Upward view of fiery red fall leaves

Photo by Christian Guthier

“Autumn…the year’s last, loveliest smile.”

― William Cullen Bryant 

Honestly, who isn’t eagerly awaiting the fall season during the last few weeks of dulling summer heat? Who isn’t ready for long scarfs, pumpkin lattes, and leaf piles on the lawn? Autumn sure is a welcome change of pace, and nothing helps signal its arrival more than fall foliage.

Leaf-losing, or deciduous, trees are primarily responsible for bright autumn colors. As summer ends, the green pigments in the leaves slowly break down, exposing carotenoids– the source of all those beautiful yellows and oranges. Deep red pigments occur when sugars in the leaves break down in bright autumn sunlight.

Deciduous forests thrive in the eastern half of the United States and are primarily seen within the 35 to 48 degree latitude line. Some variables that affect fall foliage are temperature, differences in elevation, and the species of tree or shrub present. With that in mind, here are the top 10 parks showcasing fall foliage: 

#1 Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina/Tennessee

Deciduous trees off of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Great Smoky National Park

Fall foliage in the Great Smoky Mountains. Photo by Anne Hornyak.

Located on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, this is the most visited national park in North America. A big reason for this is the unique fall foliage the park has to offer. Fall colors are particularly vibrant in the Smokies due to the diversity of deciduous trees, such as yellow birch, mountain maple, scarlet oak, and the hickories. The varying levels of elevation within the park help sustain its wide array of trees. If you decide to visit, take a nice autumn drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway. This 469 mile drive goes through the Appalachian Mountains to Shenandoah and brightly colored leaves cover the hillsides.

Best time to go: late October.

#2 Acadia National Park, Maine

Gold Aspen Trees in Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park. Photo by Lee Coursey.

The most colorful autumn leaves are produced in areas with short days and cool nights. Therefore, parks in higher latitudes in the US tend to be great examples of places to see fall foliage. Acadia is one such example, located in islands off the coast of Maine. The aspen trees are a favorite in this park when they set off an explosion of gold. Be sure to check out the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse for spectacular views of the ocean and fall foliage.

Best time to go: mid October.

 #3 White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire

Gorgeous valley with autumn colors in White Mountains

White Mountains National Forest. Photo by Scott Mecum.

Fall colors seem to be painted on the White Mountains, a classic Northeastern autumn landscape. The park becomes a sea of yellow and gold in early October. White Mountain National Forest is also the home of Mt. Washington– the highest mountain in the Northeast, which is full of lush trees and fall leaves. And if you are planning a visit, don’t forget to do some antiquing in an area well known for it.

Best time to go: end of September – mid October.

#4 Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Sun peeking through thin and tall deciduous trees with yellow leaves in Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park. Photo by Vijay Kalakoti.

Wilderness makes up much of Shenandoah National Park, which makes it great for fall foliage. The park has 200,000 acres of protected lands and is located just 75 miles outside of Washington DC. One popular autumn attraction is Skyline Drive, a 105 mile highway alongside the Blue Ridge Mountains.The drive is full of fiery colors, including the brilliantly red Virginia Creeper growing over the gray rocks of the mountains.

Best time to go: mid October.

#5 Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

Deciduous trees near rushing streams in Cuyahoga National Park

Cuyahoga National Park. Photo by Corey Balazowich.

Cuyahoga is picturesque for autumn leaf seekers. No doubt about it. Stunning red maple trees are scattered throughout the park, many taking up residence near waterfalls or streams. Brandywine Falls, the most popular waterfall in the park, is known for geological features of the sandstone and shale underneath the flowing water. Hike the Brandywine Gorge Trail for optimal views of both fall foliage and the waterfall.

Best time to go: October.

#6 Chimney Rock State Park, North Carolina

Autumn leaves, tourists, and an American flag at Chimney Rock, NC

Chimney Rock. Photo by 1nativeTexan.

Picture standing atop a massive rock formation 2,280 feet in the air while looking out 75 miles in all directions with deciduous forests everywhere. Clusters of sweet birch, chestnut oak, and sugar maple trees are seen at just a glance. Welcome to Chimney Rock! Perhaps there is no better place to watch the coming of fall than at this iconic site in North Carolina, located right off the Blue Ridge Parkway. After leaf peeping to your heart’s content, hike the Four Seasons trail through the forest and end at Hickory Nut Falls for a cool excursion.

Best time to go: late October.

#7 Yosemite National Park, California

Falling leaves in snowy mountains in Yosemite National Park

Yosemite. Photo by Rennett Stowe.

You might think Yosemite isn’t the right park to visit during fall due to its large evergreen forests. That assumption is incorrect! The scattering of deciduous trees mixed in with the abundance of evergreen creates a contrast that is beautiful to behold. Yosemite is also home to the massive California Black Oak, whose leaves turn a lovely golden yellow hue in early October. The views of the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, the majestic Vernal Falls, and the scenic Glacier Point with a hint of fall color all make Yosemite worth a visit.

Best time to go: late October until the hard frosts in early December.

#8 Central Park, New York

Fall foliage reflected in water near New York City skyline in Central Park

Central Park. Photo by Ed Yourdon.

City dwellers want to see fall foliage too! For residents of Manhattan this is not a problem– the beauty of autumn is on their doorstep. American elms grow in abundance in Central Park, specifically on the northern side. The Conservatory Water is a favorite place to visit during fall, due to the nine species of oak all growing around this natural hollow. If you want to see a panoramic view of autumn leaves in Central Park, be sure to swing by Belvedere Castle for a visual treat.

Best time to go: end of October – early November

#9 Adirondack Park, New York

Colorful deciduous trees set against the backdrop of the Adirondack Mountains

Adirondack Park. Photo by Johannes Gilger.

New Yorkers that want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city should consider making a visit upstate to Adirondack Park. The fall foliage is consistently lovely due to warm days, cool nights, and just the right amount of precipitation during the summer months. Adirondack is an enormous terrain with over 2,000 miles of hiking trails and 3,000 lakes and ponds. It is the perfect place for backpacking adventurers, RV enthusiasts, and the average day tripper.

Best time to go: late September – early October

#10 Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Mount Moran reflected in the Snake River at Oxbow Bend in Grand Tetons National Park

Oxbow Bend in Grand Tetons National Park. Photo by Diana Robinson.

Want to view fall foliage in a less crowded national park? Do you prefer the yellow leaves of autumn over the red? If so, Grand Teton National Park is the place for you. Bright yellow aspen trees can be seen against the gorgeous backdrop of the Grand Tetons. If you are looking for a fun outdoor activity, try white water rafting down the Snake River. Gold Cottonwoods can be seen from your kayak along the river bank.

Best time to go: mid/late September