As the season changes to fall, things really get colorful all across America. That’s especially true for our nation’s national parks. The varied landscapes of our parks have made park leaf peeping a colorful way to see this country from coast to coast.
From vibrant reds and yellows to majestic purples across the mountains and valleys, blazing colors can be found easily just by getting behind the wheel and letting your eyes (and this article) lead the way. Thanks to varied deciduous trees and environments, the country is blessed with a fall foliage palette that makes leaf peeping like driving through a Norman Rockwell painting.
The National Parks System website says, “Every year, trees across the nation change their leaf color from green to gold, crimson, amber, and even jewel-toned purple. This process is part of a much larger undertaking where trees of all shapes and sizes spend the autumn months getting ready for the trials of winter.” But, before winter starts, lucky leaf peepers get to enjoy fall colors in national parks and beyond.
The science behind leaves changing colors each fall is relatively simple. According to the tree huggers at The United States Arboretum in Washington, D.C., fall foliage season starts across the country as the days begin to get shorter in late-summer and early-autumn.
Leaves change colors because the production of green chlorophyll, which normally masks yellow and red coloring, slows and eventually stops—allowing vibrant yellows and reds to emerge. Red and purple pigments come from the fall production of anthocyanins in the leaves. All of these pigments eventually break down and the only ones that remain are tannin-producing various brown colors in the leaves.
The starting time of leaves changing colors is dependent on night length, so fall colors generally appear at about the same time each year in specific locations, even if temperatures are cooler or warmer than is typical. However, along with shorter days, sunlight, temperature, elevation, soil moisture, and more all influence the “quality” of fall foliage every year in each unique destination.
Many states and even some specific destinations (like Asheville, North Carolina) now have updated information and dedicated pages on their visitor websites devoted to fall foliage. This makes it easy to find locations, drives, directions, and information about peak periods in each national park and beyond.
Although national parks have been around since 1872, they remain quite elusive, in that just 63 protected areas within the United States have been deemed a national park since Yellowstone National Park became the nation’s first almost 150 years ago. The New River Gorge joined the elite list in December 2020 as the country’s 63rd national park—New River Gorge National Park and Preserve—and West Virginia’s only entry.
Acadia National Park (Maine)
Ideally situated along the rugged Maine coast, south of US 1 on Mt. Desert Island, Acadia National Park provides a perfect way to see coastal fall colors, with the Atlantic Ocean, lots of bays, rocky coastline, mountains, historic cottages, and more for backdrops. From bright red blueberry bushes to sumac shrubs and trees found around Jordan Pond, up on Cadillac Mountain (the highest point on the eastern seaboard), other popular tree spottings include maples, poplars, aspens, and birches, as well as plants in the wetlands and along the park’s rocky coastline. This northeast national park is well worth the drive to Maine come fall.
Shenandoah National Park & Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Virginia, North Carolina, & Tennessee)
There may be no more classic fall foliage drive in the United States than the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway through Virginia and North Carolina. With well-marked overlooks, easy-to-use mile markers, lots of maples and many other colorful trees, bonus fall wildflowers, and varied camping and dining along the way, this is one of America’s easiest ways to get a full dose of fall colors in the mountains. The drive connects Shenandoah National Park with Great Smoky Mountains National Park (which extends into Tennessee), with possible classic stops including: Mabry Mill; Peaks of Otter (great dining with a view); Richard Balsam Overlook (which, at 6,053 feet, features views from the highest point on the Parkway); Moses H. Cone Memorial Park; and the Ridge Parkway Visitor Center and the Folk Art Center. As a colorful bonus for those with time, this fall foliage drive is easily extended by adding 105-mile Skyline Drive on the north end of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
New River Gorge National Park & Preserve (West Virginia)
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve is America’s newest national park and it’s a special place for fall foliage, whether it’s “in” the gorge or “on” the river (ironically, the New is one of the world’s oldest rivers). The New River Gorge runs roughly 53 miles along the New River and encompasses more than 70,000 acres from Lansing to Hinton. With deep and spectacular canyons created by the rugged whitewater river, the best place for leaf peepers to start an exploration of the gorge is at the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve Canyon Rim Visitor Center. From here, there are lots of other spectacular views available throughout the park, but the New River itself offers a unique way to enjoy fall colors, and whitewater outfitters like Adventures on the Gorge (AOTG), one of the
region’s largest and most developed outdoor adventure resorts, can accommodate with rafting trips and many other
New River adventures.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park (Ohio)
Situated just a half-hour south of Cleveland and 15 minutes or so north of Akron, this lesser-known national park features colorful forests, rushing waterfalls for backdrops, and lots of various hiking, biking, and paddling options. Brandywine Falls and Blue Hen Falls are great places to head for colorful pictures, but the woodlands everywhere feature a variety of beech, maple, hickory, oak, sycamore, and more. The park’s Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad trips feature many great options for unique fall foliage viewing. There’s also the Ohio & Erie Towpath Trail, which is great for walking or biking amidst the parks fall glory.
