Top 8 National Parks to Visit in the Fall
While summer is usually the most popular time to visit the USA’s numerous national parks, we instead believe that fall is one of the absolute best times of the year for an exciting outdoor adventure. This is mostly due to the fact that during fall, you usually have cooler temperatures, fewer people, and colorful fall foliage (depending on where you are exploring of course).
If you are considering heading out on a fall adventure in the USA, then we cannot recommend these 8 destinations enough. Below you will find (in our opinion) the 8 best national parks to visit in the fall, as well as information on what to see and do, and how to get there.
1 | Capitol Reef National Park
The state of Utah is full of incredible sites to see. From the mountains in the north to the Great Salt Lake, to the red rocks of canyon country, the Beehive State sure knows how to pack a punch. And this includes one of our all-time favorite destinations, Capitol Reef National Park.
This national park is located in the middle of famed Canyon Country (think large red-rock canyons) and is truly gorgeous: colorful striped rock walls, massive arches, wide-open desert vistas, exciting canyons and even a historic pioneer town; which, if you come during the fall, has fruit trees you can pick and homemade pies.
So if you are looking for a real off-the-beaten-path fall desert adventure, then definitely consider adding Capitol Reef National Park to your list.
COST TO ENTER: $20 /vehicle (valid for 7 days)
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
When the temperatures start to cool off, you know it is time to head out on the many desert trails in this beautiful national park. Below are some of the best hiking trails to explore in the fall, as well as some of our favorite canyoneering routes — for those of you feeling even more adventurous.
Capitol Reef National Park has a large number of hiking trails available, from the easy to the more difficult and all the way to multi-day backpacking trips. Some of the best trails to head out on include:
| Cassidy Arch (also see for canyoneering): 1.7 miles roundtrip, moderate difficulty, great views of a massive natural arch
| Chimney Rock Loop: 3.6 miles roundtrip, moderate difficulty, great views of Waterpocket Fold cliffs and excellent for sunset
| Hickman Bridge: 0.9 miles roundtrip (but there is an option to go farther), an overall easy hike with good views of Fruita below
| Halls Creek Narrows: 3.8 miles roundtrip, multi-day backpacking route that follows Halls Creek Drainage, a year-round stream of water. While the distance is not crazy long, there is a lot to explore in the area — so take your time. Learn about other backpacking routes here.
One thing to remember about hiking in Capitol Reef is to always come prepared for the oftentimes intense sun (even in the fall). Make sure to bring plenty of water, sunscreen and a hat — for there is very little shade to be found out in the desert. We always try to hit the trails as early as possible, not only to avoid the heat of the day but more so to avoid other people. Plus, during the early morning hours, you are more likely to see wildlife.
We really fell in love with this national park because of all the incredible canyoneering opportunities that can be found within its boundaries. For us, canyoneering is one of the best ways to get off-the-beaten-path and explore an area that is likely to be way more wild and untouched. Some of our favorite canyons in the park are:
| Cassidy Arch: while it is a great hike on its own, what makes Cassidy Arch so special is the first rappel. You actually hike up to the very edge of the natural arch and then hook in and rappel along its edge. It is a free hang (meaning you don’t “walk” down the wall) and while it is a bit nerve-wracking at first (it is a tall rappel) it is also just incredibly fun. Highly, highly recommend this one.
| Stegosaur Slot: What makes this canyon so fun, and 100% worth doing, is not the rappels, but the crazy tight slot canyon that doesn’t require a harness, but instead some grippy shoes, strong knees and a daring attitude.
| The Wives: consisting of 7 shorter canyons, all of which are side drainages of the larger Cohab Canyon, The Wives really only takes about an hour or so to do once the approach is made. The best one is Wife 5, though if you have the time Wife 3 is good as well. One thing to note about Wife 5 is that some of the downclimbs can be a bit tricky (higher jumps than you might feel comfortable with).
Learn about other canyoneering options, as well as more information on these three routes here.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: permits are required for canyoneering. Free day-use permits can be obtained in person at the visitor center or via email. A separate permit is required for each canyoneering route.
HOW TO GET TO CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
What makes Capitol Reef National Park so special is the feeling that you are way off in the middle of nowhere Utah desert. In fact, you really are. This park is not easy to get to, which in our books, only adds to its appeal.
The closest airports (with driving times) are found in Salt Lake City, Utah (3.5 hours), Denver, Colorado (6.5 hours) and Las Vegas, Nevada (5 hours). Your best option is to probably fly into one of those cities and then rent a car (find a good one here).
