Top 9 colorful fall trips to U.S. national parks

Top 9 colorful fall trips to U.S. national parks

As the summer heat begins to wane and the fall colors first appear in the treetops, fall is the perfect time to hit the road and drive to or even through a national park. So grab your keys and head out on an open road adventure, discovering the beauty and history of the national parks along the way.

1: Canyons of Colorado National Park

Breathe in the fall atmosphere by visiting the canyons with shades of sunset on a breathtaking drive through Colorado National Park. Located on the Colorado Plateau, this park features breathtaking scenery of red rock canyons with sheer walls hundreds of millions of years old. Take a trip through the park on a route that offers a bird’s-eye view of the canyons. See if you can spot any snow rams or eagles soaring in the sky, and then stop at scenic overlooks to take the perfect photo and learn more about the canyons. Keep in mind: this ride is not for the faint of heart – some sections of the route can be tricky, narrow and steep – you’ll need to use caution on the road shared with cyclists.

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1: Canyons of Colorado National Park

2: The Loop Road in Big Cypress National Wildlife Refuge

If fall for you means embracing the mysterious side of things, then a trip to Big Cypress National Wildlife Refuge might be in order. This park’s diverse landscape makes it home to all sorts of landscapes and creatures – you can find everything from cypresses and mangroves to alligators and maybe even the elusive panther. Explore pine and dwarf cypress forests and deep banks in the park as you travel the 27-mile loop road. Be sure to ask a ranger about current road conditions before you head out – this one is mostly a gravel road and can be difficult to navigate during the rainy season. If you’re looking for a more open option in the park, try the Turner River, Upper Rim Wheel, and the Burdon Road Loop will take you through open prairie and wading bird feeding areas.

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2: The Loop Road in Big Cypress National Wildlife Refuge

3: Park Loop Road in Acadia National Park

Enjoy the beauty of the changing seasons with a tour of Acadia National Park in Maine. Follow the 27-mile Park Loop Road Acadia to some of the park’s most popular sites, such as Jordan Pond and Sandy Beach. Enjoy panoramic views from Cadillac Mountain, the highest mountain on the East Coast, which is especially gorgeous at fall sunset. Park Loop Road, which is one of the main ways to get around the park, can sometimes be crowded, so make sure you’re aware of the parked cars and bicyclists you might encounter along the way. And if leaf peeping is your favorite way to celebrate fall, be sure to explore other unique ways to see the changing colors of the leaves.

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3: Park Loop Road in Acadia National Park

4: Cades Cove Loop Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Get ready to see iconic American wildlife as you cruise through Great Smokey Mountains National Park along Cades Cove Loop Road. The one-way, 11-mile loop through the park’s wide valley, surrounded by mountains and dotted with fall trees, is one of the best ways to see the park’s wildlife, including white-tailed deer, turkeys, black bears, coyotes and more. With all the wildlife viewing opportunities the park offers, this driveway can be a popular destination for park visitors, and there really is traffic congestion during peak hours. Make sure you have enough time to complete your route (2-4 hours) and be courteous to other park visitors. There are no vehicle days each year, so be sure to consult with the park before heading out if you plan to stay in your car.

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4: Cades Cove Loop Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

5: Rocky Gardens in Blue Ridge Park.

Along the Rocky Mountains in North Carolina, about 20 miles from Asheville, you can find the mile-high Rocky Gardens. It’s the perfect place to stop and picnic while traveling through Blue Ridge. Rocky Gardens provides spectacular views of the southern Appalachian ranges in the distance. Known for their summer blooms of pink and purple rhododendrons, Rocky Gardens is also wonderful in the fall, when fog covers the mountaintops and red rowan berries grow in bunches among the otherworldly, gaunt and twisted trees. If you want to stretch your legs after your drive, take the 1.5-mile walk along the Rocky Mountain Trail to the top of the mountains for a fantastic panoramic view – a great way to see the waves changing color in the fall months.

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Blue Ridge Parkway has a unique history: it began being built in the 1940s and was completed in the mid-1950s as part of the National Park Service’s development program.

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5: Rocky Gardens in Blue Ridge Park.

6: Ajo Mountain Drive in Organ Pape Cactus National Park

The popular Ajo Mountain Trail in Organ Pape Cactus National Park retraces the steps of people who have traveled through the rugged landscape of the Sonora Desert over the past millennia. This 21-mile gravel trail through remote areas of the park is full of twists and turns and offers magnificent views of volcanic mountains and desert plants. As an international biosphere reserve, the Cape Cactus Authority allows Sonora desert life to thrive in the wilderness. There are 31 species of cactus in the park alone, including the cactus named for the park. See how many cactus species you can identify from your car window.

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6: Ajo Mountain Drive in Organ Pape Cactus National Park

7: Cedar Brakes Bayway in Cedar Brakes National Park

If you want to take in the fall colors in a unique setting, it’s time to head to Cedar Breaks National Park in Utah. Cedar Mountain is often considered one of the best places to experience bursts of fall colors, and thanks to the many scenic highways near the park, there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the changing colors of the season. Try the 5-mile scenic drive on the Utah Highway, heading north to see some of the park’s highlights, including views of the north and sunset, as well as Point Supreme campground and picnic area. Along the way, you’ll enjoy scenery of the lush meadows and subalpine forests of the Markagant Plateau, as well as the coral and orange hues of the park’s geologic amphitheater.

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7: Cedar Brakes Bayway in Cedar Brakes National Park

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8: Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park

One of the most iconic roads in national parks is Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. The road is as old as the park itself, perfect for a scenic drive atop the Blue Ridge Mountains. The route was opened to the public in the 1930s and has been enjoyed by millions of visitors ever since. The only public road through the park, Skyline Drive, is a great way to explore the vast expanse of Shenandoah with all its fall foliage and breathtaking views without getting out of the car. On a clear day, this 105-mile cruise takes about 3 hours, providing plenty of opportunities to stop at scenic vistas and enjoy the beauty of the park.

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8: Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park

9: Scenic Drive in Arches National Park

When you visit the park, you can enjoy the orange scenery of the national park. The park is home to over 2,000 orange-brown natural stone arches, as well as hundreds of peaks, fins and giant balanced rocks, making it the perfect fall road trip.

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9: Scenic Drive in Arches National Park

Taking a scenic drive along the park’s cobblestone roads is one way to get plenty of enjoyment out of the park if time is limited. When you visit the park, check out some of the largest arches in the park, and the Delicate Arch lookout to see the most famous stone arch in the world. Parking at popular viewpoints can be limited, especially during peak hours, so try to plan your trip early in the morning or evening to avoid crowds.

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