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Your Complete Guide To Leaf Peeping At US National Parks This Fall

Somehow it’s already October, and you know what that means — leaf peepin’ season is here. And the best place to do it, in my opinion, is in America’s Best Idea — our US National Parks. (Spoiler: I think National Parks are the best place for many things.)

While some higher elevations in the nations various parks are already experiencing peaking leaves, the next few weeks are really the sweet spot for peepers. Here are my recommendations for parks to visit, when the leaves are estimated to peak, and activities to maximize your views.

Via Emily Hart

Great Smoky Mountains – Tennessee and North Carolina

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is synonymous with Fall Colors. So much so that their Fall Foliage Prediction Map is the gold standard for would be leaf peepers. It uses NOAA precipitation forecasts, average daylight exposure, and temperature forecasts to interactively predict when colors will be changing not just in the Smokies, but across the United States.

As the most visited National Park in the United States, you can expect leaf peeping season here to be crowded, but luckily you have some time. Due to the varied altitudes within the park, the fall color season lasts a little longer than some of the other parks on this list. The higher elevations — like Clingmans Dome at over 6,600 ft — will start changing first, and the colors will work their way down the landscape.

Don’t Miss: Drive Clingmans Dome Road and The Blue Ridge Parkway. Hike Alum Cave.

Peak Prediction: Mid-October to Mid-November

Shenandoah – Virginia

Shenandoah National Park is just 75 miles outside of Washington DC, but feels like you’ve been transported to another planet. With miles of hiking trails, waterfalls, wildlife, and seemingly never ending mountain vistas — this is a perfect place to see some dramatic fall color.

There are 75 overlooks along the famous Skyline Drive — and while they are all awe inspiring, I recommend Old Rag and Hazel Mountain.

This is also a great park to visit in tandem with Great Smoky Mountains. In just over six hours, you can drive the gorgeous Blue Ridge Parkway from one to the other and experience the quintessential mountain fall of your dreams.

Don’t Miss: Drive the 105 mile Skyline Drive. Hike Stony Man Summit Trail and portions of the Appalachian Trail.

Peak Prediction: Mid-October

Acadia – Maine

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Acadia is known for fall. Before I visited this past summer, I would ask everyone I met who had spent time in Maine when I should go — summer or fall? Overwhelmingly the answer was fall. I decided to just aim for both, knowing that peak foliage season would be hard to predict and I was eager to see it.

Once I got back from my summer trip, I almost immediately started planning for another in the fall. Coastal Maine peaks a bit later than the rest of the state, so I’ve been obsessively refreshing the Maine Foliage Report for updates.

I can’t wait to live out my basic fall girl dreams surrounded by the leaves, quaint small towns, and surely a PSL in Maine.

Don’t Miss: Drive or hike to Cadillac Mountain Summit. Hike Bubble Rock Trail.

Peak Prediction: early to mid-October

Rocky Mountain – Colorado

Via Emily Hart

Rocky Mountain National Park is a bucket list destination in any season, but it really shines in the fall. The golden aspens peak earlier than other foliage, due to the high elevation, and the prime peeping is over in what feels like the blink of an eye. The fleeting nature makes experiencing the colors that much more special and otherworldly.

There are countless great drives and hikes worth seeing this time of year, just be sure you have the correct timed entry reservation (they go fast!).

Don’t Miss: Drive Trail Ridge and Bear Lake Roads. Hike Glacier Gorge and Wild Basin Trails.

Peak Prediction: late September to mid-October

Grand Teton – Wyoming

No National Park list of mine is complete without a mention of Grand Teton. There is just nothing like the dramatic and jutting peaks, the endless trails and lakes that are accessible to nearly anyone.

And fall is, in my opinion, the best time to visit this park. The crowds have lessened, the air is crisp, and the fall colors somehow make a magical place even more otherworldy. You can’t go wrong anywhere in the park or in Jackson this time of year. You have to see it for yourself.

Don’t Miss: Stop at Oxbow Bend and Schwabacher Landing. Drive to Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve. Hike around Jenny Lake.

Peak Prediction: early to mid-October

Cuyahoga Valley – Ohio

Ohio might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of National Parks or fall foliage. But there is a hidden gem just between Cleveland and Akron. Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a great place to visit in the fall. There is a Scenic Railroad that shows off the underrated midwestern fall colors, and plenty of laid-back hikes for a warm fall day.

Don’t Miss: Take a ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. Hike to Brandywine Falls and Blue Hen Falls.

Peak Prediction: mid-October

Zion – Utah

Zion National Park is not a secret in any sense of the word, but visiting during the fall is a great time to escape some of the hordes that clog the park mid-summer. Not only do you get a less crowded experience this time of year, but you might be surprised to find a beautiful display of fall foliage.

Utah isn’t known for its fall colors, but it should be. Zion has a whole different feel in the fall. The golden foliage mixed with the red and gold canyon is a sight to see. And you don’t have to deal with the oppressive summer heat. Win-win.

Don’t Miss: Hike Canyon Overlook Trail.

Peak Prediction: September to October

New River Gorge​​ – West Virginia

When I visited the United State’s newest National Park this summer for the first time, it was similar to my experience in Maine. Everyone told me I just had to come back in the fall. New River Gorge — sometimes referred to as the “Grand Canyon of West Virginia” truly pops in the fall. Yellows, oranges and reds abound in the gorge, with views at every turn.

Visit the third weekend of October for Bridge Day — a day commemorating the 1977 completion of the New River Gorge Bridge — the parks signature and impressive feat of engineering. The bridge is closed for the day and BASE jumpers, rappellers, and bungee jumpers fling themselves from the 876 ft structure. Who knew leat peeping could be such a thrill?

Don’t Miss: Hike Long Point Trail and Fern Creek Trail. Visit Grandview. Take the Autumn Colors Express Train through the park for a truly unique view.

Peak Prediction: mid-October

Mammoth Cave – Kentucky

Mammoth Cave is known, of course, for being home to the worlds largest underground cave system — recently found to be even eight miles longer. But it is also a hidden gem for fall foliage. The red and golden-sugar maples light up in October.

Hike some of the more than 80 miles of trails, go underground if you dare, and then follow up your peeping with a visit to one of the many, many Kentucky distilleries. The perfect fall getaway indeed.

Don’t Miss: Hike Echo River Springs Trail and Green River Bluffs Trail.

Peak Prediction: early to mid-October

Hot Springs – Arkansas

Hot Springs National Park is not your average major National Park. Located inside the town of Hot Springs Arkansas, much of it is dedicated to the historic bathhouses it is named for. But outside of the bathhouses in and around the park area there are so many great opportunities for fall foliage viewing.

Arkansas is truly unexpected and underrated, in my opinion. Go and see for yourself — preferably in the fall.

Don’t Miss: Drive Hot Springs Mountain Scenic Drive to Hot Springs Mountain Tower. Visit Silver Mountain and Goat Rock Overlook.

Peak Prediction: late October to early November

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