When Alan and I plan a national park visit, we skip the summer months in favor of early autumn. The lodges are still open, snow hasn’t closed the roads yet in parks with mountainous terrain, and crowds have diminished. In our opinion, engaging with nature on fall national park hikes is simply the best.
Tips for fall national park hikes
Did you know that National Park visits are natural mood boosters? And, according to an article at National Geographic, “being surrounded by nature has been proven to improve cognitive function, aid sleep, and increase attention span.”
If you really want to raise your engagement with nature, you need to park the car, put those feet on the ground, and hit the trail on some of my favorite fall national park hikes. Here are my tips for making the most of your time on the trail:
- Check park closing dates. Some trails are still accessible after a park closes, but concessions and lodging will not be available.
- Book park lodging far in advance, however last-minute cancellations do happen so check back often.
- Always hike with bear spray. If you’re flying to a national park, purchase bear spray upon arrival. Also, ask in advance if your hotel or inn loans out bear spray, some do.
- Pack for changeable weather, which means bringing along rain gear, layers, gloves and a hat. Check out my day hiking essentials list.
- Bring hiking poles. Yes, TSA allows them, but only packed into a checked bag. You cannot put them in carryon luggage.
- Sign up for a ranger-led hike, if they are still available, to learn more about the park. This is also a good idea if you’re uncomfortable hiking unfamiliar trails.
And now for some of my favorite fall hiking experiences in U.S. national parks. Some of them might surprise you. It’s not all about colorful leaves!
Hike to Bullhead Lake in Glacier National Park in the fall
Your fall hike enjoyment meter will be off the scale on the hike to Bullhead Lake, a mostly level 8-mile-round-trip hike in the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park. Picture alpine meadows surrounded by dramatic mountains, not to mention the beauty of three lakes and a waterfall. A swath of golden aspens, if they’ve turned before you arrive, completes the scene.
Although this portion of the Swiftcurrent Trail is a popular day hike, there’s plenty of space for sitting on rocks to gaze at the deep blue waters of Bullhead Lake. Enjoy a picnic lunch before heading back to the trailhead.
Beware: Bears are attracted to the huckleberry crop surrounding the trail. During the fall, bears are focused on eating as much as they can before hibernation. Make noise and always carry bear spray with you.
Where to stay in the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park:
You’ll need to plan ahead as national park lodging in Glacier books up at least a year in advance. Go in early September as both lodging choices close by the middle of the month.
More fall hikes that I’ve enjoyed at Glacier National Park:
- The hike to Grinnell Lake is an easy Glacier National Park hiking experience.
- On the west side of Glacier National Park, hike the trail to Avalanche Lake.
Check out the My Itchy Travel Feet hiking planner before hitting the trail at any time of the year.
Walk to a waterfall in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Who says fall national park hiking has to focus completely on colorful leaves? Add a waterfall to the mix for a spectacular combination. Known for its fall beauty, Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers several opportunities to enjoy both.
Laurel Falls trail is an easily accessible hike in the Smoky Mountains. Allow two hours for the 2.6-round-trip-hike that travels uphill along a paved trail. Lucky for you, the return trip is all downhill.
You won’t be the only one admiring fall foliage on this popular trail. Bring a snack or lunch to enjoy as you sit and admire Laurel Falls, which is is about 80 feet in height and divided into an upper and lower section separated by a walkway across the falls. Parking for the Laurel Falls trailhead is along the Little River Road about 3.5 miles from Sugarlands Visitor Center.
Where to stay in Great Smoky Mountains National Park:
Looking for more hiking? James Richardson shares his favorite easy trails in the Smoky Mountains.
Take a walk on Park Avenue in Arches National Park
In the fall, the easy walk along Park Avenue in Arches National Park, begins with a view of golden wildflowers juxtaposed against orange sandstone formations. While it’s not the typical autumn scene of trees decorated with colorful leaves, the effect is just as stunning.