Or if you have a car and are looking to instead road trip to Capitol Reef National Park, then you are actually quite central in Southern Utah — Moab is 2 hours away, Lake Powell is 4 hours away and Zion National Park is only 3 hours away.
2 | Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park is located in the far northeastern state of Maine. The national park protects the stunning natural beauty of the highest rocky headlands along the whole Atlantic coastline of the USA, as well as an abundance of habitats and a rich cultural heritage. Even though the park is pretty far north, it still sees, on average, 4 million visitors a year — making it one of the top 10 most-visited national parks in the United States.
Each fall, once the temperatures start to cool down, Acadia National Park’s forests begin bursting with color; including, bright yellows, reds, and oranges. The peak of fall foliage generally comes in mid-October, but this can vary year to year. Whether you are planning to explore the national park by foot, car, bike, or boat, you are sure to have a memorable fall experience.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the park’s visitor center closes on November 1st (and then reopens in May). But many of Acadia National Park’s facilities begin to close in mid-October. Make sure to check what is open before arriving at the park.
COST TO ENTER: $30 /vehicle (valid for 7 days)
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN ACADIA NATIONAL PARK
Once summer starts to wind down, Acadia National Park begins to light up in fall colors. Some of the best places to experience the fall foliage are along the Bubbles Nubble Loop (2.6 miles total), the Jesup and Hemlock Path Loop (1.5 miles total), and the Jordan Pond Path (3.3 miles total) and Jordan Cliffs Loop (5 miles total). All of these hiking trails will give you an up-close view of the fall colors as well as just some beautiful Northeast scenery.
Other great fall adventures in Acadia National Park include driving the Scenic Park Loop Road (27 miles) and paddling around Jordan Pond.
HOW TO GET TO ACADIA NATIONAL PARK
The closest town to the national park is Bar Harbor — an adorable seaside town with lots of character and charm. The park entrance is roughly 1.4 miles from downtown Bar Harbor.
Acadia National Park is just over 2 hours from Augusta, Maine — the capital of the state — and just under 3 hours from Portland, Maine — the largest city in the state. If arriving in either town, you will likely need to rent a car to reach the national park. Find a car rental here.
3 | Isle Royale National Park
Head up north to explore this rugged, isolated island. Isle Royale National Park — which is located in Lake Superior off the coast of the states of Minnesota and Michigan (technically it is in the latter) — offers numerous adventures for backpackers, hikers, boaters, paddlers, and divers — especially in the fall when the temperatures begin to cool, the bugs start to disappear and the leaves slowly change colors.
The national park preserves 132,018 acres of land that was federally designated as wilderness in 1976. Isle Royale consists of one large island surrounded by over 450 smaller islands. Together, they encompass a total area of 850 square miles (including submerged land, which extends 4 1/2 miles out into Lake Superior, aka the largest freshwater lake in the world).
One important thing to keep in mind about this national park is that it is actually NOT open year-round. Due to the winter weather, the park actually closes on October 31st and doesn’t open until the middle of April (usually the 15th). Similarly, the ferry and seaplane services to the island usually only run from mid-May to the end of September.
COST TO ENTER: $7 /person a day
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN ISLE ROYALE NATIONAL PARK
You really have two choices when it comes to exploring Isle Royale: hike/backpack around the island on its 165 miles of trails, or stick to the coast and explore its many bays and beaches (learn about the national park’s boating regulations). Whichever one you choose, you are sure to have a memorable experience — especially in the fall when the leaves change colors and the coast gets all moody.
HIKING AND BACKPACKING
There are plenty of trails to choose from depending on how long you have to explore the national park. If you are just looking at doing a day hike, then you will need to explore the trails that start from either the harbor of Windigo on the west end or Rock Harbor on the east end.
If you land in Windigo, consider checking out the Windigo Nature Trail for great views (1.2 miles total) or the Minong Ridge Overlook Trail (6.6 miles total). As for backpacking, you do have a lot of options depending on how far you want to go. One popular route is to head out on the Greenstone Ridge Trail all the way out to Malone Bay, which is just under 22 miles one-way.
Some great trails to check out in Rock Harbor are Suzy’s Cave (3.8 miles total), Mount Franklin (9.4 miles total), and the Scoville Point via the Stoll Trail (4.7-mile loop). If you are looking to backpack from Rock Harbor, then your best bet is to hike out to either Moskey Basin Campground (10.2 miles one-way) or all the way down to Windigo via the Greenstone Ridge Trail (39.6 miles one-way).
➳ Find even more trails on Isle Royal National Park.
