For many, fall is the most sublime of seasons in the National Park System. Forests are cloaked in their autumnal best, wildlife is on the move and readily visible, crisp temperatures are perfect for hikes and bugs are gone. You can even smell the season, both in the moldering leaves and the woodsmoke curling above cabins.
Across much of the park system, from September to October and on into mid-November the passing weeks usher in a change of weather, a change in appearance, and a change in experiences for those who find themselves in the parks. As temperatures slowly cool and the hours of daylight steadily shorten, a transformation visibly arrives in the attire of many parks.
From Maine down through the mid-Atlantic states and into the South, mixed hardwood forests display a riot of color as oaks, maples, willows, hickories, and even fruit trees in long-forgotten homesteads slowly become flecked in leaves orange, russet, gold, brown, and all combinations within that spectrum. Western mountainsides of pine and spruce are daubed with gold as aspen glades ready for winter. Scrub oaks, Rocky Mountain birch, and maples sprinkle their own yellows, oranges, and rubies onto the forests.
Not only do these colorful displays and cooler temperatures offer superb hiking conditions, but as the deciduous trees slowly discard their dried leaves the landscape opens to reveal vistas often hard, if not impossible, to see in mid-summer.
Though the days are growing increasing shorter in terms of sunlight, the cooler temperatures make hiking more comfortable, and even more enjoyable. These are the months to head deep into the backcounty of parks such as Sequoia, Yellowstone, or Great Smoky, or to make progress on your personal checklist of day hikes anywhere you find yourself in the park system.
These three months, too, are perfect for long drives along the Skyline Drive through Shenandoah, the Blue Ridge Parkway, across Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, down the road through Bryce Canyon National Park where the fluttering aspen leaves meld into the hoodoos in the amphitheaters down below, or along the Natchez Trace Parkway that follows ancient footpaths through the bucolic Southeast.
Though the high season in the parks is winding down during the fall months, there remain some great programs and special activities to take advantage of during these months. Rangers at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado will lead you to Ancestral Puebloan ruins normally closed to visitors. Starry night skies are the focus of a fall festival at Acadia National Park in coastal Maine. Harvest time hangs heavy in the fruit orchards at Capitol Reef National Park, where you can pick your fill of peaches and apples amid the grandeur of Utah’s red-rock. Guided tours continue through Harpers Ferry National Historical Park at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers in West Virginia.
Wildlife are on the move during these months. There are breathtaking raptor displays as hawks, eagles and other migratory birds head for their wintering grounds. Elk congregate as bulls summon their harems with shrill bugling that pierces the sky and forests around both sunrise and sundown. Other big game become more visible as they slowly trek down to the river valleys to wait out winter’s snow, and occasionally wolves and bears can be spotted on the move, too, in some parks.
For those unburdened by school schedules, visiting the national parks during the fall months can mean less-crowded surroundings. True, the peak leaf-peeping weeks in places such as Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains, and Acadia national parks as well as along the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Natchez Trace Parkway can be woefully crowded on weekends. But visiting these parks during midweek, or being able to head into the Rocky Mountains or the High Sierra, can reward you with not only stunning beauty, but a relative measure of solitude.
In the coming days, we’ll point you to some great fall destinations and activities in the National Park System, and suggest some wonderful hikes and places to spot wildlife. We’ll offer suggestions and tips on where you can add to your bird life list, as well as some photography pointers to ensure you return home with some outstanding photos. We’ll note some great activities to add to your calendar, and suggest some outings.
To showcase some of the diversity of the national parks, we’ll also take a look at what perhaps might be considered an unusual national park vacation: using a dude ranch in the West as a base camp. True, many dude ranches offer all-inclusive vacations, but some are actually located inside national parks, so you really can combine the two settings. Others are just a short ride away, close enough for a day trip.
So pull up a chair and get comfortable, and keep your calendar handy so you can start planning your fall escape to the parks.
Coming Wednesday: Check out the national parks this fall from a dude ranch.