The Uproxx 2023 Fall Travel Hot List is live! Visit here for the full experience!

The autumnal equinox is somehow already upon us, bringing us not just pumpkin-flavored everything, seas of plaid shirts, and Octoberfests – but what serious National Park travelers look forward to all year — shoulder season. Crowds are lessening; temperatures are dropping; accommodations are lowering their rates and. bonus, the leaves are turning to vibrant yellows, reds, and oranges in many of the most iconic National Parks.

ACADIA NATIONAL PARK
Emily Hart

Fall is an incredible time to see some of the United States’ most photographed and revered landscapes through a golden lens. As someone who has visited nearly every one of them in multiple seasons, I strongly agree on which should be highest on your fall travel priority list. I considered a few things in creating this ranking:

FALL COLORS:

Fall foliage is essential for any fall traveler, and US National Parks have much to offer. So, while not every park on this list is “known” for fall colors, many, if not all, do see foliage changes – and the top-ranking parks are in a league of their own.

CROWDS:

Shoulder season, in most destinations, automatically means fewer crowds. As National Parks have continued to explode in visitation and popularity, this is a significant consideration. Crowds contribute not just to sometimes a frustrating experience in a park but also increase accommodation costs and create situations where reservations and timed entry permits are necessary.

BEAUTY:

All National Parks are beautiful in their own way. But some stand out – crowds or not. Encountering beauty is a large part of travel – so it superseded all other considerations for some of the rankings. Now, onto the list:

10 – YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK – WYOMING

YELLOWSTONE NP
Emily Hart

To say Yellowstone is legendary is an understatement because almost no words convey its magic. As the first National Park established in the United States (and many would argue, the world) over 150 years ago, Yellowstone’s geothermal features, abundant wildlife, incredible vistas, and hiking trails have long made it one of the most bucket-list-worthy trips one could take – and the summer crowds make that abundantly clear. With nearly one million visitors in July alone, the crowds are ever-increasing in the summer months – which is why fall is the move if you want any peace or quiet here.

WHAT TO DO:

Despite the crowds, I always visit Old Faithful to watch an eruption (with a brew on the balcony of the Old Faithful Inn) before heading to hike Fairy Falls for a great view of Grand Prismatic Spring, visiting the impressive Yellowstone Lake and West Thumb areas.

WHERE TO STAY:

There are ample accommodations in West Yellowstone, Jackson, the Teton Valley, and Gardiner, Montana – depending on which entrance you choose and what else is on your itinerary for the area.

BOTTOM LINE:

Yellowstone is the first National Park and is still just as impressive as 150 years ago. A fall visit will help those visitors looking for more solitude while viewing the impressive landscape.

9 – VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK – MINNESOTA

Voyageurs
Emily Hart

As one of the least visited national parks in the United States, you’re not likely to be inundated with crowds in Voyageurs National Park in any season – especially not in the short but beautiful fall season. While there isn’t much time to enjoy the changing fall foliage in this far north park, that’s what makes it such a unique experience worth any hassle.

WHAT TO DO:

The water-based park is definitely in “off-season” outside of the summer, but the solitude makes it a particularly unique fall destination for the intrepid traveler. Hike, fish, or boat during the short fall window in the park.

WHERE TO STAY:

Rent a van or an RV with RVShare and head to one of the many campgrounds that will still be operational during the fall season. Camping within the park during the early fall is possible – but note that all front and backcountry campgrounds require a boat to access.

BOTTOM LINE:

Voyageurs is a less-visited National Park that is uniquely water-based. Fall is an incredible time to visit as a self-supported, intrepid traveler looking for fall colors and a bit more of an adventure.

8 – YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — CALIFORNIA

Yosemite National Park
Emily Hart

Is there ever a wrong time to visit Yosemite? I don’t think so, but fall is incredibly charming in this breathtaking California oasis. With fewer crowds, unique opportunities to view wildlife, striking fall foliage, and cooler temperatures, this is a great time to visit the Yosemite Valley and beyond.

WHAT TO DO:

Check out the famous Tunnel View before heading into the valley to hike, picnic, or participate in the annual clean-up event “Yosemite Face Lift,” which occurs each year in late September. Tioga and Glacier Point Road are known for incredible fall foliage and the views you can’t find anywhere but in Yosemite.

WHERE TO STAY:

You can camp in the fall within Yosemite, book a room at one of the park lodges, or head into a gateway community. I have always loved staying at Sierra Sky Ranch just outside the park boundaries in Oakhurst.

