With the glowing golds of aspens and hickories, the burnt orange of sumac, the vermillions and plums of oaks and maples, the turning of the leaves is one of nature’s most spectacular displays. National parks, with their thick forests and open spaces, are splendid—and photogenic—places to take in these vivid hues. Here, a guide to six national parks with particularly brilliant fall colors and the best spots to enjoy them.
Note: Temperature, rainfall, elevation, and yes, fire, all influence the timing and location of fall foliage displays; check national park websites for peak color alerts.
On both sides of the continental divide, Rocky Mountain National Park glows with quaking aspens, their gold and copper canopies contrasting elegantly with their silvery trunks. Aspens thrive between 7,000 and 9,500 feet, so head to the lush valleys of Hollowell Park, Beaver Meadows, and Glacier Gorge, which are also home to pumpkin-orange cottonwoods. Nothing tops the trail to Gem Lake, along which dense groves of aspen pop out against the red rock formations of Lumpy Ridge. The climb offers a panoramic view of colorful Estes Park, where an annual Autumn Gold Festival takes place. Fall is also rutting season for the park’s elk herds, which migrate down from the high peaks as the temperature drops; look for them along Bear Lake Road and in the Colorado River Valley on the west side. Don’t miss a photo op at Grand Lake, just outside the park boundary, with its deep green waters thickly haloed by fiery orange aspen.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Tennessee and North Carolina
With more than 100 species of trees, most of them deciduous, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has an impressive variety of fall color and one of the longest fall foliage seasons as well. Yellow birches, beeches, and hobblebushes show flashes of color as early as mid-September in higher elevations—like those along the Sugarland Mountain and Appalachian Trails—and autumn wildflowers like coreopsis, goldenrods, asters, and black-eyed Susans add layers of other colors. But the most spectacular show comes in October, with the deep plum and garnet hues of the hickories, sweet gums, and red and sugar maples. To get away from the crush of fall color fans at popular spots like Cades Cove, head east to drive the Roaring Fork nature loop and walk along little-visited Big Creek, or take in the sweeping panoramas from Balsam Mountain and the Blue Ridge Parkway on the park’s southeastern edge.
For two days in October, Shenandoah National Park offers one of the more creative ways to celebrate the season: the Shenandoah Fall Foliage Bike Festival. During the event, 11 different rides depart from Staunton, Virginia, with a route for all types of riders, including young children. Nature’s dazzling show starts earlier than that, however, in the high mountains around Swift Run Gap and Lewis Mountain; toward the end of September, Virginia creeper twines wine red and maples begin to flame. The best—and most popular—viewing is along the Skyline Drive Scenic Byway, which has no fewer than 75 scenic overlooks along its 105 miles. Bacon Hollow and Stony Man Overlook are among the best spots from which to take in the buttery yellow hickories, chili pepper–red oaks, and maples in every shade.
Another national park with a variety of deciduous trees, Glacier National Park is awash with color for several weeks between mid-September and mid-October. The park is particularly famous for its western larch, a deciduous pine, which bursts into brilliant yellows before losing its needles. To see them, drive Highway 2 on the southwest side of the park or hike any of the trails around Lake McDonald. Higher up, mountainsides flame with the hues of a Tiffany lamp; see them from Ptarmigan Pass or the Going-to-the-Sun Road (which is less crowded than it is in peak summer months) or on a rafting trip down the Flathead River.
While the granite peaks and waterfalls of its northern neighbor Yosemite may get all the press, Sequoia National Park has the more dramatic fall color, with the burnt orange and crimson of the red dogwoods contrasting with the park’s towering namesake evergreens. Underneath the sequoias, fallen fern fronds blanket the forest floor with lemon yellow. At lower elevations, the blue oaks turn garnet and amber as if to spite their name. Framing the granitic glacier basin of Mineral King Valley—perhaps the park’s best-kept secret—at 10,000 feet, the warm hues of aspen, cottonwood, and thimbleberry glow almost iridescent.
In autumn, the thickly forested peaks that slope down to the Atlantic in Acadia National Park are a colorful contrast to the blue sea. Some of the most photogenic views can only be appreciated from a boat, but you won’t see the blueberry bushes turn lipstick red or the sumac flame scarlet unless you hike one of the park’s more than 100 trails. The area’s best overview is on Cadillac Mountain and it’s worth the seven-mile round-trip hike to get there. Jordan Pond is a wash of color and the rounded hills known as the Bubbles offer a multi-hued backdrop. For a truly classic fall color experience, take a horse-drawn carriage ride through the park and listen to the hooves clop over fallen leaves.