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The Best National Parks for Phenomenal Fall Foliage

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Leaves typically begin to change colors from mid-October through early November across the United States. However, sometimes the autumn spectacle starts as soon as late September. 
Photo by Model/Shutterstock

Leaves typically begin to change colors from mid-October through early November across the United States. However, sometimes the autumn spectacle starts as soon as late September. 

These are the top leaf-peeping spots across the United States.

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With the glowing golds of aspens and hickories, the burnt orange of sumac, and the vermilions and plums of oaks and maples, the turning of the leaves every autumn 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 is a guide to six national parks in the United States that offer 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 and the best times to visit.

Groves of aspen in Rocky Mountain National Park glow yellow and orange in the fall.
Rocky Mountain National Park

Colorado

Spanning 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 at elevations 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 hiking 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 is free for visitors to attend (the music and food festival takes place from September 21 to 22, 2019). 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.

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With over 100 species of trees, Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts an impressive variety of autumn color.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Tennessee and North Carolina

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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.

Take in the reds and oranges of Shenandoah National Park from one of its many scenic overlooks.
Shenandoah National Park

Virginia

For three days every October, Shenandoah National Park offers one of the more creative ways to celebrate the season: the Shenandoah Fall Foliage Bike Festival (October 18 to 20, 2019). During the event, 11 different cycle rides depart from Staunton, Virginia, with routes 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 throughout the area near Upper Pocosin in the national park. The best—and most popular—driving route for leaf 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.

Glacier National Park is known for a particular deciduous pine that turns bright yellow in fall.
Glacier National Park

Montana

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 the larches, drive Highway 2 on the southwest side of the park or hike any of the trails around Lake McDonald. Higher up, Montana’s 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 during fall than it is in peak summer months). If you’re feeling extra adventurous, try seeing the leaves on a rafting trip down the Flathead River.

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Sequoia National Park isn’t all evergreen; in the autumn months, the park’s dogwoods turn orange and crimson.
Sequoia National Park

California

While the granite peaks and waterfalls of its northern neighbor Yosemite National Park may get all the press, the more dramatic fall colors can be found in Sequoia National Park. The area’s namesake evergreens don’t change color; instead, they provide contrast for the burnt orange and crimson blossoms that pop up on red dogwoods throughout most sections of the park. Underneath the canopy of towering sequoias, fallen fern fronds blanket the forest floor with a bright lemon yellow. At lower elevations (in the park’s foothills), blue oaks turn garnet and amber as if to spite their name. In the southern Mineral King Valley—one of the park’s least crowded areas, and perhaps its best-kept secret—warm hues of aspen, cottonwood, and thimbleberry glow almost iridescent, framing the granitic basin of the glacial valley at 7,500 feet.

Get out on the water to catch some of the best views of Acadia National Park.
Acadia National Park

Maine

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 of the park’s craggy coastline can only be appreciated from a boat, but you won’t see its 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 view is from the Blue Hill Overlook atop Cadillac Mountain—which at 1,529 feet is the tallest peak on the East Coast—and it’s worth the seven-mile round-trip hike for a look. Toward the base of the mountain (just off Park Loop Road), the 187-acre Jordan Pond provides a wash of color against two rounded hills known as the Bubbles, which offer a spectacular view of a multi-hued treeline in the 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.

This article originally appeared online in August 2018; it was updated on August 26, 2019, to include current information.

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