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Fall In The National Parks: A Kaleidoscope Of National Park Leaf-Peeping Drives


There is a magical quality to fall visits to Shenandoah National Park as mile after mile of trees blazing with vivid reds, oranges, and yellows come into view along Skyline Drive. In Rocky Mountain National Park, the aspen groves you see along the lower reaches of Trail Ridge Road turn so vividly gold in the fall that they take your breath away.

If leaf peeping in the parks is on your to-do list, here are some picks and tips for following the crowd or taking the road less traveled.

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Shenandoah National Park's Skyline Drive crawls with leaf peepers come October. Kurt Repanshek photo.

The Eastern "Big Four"

East of the Mississippi, the "Big Four" fall foliage magnets are Acadia National Park, Shenandoah National Park, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While you’ll certainly have plenty of fall color to enjoy in these places, you'll also encounter congested roads, parking problems at overlooks and parking lots, and "no vacancy" signs galore.

Coastal Maine's Acadia has a mix of evergreens and hardwoods that delight the eye and offer some of the best fall foliage in New England. Many visitors particularly like the vivid contrast of the flaming hardwoods, the dark greens of the spruce, fir, and pitch pine, the white bark of the birches, and the blues and greens of the sea.

Colors begin to show in the higher and cooler places by late September. Catch the fall foliage at its peak -- usually during the first few weeks of October -- and you can enjoy spectacular views along the Park Loop Road and atop 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain. Make a point to abandon your car and walk or bike the park's famed carriage roads and enjoy the colors from under the forest canopy.

The 105-mile-long Skyline Drive, America's first lengthy parkway that meanders the length of Virginia's Shenandoah, reliably offers an artist’s palette of red, yellow, and gold from about mid-October to mid-November. Colors generally peak in Shenandoah during the last half of October.

Catching the peak can be tricky, however, since this elongated park is north-south oriented and varies considerably in elevation. Colors arrive up to several weeks earlier in the north and at higher and middle elevations. The extended season in the south and at lower elevations offers extra options. Many species of small trees and shrubs, such as sassafras and sumac, remain vibrant long after the oaks peak.

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Acadia National Park offers reliable, and brilliant, fall colors. NPS photo.

The Blue Ridge Parkway, winding 469 miles from the southern end of Skyline Drive to the eastern entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, puts on one of the best fall color shows for windshield tourists.

You need to be carefully tuned in to the "where and when," though. As in Shenandoah, the leaf peeper season unfolds from north to south and from higher to lower elevations. Depending on location, colors may peak from early October (elevations above 5,000 ft.) to mid-October (3,000-4,000+ ft.) to as late as mid-November (lower elevations near Asheville/Lake Lure).

Expect to share the splendor of the brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows with lots of others. On weekends in October, the park's busiest month, it may seem that the whole population of the eastern United States has decided to take a leaf-peeping drive on the parkway. Travel on weekdays if you can. Gas stations are scarce, so fill your tank before you go.

Straddling the North Carolina/Tennessee border in the Southern Appalachians, Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts the largest stands of old-growth forest in the eastern United States. This landscape yields a fall outburst of reds, yellows, purples, browns, and golds rivaling those of the New England countryside. The colors generally peak in mid- to late October at higher elevations (which have a climate similar to New England's), but can start as early as mid-September with the turning of "early" trees such as yellow birch, American beech, mountain maple, hobblebush, and pin cherry.

At lower and middle elevations, where the color tends to be most spectacular, the blend includes such beauties as sugar maple, scarlet oak, sweetgum, red maple, and hickory. East-west trending Highway 441 (Newfound Gap Road) gets the bulk of the leaf peeping traffic, which is typically quite heavy (especially on weekends), but the Clingmans Dome Road and the Cades Cove Loop are very popular as well.

For something different, take the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a narrow, steep, winding (but paved) one-way road that passes through color-rich forests and offers glimpses of Roaring Fork Creek as a bonus. If this experience is on your list, you'll need to be willing to drive slowly in congested, stop-prone traffic.

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Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a popular leaf-peeping area. NPS photo.

Out West

Most of Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park is too high, steep, and rocky to harbor broad swaths of diversified hardwoods that offer a rainbow of color.

Nevertheless, leaf peeping in the park has a magical quality. Credit it to the aspens, great groves of which turn to shimmering gold in the early fall when the bull elk are bugling and assembling their harems. On a sunny-bright afternoon in late September (the usual peak), the sweeping vistas of gold and green can take your breath away while the eerie bugling sends a chill up your spine.

The leaf peeper season in this park is short (as elsewhere in the Rockies), and the colorful fall leaves can peak, wane, and disappear with dismaying swiftness.

Fall in Montana's Glacier National Park delights visitors in elevational gradients. Autumn color starts in the subalpine zone by early September with vibrant orange Rocky Mountain maple, and red and orange vaccinium (huckleberries, whortleberries), etc. In mid- to late-September and even into early October the color drops in elevation, yielding gorgeous yellow, gold, and orange birch, cottonwood, aspen at mid-elevations. Golden swaths and archways of Western larch peak in mid- to late October along roadways (almost a golden halo along the U.S Highway 2 corridor and Middle Fork of the Flathead River) and the park's lake corridors, especially the North Fork lakes (including Kintla and Bowman Lake).

As with Rocky Mountain and Glacier, Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park and the contiguous John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway have a short, but spectacular, fall season centered on gloriously golden aspen groves that peak in mid- to late September. Grand Teton's Jenny Lake area is a renowned destination.

To track the fall colors, check either The Foliage Network  or The Weather Channel.

The Teton Park Road, which follows the base of the Teton Range from Moose Junction north to Jackson Lake Junction, practically bursts with color.

In Washington's Mount Rainier National Park, the main sources of fall color are vine maple, huckleberry bushes, cottonwood, mountain ash, willow, elderberry, aspen, and tamarack.

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Rocky Mountain National Park isn't as colorful as its Eastern counterparts, but it still puts on a pretty good show. Ann Schonlau photo via NPS.

The leaves begin turning in early September. If you hit the leaves at their peak (usually late September to early October), driving on State Route 410 through Chinook Pass or on the White Pass Scenic Byway (U.S. 12) will be a truly memorable experience. In the Chinook Pass and White Pass areas, you can still see gloriously golden tamarack (western larch) when the serious snow begins to fall in November.

Dr. Robert Janiskee is an Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Geography at the University of South Carolina. He long taught a national parks course, and continues to visit parks, think about parks, and occasionally write about parks.

Coming Wednesday: Some more, slightly off the regular route, parks for fall color.

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