Top Ten National Parks for Fall Foliage

Great destinations for traveling leaf-peepers
Gorp.com
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The Narrows in Zion National Park
The Narrows in Zion National Park  (Nathan Borchelt)
Fall Foliage Watch
Predicting peak autumn color for a particular location is a tricky business. Though some general assumptions can be made, the exact period of brightest shades varies annually depending on factors such as rainfall, temperature, and amount of sunshine. So what's a would-be leaf-peeper to do? Increasingly, state and local tourism agencies as well as weathermen are providing up-to-the-moment reports on fall foliage, allowing travelers to make last minute plans to see those maples. Check the websites of tourism departments for foliage status reports or local toll-free numbers providing information on when and where to travel for the best leaf color.
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Blue Ridge Parkway
Maples in Shenandoah and Great Smokies
Timing is everything in viewing fall foliage, as environmental factors can cause peak color to vary from year to year at any one spot. Stretching 469 miles mostly north to south through Virginia and North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Parkway offers travelers assurance that they'll run into the best colors somewhere along the way, as autumn (figuratively speaking) moves south across the eastern United States, and specifically across the Blue Ridge Range of the Appalachian Mountains. In addition, the parkway links two of our best fall-foliage national parks: Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains, each worth exploration by road and trail. Maples are the stars of the scenic show along the drive, with a supporting cast of oak, poplar, birch, blackgum, sassafras, tulip-poplar (a species of magnolia that grows very tall in these mountains), sumac, and other hardwoods. The great elevation differences along the Blue Ridge Parkway and in the two national parks means that different areas reach top color at different times, adding to the likelihood that a visitor will find eye-popping hues. Peak color usually arrives at Shenandoah National Park in mid-October, with Great Smoky Mountains National Park typically a little later.

Acadia National Park
Coastal Birch, Aspens, Poplars, and Maples
Much of the fabulous fall color of this national park on the Maine coast is owed to a disaster of more than a half century ago. The autumn of 1947 brought the driest conditions ever recorded to Mount Desert Island, location of most of Acadia National Park's expanse. A fire broke out in mid-October and raged for ten days, burning 17,188 acres, including 10,000 acres in the park. Mature spruce and fir forest was destroyed, replaced by fast-growing hardwoods such as birch, aspen, poplar, and maple. Instead of the uniform year-round green of conifers, once devastated parts of Acadia now display reds, oranges, and yellows in fall, delighting those who drive its scenic loop or hike or bike along its historic unpaved carriage roads, from which motorized vehicles are banned. A map of Mount Desert Island is often described as looking like a lobster claw; the burned area is located on the central part of the eastern half of the "claw."

Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Maples, Oaks, and Walnuts in McKittrick Canyon
How in this western Texas park do the words "fall foliage" and "Guadalupe Mountains" possibly go together? The stark Chihuahuan Desert landscape seems too harsh for any but the hardiest plants, and the highest slopes are covered with ponderosa pines and Douglas-fir, green year-round. Yet there's a special spot in this national park that attracts thousands of leaf-peepers each fall and in fact has been called, with plenty of justification, "the most beautiful place in Texas." It's McKittrick Canyon, in the northeastern part of the park, a chasm known for both its geology and its flora. Here, bigtooth maples, oaks, walnuts, and other hardwood trees and shrubs turn shades of yellow, red, and orange each fall, creating a scene so striking that crowds sometimes cause park managers to limit entry to prevent damage to the natural resources. Late October through mid-November is the usual period for peak leaf color in this riparian oasis, where hiking trails of various lengths offer the chance to see the show up close. Be sure to take note of the unusual geology here: These massive mountains actually began as reefs under an ancient warm ocean. The same limestone has been hollowed out underground just north of here to form the network of caves at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The canyon is designated for day use only, but a drive-in campground is within distance for those people who'd like to spend more time exploring this canyon during the cooler days of fall.

Rocky Mountain National Park
Quaking Aspen Along Trail Ridge Road
One species of tree dominates the fall foliage at this central Colorado park: quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides). But this deciduous tree's stunning colors of greenish yellow to glittering gold make it worthy of a visit all by itself. Beginning in mid-September, aspens start to change their hues, continuing into October before the harsh Rocky Mountain winter strips the leaves from the branches. Aspens grow where fire or past logging has removed the dominant conifer forest and are found up to 10,000 feet on mountainsides. They often grow in clumps or groves and can reach heights of up to 100 feet. These trees "quake" because the leaf petiole (stem) is fl at instead of round as in most trees, causing the leaves to quiver in the slightest breeze and adding to the attractiveness of the golden masses; in addition, when the aspens quake, they make a delightful soft rustling sound unlike any other tree ruffled by the wind. Large areas of aspen grow throughout Rocky Mountain National Park, easily seen from Trail Ridge Road, Bear Lake Road, and many other park locations.

Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Oak, Hickory, Maple, Beech, and Sycamore
Beside the Ohio & Erie Canal Covering more than 51 square miles along 22 miles of the Cuyahoga River between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, this diverse, quasi-urban park protects some of the region's most attractive woodlands. Though perhaps best known for its Towpath Trail and waterfalls, Cuyahoga Valley provides fall foliage in areas of mixed hardwood forest comprising oak, hickory, maple, beech, and sycamore. Fall color usually peaks in October. The Ohio & Erie Canalway Scenic Byway runs through the center of the park, but for an unusual way to admire the autumn color, buy a ticket on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, sit back, and watch the forest pass outside the train window.

Published: 13 Apr 2009 | Last Updated: 24 Aug 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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