Where and When to Go Leaf Peeping in the National Parks

America's best idea features a smorgasbord of classic hikes for fall's changing colors

Autumn is here, and lush, green forests are beginning to morph into an array of colors. From now until November, shades of red, yellow and orange sweep across the country. New England and the Midwest are known for their hearty showings, and there’s plenty of color creeping across the West, too. Whether you live in the East, West or somewhere in between, there’s a national park trail with leaf peeping peaking this month for you.

Peaking in Early October

Glacier National Park: Montana

In September, Glacier National Park began changing to gold and will hit peak color this week. Mixed among the evergreens, the deciduous maples, larch, cottonwood, and aspen pop in yellows, oranges, and reds. Hikers will get bird’s-eye panoramas as they follow the 17.7-mile Pitamakan Pass Trail, complete with an array of creeks, streams, and lakes. Bonus hike: The steep, mile-long Apikuni Falls Trail will lead you through a rainbow of leaves to tucked-away falls. Behind you, mountaintops soar as the backdrop to Lake Sherburne and the Cracker Flats.

Grand Teton National Park: Wyoming

The cottonwoods and aspens in Grand Teton National Park blaze yellow and orange in early October. Bordered by rich hues, the 3.5-mile-long String Lake Trail takes you around the calm, mirror-like waters of String Lake. You’ll have full view of the Cathedral Group of the Teton Mountain range. Connected to String Lake Trail is the Paintbrush Divide, which stretches for nearly 20 miles. You’ll pass several lakes and work your way through dense forest on your way around this loop trail. Reaching over 10,000 feet in elevation, climb high to for the best leaf-peeping seat in the house.

Peaking in Mid-October

Acadia National Park: Maine

Maine’s Acadia National Park is magical in fall. White and gray birch, red oak and hemlock speckled with golden aspen scatter the landscape. Sugar maple explode in neon yellow and orange, while the red maple adds a darker crimson to the mix. While not the tallest peak at only 681 feet, the trail up the park’s namesake mountain, Acadia, is quiet and vivid in autumn. It’s a short, moderate trail, and after a bit of a scramble near the summit, you’ll overlook Somes Sound wrapped in color.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park: North Carolina and Tennessee

Trees in the Smokies change color based on elevation. Cover all of the park’s best hits on the Sugarland Mountain Trail, a 12-mile-long singletrack. The yellow birch, American beech, and witch hobble at higher altitudes mix among the dark green evergreens. Mid-elevation, you’ll see red maples, sumac, pin cherry trees, and more. But before you shoot for summits, be sure to catch Great Smoky Mountain’s ground show, where blooming aspens dot the grass and shrubbery. For a shorter hike, try the 3.7-mile-long Porter’s Creek Trail, which winds through woods, passes small creeks, and moves over multiple bridges.

Mount Rainier National Park: Washington

Sprinkled among the firs and cedars, broad-leafed maple, vine maple, alder, and cottonwood trees light up Mt. Rainier in the fall. Huckleberry bushes and other shrubs add to the brilliant display. For the Insta-worthy shots of Mt. Rainier, hike the 3.6-mile Naches Peak Loop clockwise.

Peaking in Late October

Yosemite National Park: California

Although evergreen trees dominate most of Yosemite’s forests, a number of deciduous trees add color in the fall: big-leaf maples, black oaks, and Pacific dogwoods. For leaf peepers, your best bet in autumn is the Valley Trail, a tame, 12-mile path that guides you through most of Yosemite’s colors. It winds around the Valley, through meadows and forests and past the Merced River. The path is mostly level, and while packed in the summer, offers a little more solitude during crisp, fall mornings.

Zion National Park: Utah

Very little can compare to Zion National Park in fall. The yellow and gold-hued leaves pop like sparks lining red rock formations. Hiking the Narrows is essentially hiking the Virgin River, and higher up, you’ll find the best autumn foliage. Because you’re following the water, there isn’t a marked trail to guide to the cottonwood trees, diverse herbaceous plants, and famous hanging gardens. If you’d prefer to climb high and see the colors from above, check out the 4.4-mile-long Angels Landing.

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