After admiring the wildflowers at the north entrance of Utah’s version of Park Avenue, continue downhill on an easy one-mile trail—it’s slightly steep at the beginning. Along the way, look up to see monoliths with names like The Courthouse Towers, The Three Gossips, The Organ and The Tower of Babel.
Unless a friend kindly parked your car at Courthouse Towers parking lot, you’ll need to retrace your steps, making this a 2-mile round trip hike. Unfortunately it’s an uphill trek toward the end.
Where to stay in Arches National Park:
If you’re not a camper, Moab has the closest accommodations to Arches National Park, since there are no lodges within the park. Sorrell River Ranch is a luxury option that we’ll be trying on our next visit to Arches.
More fall hikes I’ve enjoyed at Arches National Park:
- Alan and I enjoyed the many short walks to view arches in the park, including Landscape Arch, Skyline Arch and the North Window.
- Moderate to advanced hikers should definitely take a sunset hike to Delicate Arch. Alan did.
Discover Stony Man, an easy trail in Shenandoah National Park
The Blue Ridge mountains are beautiful any time of the year. But, in fall, it looks as if a painter has dabbled colors of gold, brown and red across the mountains with a giant paintbrush.
The easy trail to Stony Man, Shenandoah’s second-highest peak is doable for most hikers. The short, 1.4-mile round-trip hike from the parking lot at the north end of Skyland, offers a stunning reward at the turnaround point. Why not bring a snack or lunch to enjoy as you take in the view?
Where to stay in Shenandoah National Park:
Book a room in one of the lodges located along Skyline Drive.
Don’t miss Suzan L. Jackson’s picks for best hikes in Shenandoah National Park.
Walk the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park
If you’re looking for nature to inspire you, this fall national park hike will do just that. More of a walk than a hike, you’ll still enjoy plenty of exercise on the boardwalk that winds through Yellowstone National Park’s Upper Geyser Basin.
Rather than colorful changing leaves, geysers are the stars here. Watch them spout, seep, bubble or roar to life spraying streams of steamy water skyward.
End your walk by sitting in the bleachers in front of Old Faithful waiting for the geyser to blast into the air. It’s worth taking the time to consider: How does nature do that?
Where to stay in Yellowstone National Park:
We stayed at Grant Village Lodge on a fall trip to Yellowstone as it stayed open later than other lodging choices. However one or two nights at Old Faithful Inn is the ultimate Yellowstone National Park lodging experience.
Enjoy a fall hike to Hidden Falls in Grand Teton National Park
There’s something so rewarding about hiking to a waterfall. The sound of water thundering down a mountainside reverberates in your body. And the cool mist thrown off by the falls refreshes any tired hiker.
Arrive at the trail to Hidden Falls the short way by taking a boat ride across Jenny Lake or enjoy a longer journey by hiking around the lake’s shoreline. In any event, you won’t be hiking alone—Hidden Falls is one of the most popular trails in the Grand Tetons—even during shoulder season.
So how do you bask in nature with lots of people around? Find a comfortable rock off a side trail and let the crowds pass you by. Hiking is more than reaching your destination; to enjoy nature’s benefits, you must soak it in.
Another option is to greet hikers with a smile. Start a conversation as you enjoy the waterfalls from the viewpoint. You’ll have something in common with every person there—the beauty of the falls. Nature creates a diversified community. Be part of it.
Where to stay in Grand Teton National Park:
Alan and I stayed in a log cabin at Signal Mountain Lodge inside the park. Jenny Lake Lodge—my choice for next time—and Jackson Lake Lodge are good in-the-park accommodations, if they are not booked up. Staying in Jackson, WY—find hotels here—is a convenient option.
Of course I’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to fall hikes in U.S. national parks. No matter which park you choose, put your feet on the ground to enjoy a fun boomer travel adventure.
Are you looking for the ultimate fall travel experience? We drove from Arizona to Canada on a fall national park road trip. You’ll love this itinerary!