Labor Day marks the unofficial end of summer, and although the season will linger for a few more weeks, it is time to start looking ahead to the fall. Autumn brings crisp air, cooler temperatures, and shorter days, and along with it comes a rainbow of colors splashed across the trees. It is a perfect time to visit one of America’s national parks, as thinning crowds bring solitude and silence to those wild spaces. Here are five great destinations for this, or any other, fall.
Great Smokey Mountains National Park
On an annual basis, the Great Smokey Mountains National Park is the most visited in the entire park system. Each year, more than 9 million people pass through its gates, which makes this recommendation a bit of a cliche. But fall brings a dramatic transformation to the miles of forests that stretch out across North Carolina and Tennessee. The leaves first begin to change at higher elevations, then sweep down the sides of the mountains over a few weeks time, bringing bright golds and reds to the region. The colors are at their peak in late October and early November. Be sure to visit during the week to avoid the crowds.
Fire Island National Seashore
Located not far from New York City, the Fire Island National Seashore is a barrier island with 26-miles of protected coastline to explore. Accessed by ferry or one of two bridges, the park offers beautiful sand dunes, rolling ocean waves, and a surprising amount of woodlands. Visitors in the fall quickly learn where the island derives its name, as the copious amounts of poison ivy – a scourge during the summer months– begins to turn a deep scarlet. By late October, the trees take on traditional autumn colors as well, and the annual migration of birds and monarch butterflies from the island is in full swing. It is an amazing time to visit a place that is off the radar for many travelers. Glacier National Park
With its high mountain peaks, crystal clear lakes, and thick forests, Glacier National Park offers breathtaking scenery in any season. Fall is short in northern Montana however, providing a narrow window for visitors to enjoy the views before the early snows begin to fly. None the less, it is the perfect time to visit the park, which sees few travelers after the traffic of summer subsides. Early October turns the larch and aspen trees to orange and yellow before they drop their leaves for yet another year, and while they are awash in color, they are spectacular to behold. Those wishing to drive Glacier’s famous Going to the Sun Road had better hurry however, as it closes for the season on September 19.
Shenandoah National Park
Nestled between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River Valley of Virginia, this park offers more than 500 miles of hiking trails through some of the most beautiful forests east of the Mississippi River. In the fall, the oak and maple trees, which are abundant throughout the area, assume fiery hues of orange and yellow, delivering a classic seasonal experience to the region. The park’s famous Skyline Drive offers 105 miles of autumn colors to enjoy from your car, although the Fall Foliage Bike Festival may be the best way to take them all in. The festival, now in its 21st year, features 12 different routes and three days of cycling from October 21-23, which is traditionally when the colors are at their finest.
Rocky Mountain National Park
The leaves have already begun to change at the higher altitudes of northern Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, where the annual “Aspen Gold Rush” heralds the coming of fall. Over the next few weeks it will spread down the mountains and valleys before the colors reach their peak at the end of September and slowly fade throughout October. Until then however, visitors are treated to a spectacular display of nature’s beauty that is best taken in on one of the parks 359 miles of hiking trails.
While we may lament the departure of summer for yet another year, fall has its own unique qualities for us to enjoy as well. These parks, and a number of others, will give you plenty of reasons to welcome the change in season and enjoy the colorful months ahead.
[Photos courtesy of the National Park Service]