Guadeloupe Mountains National Park (Texas)
Providing one of America’s “last” places for fall color before winter, Guadeloupe Mountains National Park in northern Texas (about two hours east of El Paso) provides great late-fall leaf peeping possibilities. Mountains, canyons, deserts, dunes, and more are among the options, with lots of oaks, walnuts, bigtooth maples, and other hardwoods and shrubs spread throughout the landscapes. In the northern part of the park, McKittrick Canyon Trail is known to provide some of the finest fall colors found in the Lone Star State and beyond. Other colorful hiking trails include “the Notch” and “the Grotto.”
Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado)
Straddling the Continental Divide and thus providing a lot of fall foliage diversity with its many mountains, rivers, and lakes, Rocky Mountain National Park’s quivering gold and orange aspens are its calling cards for good reason, but the orange cottonwood and more also deserve and draw the attention of Colorado leaf lovers who enjoy the sight and sound of the park’s aspens. Possible stops and drives include Trail Ridge Road, Glacier Gorge, Gem Lake, Beaver Meadows, Hollowell Park, and the Colorado River Valley and Bear Lake Road, where the odds are apparently best for spotting the park’s elk herds during rutting season. Aspens with a foreground of still green water are typically picture-perfect at Grand Lake, just outside the park’s Grand Lake entrance.
Zion National Park (Utah)
This canyon-laden park’s stunning red sandstone cliffs provide a special backdrop for fall colors. Fremont cottonwoods are the star along the Virgin River and on other park streams, but there are also lots of birches, box elders, bigtooth maples, aspens, oaks, and hackberries, as well. As with many of the nation’s parks, fall is definitely less-crowded than summer in Zion National Park. Along with almost anywhere along the Virgin River, Pa’rus Trail provides another perfect leaf peeping possibility.
Yosemite National Park (California)
From the valley to the peaks, the leaf peeping possibilities in this popular park are almost endless. Ansel Adams’s iconic black-and-white photographs of the park come to life in full color come fall, and fall visitors will find cottonwoods, oaks, dogwoods, maples, aspens, colorful ferns, and much more (without the summer crowds). The National Park Service reports fall color hotspots in the park include: the southern wall of Yosemite Valley below Bridalveil Creek and beyond Happy Isles; Glacier Point; Wawona; Tuolumne; El Portal; and several colorful park meadows that have yellowing Indian hemp, bracken ferns, and certain sedges and grasses.
Glacier National Park (Montana)
Famed for its deciduous trees, including the western larch (often called tamarack), which is a deciduous pine-like species with needles that turn bright yellow before falling for winter, Glacier National Park’s mountain and lake backdrops make for a unique national park to visit come fall. Possible spots for especially bright fall colors include lots of stops on US 2 in the southwestern part of the park, Lake McDonald, Going-to-the-Sun Road, Big Mountain (on the Summit Trail), and the park’s famed Ptarmigan Pass. Paddling the Middle Fork of the Flathead River is another colorful option. The park is definitely less-crowded when the colors start turning, the animals make more appearances, and winter approaches.
Mount Rainier National Park (Washington)
Situated just 80 miles southeast of Seattle, Mount Rainier features the northwest United States in all its fall glory. Colorful Cascade Range trees include willow, maple, aspen, elderberry, tamarack, and many more. There are also lots of smaller bushes, shrubs, and trees, including elderberries, huckleberries, willows, and vine maples, among many. Elk spottings in the park aren’t uncommon come fall. White Pass, Chinook Pass, and the Skyline Trail are all popular options as the colors start changing in the park.
GO ONLINE BEFORE GOING LEAF PEEPING
The National Park Service’s excellent website (www.nps.gov) provides many “Fall Trip Ideas” for various parks. The site also divides our nation’s 63 national parks into forests and woodlands, coniferous forests, deciduous forests, and rainforests, which can all provide for unique leaf peeping. Be sure to check out the varied interagency pass options through, “America the Beautiful — The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Passes.”
Of course, there are many other national parks with colorful fall foliage, with just a few other diverse possibilities including: Congaree National Park (South Carolina); Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona); Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming); Sequoia National Park (California); Lassen Volcano National Park (California); Olympic National Park (Washington); and Denali National Park (Alaska).
Also, don’t forget to check out ThousandTrails.com and RVontheGo.com to book your sites as you take in the beautiful fall colors across the country!