Travel

Why Fall Is the Best Time to Visit Our National Parks

All the awe. None of the crowds.

benedek/E+/Getty Images
benedek/E+/Getty Images
benedek/E+/Getty Images

America’s national parks continued to dominate the travelsphere this summer, offering the pandemic-weary a respite from cabin fever through the magic of actual cabins, and reminding RV-newbies and seasoned road-trippers alike that they really are America’s Best Idea.

Another good idea? Hitting the parks in the fall, when the colours change, the temps cool down, and the tourists vanish. There’s all that foliage to enjoy, of course-but that’s just the beginning. Elk begin to rut, fog descends upon the trees, and salmon fling themselves upstream as nature gracefully transitions into the most vibrant time of the year. To help inspire your next fall getaway, check out the autumnal splendour of a few of our favourite national parks.

Tony Aloi/Moment/Getty Images
Tony Aloi/Moment/Getty Images
Tony Aloi/Moment/Getty Images

Yellowstone National Park

Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho
It’s one thing to spot elk during the summer or spring-but witnessing them in fall, when they’re rutting, is an entirely wilder experience. The first time you hear one bugle will stop you in your tracks. And while Yellowstone’s crowds generally thin out after Labor Day, much of the park will remain accessible ’til around November, including bike paths, fishing holes, and guided kayak tours on Yellowstone Lake. Take a hike through America’s oldest national park while the trails are still open. (Just don’t forget the bear spray; a few friends might still be out and about before they settle in for hibernation.) Now’s your chance to contemplate the supervolcano without being elbowed by children.

Unsplash/Joshua Sukoff
Unsplash/Joshua Sukoff
Unsplash/Joshua Sukoff

Arches National Park

Utah
In the summer months, hiking in Arches National Park can feel like slogging through a convection oven, with temperatures soaring into the triple digits and nary a tree in sight to provide shade-not to mention that the park teems with so many tourists that they’re often forced to cap access for the day. You’re better off waiting until fall, when the heat and the hordes have dissipated dramatically. September and October provide maximum high-desert sunshine with comfortable temps in the 60s and 70s, so you’ll be well-equipped to explore this whimsical red rock terrain strewn with mighty pinnacles, balanced rocks, and 2,000-plus arches without succumbing to heat exhaustion and/or road rage. You might even luck out and get Delicate Arch, the park’s most iconic formation, all to yourself.

 PictureLake/E+/Getty Images
PictureLake/E+/Getty Images
PictureLake/E+/Getty Images

Acadia National Park

Maine
An early-morning hike to the top of Cadillac Mountain-the highest peak on the Eastern seaboard-not only offers one of the most spectacular sunrises in America but also a stunning view of New England’s finest colours. (You can also drive up, in case hiking up a mountain in pitch darkness isn’t exactly your idea of a good time.) Later in the day, hike the circumference of Jordan Pond just down the road. Surrounding one of the cleanest and deepest lakes in Maine, the trail is a prime spot for leaf-peeping, with the surrounding mountains lit up like an all-natural Lite-Brite. The region generally remains temperate and pleasant through the end of September, when you’ll find yourself trekking through thick, eerie fog which eventually lifts to reveal the blazing foliage of maple and birch trees.

Wayne Boland/Moment/Getty Images
Wayne Boland/Moment/Getty Images
Wayne Boland/Moment/Getty Images

Rocky Mountain National Park

Colorado
Come autumn, the eastern part of this immensely popular park tends to empty out. That’s when you’ll want to hit the 415-square-mile western section of the Colorado Front Range, where the glorious fall foliage is gonna be. By late September, the aspens that blanket the Rocky Mountains are at the peak of quaking, when the leaves, quivering in the wind, all become a single bright wash of gold. Hike through the Hidden Valley or Twin Sisters Trail for the best aspen-laden views, and pack a picnic to while away a few hours at Bear Lake.

VIKVAD/Shutterstock
VIKVAD/Shutterstock
VIKVAD/Shutterstock

Everglades National Park

Florida
Even compared to the spectacle of most national parks, Florida’s iconic Everglades conjures images of intimidating extremes, from invasive pythons and mosquito swarms to intense humidity and hurricanes-plus, the fact that this is the only place on Earth where you’ll find both alligators and crocodiles swimming along. But this mighty park is one worth stepping outside your comfort zone for, especially towards the end of fall. As the park enters its dry season in November, the omnipresent rain tapers off, adorable manatees populate the coastal waters, and the calm rivers offer hundreds of miles to paddle and explore. You’ll also beat the park’s peak season in winter, when you’ll more likely need to compete with frenzied crowds for kayak rentals.

