Plan to See the Seasons Change at These National Parks from the Comfort of Your Van

September 10, 2021

 

There’s a certain crisp feeling in the air marking the beginning of one of the best seasons for van life travel—autumn. In these magical months, van lifers get unfettered access to less-crowded destinations. While tent campers are eventually forced to clear out as nighttime temperatures drop, you get to sleep snuggled up in your cozy van. Plus, the cooler daytime temps are a treat for those who love to hike and spend time outdoors. But perhaps the biggest benefit of traveling by van in autumn is that you can chase the spectacular changing colors of the season across the U.S.

Whether you’re partial to the bold yellow hues of aspen trees or a mottled pattern of reds, oranges, and greens, there is something for you in this guide to eight of the best national parks for fall foliage. We’ve included the best months to visit each location as well as our recommendations for must-visit events, hikes, and scenic drives. With some of the earliest displays starting this month and lasting well into November, you can plan now to spend the entire season visiting different spots.

 

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
When to visit: Mid-September to mid-October
Why we love it: Are you the type of person who breaks out the sweaters and Halloween decorations at the first hint of a chill in the air? If so, you’ll love visiting this high-altitude national park where the leaves start to change in late August. For the most impressive scenes of golden aspens blanketing the hills, though, aim for mid-September to mid-October. Check out one of the park’s many lakes—Bear Lake is popular—for the added bonus of seeing the colors reflected in the water. Or, bring your trusty van with you on a tour of epic views offered by the Trail Ridge Road, and snap some seasonal photos of your rig in the colorful environment.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
When to visit: Early September to mid-October
Why we love it: Another destination for the autumn-loving early birds, this national park boasts bright colors throughout the entire month of September—and beyond. Although National Geographic has decreed that September is “hands-down” the best time to visit Grand Teton National Park, the crowds mostly flock there in the summer months, meaning you’ll have this peaceful and picturesque park almost to yourself. Cottonwoods, aspens, and willows create a diverse palette and can be admired from several vantage points that also showcase Snake River and the Teton Mountain range. Check out Oxbow Bend for one of the most photographed spots in the park, or venture to Schwabacher’s Landing for a four-mile hike that showcases beaver dams and, of course, warm-toned foliage alongside the river. 

 

Glacier National Park, Montana
When to visit: mid-September to mid-October
Why we love it: Think of this national park as a double feature for scenes of astonishing natural beauty. During the day, hike through amber forests of western larch, aspen, and black cottonwood trees. At night, the skies regularly come alive with the green and purple glow of the Northern Lights. We recommend checking the aurora forecast online to give yourself the best chances of witnessing the phenomenon on your trip. Glacier National Park is also dotted with 700 lakes, including the large Lake McDonald and smaller Kintla Lake, which make magnificent backdrops for both the fall foliage and aurora borealis lights. Spend your days exploring Sperry Trailhead or Rocky Point along Lake McDonald to get up close and personal with the unusual western larch trees, which are one of the only coniferous trees to change color and shed their leaves in the fall. 

Arcadia National Park, Maine
When to visit: late September to late October
Why we love it: You can enjoy crisp weather, rocky coastline, and a dappled landscape of red, orange, and green trees all in one place at Arcadia National Park, which is the only national park in the Northeast. In fact, Arcadia is famous for its fall foliage. The roaring red color of the park’s hardwood trees contrasts beautifully with the dark green conifers and blue ocean and lakes. This riot of color peaks in mid to late October and can be enjoyed from a number of trails and scenic overlooks. Cruise along the 3.5-mile Summit Road to reach panoramic views over the land and sea. If you’d rather commune with nature more closely, you can keep an eye out for native fauna like bison, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs while hiking. 

 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee
When to visit: mid-October to early November
Why we love it: With colorful trees blanketing the mountains, the autumn months turn this national park into something straight out of a fairytale. A wide range of deciduous trees including varieties of beech, birch, maple, and oak are responsible for the stunning display. In addition, the varied elevations of the park mean viewers will frequent different areas depending on when they visit. Plan to arrive earlier in the season to see the higher landscapes set ablaze with color or catch the final transformations of the lower landscapes at the end of the season. If you’re a bucket-list type of person, you might enjoy the opportunity to hike part of the iconic Appalachian Trail, which runs through the park along the border between North Carolina and Tennessee.

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
When to visit: October
Why we love it: The Shenandoah Valley is such a great place for autumnal colors that it boasts its own bike festival dedicated entirely to fall foliage. On October 15-17th, enthusiastic cyclists will flock to the region for a weekend chock full of scenic rides. Whether you sign up for the festival or visit for more casual nature appreciation, you’ll be sure to remember the landscape of Shenandoah National Park. The rolling gold and ruby hills—which are beautiful at any time of day—truly come alive when seen from a high vantage point at sunrise and sunset. If you’re planning a multi-stop leaf-peeping tour, this park is also conveniently located just a scenic drive away from one of the other locations on our list, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

 

Yosemite National Park, California
When to visit: October
Why we love it: Back on the West Coast, one of the national parks with the most dramatic natural landscapes—Yosemite—gets a seasonal makeover. While the majority of the park’s trees are evergreens, you can still enjoy vibrant splashes of yellow, orange, and red foliage along with honey-colored grasses framing some of Yosemite’s most iconic views. A fan favorite in the fall is the quaint scene formed by a huge yellow sugar maple tree behind the small red Yosemite Chapel. For other pretty-as-a-postcard views and photo-ops, consider signing up for a camera walk led by park rangers. To level up your photography game just in time for your trip, check out our travel photography tips.

Zion National Park, Utah
When to visit: late October to mid-November
Why we love it: Avid explorers should always plan to visit Zion National Park in the fall, when temperatures are perfect for outdoor activities and water levels are low—meaning hiking trails are safer and more accessible. If these practical factors don’t get you excited about an autumn voyage to Zion, let us paint a picture with words. Imagine the park’s rugged sandstone landscape, which glows with a rosy hue during sunset, accessorized by fiery foliage. We recommend hiking in one of the park’s lesser-known areas, Kolob Canyons, to make the most of the views. Throughout the park, overlooks offer panoramic perspectives across the geological formations, but you’ll need to venture into the canyons and closer to the water sources to spot the colorful trees. Our favorite hike? The 5-mile Taylor Creek Trail.

 

No matter which national park (or parks) you decide to enter into your GPS this autumn, remember that many wildlife species, like bears, are more active during this season. Research the animals you might encounter along the way and be sure to be prepared. Once you’re all set, you can head into the wilderness with no worries to take in the almost too-good-to-be-true fall landscapes created by mother nature. 

For other fantastic fall destinations, check out our list. For the best adventure vans to take you off-road and off-grid, take a look at our expert guide.

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