For most of the 58 national parks in the United States, summer is high season. Tourists from around the world come to see the Grand Canyon, hike Rocky Mountain National Park, or watch a geyser explode in Yellowstone. But in our opinion, the best time to visit a national park is in fall.
Cooler temperatures, fewer crowds, and stunning foliage are all top reasons to make the trek in September, October, or even November. The colors peak at different times around the country, but don’t worry—we have a handy map that shows when and where it’s best.
Still, not all national parks are created equal when it comes to autumn. Some parks are located in mild, beachy areas or feature pine trees instead of deciduous trees. We’ve done the hard work and found the 11 best parks for leaf peeping, below.
And while you’re planning a trip, don’t miss our stories on where to stay near ten different parks, our guide to park architecture, and info on which national parks are the best to visit in winter.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
When to go: The last two weeks of October
The details: This underrated park comes alive in the fall thanks to sugar maples, red maples, and plenty of oak trees. You’ll find reds, yellows, and everything in between. Pro tip: Check out the easy 1.5-mile hike to Brandywine Falls.
Acadia National Park
When to go: Color usually peaks in mid-October
The details: While we love this park for its summer breezes and stunning scenery, crisp temperatures and changing colors make Acadia a nice choice in fall. Opt for a hike on Cadillac Mountain, the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard and the first place to view sunrise in the United States from October 7 through March 6.
Grand Teton National Park
When to go: Mid-September through mid-October
The details: Summer can be so crushingly busy in Grand Teton National Park that the park’s beauty plays second fiddle to the crowds. But come fall, gorgeous yellow aspens and rivers covered with red-leafed banks coincide with fewer visitors. The towering peaks of the Tetons also provide picture-perfect photo backdrops, especially if it snows.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
When to go: Late October and early November
The details: This underrated park may not make the top-ten lists very often, but it should. The outer bluffs stay a dark-green and brown color, but hike McKittrick Canyon and you’ll find maples, oaks, and rosy desert shrubs. Locals say the best color is about 2.5 miles up near Pratt Cabin and on McKittrick Ridge.
Mount Rainier National Park
When to go: All of September and early October
The details: Skip Olympic National Park—there’s not much fall color there—and head to Mount Rainier instead. You’ll see aspens, maples, and cottonwoods, and also huckleberry bushes and elderberry. Don’t miss Reflection Lakes for great photo ops, or take the kids on the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad for a look at the fall foliage in the foothills.
Rocky Mountain National Park
When to go: Mid to late September and early October
The details: You have to visit this high-altitude park in early fall, but it’s worth it for never-ending yellow aspen trees and stunning vistas. Try the Twin Sisters hike just outside of the park’s boundary to avoid crowds, and be on the lookout for hundreds of elk in the park that migrate to find a mate for winter.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
When to go: October
The details: Unlike some of the big parks in the west, a large percentage of the trees in the Great Smoky Mountains lose their leaves. The hills become covered with reds and yellows everywhere. Of course, this also means that the most popular park in the country can also be crowded in the fall, so try coming mid-week for the best experience.
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
Where: Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia
When to go: Late October
The details: Located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, sections of Harpers Ferry aren’t far from Washington D.C. Almost 70 percent of these forests are deciduous, so leaf peepers can see a spectacular show of color. The Appalachian Trail also runs through the park and is a good bet for hikers.
Yosemite National Park
When to go: All of October, although colors usually peak in the third week
The details: Huge rock faces and giant sequoias might dominate Yosemite National Park’s Instagram presence, but foliage hunters shouldn’t pass up this park’s red maples and Pacific dogwoods. You’ll also see plenty of yellow aspens and cottonwoods and enjoy downright pleasant temperatures in the 60s and 70s. The best part? Fall is one of the least-crowded times to visit this normally popular park.
Congaree National Park
Where: South Carolina
When to go: End of October and early November
The details: Fewer bugs and gorgeous color from cypress trees make Congaree a natural choice in the fall. This underrated spot only became a national park in 2003, and you can even take a guided canoe trip to see the sights.
Glacier National Park
When to go: September
The details: Glacier National Park is one of the most beautiful parks in the system, but that also means that summer packs in the crowds. Head to the park in September instead; trees on the west side begin changing in mid-September while on the east side fall color peaks at the end of September and beginning of October. Services in the park are usually available through September, and once busy campgrounds are empty and perfect for first-come, first-serve camping.