11 Best National Parks to visit in Fall for leaf-peeping

Best national parks in the USA to visit for fall foliage? Read our list of 17 popular as well as underrated national parks to see the best fall colors in the country. Includes Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Shenandoah Valley, Grand Teton, and Yosemite National Park. You may also like our post on 10 Best Fall Road Trips for stunning fall colors. 

Fall is one of our favorite seasons to travel with the kids. No hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen are necessary! Just throw on a comfy pair of jeans, take a light jacket, and go hiking. Or camping. Or read a book lying under the golden-red leaves. Or set up a hammock and gaze at the sky. And what better place to do this than at America’s stunning National Parks? 

Here are some of our tips to see the best fall colors in National Parks. We recommend visiting at or near the peak season to see the most vibrant foliage. Also, keep an eye on the fall foliage viewing calendars for each park before planning your trip. Fall, especially peak color, is the busiest time of year for most parks. Plan your trip two to three months in advance and have a plan to beat the crowds. For us, this usually involves getting up early and visiting less popular areas within the parks. 

National Parks are the best bets to see stunning fall colors

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“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”
– Albert Camus, the French Nobel prize laureate

Best National Parks to Visit in Fall

Fall is also a perfect time to catch up on romance and combine pumpkin pies or apple picking with fall foliage colors. Thankfully, most national parks and their gateway towns have lots of fall-themed activities and festivities happening throughout the season. Find below our list of favorite national parks to visit in the fall for stunning fall color displays. 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

When it comes to fall colors, the first national park that comes to our mind is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. We have seen some of the most vibrant and spectacular fall colors in the Great Smoky Mountains. The stunning display of gold, red, and orange is best seen from the top of the mountains towards the end of the season when the lower elevations are at their peak color. The park also has great waterfall hikes which are good for fall foliage viewing. 

When to visit

Color in the Smokies begins to change mid-October with peak color around the first week of November. The last you can go and still expect to see some fall color mixed with fallen leaves is mid-November. To follow fall color updates in the Smokies see here

Where to stay

Gatlinburg is the most popular gateway town for visiting the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. For ultimate romance, consider staying in nearby Pigeon Forge at the Blue Mountain Mist Country Inn, a wonderful Bed & Breakfast.

If you are planning to visit the Smokies anytime soon, then read this helpful travel guide to the Smoky Mountains region.

Great Smoky Mountain in fall (Photo – Pixabay)

Rocky Mountain National Park

Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park is fun year-round. Fall in the park is spectacular and quite different from New England fall. We were surprised to see more golden and yellows than deep reds. Bear Lake Road and Peak to Peak Scenic Byway are our favorite routes to see the fall foliage. Fall is also a great time to spot elk in the park as they come down from the peaks to the meadows for the mating season. You can hear elk bugling throughout the park in the fall.

When to visit

Because of its higher elevation, fall in the Rockies starts as early as August End for higher elevations and peaks around late September. Anytime from mid-September to the first week of October is good to visit as you are sure to find fall color throughout the park. 

Where to stay

Estes Park is the best place to stay near the Rockies. The third weekend of September is Estes Park’s Autumn Festival so accommodations can be sold out in advance. Couples will enjoy the tranquility at the Romantic Riversong Bed and Breakfast in Estes Park – we stayed in the gorgeous Wood Nymph suite for our Valentine’s Day getaway and loved the canopy bed and skylit bathroom. 

The Rocky Mountains look spectacular in fall (Photo – Pixabay)

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah Valley in Virginia has spectacular fall foliage accompanied by pleasing temperatures and many harvest-themed activities. We visited Shenandoah in fall a few years ago as part of our Delaware to Texas road trip and enjoyed hiking in the Shenandoah Region. But the best part was driving along the 105-mile long Skyline Drive. The beeches, maples, and dogwoods put on a stunning show of colors at every turn making Skyline Drive one of the best fall road trips in America.

When to visit

The Skyline Drive is quite crowded the last three weeks of October, which is when the fall colors really start to pop. To see the most vibrant colors from the drive, mid-October is your best bet. Towards October end, we would recommend visiting the lower elevations.

