The 9 Best National Parks for Phenomenal Fall Foliage

For some autumnal adventure of the colorful kind, head to these places across the United States.

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 in the United States 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.

We’ve pulled together here a guide to nine national parks in the United States that offer particularly brilliant fall colors and the best spots to enjoy them, whether you’re looking to kayak or you’ve got a group of hikers in tow. We also broke down the best time of year to visit, based on when the foliage is at its peak.

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.

Trees of various different colors (green, yellow, orange) on either side of a river running through a canyon in Zion National Park

The oranges and yellows of the changing trees are a lovely contrast to Zion’s pink canyons.


1. Zion National Park

  • Utah
  • Best time for fall colors: Mid-September through early November

The fall season is a magical time to visit Zion National Park. With plenty of campgrounds for a few final sleeps outdoors before the snow settles in and lots of road trip routes, the park offers myriad place to admire fall’s greatest show minus the crowds. High elevations in the park peak around 11,000 feet, where the fall foliage among the aspen trees begins its trickle down to lower heights. Thanks to the elevation variation, this park offers a long foliage season.

One of the first areas to experience the fall color change is Cedar Mountain, followed by East Zion Plateau, Zion Ponderosa. and St. George. For a hike, the Virgin River offers some spots for taking in the shifting leaves. Kick off the route on the Riverside Walk (2.2 miles) and connect with the Emerald Pools Trail. The Zion Narrows are accessible via hiking along the riverbed from the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop.

Grand Teton National Park

Look for changing colors at Grand Teton National Park.

Flash Parker

2. Grand Teton National Park

  • Wyoming
  • Best time for fall colors: September through mid-October

From quaking aspens to willows, Grand Teton National Park offers more viewpoints than you could visit in a single trip. But do yourself a favor and place Oxbow Bend at the top of your list. This overlook spans water and mountains and looks best in the early morning light. (It can get crowded, be prepared!)

If a hike is what you’re after, the 5.8-mile Aspen Ridge–Boulder Ridge Loop weaves through aspen groves and the shore of Phelps Lake—it’s a great way to find some quiet after groups of photographers at spots like the Snake River Overlook.

A train going under a bridge at Cuyahoga National Park

National parks aren’t just for hiking—you can enjoy them by train too.

Photo by Shutterstock

3. Cuyahoga Valley National Park

  • Ohio
  • Best time for fall colors: October

You’ll find peak fall foliage around the third week in October, but the entire month is an appealing time to visit Cuyahoga Valley National Park. If you’re visiting on the earlier side of October, make time to stroll the inner loop of the Oak Hill Trail, where maple and sassafras trees explode in color, as well as white ash and big tooth aspen trees.

Brandywine Falls is the place to be come mid-October. The Brandywine Gorge Trail is full of red sugar maples and oaks this time of year. The final weeks of October showcase late-turning oaks in the Ledges Overlook area.

Red, yellow, and green trees by a lake in Acadia National Park

New England has some of the best fall foliage in the nation.

4. Acadia National Park

  • Maine
  • Best time for fall colors: October

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.

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

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

Photo by haveseen/Shutterstock

5. Rocky Mountain National Park

  • Colorado
  • Best time for fall colors: September through October

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.

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.


The Great Smoky Mountains are especially beautiful in the fall.

6. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

  • Tennessee and North Carolina
  • Best time for fall colors: October

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.

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

Photo by Neal Lewis for NPS/Flickr

7. Shenandoah National Park

  • Virginia
  • Best time for fall colors: October

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 14–16, 2022). 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, chile pepper–red oaks, and maples in diverse shades.

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

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

Photo by Jacob W. Frank for Glacier NPS/Flickr

8. Glacier National Park

  • Montana
  • Best time for fall colors: September through October

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 in peak summer months). If you’re feeling extra adventurous, try seeing the leaves on a rafting trip down the Flathead River.

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

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

Photo by Sara Edwards/Shutterstock

9. Sequoia National Park

  • California
  • Best time for fall colors: October

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.

This article originally appeared online in August 2018; it was most recently updated on October 3, 2023, to include current information. Erika Owens contributed to the reporting of this story.

Melanie Haiken is a San Francisco–based writer.
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