Tuesday, April 16, 2024
AdventureFall TravelNational ParksNatureUnited StatesWildlife

7 National Parks to Get Your Leaf Peeping On

After a long and sweltering summer, we are counting down the days to pumpkin spice and leaf-peeping season. This year we’re leaning into the National Park System (NPS), which includes 425 parks, 150 related areas, and a bevy of programs to assist with conserving the natural and cultural heritage of the United States. These parks sprawl across over 85 million acres in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories. They oversee large parks like Glacier National Park, the Grand Canyon, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, and Joshua Tree National Park as well as historic landmarks like Gettysburg National Military Park, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Statue of Liberty National Monument, and the Stonewall National Monument. 

The NPS has been more than just a guardian of stunning landscapes; it has played a part in empowering the LGBTQIA+ community and fostering a greater understanding of our shared history. With fall on the horizon, it’s a fun time to pull out those chic new hiking boots, pack your bag of snacks, and get ready to bask in autumn in one or more of the great National Parks. Keep Pride going year-round by adding #PrideInOurParks to your posts on social media.

1. Acadia National Park, Maine

Acadia National Park stands as the ultimate New England fall foliage destination, enchanting visitors as the leaves dressed in vibrant coats, transforming the coastal wonderland into a breathtaking sea of colors that will make your heart skip a beat. Situated on Mount Desert Island, an hour from Bangor, Maine, Acadia boasts over 1,000 plant species and 37 different wildlife species, making it an incredible year-round destination that should undoubtedly top your bucket list. 

Whether you are a hiking aficionado yearning for rugged cliffs or a leisure seeker longing to bask by the serene waters of Jordan Pond, this place offers an experience for everyone. Even if hiking is not your preference, worry not! Cadillac Mountain, the highest overlook (and view) on the East Coast, is easily accessible by car. A fascinating fall fact: from October 7 through March 6, Cadillac Mountain offers the first opportunity to witness the sunrise, adding a touch of magic to your visit. So, start your engines, grab your camera, and immerse yourself in the mesmerizing beauty of Acadia National Park during the fall season.

2. Denali National Park, Alaska

While the fall season brings a significant drop in tourist crowds, Denali National Park still stands tall as an epic and unforgettable adventure. Encompassing over six million acres of land, Denali Park and Preserve protects the magnificent Alaska Range, including its towering peak, Denali, which soars at an impressive 20,310 feet. As you hike the rugged trails, be prepared to encounter Alaska’s Big Five: Dall sheep, grizzly bears, caribou, moose, and wolves. If you are lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of a real-life grizzly bear in its natural habitat (outside of Provincetown, of course). For those seeking even more thrills, consider taking a bus tour along Denali Park Road, providing an opportunity to explore the heart of this vast sanctuary. And when night descends, prepare to be mesmerized by the dancing northern lights, displaying greens and purples that will leave you in awe.

3. Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park is a national showstopper when the summer crowds disperse, and the landscape takes on a whole new personality. Towering mountain peaks rise from colorful foliage, enhanced by the still waters of the Snake River below.

The Teton Range is located just above Jackson Hole, and over the years, natural forces have shaped the landscape that is particularly scenic in autumn. The temperature and level of moisture in Grand Teton make it especially great for the intensity and duration of fall colors in the park. You can see a wide range of colors on the Quaking Aspen, Narrowleaf Cottonwood, Black Hawthorn, Willow, and other trees in the park. 

Be sure to have your camera ready, as you might just be surprised by wildlife encounters which may include elk, bison, moose, wolf, and even a bald eagle. For something extra special, cruise along Jenny Lake (cruises are available through September 30) and fully immerse yourself in an autumnal wonderland.

4. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

Isle Royale National Park, nestled in Lake Superior just beyond Michigan’s forest-covered Upper Peninsula, is an enchanting haven for backpackers. Established in 1940, this remote island beckons adventure seekers to leave their cars in Houghton or Copper Harbor and opt for the Isle Royale Queen IV, Ranger III, or a seaplane for a swift journey. Open through October 31, fall visitors (September/October) must prepare thoughtfully due to limited services and emergency response. 

Once on the island, brace yourself for a breathtaking array of fall colors in the boreal forest, with deer, timber wolves, foxes, and even moose gracefully moving through the landscape. Strap on your hiking shoes for a day hike or venture into a more extended journey lasting a week or two for intrepid travelers. Just remember to carry enough provisions for your stay. 

