Getting outside is the backbone of travel in 2020. This fall, there’s no better place to do so than by visiting one of our 62 national parks. While some parks light up in winter and others bloom in full each spring, these seven national parks are ideal for an autumn visit. The colors are bright, the crowds are light, and if you make it to two you’re doing it right. Time to get packing.
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park — Tennessee and North Carolina
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the United States’ most visited for a reason: mist-covered mountains, hiking trails flanked by waterfalls, and stunning vistas everywhere you look. Fall is an ideal time to visit, as the park’s sublime annual rendition of yellows, reds, and greens stretch from the park’s low point at Newfound Gap nearly to its 6,643-foot-high summit at Clingman’s Dome. If you’ve never taken a guided canopy tour, now is the time to do so, as you’ll soar above the colors to take in a view that few get to see from such an angle. One hazard does present itself: being so wowed by the spectrum of colors below you that you forget to monitor the approaching zip line station. Try your best to not forget to slow down.
2. Death Valley National Park — California
Death Valley National Park is the perfect destination for those out west getting a late start on their autumn road trip. The best time to visit is November, when the triple-digit temperatures are gone and the Oasis at Death Valley is open for the season. Death Valley runs on an opposite schedule to most national parks as its busy season is winter. By visiting before the holiday rush, you can hike Badwater Salt Flat or Golden Canyon without a snakeline of people. Book a spot at one of the park’s campgrounds in advance and plan to wake up early; there’s nothing like waking up to watch the sunrise above Badwater Basin.
3. Acadia National Park — Maine
Nowhere tops New England for fall foliage. Acadia National Park is the epitome of why, as birch, maple, hemlock, and both red and white spruce bloom with the changing season all within an approachable confined area covering 47,000 acres. Add deep blues of the surrounding Atlantic waters and you have the perfect recipe for a scenic hike. The foliage tends to peak in October, but the park is gorgeous even once most of the leaves have fallen. After a day of hiking and exploring the park you’re bound to be hungry. That’s a good thing because fall is also prime season for fresh-caught seafood along the New England coast. You’ll see the boats out on the water from the early morning, and when the sun begins to set over Cadillac Mountain, the catch is ready at the restaurants of nearby Bar Harbor. Plan your entire trip from start to finish with Matador’s travel guide to Acadia National Park.
4. Arches National Park — Utah
At Arches National Park, you’ll find the world’s largest collection of intact red sandstone arches — more than 2,000 of them. And while they’re just as beautiful in summer, there is one major perk to visiting the park post-September: it’s much less hot. Summer temperatures in the park routinely hid the upper-nineties or above. In fall, the average temperature drops starkly to 85 degrees in September and 71 degrees in October. Hiking out into Devil’s Garden is much more tempting without the prospect of having to lug gallons of water along with you. And though Moab and its surrounding canyon country is busy in the fall, the visitors are of a different stripe than the summertime crowd. You’ll find plenty of mountain bikers, off-roaders, and backpackers, but far fewer people crowding into the national parks.
5. Indiana Dunes National Park — Indiana
The newest national park is a fantastic spot for an autumn weekend road trip in the Midwest, most notably for one specific activity: geocaching. For those unfamiliar, geocaching consists of using an app or a GPS device to locate a predetermined, hidden item or a location based on its coordinates. What better place to do this than amongst a 17,000-acre park full of sand? The park has numerous geocaching spots, most notably the Mount Baldy Beach Trail. Check out the park’s geocaching page for the full rundown of where to try this real-life hide and seek activity and how to make the most of it. Other activities at the park include hiking across the dunes themselves, chilling on the beach as the gentle waves of Lake Michigan lap the shore, and counting how many of the 1,100 native plant species you can identify within the park’s grounds. If you arrive before November 1 and wish to stay the night, the Dunewood Campground is open for reservations.
6. Shenandoah National Park — Virginia
Shenandoah National Park is best in late September and early October, when the summer campers have vacated the campgrounds but it’s not yet too cold for an overnight stay. Overnight at the Big Meadows Campground and, in the morning, cruise the 105 miles of Skyline Drive, taking in the autumn colors. If you feel motivated, hop out occasionally to set foot on the adjacent hiking trails and get more up close with the forested Blue Ridge Mountains. If you’re up for a challenge, walk the Bearfence Mountain Trail, across its scramble to the rocky overlook out across the park. Though it’s only a bit over a mile, the scramble necessitates good hiking shoes. You’ll be rewarded with stunning views of, well, mostly trees blanketing undulating hills. But in autumn, that’s enough to take your breath away.
7. Mammoth Cave National Park — Kentucky
Mammoth Cave National Park is unique in that there is no access gate at the front of the park. It’s always open, and always a great place to take the kids. Here, the Green and Nolin rivers converge to offer engaging canoe and kayak runs through the park along with fishing and backcountry and campground camping (with a permit or reservation). But the main attraction is the Mammoth-Flint Ridge Cave System itself, part of which is encompassed by the park. This is the world’s longest known cave system, and has been inhabited by Native Americans for more than 6,000 years. Fall is a popular time to visit the park as the surface temperature inside the cave cools a bit, reaching as low as 54 degrees deep inside. Your best bet to guarantee entry into the cave is to make a reservation with the park in advance. If possible, take the Frozen Niagara Cave Tour, where the colors inside the cave are eerily similar to those outside.