While Acadia, Shenandoah, and Great Smoky Mountains national parks often get the main billing for fall color drives, there are other nooks and crannies in the National Park System that will surprise you with their colors. Here are a handful of fall foliage eye catchers In the parks.
A three-hour drive northeast of Las Vegas, southern Utah's Zion National Park has some of the best fall color of any western park. And because of the large size of the park (146,598 acres) and the great variety of elevations, exposures, and microclimates, the season can last as long as four months. The first color show occurs near Lava Point, one of the highest places in the park (elev. 7,890 ft.).
In lower, warmer parts of the park, where the color typically peaks in late October or early November, some areas may show good color into December.
Situated on a huge Navajo Indian Reservation in the Four Corners region of northeastern Arizona, Canyon de Chelly National Monument does not normally leap to mind when you think of fall foliage. But the park's abundant aspens and cottonwoods turn spectacularly gold and yellow by late October, and the blend of brilliant foliage and ruddy sandstone cliffs is especially pleasing. Scenic drives from the visitor center and along the canyon rim lead to ten overlooks (three on the North Rim Drive and seven on the South Rim Drive) providing excellent views of the canyon below.
At Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan's Lower Peninsula, colorful hardwoods abound along the park roads beginning in late September, and peaking in mid- to late-October.
Sections of Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive are lined with maple, beech, and birch trees that form a gorgeous canopy for windshield touring. The reds and yellows of the maples and beeches vividly contrast with the white birches, and the nearly white dunes and the blue of Lake Michigan provide a dramatic background.
The West Virginia mountains are ablaze with colorful hardwoods that challenge New England’s show. At New River Gorge National River, the color peaks about the third week of October. The weather is normally mild and dry at that time, so that adds to the appeal.
Minnesota's Mississippi National River and Recreation Area extends 72 miles through the heart of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro complex. This makes it convenient for thousands of motorists to drive the roads of the riverine corridor and enjoy the fall color displays in the various riverfront parks, historic sites, wildlife areas, and other sites within this unusual park's borders.
At Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, the Pinnacle Overlook (elev. 2,440 ft.) offers spectacular views into mountains and valleys in Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee -- and of course the namesake Cumberland Gap.
Come fall this landscape blazes with color and Skyland Road, the winding, four-mile route that takes motorists from the visitor center up the mountain to the overlook, is a leaf peeper's delight. Big-rig RVers beware; Skyland Road is closed to vehicles longer than 20 feet.
The Natchez Trace Parkway runs a winding 444 miles from Natchez, Mississippi, across northwest Alabama to the Nashville, Tennessee, vicinity. The cooler northern end of this National Scenic Byway and All-American Road offers the best color, with the reds, oranges, and yellows of its mixed hardwood forest (especially maple, oak, hickory, dogwood, and sumac) usually arriving at their scenic best during mid- to late October.
Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park offers more than just cave tours. The 52,830-acre park's sprawling upland hardwood forest, interspersed with wide open spaces, is a visual delight in the fall. The Green River Valley landscape offers color-splashed views up to 15 miles.
Buffalo National River in the Ozarks of northwest Arkansas is a fine fall destination, with hardwoods that typically shimmer beginning in late September and peaking in early to mid-October.
Leaf peeping from the road in this long, narrow park is easier than you may think, since several state highways cross the park, and other roads roughly parallel the river (much of the time you'll actually be outside the park boundaries and encountering a mix of farms and forest).
Southeastern Missouri's Ozark National Scenic Riverways features 134 miles of the Current and Jacks Fork rivers, over 300 springs, many interesting cultural relics, and some very nice fall colors by mid-October. There are various routing options for leaf peeping (see the map at this site), and many windshield tourists add roads in neighboring Mark Twain National Forest to their itinerary.
Dr. Robert Janiskee is an Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Geography at the University of South Carolina. He long taught a national parks course, and continues to visit parks, think about parks, and occasionally write about parks.
Coming Sunday: Some great fall events and activities in the National Park System.