BOTTOM LINE:

Yosemite is legendary for a reason, and you won’t be disappointed any time of year. Fall is excellent for leaf peeping, lessened crowds, and lower temperatures.

7 – GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK – ARIZONA

Grand Canyon NP
Emily Hart

You’ll notice a theme here, but the lessened crowds of fall are a great time to visit the “Marquee” parks in the US National Park system – like the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The storied park is a sight everyone should see at least once in their lifetime, and it’s a lot more fun to do it when thousands of others don’t surround you. Besides the consideration of crowds, the weather is much more tolerable in the fall, as summer temps can often become dangerous for hiking in the canyon.

WHAT TO DO:

Head to the South Rim for fewer crowds than the busy summer season to catch a sunrise or sunset. Hike into the canyon on Bright Angel Trail and enjoy a cocktail at the historic El Tovar.

WHERE TO STAY:

Many lodges within the park will be open into the fall season, including El Tovar and Grand Canyon Lodge – offering the opportunity for discounted rates compared to the summer season. Head to Williams and stay at Backland, a luxurious “glampground” with many amenities.

BOTTOM LINE:

Grand Canyon should be on every traveler’s list regardless of the season – but fall is great for those interested in lessened crowds and lower temperatures.

6 – GLACIER NATIONAL PARK – MONTANA

Glacier NP
Emily Hart

Many of the most popular parks – including Glacier National Park in Montana – have instituted vehicle reservation and permitting procedures to mitigate overcrowding within the National Park system. While the reservation systems are necessary to protect the natural beauty of this expansive park for years to come – it can be a hassle to navigate. So, if you have the flexibility, I recommend visiting Glacier in the early fall after reservation systems expire but before the jaw-dropping Going-To-The-Sun Road closes for the season (roughly September 10 to mid-October).

WHAT TO DO:

The iconic Going-To-The-Sun road generally does not close for the season until into October, so that should be the first on your to-do list. Stop at Logan Pass and hike Hidden Lake or Highline Trail before heading to Lake McDonald, St. Mary’s, or Many Glacier.

WHERE TO STAY:

Fall in Glacier is trickier, with many lodgings operating seasonally and closing shortly into October. I recommend renting a van or RV, camping in the park or nearby KOA’s, or staying in Whitefish.

BOTTOM LINE:

In my extensive US and National Park travels, nothing is as spectacular in the lower 48 states as Glacier National Park. It is inspiring in any season, but the colors, fewer crowds, and the ending of reservation systems make fall a great season in the park.

5 – ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK – COLORADO

Rocky Mountain National Park
Emily Hart

While we don’t have the same variety of fall foliage in Colorado – where I live – as in other parts of the United States, we have something that might be even better: Aspens. The prevalent Aspen trees change quickly from green to gold for a very short period in the higher elevations of the Rocky Mountains, making a trip to see them at peak feel like you’ve been let in on a secret. The legendary park is the perfect place to get in on the leaf peepin’ action, with aspens dotting the trails around the beautiful alpine lakes and imposing mountains it is known for.

WHAT TO DO:

September is prime festival season in the gateway community of Estes Park, with Autumn Gold Festival and Elk Fest taking place in later September. While in the park, drive Trail Ridge Road for incredible views and golden colors. Emerald Lake Trail, Glacier Gorge Trail, and Alberta Falls are perennial favorites (if you have a timed entry reservation for Bear Lake Corridor) if you want to get your heart pumping.

WHERE TO STAY:

Estes Park has ample lodging available in the fall. Try the classic Stanley Hotel (maybe attend The Shining Ball in October – if you dare), or head over to the Grand Lake side and book a room at the perfectly appointed Grand Lake Lodge.

BOTTOM LINE:

Rocky Mountain National Park in the fall is a bucket list-worthy escape, with lessened crowds, golden aspens, and ample wildlife. Just remember your timed entry reservation through October 22.

4 – GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK – TENNESSEE AND NORTH CAROLINA

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Emily Hart

You may be surprised that not only is Great Smoky Mountains National Park the most visited National Park in the system but that it is by a long shot. In 2022, the park had nearly 13 million visitors – almost three times the Grand Canyon numbers, the second-highest park by visitation. And while visitors flock to this centrally located park in Tennessee and North Carolina throughout the year – fall is genuinely something special here. Known for vibrant foliage on its rolling hills – this is the move if you travel in the later months of fall.