Where to stay

Front Royal is the most popular base for exploring Shenandoah National Park. We recommend the Lackawanna Bed and Breakfast located along the Shenandoah for a relaxing stay. You will be staying in a beautiful 19th century southern home and conveniently close (just 3 miles away) to the Skyline Drive. If looking for something more secluded, then splurge on the Glen Gordon Manor located just 8 miles from Front Royal. You can indulge in their 3-course breakfast and enjoy quality time with your partner.  

Fall colors on Skyline Drive in Shenandoah

Zion National Park

Not many people think of Zion National Park in relation to fall colors, however, this is by far my favorite time to visit Zion in Utah. The shuttle rush is long gone and you can drive your own car inside the park – an ultimate pleasure. If you want to hike the Narrows, they are far less crowded and the water is not too cold. Plus the Zion Scenic Drive is awash with fall colors. Also, the deep red colors of the canyon cliffs are quite vibrant in fall due to frequent rainstorms.

When to visit

Fall in Southern Utah is from mid-October to early November. But the Zion Canyon and the Narrows are usually the last to turn color around the second week of November. We visited just a week before Thanksgiving and were pleasantly surprised to see a lot of fall colors in the canyon.

Inside Zion National Park in fall

Denali National Park

Denali National Park in Alaska has one of the most varied fall colors in the country. In Denali, the entire landscape turns vivid including shrubs, grasses, and trees. The alpine tundras are a photographer’s dream. In fall, you will also see lots of wildlife including moose, bears, and caribou. If you are lucky, you might even see some snow or the Northern Lights! 

When to visit

Fall in Alaska is quite short and usually lasts for three to four weeks. The color change occurs between the end of August to September end so be prepared to plan your trip in that timeframe. Mid-September is the time to see the most colorful landscapes. Early October is also a good time to visit – you will see some color but fewer crowds and a sprinkling of snow. However, some of the lodges and tours can be closed for the season from mid-September.

Where to stay

Backwoods Lodge is a great place to stay to explore Denali National Park. The rooms have stunning views of Mt. Denali and the lodge itself is located right at the start of Denali Highway for easy access to the park.

Fall on the tundra in Denali (Photo – Pixabay)

Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park is one of the best places to see the fall colors in New England. Out of so many national parks in the country, only Acadia has gorgeous fall colors, coastal bluffs, lighthouses, delicious lobsters, and the crisp New England air. In fall, even the roads leading to Acadia are beautiful and you are sure to have an amazing time on the trails in Maine.

When to visit

We would recommend making the trip out to Acadia & Maine in early to mid-October as that’s when the leaves will be peaking. Because the colors are most vibrant on Columbus Day, it has high crowds so plan a trip just before or after Columbus Day. For current foliage conditions, check here.

Where to stay

Bar Harbor is Acadia’s gateway town. The town has plenty of inns, bed and breakfasts, as well as chain properties located close to Acadia National Park. Some of the most popular accommodation include the clean and tidy Highbrook Motel or the centrally located Primrose Inn. Couples will love the charming Yellow House B&B. If you want a private beach, then stay in the lovely Saltair Inn Waterfront B&B.

Acadia fall colors (Photo – Pixabay)

Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming has one of the most unpredictable fall colors in the country. Some years, you will see spectacular golden yellow fall foliage that lasts for weeks and weeks. And some years, the snow may come in even before the leaves have had a chance to turn. Oxbow Bend Overlook on Snake River is one of our favorite places to see stunning, panoramic fall color. You can see a view of the Tetons and fall colors reflected in the water.

When to visit

For the best chance to see the fall colors, plan a trip to Grand Teton between mid to late September. Even August late to early September is good as you can see some color but in October everything will be bare.

The famous view at Oxbow Bend (Photo – Pixabay)

Mt. Rainier National Park

Mount Rainier National Park in Washington is an underrated national park when it comes to fall colors. Reflection Lakes trail is one of the best places to see the fall foliage mirrored in the water. Mt. Rainier is a great place to hike for fall color and berries – blackberries, blueberries, and huckleberries. Remember, you can’t take more than two quarts per person per day. To see more color, drive along the Chinook Scenic Byway or take the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad steam train.

