“It’s the most wonderful time of the year...” Ok so maybe not everyone feels about autumn, but it really is the best time of the year. It’s a time for comfy long sweaters, mulled cider, and all things pumpkin. But perhaps the best way to enjoy the fall is to head outdoors and take in nature’s greatest displays: fall foliage.
So where are the best spots for prime leaf peeping? It all depends on what colors you want to see and what time of year you travel. Peak colors typically run somewhere in between September and October but to be sure to research your destination beforehand since past and current weather conditions can affect when leaves change colors. Luckily, the country is full of protected national parks and forests – the ideal location for fall foliage sightings. Waves of reds, oranges and yellows fill the landscapes and these are the perfect parks for you to enjoy all the beauty.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
So why did Shenandoah National Park make the list? For starters, there’s an entire bike festival created around the area’s stunning foliage. The Shenandoah Fall Foliage Bike Festival is a great way to get outdoors, get some exercise, and see an amazing spread of autumn colors. There are lots of routes to take, from 10 to 100 miles, that take riders through country roads and rolling hills.
Others may prefer to get right inside the park and enjoy the trails. The park is lit up with color and with over 500 miles of trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail, it’s not hard to spot foliage.
A great way to view even more foliage is by taking a drive on Skyline Drive. The road will take you for 105 miles along the peak of the Blue Ridge Mountains for a stunning view of the park and its foliage. Have even more time? Take a scenic drive down Blue Ridge Parkway. You can start in Shenandoah and end up in Great Smoky Mountains National Park - which also made the list for stunning foliage!
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Grand Teton National Park certainly is grand. Located in northwestern Wyoming, the park is full of that jaw-dropping scenery that you only see in the movies. The mountain range stands tall and is reflected in the crystal clear lakes that fill the area. Oh, and when the leaves change colors; that’s also reflected in the waters, giving visitors a double-whammy of color.
The third week of September tends to be peak foliage time, but again, it’s best to contact the park for a foliage update. The main reason you should visit Gran Teton is that the foliage here isn’t your typical foliage. Don’t expect the reds and purples of autumn. Instead, take in a totally different foliage spectacle with the yellow aspens that remain an impressive sight against the backdrop of the Grand Teton mountain range.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
While Cuyahoga Valley National Park may not be well known for those outside of Ohio, it boasts some of the country’s most spectacular fall foliage. As most of the protected land is covered by trees or water, it is an ideal spot for leaf peeping. And with over 125 miles of hiking trails, there’s no shortage of viewing opportunities.
Typically the last two weeks of October boast the park’s best colors. Blazing reds, oranges, and yellows are the dominant colors and there are plenty of ways to check them out. Visitors should try traveling through the park on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, which features vintage engines and coaches that were built in the 1940’s and 1950’s. A round-trip tour takes visitors to Peninsula, Hale Farm and Village, and Quaker Square, all of which are bursting with fall colors.
Other visitors may enjoy hitting the trails to view the foliage. With 70 waterfalls, most notably Brandywine Falls, hills, gorges, and more, the 33,000 acres of protected land supply one of the most scenic canvases for Mother Nature’s most spectacular show.
Acadia National Park, Maine
Oh, Acadia National Park. This little national park may be one of the most beautiful spots on the east coast. Acadia National Park has much to offer during every season, particularly in the fall.
The foliage typically begins its show in September, when the daylight is shorter and the air is cooler. The peak colors across the region occur later than the rest of Maine, generally in late September through October.
Whether you want to hit the trails by foot or bike or saddle up for a horseback ride on Mount Desert Island, you won’t be disappointed in the abundance of colors. The best views can be seen from just about anywhere, but try to get to the summit of Cadillac Mountain for an incredible panoramic view of stunning foliage.
Denali National Park & Preserve, Alaska
So you hear “Alaska” and think of cold weather, snow, glaciers, and polar bears, right? Well, you may be surprised that some of the country’s most spectacular displays of fall happen to be in Alaska, in Denali National Park & Preserve.
Autumn comes early to the park, in August, and brings with it crisp air, miles of brightly colored tundra, and ample opportunities to view wildlife. The land seems ablaze in deep reds, orange, and gold. Even dwarf willows and birch trees will be full of gold and popping with the colors of their blueberries and bearberries.
If you stick around until September, you can watch the animals prepare for the upcoming winter. Moose and caribou will have lost their antler velvet and other animals will be moving into the low country so be sure to pack your camera. Fall really is one of the most beautiful times to visit the national park, but prepare early. The season is over in the blink of an eye here!
Glacier National Park, Montana
Plan to visit Glacier National Park in early October for picture-perfect fall foliage. The maple trees shine brightly with hues of yellow, orange and red, while larch and aspen trees turn to yellows and gold. And all the trees are scattered amongst evergreens, creating a canvas of stunning contrasting colors.
While the park offers tons of outdoor activities, a great spot to view the land and foliage is the summit of Big Mountain. Views of the park and Flathead Valley and Lake are gorgeous this time of year. The Summit Trail is about 8 miles long and 7,000 feet high, which gives visitors a great view of the larch and aspen trees, as well as huckleberry bushes, with all of the colors blending together. It really is a sight to behold, one that may just make you want to come back every autumn.
Another great way to view the foliage is on a scenic drive or a scenic float. Wait, float? Yes! On the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, visitors can float along on a quiet day in a turquoise river surrounded by unbelievable colors. Glacier Raft Company arranges such tours and highly recommend the month of September for those looking for foliage but don’t want to freeze in the water.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina
Fall officially begins September 22 but Great Smoky Mountains National Park tends to reach its peak between mid-October and early November. During this time, visitors will see the park’s most spectacular display of colors as trees like sugar maples, scarlet oaks, sweetgum, red maple, and hickories burst with color.
This park also serves as a doubleheader for visitors trying to maximize their leaf peeping as it is accessible from the Blue Ridge Parkway–the fantastic scenic drive from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
There is a lot of beauty in this park and even more things to do, including hiking, biking, camping, horseback riding, picnicking, wildlife viewing, and more. And when you visit during the months of autumn, you can do all the fun stuff while viewing landscapes that are truly breathtaking. Expect lots of golds, rust, orange, and pockets of deep ruby red.