Matt Anderson Photography/Moment/Getty Images
Matt Anderson Photography/Moment/Getty Images
Matt Anderson Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Grand Teton National Park

Wyoming
During a good year with early snow, you might actually be able to enjoy some Jackson Hole skiing whilst nodding approvingly at the changing leaves. Late September is generally your best bet for catching peak foliage at Grand Teton, a breathtaking vista just down the road from Yellowstone that’s bursting with vibrant cottonwoods, aspens, and willows. Gaze upon Snake River bathed in an autumnal glow, and get out there at dawn or dusk for the best odds of spotting moose and elk. Just keep an eye out for bears fattening themselves up for winter.

GB Hart/Shutterstock
GB Hart/Shutterstock
GB Hart/Shutterstock

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Texas
Leaf-peeping in Texas? It’s not a typo! While Northeastern and Midwestern national parks are better known for their foliage, little-visited Guadalupe Mountains National Park in West Texas proves that the desert can be a haven for autumn colours, too. Hiking the McKittrick Canyon Trail is one of the coolest-and most unexpected-treks for fall foliage, as the (mostly) dry riverbed path meanders through dense thickets of luminous maples aglow in shades of oranges, yellows, and reds. The best part? Since the park is so underrated, you’ll likely have the trees, the leaves, and the trails all to yourself.

beklaus/ E+/Getty Images
beklaus/ E+/Getty Images
beklaus/ E+/Getty Images

Shenandoah National Park

Virginia
If you love fall foliage (naturally) but aren’t so much in love with getting out of your car (understandable) then Shenandoah is the best national park in America for you. Hit its famous 105-mile Skyline Drive and become enveloped in the very essence of the season as you cruise through. There are no fewer than 75 scenic overlooks from which you can gaze out over the canopy of reds, oranges, and golds. Early October is when things hit their peak up here. For those of you who do want to stretch a little, pull over around Mile 49 for a gentle hike to the quadruple waterfalls of Rose River Cascades.

Unsplash/Hugo Soons
Unsplash/Hugo Soons
Unsplash/Hugo Soons

Grand Canyon National Park

Arizona
The downside of being one of the most notable national parks in the country is that things stay pretty crowded. The Grand Canyon’s 3 million annual visitors swarm the more popular South Rim for hikes, mule rides, and unnerving selfies all throughout the summer-yes, even in spite of the heat. But after road trip season screeches to a halt, this natural wonder gets a lot more accessible. September through November sees lower crowd levels and cooler, comfier temps that hit that sweet spot between sweater weather and shorts season. You’ll be able to ride your mule in peace and get a photo of the mile-deep canyon without worrying you might accidentally get bumped off the edge.

Rebecca L. Latson/Moment/Getty Images
Rebecca L. Latson/Moment/Getty Images
Rebecca L. Latson/Moment/Getty Images

Glacier National Park

Montana
The glaciers are what you come to see, and you should, y’know, see them while you still can. But you should also come to Glacier National Park to see stunning fall colours, especially around late September and early October. Unlike the evergreen trees you might be used to seeing, ’round these parts you’ll find larch trees-deciduous conifers that shed their needles in the fall. Most of the park’s concessions close after October 1, but the iconic Going to the Sun Road remains open until about midway through the month. Hike the famous Highline Loop where you might spy some bighorn sheep, mountain goats, or grizzly bears before they go into hibernation. Or venture up to Cracker Lake to catch that sweet foliage reflected on the water.

ericfoltz/E+/Getty Images
ericfoltz/E+/Getty Images
ericfoltz/E+/Getty Images

Badlands National Park

South Dakota
South Dakota’s Badlands is the only national park in the country where you can get psychedelic desert colours at sunrise and the deep, burnished gold of autumn grasses in the afternoon. Hike the quiet trails like the hands-on Notch Trail, which weaves through a canyon and up a wooden ladder before culminating in a sweeping prairie vista. Drive through the park and you’ll also see otherworldly rock formations, their pink and yellow striations bathed in warm autumn light, streaks of bright foliage in the backdrop, often blanketed in powdery snow. Or, if you’re up to it, take advantage of the vastly reduced post-summer car traffic and hit the roads by bike.

