Tuesday, October 9, 2012

US National Parks: The 4 Biggest Advantages of Autumn Travel

Along the Skyline Trail in Mt Rainier National Park, WA
Having worked for the National Park Service (NPS), one of the best ranger travel secrets I learned is that the best time to visit many US national parks is fall, not summer. The deserts of the Southwest are more temperate during autumn. Fall foliage is blazing with reds, golds and oranges across the country, from Appalachia's Blue Ridge Parkway to Yellowstone National Park way out West. Summer crowds have drifted out of California's lofty Sierra Nevada Mountains and the volcanic Cascades Range just inland from the West Coast. Even some of Alaska's spectacular national parks - including Denali and Kenai Fjords - are easy to access during early autumn, at least before the first snow falls.

The sweet spot for maximizing good weather but avoiding summer vacation crowds is usually right after Labor Day through the end of September or even October. Still not convinced that fall is a perfect time to visit many national parks? Here are four good reasons to time your trip after summer. 

Save more money. Rates at lodgings both inside the parks and in nearby gateway towns often drop steeply after Labor Day. Ask about off-season discounts when making reservations. Beware that some park lodges shut down in mid-September or early October, like the North Rim's Grand Canyon Lodge, Crater Lake Lodge in Oregon or Far View Lodge at Mesa Verde National Park. But a few stay open year-round, like those in Yosemite Valley.

View of Mt Rainier and Nisqually Glacier in autumn

Enjoy some solitude. On a recent backpacking trip in Kings Canyon National Park during mid-September, I only saw about 10 people each day - and this was on the park's most popular backcountry loop around Rae Lakes! In early October in Mt Rainier National Park, I was one of only four people sitting on the front porch of the National Park Inn catching sunset from the old-fashioned wicker chairs. When I've driven Yosemite's high country Tioga Rd (Hwy 120) in late October before snow closes it for the year, I've had viewpoints and day-hiking trails almost all to myself. 

Warm days, cool nights. Have you ever sweated out a national park trip during the dog days of August? Unless you're one of those wild and crazy ones who wants to experience what 120 degrees Fahrenheit feels like in Death Valley, the balmy weather of fall at at many can be a relief. Days are usually still sunny, with temperatures becoming crisper and cooler ovenight - cue your excuse to put that campfire or cabin fireplace to good use. Dress in layers, and you'll stay warm and comfy enough.
Alpenglow after sunset over Mt Rainier from Longmire, WA

Wildlife on the move. Last, fall is a great time for wildlife spotting in many national parks. Watch bears hungrily prowl before denning for the winter, elk and moose dramatically clash over mates, and a field guide's worth of birds migrating south for the winter.

Do you have a helpful travel tip for visiting US national parks during fall? Let us know by leaving a comment below. Thanks!

Related links:
Fall Travel: Sunshine on California's Coast
Ghost Towns: Escaping Crowds at US National Parks
Insta-guide to Kings Canyon National Park

Photo credits: Mt Rainier National Park (Sara J. Benson)

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