Editor's note: You'd be hard-pressed to stay in a national park lodge in the fall without some spectacular vistas. Still, there are some places that seem slightly better situated to capture the display of foliage. Contributing writers David and Kay Scott share their thoughts on some of the best lodges to call home during the fall.
A disadvantage of living in South Georgia is the scarcity of fall colors as the days grow cooler and the nights become longer. The glorious reds, bright yellows, and vivid oranges produced by oaks, maples, cottonwoods, sumac, and other broadleaved trees and shrubs are in short supply where we live. Having both grown up in the Midwest, we miss the changing of the colors during the fall seasons.
Suppose you were able to travel anywhere in America to experience the brilliant colors of the upcoming fall season. A nice thought, right? What better place to view one of nature’s best shows than a national park lodge.
Two Eastern national parks that are well-known for displays of beautiful fall colors have multiple lodges from which to enjoy the show. The Blue Ridge Parkway that winds through North Carolina and Virginia, and its northern neighbor, Shenandoah National Park, are two of our country's preeminent parks to visit during the fall season.
Skyline Drive follows along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains as it snakes through the 105 mile-length of Shenandoah National Park. Seventy-five overlooks along the road offer travelers multiple locations from which to stop and admire the views. The Blue Ridge Parkway ranges in elevation from 600 feet to 6,000 feet along its 469.1 miles of twisting two-lane road, producing views that alternate from mountain top to meadow.
The large elevation changes mean that if leaves have not reached peak color in one portion of the park, more promising views might lie several miles up the road. Several factors contribute to the timing and degree to which leaves change colors, making it impossible to determine the dates when the peak will occur. Using previous years as an indicator, Shenandoah’s leaves typically peak during the second to third week in October, while the Blue Ridge Parkway tends to peak around the middle to the end of October.
Because fall is the most popular time for visiting these two parks, securing rooms in one of the seven lodges generally requires that reservations be made well in advance. The three lodges in Shenandoah include Skyland Resort, Big Meadows Lodge, and Lewis Mountain Cabins. All are operated by Aramark Parks & Destinations (www.visitshenandoah.com; 888-896-3833).
The four lodges scattered along the Blue Ridge Parkway are Peaks of Otter Lodge (www.peaksofotter.com; 540-586-1081), Rocky Knob Cabins (www.blueridgeresort.com; 540-593-3503), Bluffs Lodge (www.blueridgeresort.com; 336-372-4499), and Pisgah Inn (www.pisgahinn.com; 828-235-8228). Each of the four offers excellent views of the fall colors.
October is also an excellent time to catch the changing colors in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The northern Ohio park offers lush eastern hardwood forests, rolling hills, and open farmlands. The Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail follows beside the Cuyahoga River that winds through the park, making this a great place for enjoying the fall colors while hiking or biking. George Hoy, innkeeper at The Inn at Brandywine Falls, the park’s only lodging facility, predicts with absolute certainty that leaves will peak on October 14th, at 2:10 p.m. Two weeks prior, the brighter reds will begin to appear, and after the 14th yellows will be dominate.
Having managed the Inn for more than 22 years, George and his wife, Katie, have apparently accumulated inside information on fall foliage. The Inn at Brandywine Falls offers six overnight rooms (www.innatbrandywinefalls.com; 888-306-3381). Weekends are busy, but reservations during the week should not be a problem.
George mentioned that fall colors do not dim on weekdays.
Two Midwest parks with lodging and excellent possibilities for enjoying the fall colors are in close proximity. Ozark National Scenic Riverways in the hills of southeastern Missouri and Buffalo National River in northeastern Arkansas are both excellent parks to visit during fall.
The pristine Jacks Fork and Current rivers highlight Ozark NSR. The area is heavily forested, especially along the rivers. The banks along the Buffalo River are also tree-covered. Kim Wooderson, manager of Big Spring Lodge in Ozark NSR, said that fall colors have been fantastic for each of the 11 years she has managed the lodge. The usual time for the leaves to peak has varied from mid- to late October. She is concerned that this year’s lack of rainfall might affect the coloring of the leaves.