Bob Coffen/Shutterstock
Bob Coffen/Shutterstock
Bob Coffen/Shutterstock

Denali National Park and Preserve

Alaska
Snow begins piling up as early as late September here, and winter pretty much begins in October. Public transportation will close after summer, but that’s a good thing: It means that, if you have a car or the ability to rent one, you have Denali pretty much all to yourself. Just you and 325,240 acres of peaceful “me time,” where stress melts away and time practically stands still (probably because you have no cell service). The mountains serve as a stunning backdrop to the grizzly bears, moose, and caribou just moping through dense foliage. Oh, and you may also see some golden eagles screaming past the golden leaves.

sunsinger/Shutterstock
sunsinger/Shutterstock
sunsinger/Shutterstock

White Sands National Park

New Mexico
One of America’s newer national parks is a place of weather extremes, with occasional freezing temperatures in the winter, scorching forecasts in the summer, and wind-swept afternoons in the spring-all of which sounds fine and dandy until you’re rinsing your eyes of gypsum crystals or sweating like a hog. Fall in White Sands National Park is where it’s at: The cottonwood trees are changing colour, the crowds have thinned, and the comfortable dry warmth of New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin makes it easy to hike through snow-white sand for hours on end or rent a sand sled from the visitor center and embrace your inner child as you careen down the dunes.

Rene Frederick/Photodisc/Getty Images
Rene Frederick/Photodisc/Getty Images
Rene Frederick/Photodisc/Getty Images

Mount Rainier National Park

Washington
A hike through the subalpine wilderness of Paradise (the area on the south slope of Rainier) will show you the very best vistas of the Evergreen State’s not-so-evergreen trees. Maples, elderberries, aspens, and scores of other trees you likely couldn’t name if you tried begin turning fiery reds and yellows in late September. Head up to Chinook Pass and Tipsoo Lake for some of the most luxurious views. You’re in prime territory for elk and moose to wander across your path while they enjoy the foliage themselves, albeit in a more digestive manner than a sightseeing one. For those who need some fun motivation to hike-like, something more than just the hike itself-mushroom-picking permits are available from the US Forest Service.

 wbritten/E+/Getty Images
wbritten/E+/Getty Images
wbritten/E+/Getty Images

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

North Carolina and Tennessee
If you’ve got the good fortune to already live near the area, the Smokies make for some of the easiest foliage to plan a trip around since there’s no strict date range when everything’s at its peak. At the park’s highest elevations, fall comes on the early side, with the blazing colours of beech and birch trees taking hold as soon as mid-September. Lower down, foliage season can last all the way through early November, with oak and sugar maple trees towering over a shock of autumnal wildflowers. The mountains that run through this park aren’t so much smoky this time of year as they are aflame. The reds, oranges, and yellows cover the hills and brighten the land; a trip to Looking Glass Falls is the best way to see it. And now that most of the park’s 12 million annual visitors have come and gone, you might even have the view to yourself.

Kari Siren/Moment/Getty Images
Kari Siren/Moment/Getty Images
Kari Siren/Moment/Getty Images

Yosemite National Park

California
Although the intimidating, breathtaking sequoias don’t really change colour, a hike through California’s most popular national park still offers visitors a number of festive fall sites. The famous Half Dome Trail is the highlight, but even if you can’t get a permit, the rest of the park will make you forget all about that when the foliage of cottonwoods, oaks, maples, Pacific dogwoods, and aspens peaks in late October. Everything in the park remains open, sometimes as late as November. That deafening silence? It’s not just because the tourists have left; in the fall, many of Yosemite’s waterfalls slow to a trickle.

Paul L. Csizmadia / Spec3 Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images
Paul L. Csizmadia / Spec3 Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images
Paul L. Csizmadia / Spec3 Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Ohio
One of the more unexpectedly awesome national parks in the US, Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley is teeming with pleasant surprises, from wineries and scenic train rides to music festivals. The first half of October is when you can enjoy foliage here at its peak. The park’s star attraction, Brandywine Falls, is absolutely clogged with tourists and their cars during the summer months, but come fall you’ll be able to stay on that boardwalk as long as you like. Oh! And that scenic train ride we mentioned? It lets you chug along through the park while solving murder mysteries or sampling wine.

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Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for national parks, Disney, and food. He’s the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and app. Follow him on IG @matt_kirouac.

Kastalia Medrano is a former writer at Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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