The Best National Parks for Phenomenal Fall Foliage

With the glowing gold of aspens and hickories, the burnt orange of sumac, the vermilions and plums of oaks and maples, the turning of the leaves is one of nature’s most spectacular events.

With their thick forests and wide open spaces, national parks are splendid and photogenic locations to enjoy these vivid hues.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The gleaming yellows, oranges, and reds form one-of-a-kind patterns in the trees and eventually gather in layers on the ground. But before they fall, you should plan a visit to a national park and watch them at their peak.

Here, a guide to three national parks with particularly brilliant fall colors and the best spots to enjoy them.

Note: Temperature, rainfall, elevation, and yes, fire, all influence the timing and location of fall foliage displays; check national park websites for peak color alerts.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

North Carolina and Tennessee: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

With more than 100 species of trees, most of them deciduous, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has an impressive variety of fall colors and one of the longest fall foliage seasons as well.

Yellow birches, beeches, and hobblebushes show flashes of color as early as mid-September in higher elevations—like those along the Sugarland Mountain and Appalachian Trails—and autumn wildflowers like coreopsis, goldenrods, asters, and black-eyed Susans add layers of other colors.

But the most spectacular show comes in October, with the deep plum and garnet hues of the hickories, sweet gums, and red and sugar maples. To get away from the crush of fall color fans at popular spots like Cades Cove, head east to drive the Roaring Fork nature loop and walk along little-visited Big Creek, or take in the sweeping panoramas from Balsam Mountain and the Blue Ridge Parkway on the park’s southeastern edge.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Virginia: Shenandoah National Park

For two days in October, Shenandoah National Park offers one of the more creative ways to celebrate the season: the Shenandoah Fall Foliage Bike Festival (28th annual, October 19-21, 2018). During the event, 11 different rides depart from Staunton, Virginia, with a route for all types of riders, including young children.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nature’s dazzling show starts earlier than that, however, in the high mountains around Swift Run Gap and Lewis Mountain; toward the end of September, Virginia creeper twines wine red and maples begin to flame. The best—and most popular—viewing is along the Skyline Drive Scenic Byway, which has no fewer than 75 scenic overlooks along its 105 miles.

Bacon Hollow and Stony Man Overlook are among the best spots from which to take in the buttery yellow hickories, chili pepper–red oaks, and maples in every shade.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

California: Sequoia National Park

While the granite peaks and waterfalls of its northern neighbor Yosemite may get all the press, Sequoia National Park has the more dramatic fall color, with the burnt orange and crimson of the red dogwoods contrasting with the park’s towering namesake evergreens. Underneath the sequoias, fallen fern fronds blanket the forest floor with lemon yellow.

At lower elevations, the blue oaks turn garnet and amber as if to spite their name. Framing the granitic glacier basin of Mineral King Valley—perhaps the park’s best-kept secret—at 10,000 feet, the warm hues of aspen, cottonwood, and thimbleberry glow almost iridescent.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.

—George Eliot

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