Summer is winding down which means the kids are all going back to school…and the national parks will be far less crowded. That’s right—if you missed out on visiting the national park of your dreams this summer, you’re not too late.
Traveling isn’t just for the summer. Many U.S. national parks offer unique and stunning experiences in the fall and winter months. While they are beautiful at any time of the year, here are some of the best national parks to visit in the fall and winter seasons.
What to Know Before Visiting a National Park
Best National Parks to Visit in the Fall
Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina and Tennessee)
Acadia National Park (Maine)
Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)
Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado)
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (Michigan)
Mount Rainier National Park (Washington)
Zion National Park (Utah)
National Parks to Visit in the Winter
White Sands National Park (New Mexico)
Big Bend National Park (Texas)
Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho)
Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming)
The Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)
Death Valley National Park (California and Nevada)
Carlsbad Caverns National Park (New Mexico)
Anytime you’re researching national parks to visit, remember that such a trip requires careful planning and preparation.
For starters, all national parks in America require visitors to purchase an entrance pass (which you can snag at any entrance station). Prices vary depending on the park, but they tend to be around $30.
Alternatively, you can purchase an America the Beautiful Pass, which covers your entrance fees at all national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests, and national grasslands. This pass is $80 and covers entrance fees for a full year.
If you plan to visit more than three national parks within a year, this pass is your best investment.
Keep in mind that weather conditions can be unpredictable during the fall and winter. Some parks experience road closures due to weather, maintenance, or other natural activity. Always check park websites and road conditions before your trip so you’re aware of seasonal closures and restrictions.
Dress warmly for the colder seasons (and the colder parks!), pack your backpack with good snacks, and always bring plenty of water. Enjoy the unique beauty and solitude that these parks offer during the less crowded, but equally enchanting, fall and winter seasons.
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Fall is the perfect season to enjoy the changing colors. During this season (September through November), make sure you plan a trip to see the breathtaking color changes in the mountains. Here are a few of the best national parks to visit in the fall:
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park‘s deciduous forests burst into a breathtaking display of red, orange, and yellow foliage in the fall. The cooler temperatures make it great for hiking since you’ll sweat less, be able to carry less water, and avoid the buggy summer.
Plus, you might even catch a glimpse of the park’s famous fog as it rolls over the blue hills.
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With its dramatic coastline and awe-inspiring forests, Acadia National Park is a fantastic destination for fall foliage and crisp autumn air. Take a scenic drive along Park Loop Road or hike to the summit of Cadillac Mountain for stunning views.
Shenandoah is known for its vibrant fall foliage, particularly along Skyline Drive. The park offers numerous hiking trails, a gorgeous scenic drive, and you can also enjoy wildlife viewing as animals prepare for winter.
If you’re looking for good hiking spots, try Hawksbill Summit for a stunning mountain view or Dark Hollow Falls if you want a picturesque waterfall stroll.
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If you want to catch a glimpse of the vibrant aspen trees as they burst into showers of yellow, the Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the best places to visit. This is the perfect park for hiking lovers, wildlife viewers, and nature enthusiasts.
Remember to consider elevation when you visit this park, as temperatures change quickly up in the mountains. Bring plenty of layers to stay warm and plenty of water to stay hydrated.
Fall is among the best times to visit the Pictured Rocks in Michigan. Immerse yourself in the fall foliage and enjoy the crisp weather. You’ll soak up scenic views, take in the turquoise waters of Lake Superior, and leave forever changed.
Keep in mind that fall is not the ideal time for swimming in the Great Lakes, so visit in the summertime if you want a swimming trip.
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Fall comes early in Mount Rainier National Park. The mountain becomes a wash of brilliant colors and grasses as the season changes. The cooler weather certainly thins the crowd but often brings a heavier chance of rain, so dress accordingly in some quality rain gear.
You won’t want to miss the easy stroll around Reflection Lakes, but if you’re looking for something more strenuous, consider Crystal Peak. Always be cautious of ice and snow, and check trail conditions before you head out.
While fall in the desert might not bring traditional foliage changes like you’re used to, the cooler temperatures make it an excellent time to explore Zion National Park‘s iconic canyons and cliffs. The changing light in the canyons adds a unique charm to your visit.
Visiting this park in the fall will allow you to fully explore and enjoy the many canyons before winter brings in too much snow and ice. Make sure you bring durable hiking boots to avoid slips.
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Even if you’re not into traditional winter sports like skiing or snowboarding, winter can still be a great time to travel. Many national parks are breathtaking in the wintertime. Here are a few of the best national parks to visit in the winter:
It might look like snow, but it’s not. White Sands National Park is a fascinating expanse of pure-white sand that will take your breath away. This park is a stunning location for sunset views and day hiking. Get ready to explore the dunes and enjoy nature.
Big Bend National Park is an oasis in the middle of the Texas desert. It’s often considered a natural wonder since it provides impressive, beautiful mountains in an otherwise flat state. One of the best parts is that the winter is barely winter at all, with warm 60-degree days.
Explore the Rio Grande River separating West Texas from Mexico, soak in the hot springs, or go on a hike to enjoy the warm, sunny days.
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Most visitors see Yellowstone in the summer, which is stunning. However, winter in Yellowstone is a magical time since the park’s geothermal features contrast beautifully with the snow-covered landscapes.
Keep in mind that while Yellowstone is open to visitors all year round, they do close some roads and entrances around the middle of December. Over the winter, they are open to over-snow travel, so plan to have a snowmobile, snow coach, or snowshoe adventure.
Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Teton Mountain Range are right next to each other, so when you visit one, you may as well visit the other. The Teton Range is stunning year-round, but the pristine winter landscapes make it a serene and picturesque destination.
Expect lots of snow and bitter cold along with the classic winter mountain views, so bring warm gloves, a thick coat, and a trusty camera.
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Winter is almost like the Grand Canyon‘s secret season. While the North Rim is likely closed, December through February is a great time to visit this national park’s South Rim since it stays open all year long.
Winter will help you avoid the stifling heat (and some crowds) while getting a unique perspective of this world wonder. Don’t attempt any hikes into the canyon unless you’re equipped with gear for snow and ice.
Famous for being the hottest place on the planet, Death Valley is one of those national parks you want to avoid in the summertime and enjoy in the off-season. Expect to see snow-capped mountain peaks with a big bowl of desert in between.
Make sure you don’t miss the park highlights, like Artists Drive, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, and the salt flats at the lowest point in North America: Badwater Basin.
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This national park features a massive cave system with fascinating diversity. If you’re captivated by decorative rock formations, Carlsbad Caverns National Park offers some of the best-preserved and most accessible views of stalagmites and stalactites.
While the iconic Natural Cave entrance to the Big Room is often closed in winter due to ice, an indoor elevator will get you there more easily.
Anytime you’re traveling, make sure you carefully consider the season and location. Do your research and always check park websites and road conditions before your trip to ensure a fun, safe trip. Remember to respect the wildlife, bring along all your travel essentials, and enjoy the adventure!