For a manageable 4 to 5-day trek, embark on the 40-mile Greenstone Ridge. For a shorter day-trip style excursion, explore Suzy’s Cave, which takes you on a 3.8-mile journey where you can hear the local loon song and spot an inland sea arch and a picturesque coastal cliff. Pack your mosquito repellent and plenty of snacks for this excursion – it is truly the most “off the beaten path” option on our list.

5. Olympic National Park, Washington

Are you sitting down for this one? Olympic National Park, a designated World Heritage Site, encompasses a million acres including over seventy miles of roaring coastline. This Washington gem undergoes a full-blown transformation into a leaf peeper’s paradise every fall. Get ready to take in the rugged peaks of the Olympic Mountains surrounded by a sea of colorful leaves. Meander along the Hoh Rainforest, get one last kayak on shimmering Lake Crescent, or simply take in the many landmarks like Hurricane Ridge, Deer Park, Elwha River Valley, or the Douglas Firs in the “Staircase.” Olympic National Park in the fall becomes a sanctuary of wonder that elevates the spirit. So, gear up, charge your phone, and get ready for fall in Olympic National Park.

6. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Nestled in the heart of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah National Park’s 100-plus miles completely transform as autumn arrives. Once the season starts to change the dense forests burst into reds, oranges, and yellows. Unlike some of our other fall selections, fall is the busiest time of the year at Shenandoah. Put in that PTO and opt for weekdays over weekends as the trails get too crowded during peak season. Take a drive along Skyline Drive or venture onto one of the park’s numerous hiking trails. Be on the lookout for diverse wildlife, from white-tailed deer to black bears getting ready to hibernate. But is Shenandoah “family-friendly”? Yes! In fact, Shenandoah National Park participates in the annual #PrideInOurParks event celebrating stories from the LGBTQIA+ community during Pride month.

7. Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park, Utah’s inaugural national park, boasts towering sandstone cliffs, extensive trails, and vibrant campgrounds. With two primary regions, Zion Canyon and the Kolob Canyon area, visitors can explore a diverse landscape. Remember to pack layers, as temperatures can fluctuate from warm to chilly. Keep your camera ready to capture the awe-inspiring Angel’s Landing and the majestic Great White Throne, adorned with warm red and orange hues against a backdrop of azure skies. 

Embark on invigorating hikes to immerse yourself in the splendor of colorful fall foliage while marveling at the rushing Virgin River and keeping an eye out for bighorn sheep in the distance. Among the top 5 scenic fall hikes in Zion are the Canyon Overlook, a short but vibrant mile showcasing fall colors; the paved Riverside Walk tracing the winding Virgin River; the popular yet challenging 5.4-mile trek to Angels Landing; the rugged and rewarding 8-mile hike to Observation Point with its breathtaking vistas; and the Taylor Creek Trail featuring two historic homestead cabins dating back to the 1930s. 

It is noteworthy that Gays of National Parks, an organization dedicated to honoring and protecting the LGBTQIA+ community’s connection to various parks, hosted Zion National Park’s first Pride event this past June. Prior to your visit, check for trail closures, and do not forget to pack a sweater to stay cozy when the sun sets.

If National Park hopping is something you plan on embarking on this fall you might consider the America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass, which costs $80.00 annually and provides access to over 2,000 recreational areas managed by six Federal agencies. One hundred percent of the proceeds from this pass go directly to improving visitor recreation services. It would make a great holiday present for the hiker in your life, or that crunchy granola friend who is down to go glamping with you. What are you waiting for? Pull on those Timberlands and get out in the great outdoors! 

Looking for more leaf-peeping travel inspiration? Check out our travel guide for Upstate New York to plan your fall getaway around the Finger Lakes! 

Jeffrey James Keyes

Jeffrey James Keyes co-authored the New York Times Bestselling book "Killer Chef" with James Patterson and wrote/produced the award-winning short film "Uniform." He is also an accomplished playwright with an M.F.A. from Columbia University. Jeffrey was "bitten by the travel bug" in high school while studying abroad as a foreign exchange student in Germany. He writes about lifestyle, travel, and wellness for a variety of publications and websites.

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