Each autumn, nature puts on an artistic display as hardwood trees from oaks to aspen change color. The following national parks offer some of the best fall color in the United States. These recommendations are adapted from National Geographic’s Ten Best of Everything National Parks and used by permission.
1. Acadia National Park, Maine
Much of the fabulous fall color of this national park on the Maine coast is owed to a disaster. The autumn of 1947 brought the driest conditions ever recorded to Acadia’s Mount Desert Island; a fire broke out and raged for ten days, burning 17,188 acres. Mature spruce and fir forest was destroyed, replaced by fast-growing birch, aspen, poplar, and maple. Instead of the uniform year-round green of conifers, Acadia now displays reds, oranges, and yellows in fall.
2. Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina and Virginia
Stretching 469 miles, the Blue Ridge Parkway offers travelers assurance that they’ll run into the best colors somewhere along the way, as autumn moves south across the Blue Ridge Range of the Appalachian Mountains. Maples are the stars of the show, with a supporting cast of oak, poplar, birch, blackgum, sassafras, tulip poplar, sumac, and other hardwoods.
3. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
There’s a special spot in the northeast part of this park that attracts thousands of leaf-peepers each fall—McKittrick Canyon. Here, bigtooth maples, oaks, walnuts, and other hardwood trees and shrubs turn shades of yellow, red, and orange each fall. Be sure to take note of the unusual geology here: These massive mountains actually began as reefs under an ancient warm ocean.
4. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
One species of tree dominates the fall foliage at this central Colorado park: quaking aspen. But its stunning colors of greenish yellow to glittering gold make it worthy of a visit all by itself. When the aspens quake, they make a delightful soft rustling sound unlike any other tree ruffled by the wind.
5. Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
This diverse, quasi-urban park protects some of the region’s most attractive woodlands. Areas of mixed hardwood forest include oak, hickory, maple, beech and sycamore. For an unusual way to admire the autumn colors, buy a ticket on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad and watch the forest pass outside the train window.
6. Zion National Park, Utah
Best known for its spectacular geological formations and slot canyons, this park is also well-known regionally for the fall foliage of its hardwoods. Fremont cottonwoods grow along the Virgin River and other streams, while bigtooth maple, box elder, birch, oak, and hackberry add their hues as well. In streamside locations and higher on slopes, quaking aspens turn a brilliant gold.
7. Buffalo National River, Arkansas
Beginning in late October and peaking in November, the spectacle here can be breathtaking. Many species of oaks and hickories dominate the forest, with maples, sassafras, sweet gum, blackgum, beech, sumac, and dogwood adding to the fall spectrum.
8. Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, New Jersey and Pennsylvania
Extensive tracts of oaks offer a range of fall colors, from dull yellow to red-orange. Other hardwoods showing beautiful fall colors include maple, birch, hickory, dogwood, beech, and sycamore. More than 200 miles of roads wind through Delaware Water Gap; some good ones to explore include Old Mine Road in New Jersey and U.S. 209 and River Road in Pennsylvania.
9. Little River Canyon National Preserve, Alabama
This little-known park combines tree species of the Appalachians with those of Deep South hardwood forests for a diversity that adds to the color palette in fall. Take the Canyon Rim scenic drive off Ala. 35 along Little River Canyon for a fine overview of the environment. The gorge, one of the deepest east of the Mississippi River, looks especially stunning in peak color.
10. Effigy Mounds National Monument, Iowa
Iowa is not all flat, as evidenced by this park in the extreme northeastern corner of the state, where 400-foot-high bluffs loom over the Mississippi River. Walk some of the 14 miles of trails through upland forests of oak, sugar maple, hickory, aspen, walnut, Kentucky coffee tree, and basswood, all of which show beautiful colors in a brief blaze of glory from late September through early October.