HOW TO GET TO ISLE ROYALE NATIONAL PARK
Isle Royale National Park might just be one of the hardest national parks to reach — at least in the lower 48 states. To start, you cannot drive (or even take a car) to the park due to it being an island in Lake Superior (one of the Great Lakes). Instead, you will need to ride a ferry, hop on a seaplane or have your own private boat (or know someone that does).
The best places on the mainland to start your journey from are Copper Harbor and Houghton in Michigan or Grand Portage and Grand Marais in Minnesota. Learn more about how to reach this beautiful island national park here.
4 | Voyageurs National Park
With over 218,000 acres of land, Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota is an adventurer's playground all year long. The park, which was established in 1975, is full of exposed rock ridges, high cliffs, wetlands, forests, streams and lakes. This is a unique place where you can observe the transition between land and aquatic ecosystems, between southern boreal and northern hardwood forests, and between wild and developed areas.
While the national park has 3 visitor centers you can explore on your own, it is highly recommended that for the full Voyageurs experience you need to head out and explore the islands. You can do this either with a private boat or with a tour company (there are numerous outfitters near the national park).
COST TO ENTER: free!
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK
Your options for adventure within this northern national park depend heavily on what kind of transportation you have.
For example, if you only have a car and aren’t looking to join a guided boat tour run by the park, then your only option is really to do the few hikes located near the park’s three visitor centers (these are still great, don’t worry). But if you are down to join a ranger-led tour (which costs up to $85 a person, though often much less), then you should definitely try to check out some of the more iconic places the park has to offer — including the Historic Kettle Falls Hotel.
You can also take a private boat or book a charter from a nearby outfitter to head out to the islands for some hiking or backpacking adventures.
➳ Book your guided boat tours here.
HOW TO GET TO VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK
Voyageurs National Park is located approximately 5 hours north of the cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul (where you can easily fly into and rent a car), 3 hours north of the cool town of Duluth on Highway 53, and 4 hours south of Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada.
Depending on which of the three visitor centers you want to visit, your driving time will either increase or decrease.
5 | Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon National Park, located in northern Arizona, encompasses 278 miles (447 km) of the Colorado River and its adjacent uplands. The stunning and iconic national park is actually located in the ancestral homeland of 11 Associated Native American Tribes. The canyon itself is one of the most spectacular examples of erosion anywhere in the world (it is a mind-boggling mile deep).
During the fall, the scorching desert temperatures begin to wane — making it much safer to head out on various adventures, including hiking around the canyon rim or down to the canyon bottom. Obviously, even with the temperatures falling, you will still want to plan ahead and focus on staying safe (read more about this below).
COST TO ENTER: $35 /vehicle (valid for 7 days)
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK
Once you get your fill of views from the canyon rim, consider setting out for an exciting hiking or backpacking adventure. In the fall, the weather starts to cool down and the sun becomes a bit less harsh. But, this is also when the park gets to be the busiest, so to avoid the hordes of people, consider hiking away from the main visitor points — especially on the South Rim, where 90% of visitors go — and getting into the backcountry (if only for a couple of hours).
Some top backcountry hikes include the Bright Angel Trail (up to 12 miles total) and Hermit Trail (up to 7 miles total, for experienced desert hikers) on the South Rim and the North Kaibab Trail (up to 9.4 miles total) and Widforss Trail (up to 10 miles total) on the North Rim.
DESERT HIKING SAFETY CONCERNS
Due to the rugged and unforgiving conditions in Grand Canyon National Park, it is super important to come prepared and to understand basic safety measures that need to be taken. A few key ones to keep in mind are: bring plenty of water and food, avoid the heat of the day (middle of the day usually), know your body’s limits and don’t push yourself too hard, carry only what you need and make sure to take plenty of breaks.
► Explore more desert hiking tips in this in-depth guide.
HOW TO GET TO GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK
Grand Canyon National Park is located in the northwest corner of Arizona, close to the borders of the states of Utah and Nevada. There are two parts of the national park: the North and South Rims. About 90% of people visit the South Rim due to it being a lot easier to reach — it is approximately 1.5 hours from the town of Flagstaff and 4 hours from Phoenix (a major metropolis with an international airport). The South Rim is also open year-round.
The North Rim is much, much quieter. To reach this part of the national park, you will need to drive 44 miles from the nearest town of Jacob Lake (and 123 miles from the town of Page, which has the most services). Also remember that due to weather, this half of the park is closed to vehicles from December 1st to May 15th, though most services actually close on October 15.
6 | Big Bend National Park
There is a slightly mythical place in the far western half of Texas where night skies are as dark as coal and rumbling rivers carve canyons into ancient limestone. Here, at the end of the road (not even a joke), hundreds of various bird species take refuge — including the iconic Southwestern bird: the roadrunner.
