Jessica is an adventure-loving mom to five kids. She and her family have a serious case of wanderlust and are constantly exploring to find the best travel experiences for families. You can follow her writing and adventures at Bring The Kids, where she shares how to get outside and live an adventurous, travel-filled life with kids in tow.
When most of the United States heads back to school, the national parks take on a completely different feel. While most parks are flooded with summer visitors, fall national park visitors will be treated to cooler temperatures and significantly smaller crowds.
Visiting national parks after Labor Day may, in fact, be one of the best ways to avoid the crowds and see some of the best natural beauty of the parks.
Zion National Park
To figure out which national park is best for your family, you need to think about a few things:
How far do you want to travel? Are you looking for a weekend road trip, or are you ready to hop on a plane? I’ve included parks all over the country, for whichever type of travel suits your family best.
What do you want to see during your trip? Are you looking for amazing foliage, spectacular wildlife or desert adventures in cooler weather? Every park provides something different, so think about what you want to experience the most.
What type of experiences do you want to have? Are you more interested in a scenic drive, or would you rather explore by foot? I’m even sharing our favorite fall national park, where you can have a full tropical experience complete with sea turtles and snorkeling!
Are you interested in camping? It’s significantly easier to get campground reservations in the fall, but if you’re high in the mountains or farther north, it could easily mean nighttime temperatures that drop below freezing and even the chance of snow. If you plan on camping, make sure you do your research and are prepared to stay warm!
Now that you’ve thought about what you want out of your family national park trip, it’s time to discover some of the best ones you can visit this fall.
I’ve included a wide variety of experiences, places and scenery, so you’re sure to find the one that’s right for your next family vacation!
7. Zion National Park
Zion National Park is a stunning place to visit any time of year, but there’s something special about autumn. The leaves start to turn, and the air gets crisp and finally cools down after the sweltering summer temperatures.
As one of the best national parks in Utah, Zion is a great place for family hiking, exploring and just spending time together. And the cooler autumn temperatures (though still comfortably warm), make Zion perfect for exploring outdoors.
There are plenty of easy trails for little ones, and the scenery is breathtaking.
Fall is also a great time to take advantage of Zion’s many camping options. There’s nothing like spending a night under the stars in one of America’s most beautiful parks.
Whether you’re looking for an afternoon hike or a week-long camping trip, Zion National Park is the perfect place to enjoy the fall season.
Insider Tip: The entire state of Utah has fall break in mid-October, so avoid going then when the park is super crowded with locals.
6. Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park, located in California, has cooler temperatures than in the summer, and outside of the weekends, you’re unlikely to find crowds.
This is a great desert national park to pull the kids out of school for a few days to visit, or even take a schoolcation, because you can often have a few hikes to yourselves during the middle of the week.
Plan on doing some camping here, and remember to take camp chairs because fall stargazing in Joshua Tree is absolutely amazing.
It’s also great for taking photographs with the Joshua trees standing out against the red and orange leaves of the other trees and plants.
If you’re feeling adventurous, plan on rock climbing while you’re there, too. You can bring all your own gear or hire a local outfitter to — literally — show you the ropes.
5. Rocky Mountain National Park
Just like the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, there are many national parks where you can take a stunning fall getaway to see colorful foliage. But here, you’ll find extra-special additions to the beautiful colors: ELK!
Yes, the best thing about visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in the fall is witnessing the elk rut (mating season).
The elk rut usually lasts from the middle of September until the middle of October, and it’ll fill the valleys of Rocky Mountain National Park with bugling elk.
During elk mating season, it’s not uncommon to see anywhere from 10 to 100 elk in a single area, and their bugles can be heard throughout the park.
While this is an impressive scene, and is worth putting on your bucket list, it’s also important to note that the huge number of elk in the valleys can also limit some of the easier hikes and valley tours.
During this mating season, elk look stunning, but should only be viewed from a distance as they can get aggressive. Kids will love that though because it’s not uncommon to see two bull elk fighting over a cow!
Insider Tip: If you’re visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in the fall, plan on staying on the Estes Park side.
Trail Ridge Road connects the east and west sides of the park, but if snow comes early in the year, the road will shut down for the winter, and you need to be coming from Estes Park to access most of the park.
