Getty Images / Kari Siren
Quiet Camping at Yosemite National Park, CA
Finally, you can make it into Yosemite Valley without sitting in an hour of traffic. Each year more than 4 million visitors come to explore the popular park, and it often feels like they are all in the valley at once. Nearly 70 percent of visitors come May through September. Once school is back in session, the roads clear up again, as do the campgrounds. While you can certainly book ahead for a quiet retreat at your favorite spot, fall is the ideal time to snag a last-minute site spot at Upper Pines or secluded Yosemite Creek. Worried about unpredictable weather? Splurge for a heated canvas tent cabin in Half Dome Village. Campsite from $26/night; heated tent cabin from $158/night; nps.gov/yose.
Thomas J. Story
Stunning Sunsets at Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
At the most-visited national park in the West, it can be nearly impossible to have a moment to yourself, let alone take a picture without fellow visitors crammed into it. Not so September through November, which is a great time to visit the South Rim. Drier weather and milder temperatures reward you with stunning sunsets and room to breathe. Just don’t forget to bring a coat! The temperature can drop quickly once night falls. nps.gov/grca.
Thomas J. Story
Wildlife Watching at Yellowstone National Park
Come fall, the leaves and grasses on Yellowstone’s landscape have begun to turn yellow and orange. The air is crisp. And the park’s inhabitants are on the move. While you won’t have the telltale signs of stacked-up traffic and selfie sticks to point the way to grazing bison or galloping elk, fall is your best time to see the park’s signature animals, not to mention moose, deer, bears, and bighorn sheep. Falling temperatures push the park’s impressive 4,816 bison that roam the park into lower elevations. Herds can often be found near Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, and Lamar Valley. There’s also a good chance you will catch a grizzly bear munching on whitebark pine seeds and late-summer berries to prepare for hibernation. nps.gov/yell.
Thomas J. Story
Comfortable Hiking in Zion National Park, UT
Summer temperatures can often exceed 100ºF in Zion, and once the heat sets in, the monsoons roll through and cause flash floods and slick conditions. In September, the skies dry up and mild 60-75º days become the norm. Autumn is the best time to get out and safely explore the park on foot. Early in the season is ideal for hiking the Narrows (pictured)—the air is still warm and there is less of a chance of flooding—and plenty of other worthy trails. Head to Kolob Canyons in the northwest of the park and take the half-mile-long Timber Creek Overlook Trail or the longer Taylor Creek Trail to witness sublime fall color. You can also leisurely stroll along the Emerald Pools Trail or the wheelchair-accessible Riverside Walk. If you are feeling spry, take on the relatively strenuous hike to Observation Point. The East Rim Trail will take you through Echo Canyon before rising to one of the best viewpoints in the park. nps.gov/zion.
Getty Images / beklaus
Quaking Leaves in Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Signs of the changing seasons slowly creep down from higher elevations in the Rockies. By mid-September, the trees in Rocky Mountain National Park are typically painted in shades of gold. While the eye-catching displays bring many visitors to the park until October, there are plenty of ways to hear the dancing aspen leaves. Drive Bear Lake Road to the Bear Lake trailhead and hike a little over half a mile to the popular subalpine lake or turn off sooner and head to the Cub Lake trail that takes you through 2.3 miles of autumn color before opening up at a mountain pond rimmed with amber grass. Just remember to always pack a rain jacket and warm layers—the weather can quickly swing from 70 degrees to chilly rain or even hail. nps.gov/romo.
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Solitude in Denali National Park and Preserve, AK
More than 600,000 people visit Denali each year, and while this is by no means a crush—Yosemite sees the same number in September alone—most come in summer. Nearly all of the park’s programs and buildings close up in September, but there’s still plenty to see and do. Set up camp at the free Riley Creek Campground—the only year-round site—before heading another three miles up the road to meet the park’s friendly sled dogs that are preparing for a busy winter. Once the shuttle buses stop running in mid-September, you can drive up to 30 miles into the park to the Teklanika River and explore the turnouts and trailheads along the way, until the first heavy snow arrives. As the days shorten, you have a chance of seeing the aurora borealis dance across the dark sky on clear nights. nps.gov/dena.
Getty Images / Fotosearch
Bugling Elk at Grand Teton National Park, WY
Fall is a short season in Grand Teton, with snow often on the ground by mid-October, but it shouldn’t be missed. As the cottonwoods that line the Snake River and aspens scattered on the hillsides change colors and drop their leaves, male elks begin bugling to assert dominance and attract females. Early evening is the best time to hear their calls. Sparring matches between pairs of male elks (and bull moose) may also break out. Remember to stay at least 25 yards away from elk and other large animals and keep a full football field between you and wolves or bears. Note: Legal elk hunting begins in early October in the park and runs through December. Ask a ranger for updated information on places to avoid for your safety. nps.gov/grte.
Getty Images / ThierryHennet
Other-Worldly Landscapes in Death Valley National Park, CA and NV
The hottest place on Earth begins to come alive in October. Campgrounds like Texas Springs, Sunset, and Stovepipe Wells open again after the dry, oppressive summer heat has eased. Fall and winter bring milder temperatures so you can explore the salt flats, sand dunes, and other desert delights hidden in the park’s 3.3 million acres. nps.gov/deva.
Getty Images / Robert Miramontes
Stargazing in Joshua Tree National Park, CA
Joshua Tree is one of the few places in Southern California that has views of the cosmos. Join the Night Sky Festival Nov. 9-10 to safely peer into the sun with a solar telescope, explore the stars with an astronomer at your side, and learn how to capture the beauty of the dark sky at the astrophotography workshop. This desert haven may have its high season in the fall—and the festival weekend will certainly increase attendance—but the sights are worth it. Can’t make it on those dates? Come another time in the fall. The entire park boasts jaw-dropping views, but Cottonwood Campground and Pinto Basin Road between Cottonwood and Cholla Cactus Garden have the darkest skies and allow you to see the spiral Andromeda Galaxy near the Great Square constellation. Tickets from $30 for paid events; nps.gov/jotr
Getty Images / Richard Maschmeyer
Cascading Waterfalls at Olympic National Park, WA
The abundant evergreen trees in Olympic National Park don’t exactly announce “autumn,” but it’s one of the few parks where you can still view waterfalls this time of year. The large park encomasses a lush rainforest, coastal bluffs and beaches, high mountain peaks, and some of the best year-round cascades in the West. When you’re done standing in awe of the 90-foot Marymere Falls, watch the Coho salmon swim upstream to their spawning grounds. The Salmon Cascades Overlook in Sol Duc Valley is one of the best vantage points, but you can also watch striking red sockeye swim up the Quinault and Ozette rivers later in November. Those missing the seasonal colors can stroll Maple Glade, the half-mile loop that winds through glowing bigleaf maple groves. nps.gov/olym.