WHAT TO DO:

Driving through the Smokies in the fall will put your jaw on the floor and maybe even a tear in your eye. The changing colors are vibrant and all-encompassing. The park experiences fall color for several weeks at varying elevations, so you’ll see some gorgeous displays whenever your fall visit commences. Head to Cades Cove or Clingmans Dome for views, and hike Mount LeConte for something more challenging.

WHERE TO STAY:

Stay in Gatlinburg, the gateway city to the park in Tennessee. There are lots of lodging options for any traveler. I’d love to go complete kitsch on my next visit and stay at Dolly Parton’s nearby Dollywood Dream More Resort & Spa.

BOTTOM LINE:

The Smokies and autumn are synonymous for a reason – and you must see it to believe. The park is easy for much of the country to visit, with many accommodations, trails, and activities nearby.

3 – GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK – WYOMING

Grand Teton National Park
Emily Hart

I’ve made my love for Grand Teton National Park no secret. After visiting 59 of the 63 major US National Parks, it is still the one I return to most often, and – when pressed – I would say it is my “favorite.” While every season is magical with a Teton view, fall is extraordinary. With lessened crowds, changing leaves, crisp air, abundant wildlife, and greater ease in securing accommodations – it is always my recommended time frame for a visit.

WHAT TO DO:

Hike String Lake Loop, Taggart Lake, or Cascade Canyon. Take a scenic drive on the park road and watch the sunset over Jackson Lake. You can’t go wrong with a Teton view.

WHERE TO STAY:

Stay in a lodge at the park or in Jackson at the newly opened Mountain Modern Motel or more upscale The Cloudveil, located on the historic town square just a short walk from the iconic Million Dollar Cowboy Bar.

BOTTOM LINE:

Truthfully, I’ll never leave this park off of any “best of” National Park list. It is incredible in all seasons and truly a wonder of our world. That said, fall offers a unique experience for travelers looking for a Teton view with slightly fewer crowds.

2 – NEW RIVER GORGE NATIONAL PARK – WEST VIRGINIA

New River Gorge NP
Emily Hart

As the newest recipient of simply the “National Park” name and redesignation, New River Gorge National Park may not yet be on many park lovers’ radar. But it should be – especially during the fall. I have visited the park in summer and fall, and while they were both incredible, the fall foliage took this underrated park to the next level. The hiking trails, river access, and quaint towns that dot the area around the park are the perfect place for a long weekend getaway – it is also prime time for rafting the nearby Gauley River during the world-class Gauley Season rapids.

WHAT TO DO:

New River Gorge comes alive in the fall season – with incredible foliage and outdoor adventure. Gauley Season brings whitewater enthusiasts worldwide to this West Virginia park, along with the legendary “Bridge Day,” where BASE jumpers hurtle into the gorge beneath the New River Gorge Bridge and takes place on the third Saturday in October.

WHERE TO STAY:

I loved staying at River Expeditions during my fall visit. They offer many options for onsite lodging, from tents to luxury homes, along with a zip line, bar and restaurant, beautiful grounds, and guided river trips.

BOTTOM LINE:

New River Gorge is the “newest” National Park in the NPS system – but it has already proved one of the best. From fall foliage to great weather, friendly people, and heart-stopping adventure – fall here is next level.

1 – ACADIA NATIONAL PARK – MAINE

Acadia National Park
Emily Hart

This ranking should surprise no one, and a part of me almost didn’t want to seem cliche by giving this park the top spot – but it’s known for fall for a reason y’all. There is simply nothing else like Acadia National Park in Maine during the fall months, with incredible foliage covering the small park, beautiful sunrises and sunsets, hiking trails that feel like a fairytale, and water always nearby – it is worth braving the crowds that will be with you here this (and any) fall.

WHAT TO DO:

Head up to the summit of Cadillac Mountain (with a timed entry reservation) for sunrise or sunset. Hike or bike the carriage roads, follow the Jordan Pond Path and hike the Beehive and Precipice Trails for more of an adventure.

WHERE TO STAY:

Stay in the quaint Bar Harbor in a traditional hotel, resort, or one of the many quaint bed and breakfasts. I always come back to The Elmhurst Inn.

BOTTOM LINE:

It will be crowded, but once you catch a glimpse of Acadia in the fall, you won’t even mind the traffic – it’s that enchanting.

Source: https://uproxx.com/life/fall-national-parks-2023-ranked/