Big Spring Lodge has 14 cabins built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the heart of the forest. The cabins vary in size and some have kitchens (www.bigspringlodgeandcabins.com; 573-323-4423).
It has also been quite dry along Buffalo National River, so the extent of this year's color season is iffy. In past years leaves typically peaked from the end of September to the first part of October. Buffalo Point Concessions has 17 cabins, all with kitchens. Five older cabins, built in the 1940s by the CCC, each have fireplaces (www.buffalopoint.com; 870-449-6206 ).
For foliage colors farther west consider America’s first national park, Yellowstone, and it’s southern neighbor, Grand Teton National Park. A fall visit to either Wyoming park avoids the summer crowds and is likely to result in more wildlife sightings.
Peak time for the leaves -- golden aspens with occasional splashes of reds from maples and scrub oaks -- is generally from mid-to-late September and early October. Yellowstone has nine separate lodging facilities, all managed by Xanterra Parks and Resorts, scattered about the park, with closing dates from mid-September to mid-October (www.travelYellowstone.com; 888-297-2757).
Grand Teton has five lodging facilities, three of which are managed by Grand Teton Lodge Company (www.gtlc.com; 800-628-9988) : Colter Bay Village closes in late September; Jackson Lake Lodge and Jenny Lake Lodge close in early October.
Signal Mountain Lodge with 79 cabin units, including a few with kitchens, closes in mid-October (www.signalmountainlodge.com; 307-543-2831).
Triangle X Ranch is a dude ranch that requires a four-night minimum stay from September to the first week in November when it closes for the season (www.triangleX.com; 307-733-2183).
Zion Canyon in Utah’s Zion National Park is a gorgeous location in its own right. In fall it is transformed into a “ribbon of gold,” according to Mike Just, a photographer and employee at Zion Lodge. Aspen and cottonwood leaves begin to change around the beginning of October and frequently peak by late October or early November.
Zion Lodge is located in the canyon and open year-round (www.Zion lodge.com; 888-297-2757).
Don’t forget that bushes, as well as trees can produce beautiful fall colors. Pam Newlun of Guest Services, concessionaire for the two lodges in Mount Rainier National Park, says bushes in the sub-alpine regions of Paradise Inn provide fall colors for guests. Huckleberries turn a magenta and Mountain Ash become flaming yellow-orange. At lower elevations near National Park Inn, color is provided by maple and other broadleaved trees.
Pam mentioned that some color is already beginning to show, but the full glory of the colors may come any time from late September to mid-October, depending on the amount of cold weather the area experiences. She warned that motorists should check road reports before traveling as there is always a possibility of snow during the fall.
Paradise Inn sits at the base of Mount Rainier and will close for the season on October 4th. National Park Inn, is at a lower elevation and open year-round. Both lodges are operated by Guest Services (www.rainier.guestservices.com; 360-569-2275). Washington’s Olympic National Park not only enjoys snow-capped mountains and a rugged ocean shoreline, it also has rain forests, coastal forests, and lowland forests, all of which provide beautiful fall colors. In fact, some are already beginning to show, according to Pam Dahl, at Lake Crescent Lodge. However, the peak colors typically occur around mid-September.
Lake Crescent Lodge sits on scenic Lake Crescent, and backs up to mountains and a lowland forest. Kalaloch Lodge sits on a bluff above the Pacific Ocean, a perfect location to view the coastal forests. Lake Quinault Lodge is across the lake from the Quinault Rain Forest, and Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort is located in a lowland forest with a hot spring. Imagine being surrounded by colorful foliage on a cool afternoon while soaking in one of the thermal pools.
These four properties are managed by Aramark (www.olympicnationalparks.com; 888-896-3818). This is certainly not an all-inclusive list of park lodges for viewing fall foliage, but it is a start. Pack your bags with warm clothing and head out for a different fall experience.