Enjoy crisp temperatures, spectacular foliage and abundant wildlife at top parks this autumn.
Our national parks saw record crowds over the summer during the National Park Service's centennial. Some of our most popular national parks were so full that the NPS set daily caps on visitors. But now that fall is here, it's a great time to visit our parks for fewer crowds, pleasant temperatures and less traffic. Take a look at 10 of the best national parks to visit this season.
Death Valley National Park
With park temperatures rising well into the triple digits in the summer months, Death Valley National Park is best explored in the fall and winter. In fact, guided ranger tours don't begin until Oct. 23, 2016. Stay in nearby Beatty, Nevada, a former mining town that's full of character and is just a short drive from Furnace Creek Visitor Center. Plan to get an early start at Death Valley by taking in the sunrise at Zabriskie Point before exploring the badlands at Twenty Mule Team Canyon.
Acadia National Park
It's hard to beat the leaf peeping in Maine, which peaks in mid-October, and one of the best spots for taking in fall foliage is Acadia National Park. Plan to hike the 3.3-mile Jordan Pond Path for incredible views while enjoying the cool autumn weather. Take a narrated trolley tour of the park to learn about its history and geology. And make sure to wake up early to get to the top of Cadillac Mountain, where you'll be first to catch the sunrise in the U.S. between early October and early March. Just don't forget to bring along a blanket to keep warm.
Everglades National Park
In the summer months, it gets hot and sticky at Everglades National Park in Florida, so plan a fall or winter visit when the weather is more temperate. Take an airboat ride to reach the swamps and see the alligators that make the park their home. For hiking and biking, the Pine Island Trails are easily accessible from the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center. More adventurous types may want to consider the Tamiami Trail "Triathlon," which includes a 15-mile bike ride, a 3-mile walk and a 3.5-mile kayaking route.
Rocky Mountain National Park
In fall, golden leaves transform the landscape at Rocky Mountain National Park, and elk are on full display. In fact, it's a great time to see all kinds of wildlife, including moose, black bears and even bighorn sheep, which are known to get into head-butting competitions in October and November. Head to Alpine Visitor Center for unparalleled views, and sign up for a horseback ride to experience the wilderness trails in and around the park. Stay in Estes Park, just a few miles from the Fall River Visitor Center in northern Colorado.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The fall colors at Great Smoky Mountains National Park are incredible, as the red maples, yellow birch and flowering dogwoods begin to change hues in October and November. Take in the views from Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee. On your way down, take a few steps and strike a pose in front of the iconic Appalachian Trail sign. Most visitors explore the park by car, so you won't be alone if you opt to drive to scenic lookout points. The 11-mile Cades Cove Loop is especially popular among motorists.
Arches National Park
It's not unusual for daily temperatures in the summer to reach the mid-90s at Arches National Park, so plan a visit in autumn when you can see more than 2,000 natural stone arches, including Delicate Arch and Landscape Arch, in comfortable yet crisp fall temperatures. Plan for hiking, biking, backpacking or camping, and be sure to check out the Fiery Furnace, a unique sandstone formation that offers incredible views at sunrise and sunset. The Devils Garden Trail is one of the most popular points of interest in the park, exposing viewers to a wide range of arches.
Big Bend National Park
At Big Bend National Park in Texas, visitation peaks in the fall and winter months when the weather makes for more pleasant conditions along the more than 200 miles of hiking trails. A birder's paradise, Big Bend is home to more than 450 bird species and is an ideal place to catch a glimpse of birds migrating south. Drive along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which winds through the Chihuahuan Desert and offers great vantage points of interesting rock formations, as well as park highlights such as Mule Ears Viewpoint and Santa Elena Canyon.
Shenandoah National Park
When the leaves change, visitors come in droves to Skyline Drive, which runs 105 miles through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. This national scenic byway offers numerous stops to take in the foliage, but it can be slow going on weekends. If you can, visit on a weekday when you can enjoy popular lookout points such as Hemlock Springs Overlook and Range View Overlook with fewer crowds. Enjoy a self-guided driving tour, go on a nature hike or sign up for a horseback ride to enjoy the spectacular fall colors.
Grand Teton National Park
Head to Wyoming to explore one of the most beautiful parks in the national parks system, Grand Teton National Park. You'll find beautiful fall colors, majestic mountains and all kinds of wildlife, including elk and deer. The park is not very big, so it's easy to explore top highlights in one day, hitting each of the visitor centers in small towns and villages, including Colter Bay Village, Moose and Jenny Lake. Take a hike along one of the popular trails like the Christian Pond Loop. Afterward, head to String Lake for a picnic by the lake.
Congaree National Park
Take time to explore Congaree National Park in South Carolina in autumn when there are fewer insects and the weather is ideal for outdoor activities such as bird-watching, canoeing and kayaking. Hike the 2.4-mile Boardwalk Loop Trail, which is a great way to get to know the park. Pick up a self-guided brochure or join a ranger-led walk. More adventurous types may want to hike the 11-mile Kingsnake Trail, which takes parkgoers through some of the more remote parts of the park.