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Fall's Brightest Colors Descending on National Parks

Cataloochee Creek against Fall's vibrant colors.

Fall color in the Cataloochee Valley of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is not to be missed. NPS photo.

With Fall officially under way, it won't be too long before the season's most spectacular colors are daubed, stroked, and splashed across the national park system. Already, varying hues of gold, umber, and rouge are mixing in with the dwindling greens of maples, beech, oaks, and the other hardwood species that make the season so colorful.

The good news is that you haven't missed the peak yet. The bad news is that if you don't already have a room reservation, you probably won't find a vacancy in any of the well-known fall foliage parks so you can spend a few days admiring the views.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Shenandoah National Park, and the Blue Ridge Parkway are famous for their fall colors. That's evident both from the photos that exist and from the spike in room rates you encounter when trying to book a room for mid-October, when colors in the Mid-Atlantic states typically peak.

Think this season isn't big? At Shenandoah, the folks have dedicated a full page on their web site to the wonders and beauty of the turning of the leaves.

Throughout the park, color changes are beginning to take place, with many trees changing into their fall wardrobe literally overnight! Trees that were completely green a few days ago have begun to show off their yellow, orange, or red leaves in just the last day or two. Deep purple dogwoods and reddish-purple sumacs are especially evident at the lower elevations, and the dark red Virginia creeper vines are very showy right now as they wind their way up trees, along rocky outcrops, and over the rock walls that line the Skyline Drive. Striped maples, small trees that are part of the forest understory, are beginning to show off their yellowy foliage along many of the park trails. These early color changes provide a sharp contrast to most of the trees in the park which are still quite green.

A similar page can be found at Great Smoky Mountain's web site. Check in there and you'll learn that the dry summer that the park endured seems to have impacted the turning of the leaves, both in vibrancy and timing. Keep the page among your "Favorites" and check back regularly for updates on the spread of color.

If you do head to Great Smoky, don't get caught in the traffic jams that wind through Cades Cove to view the colors. There are plenty of other great viewing opportunities to be found in Cataloochee, from atop the Clingmans Dome observation tower -- as long as the weather is clear -- and along the Roaring Fork Nature Trail.

You can enjoy the turning of the leaves for several days by motoring along the Blue Ridge Parkway between Shenandoah and Great Smoky. The rise and fall of the topography as you drive down the road takes you in and out of various stages of color; it's almost as if you're driving across some gigantic canvass still being painted.

If you can't wait another two or three weeks for leaf peeping, as they call it, head north to Acadia National Park. In Acadia the peak fall color should just about be getting under way, and could last into mid-month. While you can savor these colors driving the park roads, why not park the car and walk or ride a bike along the carriage paths under the forest canopy? The views will be just as, if not more, spectacular than those seen from behind your windshield. And for me part and parcel with enjoying the visual kaleidoscope is the smell of fall that hangs in the air and the crispness of the air.

The Western parks aren't left out of this autumnal exuberance, but they're already just about at their peak. Glades of aspen turning to gold and maples adding splashes of red to the mountainsides are offset wonderfully by the spruce, pines, and firs.

At Bryce Canyon National Park this colorful feast is visible from the rim, in Grand Teton you can view it along the Teton Park Road, and in Yellowstone the Lamar Valley is a good place to view the changing of the colors. Driving the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier is another great way of enjoying the season.

Of course, what often adds contrast to the fall colors in the Western parks is an overnight dusting of snow.

Unfortunately, this colorful season is woefully short, so don't dally too long if you want to experience it up close. To help you pinpoint when the colors will be at their peak in your part of the country, check out this web site.


remember the "going-to-the-sun" road is closed this year (2007) in Glacier Park for repairs

Not all of the Sun Road is closed.

While the section between Avalanche and Siyeh Bend is closed to allow for continued repair work related to last fall's storms and stepped up work on the overall restoration of the road, on the east side you can travel by vehicle between St. Marys and Siyeh Bend, and on the west side between West Glacier and Avalanche.

If you're hiking or biking, though, on the west side you can continue six miles past Avalanche to Packer's Roost Road.

A great option to enjoy the fall season in Glacier without traveling the entire Sun Road would be to pull over at Avalanche and hike the Avalanche Lake Trail or the Trails of the Cedars Nature Trail. On the eastern side of the park, you can still access the Gunsight Pass Trail off the Sun Road as well as the Sun Point Nature Trail. And there are many, many more trails still open that will get you out and into the fall colors.

For more details on the Sun Road work this fall, visit this site.

I had traveled through Asheville, North Carolina a few years ago. Asheville is a perfect jumping off point for a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway, it is about half way between Shenandoah and the Great Smokeys. I hit town in mid-October, prime time for leaf-peeping. I had not made reservations prior to arriving. I was totally shocked when I went to the Super 8 and found that, instead of rooms being priced between $50 - $75 like I was expecting, the rates had more than doubled -- I was asked to pay $180! No kidding. I found a better deal nearby, but the shock of that price jump for the fall colors crowd has stayed with me.

If you're a last minute traveler (like I had been), let me recommend a couple other options.

1) Check out a pretty nice Forest Service campground located right in Asheville, not very far from the Blue Ridge Parkway. The campground is at Lake Powhatan. The campground is open until the end of October, and it has some nice amenities (I'm pretty sure it has showers). The lake itself is really nice, you can expect to see a lot of birds and other small wildlife there.

2) Drive just a little further south, and you can stay in Brevard, NC. Brevard's got a couple of nice B&B's. You'd probably have to call ahead for a reservation here. The small town atmosphere of Brevard is very nice. Access to the Blue Ridge Parkway is through the Pisgah National Forest on highway 276. That road is called the "Forest Heritage Scenic Byway", and it lives up to its name. You'll drive by a couple of visitor centers, and a very cool waterfall, called Looking Glass Falls.

Jeremy, I think you might have flunked geography in school. Asheville is about 60 miles from Great Smokey NP, but over 320 miles from Shenandoah NP.

Oops! Guess I should have looked at a map before claiming "about half way". Thanks for keeping me honest Mookie!

Great post on Fall colors in the National Parks, Kurt.

Here's a bit more information on Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah National Park.

The color's in the upper elevations of the park are just starting to explode.

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