Summer may be a prime time to explore America's national parks, particularly if you're traveling with kids in tow. But here's the thing: If you plan a trip to the country's national parks in the summer months, you'll run the risk of encountering bumper-to-bumper traffic, crowded trails and intense heat. So, if you prefer cooler air, ample wildlife-watching opportunities and tourist-free trails, head to these five national parks this fall. From Maine to Utah, these national parks boast kid-friendly activities, seasonal programs and scenic trails catering to families of all sizes and interests.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
The beauty of the Smokies is hardly a secret. Welcoming more than 10 million visitors each year, Great Smoky National Park has long been on the outdoor enthusiast's map. Arrive in fall, and you'll be rewarded with sightings of the resident elk herd in Cataloochee. Kids ages 5 to 12 can also take part in the Junior Ranger program, which includes age-appropriate activities and programming. Want to make your national park visit a scenic fall road trip? Take a trip to Shenandoah National Park to the east, where the scenic Blue Ridge Highway greets visitors with spectacular vistas of colorful autumn leaves or explore the lesser-known trail along Nicholson Hollow, which rewards travelers with dense vegetation and a creek.
Acadia National Park, Maine
In the warmer months, Bar Harbor, the quaint New England town located near Acadia National Park, becomes a popular tourist destination. But come autumn, families can easily get a table at any one of the area's seaside restaurants and bed down in charming hotels with reduced room rates. When you're ready to embark on an outdoor adventure, explore Acadia's Carriage Roads, which come alive with brilliant fall colors. You can easily pick up some bikes from a handful of rental shops in town before exploring these paved, picturesque paths. And if you and the kiddos are interested in birding, be sure to take part in Acadia's annual Hawk Watch (from August through October) with ranger-led educational programs for both professional and amateur birders on Cadillac Mountain.
Olympic National Park, Washington
Few families realize that the Olympic Peninsula, one of the wettest, rainiest locations in the country, offers pleasant weather conditions after Labor Day. Visitors still benefit from lush coastal rainforests and dense tree canopies, but often without the area's usual drizzle. Plus, Olympic National Park entices outdoor enthusiasts with both rainforest hikes and beachside relaxation. Kids can climb trees, create driftwood forts and fly kites. Meanwhile, adults can immerse themselves in their striking Pacific Northwest surroundings. Plus, you'll find plenty of great seasonal discounts at several historic lodges. Lake Quinault Lodge is open year-round and provides semi-private tours of the rainforest and lake, while Lake Crescent Lodge is open through January and offers families substantial discounts during the fall shoulder season.
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Located near the iconic Arches National Park in Moab, Utah, Capitol Reef National Park is often overlooked by families due to scorching summertime temperatures. But fall ushers in cooler weather, allowing for comfortable hikes on open, less-shaded trails, along with the annual fall harvest at the Capitol Reef orchards. According to Tips for Family Trips, a family travel blog, parents and youngsters can pick fresh fruit off the branches of 3,000 maintained fruit trees, including cherry, apricot and peach trees. After savoring seasonal fruit with the gang, make your way to Moab, where you can rent bikes and weave through many scenic mountain biking trails or, in the cooler months, admire the picturesque park from the comfort of a jeep.
Yosemite National Park, California
The beauty of Yosemite, naturalist John Muir's favorite playground, is well-known, but visiting when the crowds vanish can feel like a drastically different experience. You and the gang can bunk down overnight at comfortable and affordable camp sites, and take advantage of plenty of parking spaces at trailheads. Plan to rent bikes to cruise around the valley and enjoy popular hikes like the Mist Trail without tourists by your side. And for a truly unique perspective of Yosemite, explore the backcountry along the John Muir Trail.
Do you have a different national park on your list? No matter where you want to go, it's easy to discover fall events and seasonal programming on the National Park Service's Find Your Park page. Educational programs offer age-appropriate activities for kids year-round. And in the autumn months, when crowds diminish, park rangers to offer more in-depth lectures on topics ranging from ecology to history to conservationism. And don't forget, all fourth-grade students and their families are granted free park entry thanks to the Every Kid in a Park program, so take a day and plan a field trip!
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