In Big Bend National Park, fall is quite pleasant. The temperatures are mild and the days are still usually sunny (although periods of cloudy weather and freezing cold do occur sometimes occur). The rainy season — which runs from May through September — is coming to an end, though still be prepared for some late-season thunderstorms.
COST TO ENTER: $30 /vehicle (valid for 7 days)
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
Big Bend National Park is really too big to see in a single day (it is roughly 1,250 square miles in size). So definitely try to put aside a couple of days for exploring this amazing desert national park — especially in the fall when the weather is really nice.
With 150 miles of dirt roads and about 200 miles of hiking trails, this park offers nearly limitless opportunities for scenic driving, hiking, camping, backpacking, mountain biking, bird watching, and stargazing.
We recommend doing at least one adventure in the park’s many areas: a hike up in the Chisos Mountains, a soak in the historic hot springs down by the Rio Grande and a short walk out to Santa Elena Canyon. If time permits, also consider taking a trip across the Rio to the small Mexican town of Boquillas (passports are required).
Likewise, if weather permits, try to stay up late enough to view the stars. For due to Big Bend’s super remote location (see below) the park has some of the darkest skies in all of North America.
HOW TO GET TO BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
While the isolation of Big Bend National Park is a draw for many visitors — especially those interested in astronomy and star-gazing, it also means your trip must be well prepared and carefully planned. The national park is located in the far corner of Southwest Texas (it butts up against the USA-Mexico border) and is a considerable distance from any major city and/or transportation hub. In fact, the national park is 4.5 hours away from the closest major airport — which is located in El Paso, Texas.
To reach the national park, you will definitely need your own vehicle (no public transportation heads to the park). If you are planning to fly in and drive, either book a ticket to El Paso, Texas, or San Antonio (nearly 6 hours away).
➳ Check out rental car rates here.
7 | Glacier National Park
This mountainous national park in northern Montana is a truly spectacular place to behold and by far one of the absolute best places to adventure in the whole USA — especially once the season begins to change and fall starts to roll in.
With its showcase of melting glaciers, glowing alpine meadows, rugged carved valleys, and spectacular lakes, Glacier National Park might just be the best national park to explore once the weather begins to cool down a bit and crowds begin to dissipate. Plus, with over 700 miles of trails to explore, 130 mountain lakes, and hundreds of animals (including grizzly bears, lynx, moose, wolves, and mountain goats) to see, you are sure to not get bored during your visit.
During the fall season, you have a good chance of seeing the trees in the park change colors — especially the larches, which turn a golden shade of yellow. Plus, this time of year is a bit less busy than the summer (when thousands of people visit Glacier). If you are fine layering up a bit, then fall might just be the best time to explore this “Crown of the Continent.”
COST TO ENTER: $35 /vehicle (valid for 7 days)
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
While Glacier National Park definitely has plenty of trails to explore (about 700 miles of them), we instead suggest planning a trip into the backcountry for a wilder wilderness experience.
One important thing you need to know when choosing a specific backpacking area to explore is that the park is pretty much divided into two parts: the west side, which is more forested, and the east side, which is a bit more sparsely vegetated and open. The west side is usually quieter, so if you want some solitude, we suggest backpacking in that area of the park (the West Lakes Trail might be a good option).
You can find a map of all the backcountry campsites here.
If you are short on time — or if you just aren’t looking to camp out in the backcountry — then we suggest checking out these three days hikes. All three of which will give you the opportunity to spot amazing fall colors.
| Apikuni Falls (1.7 miles total), the trail starts at the Poia Lake Trailhead
| Bullhead Lake (7.2 miles total), the trail starts at the Swiftcurrent Pass Trailhead
| Pitamakan Pass (15.4 miles total), the trail starts at Two Medicine Campground
HOW TO GET TO GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
The closest sizeable town to Glacier National Park is Kalispell, which is located just under an hour from the West Glacier entrance station. To reach the west entrance of the park, which is where the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road begins, you will need to head out either on Highway 2 or Highway 35 from downtown Kalispell. There is a small airport in Kalispell (the Glacier Park International Airport) that you can also fly into and then rent a car at.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: there is also the option to take a train into Glacier National Park. The main train line, which is run by Amtrak, is known as the Empire Builder. The route starts/ends in Chicago and heads to either Seattle, Washington, or Portland, Oregon. The best train stop in Glacier National Park is the West Glacier (Belton) station.
