Most people associate America’s national parks with summer, and parks are generally far more crowded that time of year. But if you’re the type of person who loves to whip out a camera and capture images of brilliant flaming red oak trees or golden maples, fall is the time to get out to a park. Before visiting any park in the fall, check with that park’s website to find out about road closures, traffic and the optimal time for leaf viewing.
10. Mighty Yosemite
There are pluses and minuses to visiting Yosemite National Park in autumn. Big plus: Those huge summer crowds are gone. On the downside, the dry summers leave many of the park’s dramatic waterfalls at a trickle by fall. And given all the evergreens in Yosemite, it’s not really a big leaf park. But if you know where to look — and photographer Rennett Stowe certainly did for this image — the results can be impressive.
9. Great Day For a Ride
A cyclist rides by flaming foliage on Skyline Drive in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. The scenic road features hundreds of twists and turns, so you never know what you’ll see around the next corner. And there is plenty of affordable lodging nearby, in places like Roanoke and Charlottesville.
8. October Sky
Turret Arch in Arches National Park stands out dramatically against the sky in this image. Because summer temperatures here routinely top 100 degrees, the months of September and October are great times to visit this Utah park.
7. Bridge to Fall
Glowing foliage surrounds one of Acadia National Park’s famous carriage road bridges. The park’s 27-mile loop road is a great way to check out the fall scenery. Not surprisingly, Acadia draws big crowds in the fall; in fact, there are typically more visitors in September and October than in May and June.
6. Urban Wonderland
Blue Hen Falls are accessible via a half-mile walk in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. This 33,000-acre site is one of the most underrated national parks, mainly because of its unusual location. Spanning much of the area between Cleveland and Akron, this park is surrounded by urban America. Interstates 77 and 80 pass through the park, and several other major highways are nearby. You would never know this inside Cuyahoga Valley NP. You’ll find miles of hiking trails, rugged gorges and thick forests. Another way to discover the wonders of this park is aboard the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.
5. Rock On
This photo at Zion National Park has it all. Golden leaves, check. Red rocks, check. Brilliant sunset, check. There’s no guarantee you would end up capturing an image like this if you visit — but wouldn’t it be fun to try?
4. On the Hunt
A coyote is on the prowl in Yellowstone National Park. As at many other Western parks, fall can be a good time for wildlife viewing, as early snows can push animals out of the higher elevations to search for food. On the other hand, as the Yellowstone website duly notes, watch out for rutting elk, who obviously don’t like to be bothered when they are, um, doing what rutting elk do.
3. Heavenly Colors
Brilliant fall foliage stands out in sharp contrast to historic Cades Cove Methodist Church in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you visit to see fall colors, patience is a must — almost 2.5 million people visited Great Smoky Mountains NP in October 2014, making it the second-busiest month of the year. Expect plenty of slow-moving traffic. But it’s well worth the visit, and you can find very reasonably priced lodging — not to mention legalized gambling — in nearby Cherokee, N.C. For a really memorable experience, drive into Bryson City to take a four-to-five hour excursion aboard the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, one of the great scenic train rides in America.
2. Head For the Mountain
As park rangers prepare to shut down certain areas and facilities in Mount Rainier National Park each fall for the winter ahead, Seattle-area residents head to the park in early to mid-October for peak fall colors. The backdrop of 14,409-foot-tall Mount Rainier makes any leaf photo more interesting.
1. A Familiar Sight
Yes, you’ve seen plenty of images almost exactly like this — autumn at Linn Cove Viaduct along the Blue Ridge Parkway. If you hit this scenic route in Western North Carolina on a weekend during the peak of leaf season, you will crawl along in traffic, but this drive should be on everyone’s bucket list. Make the drive on a weekday if possible.