When to visit

The color begins turning in Mt. Rainier in late September starting with the maples. Cottonwoods, willows, and aspens soon join in and the landscape looks brilliant. The best color is between mid-October to late November when the first snowfall occurs.

Brilliant fall colors in Mt. Rainier (Photo – David Prasad/Flickr)

Blue Ridge Parkway

While not technically a National Park, Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the premier leaf-peeping destinations in the country. Along the Blue Ridge Parkway, you will find panoramic lookout points, hikes, waterfalls, bridges, and spectacular fall color. Some of our favorite points to view the fall foliage include Grandfather Mountain, Linville Falls, and Craggy Gardens Overlook. Also, try the hike on Graveyard Fields for breathtaking color. 

When to visit

The color starts in early October and peaks around mid to late October. For fall color report, check here. The towns along the Blue Ridge Parkway celebrate fall festivals and accommodations can get booked pretty fast. This is the best time to visit as you can go apple picking, take hayrides, and buy homemade jams and artisan goods.

Where to stay

You can find cozy, romantic, as well as family-friendly accommodations in many communities along the Parkway. Towards the northern end, in Lexington try the Robert E. Lee hotel or the Sugar Tree Inn. In Roanoke, enjoy the mountain views at Shirley’s Bed and Breakfast while in Boone relax at the luxurious Inn at Crestwood. Asheville with its gorgeous surroundings and amazing things to do is our favorite place to stay near the Southside of the parkway. Our favorite picks in Asheville include Cumberland Falls Bed and Breakfast Inn for romance, the Village Hotel on Biltmore Estate for luxury, and the Crowne Plaza Resort in Asheville for family fun. 

Fall colors along Blue Ridge Parkway

Indiana Dunes National Park

America’s newest national park has plenty of fall foliage. In fact, when we lived in Chicago, Indiana Dunes was our favorite place to go for fall camping and foliage viewing. We enjoy driving along the Dunes and Lakes drive as it has lots of yellows and golds. The next-door Indiana Dunes State Park also has excellent hikes and fall colors. Communities of Porter and Valparaiso make the perfect fall destinations. While searching for fall colors, don’t forget to enjoy views of Lake Michigan and climb on the famous sand dunes.

When to visit

Fall foliage in Indiana Dunes and Porter County is beautiful from mid-October to mid-November. We would recommend October end to see the most vivid colors, though you should still be able to see some color through 2nd week of November.

Where to stay

Since Indiana Dunes has just been updated to the national park category, there are fewer amazing places to stay nearby. Porter is 2 miles away has many great chains including Best Western, Holiday Inn, etc. Spring House Inn is another small but pleasing accommodation. Or you can stay in nearby Michigan City (9 miles away) at the Blue Chip Casino Hotel & Spa and enjoy some time at the slot machines too.

Roads on the way to Indiana Dunes

Hot Springs National Park

Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas is different than most national parks: it includes areas of downtown Hot Springs and comprises a former spa town with historic bathhouses. As such, most people don’t associate Hot Springs National Park with fall colors. However, the national park is one of the best places to see Arkansas’ vibrant fall colors. We would recommend climbing up to the top of Hot Springs Mountain Tower to see panoramic 360 views of the fall foliage. Also must – taking a rejuvenating thermal bath while in Hot Springs National Park. 

When to visit

The peak in Hot Springs and the Ouachita mountain region occurs from last week of October to the first week of November. We made the trip out to Hot Springs in mid-November and could still see beautiful fall colors. Hot Springs also has many festivals lined up throughout fall. 

Where to stay

There’s only one place to stay in Hot Springs – the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa! This iconic hotel is located right on Bathhouse Row and has plenty of history and character. The building has striking Spanish Renaissance-style architecture and beautiful interiors. Many famous people stayed here including 4 US Presidents – Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, Roosevelt, and Reagan. Legend says that Al Capone always stayed in Room 443 and rented the entire floor for his bodyguards.

The Ouachita Mountains in Fall

Did you like our list of best national parks to visit in fall? Did we miss out on any national park with spectacular foliage? Let us know in comments!