8 | North Cascades National Park
So what makes North Cascades National Park so special? Well for starters, it is home to the most expansive glacial system in the USA outside of Alaska as well as the highest degree of flora biodiversity of any American national park. It is also just incredibly beautiful — the rivers and creeks are a vibrant turquoise color due to them being primarily fed from glacier run-off, the forests are healthy and large due to a lack of logging, and the animal life is thriving (this includes even a small resident grizzly bear population).
We were completely taken aback by the park’s beauty — as well as its numerous adventure opportunities (the park is a mecca for mountaineering). This is especially true in the fall when the larch trees begin to change, the number of visitors starts to lower, and the various plan life begins to change colors and go dormant. Plus, during fall, you have a good chance of seeing the many mountain peaks get a light dusting of snow — which only adds to the beauty of the park.
COST TO ENTER: free!
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK
There are numerous adventures to be had in North Cascades National Park — especially in the fall when the larch trees are changing colors and the weather gets a bit “moody.” Below are a few key things to do in the national park.
VISIT ROSS LAKE AND DIABLO LAKE
One truly must-see spot in North Cascades National Park are these two man-made bodies of water that lie right next to each other. Both lakes (or reservoirs) were created by building two dams — the Ross Dam and Diablo Dam — along the mighty Skagit River (which eventually flows into Puget Sound). Both dams were built by the Seattle City Lights to generate hydroelectricity for the metropolis of Seattle.
You can see both dams either via a short hiking trail (including the Ross Dam Trail) or by simply driving along Highway 20 (the main road through the park). You also have the option to pull off the highway and take in views of the entire lake complex via a couple of viewpoints, including the amazing Diablo Lake Overlook. Similarly, you can hike out along Ross Lake via the East Bank Trail all the way up the right side until you reach the Hozomeen Campground and boat launch.
GO FOR AN EPIC MOUNTAIN HIKE
One of the more well-known areas to explore within North Cascades National Park is the stunning Cascade Pass/Sahale Arm area. This popularity is due to its amazing views and the fact that it is the shortest and “easiest” access to the park’s beautiful alpine environment.
While the Cascade Pass Trail is a good place to start, if you have the energy, we recommend you keep going all the way up to Sahale Arm and even up to the top of Boston Peak (elevation: 8,547 feet). Along the way, you are afforded some amazing views of the surrounding peaks — including Sahale Mountain, Forbidden Mountain and Buckner Mountain. From the trailhead to the end of the trail near Boston Peak the trail measures around 13 miles.
Two other top hikes in North Cascades National Park — especially during the fall — are:
CUTTHROAT PASS VIA THE PCT
This10(ish) mile trail heads north on the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail). From Cutthroat Pass you can continue hiking as long as you want — even all the way to Canada — or you can head down to Cutthroat Lake. This is a great trail to day hike or backpack, especially in the fall when the larch trees and plants are changing colors.
MAPLE PASS LOOP
Another popular trail in North Cascades National Park is this 7.4-mile loop that takes you up and over a pass (Maple Pass) and along some ridgelines — which affords you amazing views of various mountain peaks as well as two alpine lakes. This is another A+ trail to hike along during the fall for the larch trees are numerous along the route.
HOW TO GET TO NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK
While the national park is located in the far northern half of the state (it borders the USA-Canada border) it is still relatively easy to reach — especially if you have your own private vehicle or if you are planning to rent one.
The easiest way to reach North Cascades National Park from the major hub of Seattle (where there is a large international airport) is to head north on Interstate 5 up to Highway 20 just outside of Bellingham. Once on Highway 20, you will drive east for about 45 miles until you get to the town of Marblemount. From Marblemount, it is about 6 miles to the main national park entrance and the start of the national park. In total, it takes about 2 hours to reach the national park from downtown Seattle.
\\ Other Awesome National Parks to Visit in the Fall
While these 8 national parks are going to give you some epic fall colors and adventures, they aren’t the only ones. In many places across the USA, fall means cooler temperatures, fewer people and more colorful forests. For example, in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the fall means mountains are lighting up in a golden haze and the constant sound of bugling elk. While in Yosemite National Park (in California), the coming of fall means fewer people, cooler temperatures and colorful mountain meadows. Finally, once the season changes out east, Shenandoah National Park entirely becomes a kaleidoscope of colors.
► Check out our full adventure guide to visiting Rocky Mountain National Park.
Have we convinced you to head out on a stunning fall foliage national park adventure this autumn? We definitely hope so — we know we cannot wait!
We are positive that these 8 national parks will surely help you have one amazing fall national park adventure. If you have any questions about these national parks or are just curious to learn more about the USA’s epic national park system (which is home to 400+ sites!) then please leave a comment below or reach out to us at www.backroadpackers.com.