Basin & Range’s Inside Guide to the West: Best National Parks for Fall Colors

Summer may be the most popular season for visiting North America’s amazing national parks, but a trip during the fall comes with its’ own amazingly colorful rewards.  In autumn, many of America’s National Parks explode in a stunning spectacle of reds, yellows, oranges mixed into the greens and blues of the West’s mountain & coastal landscapes.  For a double bonus, you also get bustling wildlife, cooler weather and fewer crowds to get in that eipc series of photographs you’ll be taking.  Here, we look at several National Parks you must see in the fall.

Denali National Park, Alaska

We’re kicking off the list with the US’ furthest afield, but arguably its most dramatic.  Most visitors come to Denali in the welcoming months of the summer, but the park’s dramatic beauty and untamed wilderness is highlighted in the short fall season.  Although many of the park’s services are reduced to match the smaller demand, visitors can enjoy the stunning views of snow-capped mountains alongside fields of tundra – set ablaze in fiery reds.  Wildlife is also in between shaking off the last deep freezes of the past winter while simultaneously preparing for the next.

Glacier National Park, Montana

Although visitors to Glacier during the fall will be expected to be more self-sufficient than summer tourists, the autumn season is an amazing time to visit for those who enjoy less crowds, active wildlife, and vibrant tree colors.  According to local NPS rangers, the trees in the west side of the park begin to change colors in late September, the eastern reaches of the park turn throughout the month of October.  The last to change color are the larch trees and thusly signal the approach of winter.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

The Teton’s in the fall can be rugged and strikingly beautiful place where deciduous trees stud the rocky slopes with richly painted yellows and oranges.  Peak period ranges from Mid-September to Mid-late October – being heavily influenced by trends in local weather conditions – a cooler summer could mean an earlier start with a shorter duration – while a hotter, longer summer could mean a later transition that lingers longer. Check with park staff over the phone or by the web for more information. In addition to the trees, fall is important to the many deer species, whose annual breeding frenzy motivates the park’s numerous elk to “bugle” or sing to prospective females and establishing their dominance to others who would doubt them.  These eerie though soulful stirrings pierce the early evenings and visitors could get lucky and witness a sparing match between two bulls.

Fall in Grand Teton National Park.

Fall in Grand Teton National Park. Photo by Charles Watkins

Mt. Ranier National Park, Washington

One of the world’s most majestic volcanoes, Mt. Ranier is an icon of Washington’s landscape.  Its also the centerpiece to the national park that bears it’s name.  Ranier NP attracts thousands of visitors all year-round.  During fall, however, the view of the mountain peeking from a landscape awash in vibrant yellows and oranges is a sight to behold.  The best time to visit for fall colors is mid-October through early November.  The best fall color displays are sunrise and Chinook Passes, the Paradise area, Reflection Lakes, Bench and Snow Lake and Grove of the Patriarchs.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

No matter the season, visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park should prepare themselves for amazing views of stunning wilderness areas, crisp air, clear blue skies, and the occasional snow to temporarily leave the landscape in a layer of frost.  Spectacular colors and active wildlife make the fall a particularly unforgettable time to visit.  Colorado’s famous aspen trees start turning in early September at the highest elevations and linger in the lower elevations all the way through October on good years.  If you’re into wildlife viewing, you’re apt to strike it rich in here.  Elk bugling runs from mid-September to mid-October also.  Bighorn sheep also stage their astounding displays of head-butting & ramming contests in October and into November.

Finding Gold Near Rocky Mountain National Park.

Finding Gold Near Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo by Charles Watkins

Yosemite National Park, California

Yosemite’s big-leaf maple trees, black oaks, Pacific dogwoods and other deciduous leafy trees tend to display their colors starting in mid October – with one of the longest lingering seasons.  Fall color is usually peak in late Oct and keeps going strong until the first heavy winter storms or hard frosts of early December.  It’s worth noting however, that while the NPS staff keeps all areas of the park open for as long as they can (mid-November typically), short term closures occur due to the Sierra’s notorious snowstorms.  Visit their website to find out more for fall colors, but be sure to check out Tioga Road near the Tuolumne Grove trailhead and the Yosemite Creek picnic areas for easy viewing.

Zion National Park, Utah

Fall is one of the very best times to visit Utah’s first and arguably best National Park. Because Zion encompasses such a large area and elevation range, the period of fall color displays varies significantly from place to place – generally starting in mid-late September (in the higher mountain reaches) to mid-November in the lowlands.  Visitors can enjoy a gorgeous array of fall color, especially at sunrise and sunset when the sun’s light paints the already strikingly red landscape with even more color – enhancing the fiery red and gold tinted trees.

Near Zion National Park, Utah

Near Zion National Park, Utah. Photo by Charles Watkins