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Moving From Fall Towards Winter In the National Parks


Fall washes the creek beds with color in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, while the backwaters of Yellowstone Lake provide resting grounds for sandhill cranes heading south for winter. Top photo NPS, bottom photo by Kurt Repanshek

Moving from fall to winter can be rude. It's anything but subtle, and certainly not without notice, as usually is the case with that softer transition from spring to summer or summer to fall. The signs practically assault your senses. And yet, the transition can be much too quick.

Hiking in many parks this time of year fills your nostrils with the rich, loamy scent of soil and the decomposition of leaves underfoot, while your ears catch the squawking and honking and wing beats from overhead as skeins of geese and braces of ducks make their way south. Some hikers are lucky enough to catch the chortling of sandhills, also heading closer to the Equator, to Padre Island National Seashore or some other warm coastal destination.

Vistas open up, at least in the hardwood forests. Leaves, which seemingly just days before were flaring orange, red, and gold, now are fluttering to the ground, leaving bare limbs that frame distant peaks, valleys, or lakes. In Western parks such as Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain, Sequoia and Yosemite, the raspy rattle of aspen leaves dried by the season and whipped by the breezes carries, along with the brittle leaves themselves, across the landscape.

Rise early in some parks -- Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, even Great Smoky Mountain these days -- or linger outside around dusk and you might be rewarded with the bugling of elk. Bears, both of the black and grizzly varieties, are making their last forays for nuts, berries, moths, and whatever other nourishment they can seize before their long slumber.

In the East, the mesmerizing slap of the surf on the beaches of Capes Hatteras, Lookout and Cod, as well as upon the cobble-covered shores of Acadia, sounds much the same as in mid-summer. And yet, missing is the din of the crowds and so the ebb and flow of the waves somehow seems even more lively, more natural.

East or west, the approaching chill of autumn convinces you to zip your coat tighter, or add another layer, or stuff your hands deep into your pockets, or just surrender and head back inside.

Cords of wood, stacked neatly near some lodges and cabins, announce the changing seasons as well. They’ve been there all summer, in many cases, but without the cold winds and temperatures that make building a fire desirable, if not down right logical, it’s easy to overlook them on the landscape.

Once put to work, these logs add another dimension to the calendar, flickering and flaring, popping and cracklin’, encouraging you to nudge your chair a bit closer to that big stone monument that is the Old Faithful Inn’s multi-hearthed fireplace, or to the woodstoves in the cabins at Kalaloch in Olympic National Park, or to the fireplace in the dining room of Big Meadows Lodge in Shenandoah National Park.

The smell of burning oak or pine, sweet to some, is enough to make you retreat early from your hike to enjoy these fires and the timeless comfort they offer and the new friendships kindled around them.

Yes, fall is much too short, at least here in the Rockies. Summer seemed to hang on like some relative who overstayed their welcome. It ran on with daily high temperatures in the 80s into mid-October, invading weeks normally given over to fall, when a weak cold front delivered day after day after day of soaking rains that matted leaves to the ground at 6,500 feet, while leaving a dusting of snow a bit higher, perhaps near 9,000 feet.

How much of a hurrah can fall make with what's left of the year?

No, fall doesn’t slink away quietly with the flip of the calendar. It's gone before you realize it. All the more reason to head out into the parks for at least one more hike before the lodges are shuttered and the snow flies.

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It would be nice to have a single listing of when the western National Parks close for the winter season. That would help in planning current and future trips. I appreciate your articles. They are quite helpful.

Thanks for the suggestion, Anon. We've got a winter-themed series of articles in the pipeline, and perhaps we could add a list like the one you want.

The colors in the Smokies are now at their peak. If not at their peak, certainly outstanding.

Winter doesn't close the Smokies, just certain roads.

Danny Bernstein

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