Why Fall is the Best Time to Visit a National Park

Dylan — She’s a regular rock-climbing gal.

The seasons are officially changing. While my afternoon hikes no longer conclude with a dip in the spring, that hasn’t stopped me or my trusty hiking partner, Dylan, from enjoying the trails. Our days start and end earlier and include a few extra layers, but in return, we enjoy quieter paths and the drastically reduced chances of over heating.

If anything, I’d argue, fall is the best time of year to visit some of the country’s favorite national parks. Here’s why.

1. Avoid the Crowds
If you plan a trip into nature to, you know, get away from the hustle and bustle of daily life, showing up to one of the nation’s top 10 parks during the summer months might make you question whether a park was the best place to do it. Typically, the bulk of the US National Park’s 280 million annual visitors plans their trips between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Frequently, this burst of visitation is also accompanied by long lines to get in, traffic jams in the middle of the parks’ summer construction, packed trails and nature photography filled with hundreds of other people and selfie sticks.

The top 10 most visited national parks are the Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion, Olympic, Grand Teton, Acadia and Glacier National Parks. If you have your heart set on one of these parks (which I totally wouldn’t blame you for!), hands-down the best time to visit will be in spring or fall when you can experience the natural landscapes as nature intended — without the population of a small city filling every crevice.

Planning to see Old Faithful this summer? So is everyone else. Photo by Drew Tarvin. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

2. Off-Season Prices
Not only are reservations and lodging significantly easier to find during the off-season, many on-site hotels, lodges and spas will drastically cut their prices. Often, the most popular parks will have their summer rooms booked as far as an entire year in advance! Meanwhile, they frequently cut special deals and run promotions to keep the rooms filled in the fall and winter months.

Parks like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks will frequently discount their rooms by as much as 30 to 50 percent during off-season months. If you plan your trip just right, after the busy summer months and before the winter-sport activities begin, you can catch some really great deals on rooms you might otherwise not be able to afford.

3. Amazing Fall Colors
Fall can offer some of the most beautiful forest sites, as higher-altitude aspens begin to turn a bright yellow on the West Coast and the rolling hillsides along the East Coast turn a fiery red with maples. Some of the most spectacular fall foliage gets missed at the top parks during the most popular summer months, such as at Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, Glacier and Grand Teton National Parks.

Some of these top-10 parks can still experience car- and foot- congestion on the weekends, as many people still show up for the fall sights, but many less-frequented parks offer just as many colorful landscapes. Guadeloupe Mountains, Green Mountain, Cuyahoga Valley and Congaree National Parks and Forests, as well as Tahquamenon Falls and John Boyd Thatcher State Parks.

Fall at Tahquamenon Falls. Photo by Dawn Endico. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 Generic license.

4. Comfortable Trips to Less Hospitable Parks
By far the best reason to plan your national park vacation during the fall months is that you can visit some of the most awe-inspiring desert parks without the uncomfortable — and sometimes downright dangerous — heat.

It’s no secret that heat stroke and dehydration claims the most lives at parks like the Grand Canyon or Joshua Tree. At parks like Death Valley National Park, visiting during the fall and winter months is practically a requirement. Death Valley holds the world’s record highest recorded temperature of 134°F (57°C), and the average highs frequently top out around 115° F (46° C).

Yes, these temperatures can be life-threatening, but desert parks offer some of the most breath-taking, painted views and dark, starry nights of any of our national parks. That’s why you mustn’t miss the opportunity to visit them in the fall or winter off-season months. Among the most beautiful, desert destinations are Joshua Tree, Big Bend, Zion, Arches, Death Valley, Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon National Parks, and White Sands, Rainbow Bridge and Mojave Trails National Monuments.

White Sands National Monument. Photo by Lisa Chamberlain. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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