4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located between North Carolina and Tennessee. The leaves start to change colors in September and October, making for some of the most beautiful scenery in the Eastern United States.
There are also fewer crowds at this time of year, so you can enjoy the peace and quiet of the mountains (though weekends can get quite busy with fall foliage seekers).
There are plenty of great hikes in the Smokies and viewpoints to explore. Our favorites include the Spruce-Fir Nature Trail, which is an easy hike that takes you through a spruce-fir forest. And Clingmans Dome, which has sweeping views of the surrounding mountains.
Fall is also a great time to go fishing in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The cooler weather brings trout into the rivers and streams, so you’ll be able to get great catches.
If you want a beautiful place to enjoy fall foliage, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is definitely worth a trip!
Pro Tip: If you’re looking for a place to stay with awesome hiking and day trips nearby, check out Smoky Mountain Resort in Gatlinburg.
Get more advice and inspiration for your national park trip:
- Arizona National Parks: Your Guide to Planning Amazing Desert Adventures
- National Park Trips: Best Family-Friendly Tips by Park
- 7 Best National Parks for a Summer Family Vacation
3. Yellowstone National Park
Located mostly in Wyoming (but also in parts of Montana and Idaho, too), Yellowstone National Park is a truly special place, and fall is a great time to explore all that it has to offer without the crazy summer crowds.
The cooler temperatures make for more comfortable hiking, and the changing leaves provide a stunning backdrop for any outing.
There are plenty of trails to choose from, but some of the best views can be found on the Yellowstone River Trail, which follows the river as it winds its way through the park, and it’s a great place to find views of the changing leaves.
For a longer hike, the Cascade Creek Trail offers views of Yellowstone Lake and the surrounding mountains.
And no visit to Yellowstone would be complete without seeing Old Faithful erupt. The geyser typically goes off every 90 minutes or so, and there are platforms nearby where you can watch and wait in comfort.
Of course, with fewer people there in the fall, it’s easier to view the wildlife, so it’s a great time to take a family trip to Yellowstone.
2. Dry Tortugas National Park
Fall is a great time to visit Dry Tortugas National Park because the weather isn’t as scorching as it usually is in Florida, but the water is still a great temperature.
Dry Tortugas is well off the beaten path of the Florida Keys, but since you need to get there by plane or with boat reservations in advance, it’s much easier to access in the fall months than in the summer.
Fort Jefferson is the highlight of Dry Tortugas and the best jumping off place for a visit here. This historic fort is surrounded by beautiful, turquoise waters, and the warmer water temperatures are perfect for snorkeling with kids or just for swimming in tropical waters.
Loggerhead Key is a small island that is home to nesting sea turtles. In the fall, you may even be lucky enough to see a hatchling make its way to the water.
Garden Key is home to the Dry Tortugas Lighthouse and a really fun place to visit with kids, too. The views from the top of the lighthouse are simply stunning in the fall.
1. Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park in Virginia is another amazing east coast park that’s incredible in autumn. The leaves are changing color and the weather is cool and comfortable.
An absolute must-do is a ride along Skyline Drive, which is absolutely bursting with vibrant colors.
While the drive is beautiful, make sure to hit the trails and hike with the kids, too. Shenandoah has over 500 miles of hiking trails, so there’s sure to be a trail that’s ideal for your family.
The Stony Man Trail is one of the best family hikes in Shenandoah with lots of thick, colorful foliage, and a great viewpoint of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Another popular family hike is the Dark Hollow Falls Trail, which leads to the cascades of Dark Hollow Falls.
Kids will love hanging out here, splashing around for a bit, or just throwing rocks into the water. It’s a great place for a fall picnic in Shenandoah.
Joshua Tree National Park
Although visiting a national park in the fall can be a little tricky if you’re working around kids’ school schedules, the chance to avoid the crowds and really connect with nature are well worth the effort.
Whether you want a fall trip full of colorful leaves, a cool desert getaway or even a tropical adventure, there are no shortage of fall national parks that are amazing for taking gorgeous photos, enjoying beautiful weather and spending time outdoors together.
Our guest bloggers are compensated for their writing contributions and honest opinions.
All information is subject to change. This article is a curated guide and is neither sponsored nor considered an official endorsement. Please be sure to check information directly with any/all tours, guides or companies for the most up-to-date and direct details.
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