrasted against the red sandstone rock formations that are a hallmark of this beautiful park.
|Capitol Reef National Park Visitor Guide|
8. Wrangell St-Elias National Park
With eight national parks, the state of Alaska has more national parks than any other state in America outside of California, which has nine. While Alaska’s national parks are most well-known for their beautiful snow-capped peaks, breathtaking glaciers, rugged landscape, and marvelous wildlife, an often overlooked quality of Alaska’s national parks is how beautifully they transform during in the autumn. Wrangell St-Elias National Park is one of my favorite Alaskan national parks to visit during the autumn months because its rough landscape becomes painted the most brilliant shades of red, yellow, and orange. The contrast of the colorful forests against the snow-covered peaks and rushing rivers is truly inspiring.
|National Parks Service – Wrangell St. Elias National Park|
7. Denali National Park
As the home to the tallest mountain on the North American continent, Denali National Park is one of the most majestic national parks in the United States. The park is known for its towering mountains, seemingly endless miles of untouched wilderness, a legendary collection of wildlife, and big adventures. While the park is a magnet for alpine climbers during the summer months, when autumn arrives the alpine and subalpine tundra changes into a vibrant display of colors that will make your jaw drop. At lower elevations, the taiga turns a bright red color that looks beautiful as a back-drop to the aspen and balsam polar that turn a brilliant shade of yellow as autumn approaches. All of this color contrasted against the snow-capped peaks of the highest mountains on the continent is something you will never forget seeing.
|National Parks Service – Denali National Park|
6. Rocky Mountain National Park
Arguably the most mountainous national park in the United States outside of the state of Alaska is the amazing Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Located in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, the park is a beacon for outdoor adventurists year-round. While many people flock to the Rockies in the wintertime to enjoy winter sports such as downhill skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing, the most beautiful time to visit Rocky Mountain National Park may be in the autumn. Beginning near the end of August, the aspen trees in the highest elevations in the park begin to turn a beautiful golden yellow. By the middle of September, the trees in the lower elevations will have begun changing and the entire park will look as though it has been set on fire with color. If you have a chance to visit the park during autumn, I would suggest taking a drive along the Trail Ridge Road, which takes you high up above the tree line where you can get some amazing views of the trees changing color.
|Rocky Mountain National Park Guide|
5. Glacier National Park
When it comes to amazing drives thru America’s national parks, there may not be a more infamous drive that the Going to the Sun Road within Glacier National Park in Montana. The road takes you up above the tree line of the park where you can see park’s many glaciers and the waterfalls formed from their ice melt. It is an absolutely stunning drive to take year-round, but it can be especially beautiful during the autumn when the leaves are changing color. On the West side of the park the trees beginning changing color in mid-September. By the middle of October, the larch trees, which are the last of the park’s trees to change color, will be changing in full force. You must be a bit more self-sufficient when visiting Glacier National Park during the autumn months, as many of the park’s amenities will be closed. However, the park is also much quieter during this time of the year and the wildlife is typically more active. If you are up for a little adventure, visiting Glacier National Park in the autumn could be an adventure you treasure forever.
|National Parks Service – Glacier National Park|
4. Yosemite National Park
In addition to being America’s third national park, Yosemite National Park in the state of California is also widely regarded as one of the country’s most beautiful parks. With granite monoliths named El Capitan and Half Dome that rise over 3,000-feet (915-meters) from the valley floor, Yosemite is one of the premier rock climbing destinations in the entire world. Two of North America’s most renown hiking trails, the John Muir Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, also pass thru the park, making it one of North America’s most popular hiking destinations as well.
While many of the trees within the park are evergreens, the park is also home to many big-leaf maples, black oaks, Pacific dogwoods, and other deciduous trees whose leaves turn vibrant colors in the autumn. The valley floor becomes especially colorful, so views from above are breathtaking. The climax of the tree colors within the park usually happens around mid-October. Which is great because some of the park areas (mostly at higher altitudes) close at the end of October and seeing the colorful valley floor from above becomes a bigger challenge.
|National Parks Service – Yosemite National Park|
3. Acadia National Park
While a majority of America’s national parks are located West of the Mississippi River, there are some truly amazing parks that are located in the Eastern United States as well. One of the most popular, and certainly one of my favorites, is Acadia National Park in the state of Maine. Acadia, with its rocky shoreline, granite coastal cliffs, and seemingly endless miles of hiking and biking trails, is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. The park is beautiful and fun to explore year-round, but it is especially pretty during the autumn months when the park’s trees begin to turn colors. If you decide to visit Acadia National Park during the autumn months, I would strongly suggest that you drive to the top Cadillac Mountain. Not only is Cadillac Mountain the highest mountain in the park, but it is also the highest point on the entire east coast of the United States. From its summit, you have a great view of the landscape as mother nature paints it the most stunning shades of red, orange, and yellow.
|Acadia National Park Visitor Guide|
2. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
With an average of roughly 12.5 million annual visitors, it is safe to say that the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in the state of Tennessee is the most popular of America’s many national parks. Without a doubt, it is also one of the most beautiful parks to visit during autumn. As autumn rolls around each year, the seemingly endless miles of forest within the park start to transform into a sea of brilliant colors. From one of the park’s high vantage points, such as the infamous Clingmans Dome, you can get a bird’s eye view of this wonderful display of beauty.
Because the process by which leaves change colors is influenced by large number of environmental factors, predicting the peak of autumn tree colors can be a difficult task. Generally speaking, the trees at higher elevations begin to start changing color starting in mid-October. By early November, trees throughout the lower elevations begin changing color as well. If you want to see the beautiful autumn colors in the park, I would recommend visiting in early November for this reason.
|National Parks Service – Great Smoky Mountains National Park|
1. Shenandoah National Park
While there are many national parks in the United States that transform into beautiful, colorful wonderlands during autumn, in my mind one park rises above all others in this regard. That park is the stunning Shenandoah National Park in the state of Virginia. Few other places in the United States will you get a chance to see such a brilliant transformation of color concentrated in one area. The rolling hills of the park are thickly covered with deciduous trees that turn a spectacular combination of reds, oranges, and yellows as autumn rolls around.
If you are visiting Shenandoah National Park during autumn, there are many different ways in which you can view its beautiful transformation. Elevated viewpoints such as Hawksbill Mountain and Bearfence Mountain will give you a bird’s eye view of the park’s beauty. If you are up for a little hiking to enjoy the fall colors, trails such as Mary’s Rock Summit Trail reach elevations that will give you a great view of the trees changing colors. Finally, for those who aren’t up for hiking to any of these viewpoints, the Skyline Drive is a great way to view Shenandoah National Park in autumn. This scenic drive will take you up above the tree line so that you can witness the park’s colorful magic without having to leave the comfort of your car.
|National Parks Service – Shenandoah National Park|