Note on COVID-19: As the pandemic continues, the National Park Service requires face coverings in indoor public areas and crowded outdoor spaces. Be sure to check on a park’s specific restrictions before you go (some have capacity limits) and whether reservations are needed.
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PHOTO BY: Pat & Chuck Blackley / Alamy Stock Photo
Acadia National Park (Maine)
October foliage is especially vivid in Maine, making it well worth the trip (a three-hour drive from Portland) to Acadia to take in the panoramic view of Mount Desert Island and the ocean from Acadia’s pink-granite-topped Cadillac Mountain. After Oct. 19, you'll no longer need a reservation to drive the popular summit road, and the 27-mile Park Loop Road grows less congested. Hike the scenic, easy 3-mile trail around Jordan Pond. The Jesup Path, a level boardwalk through a forest of white birch trees, is wheelchair accessible. Blackwoods Campground, open until mid-October, has wheelchair-friendly drive-in sites for RVs and accessible restrooms. For refreshments: Stop for lobster rolls, New England clam chowder or homemade blueberry pie in the coastal town of Bar Harbor, which also has plenty of lodging.
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PHOTO BY: Steve Krull Wildlife Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado)
Locals call it Elktober, the October spectacle of elk mating rituals, where males duke it out antler-to-antler to win their ladies. The bulls offer eerie, piercing “bugling” calls to proclaim dominance, which parkgoers can catch — along with aspen trees in their fall splendor — starting in late September at Rocky Mountain National Park. Celebrate the annual event at the Elk Fest in the gateway town of Estes Park (Oct. 2 and 3 this year). You can also spot moose, mule deer, bighorn sheep and dozens of other mammals in the park. Note that the park is requiring timed entry reservations through Oct. 11 to mitigate crowds. While you're there: Stay at or tour Estes Park’s historic Stanley Hotel, where Jack Nicholson was filmed running amok in The Shining.
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PHOTO BY: Simplyphotos
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve (West Virginia)
Fifty-three miles of the wild and wonderful New River run through New River Gorge, which became the country's 63rd and newest national park in 2020. Outfitters offer whitewater-rafting trips in the shadow of sandstone cliffs, but gawking at the canopy of changing leaves is good enough reason to visit — as is photographing the impressive New River Gorge Bridge, the park’s symbol. On Bridge Day, Oct. 16 this year, the span is closed to vehicles and visitors can stroll and marvel at hundreds of skydivers floating 876 feet into the gorge. The park is also a partner in the self-guided African American Heritage Auto Tour, which encompasses 17 historical sites in the region that tell the story of the migration of Black families, coal miners and railroad workers. Access the tour through a smartphone app or on free CDs available at the park visitor center.
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PHOTO BY: Ian Dagnall / Alamy Stock Photo
Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee)
The most-visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains is magnificent in fall. Maples, birches, beeches, hickories and dogwoods form a tapestry of scarlet, russet, orange and yellow, with sunflowers and asters abloom as well. Savor the spectrum from your car or bike on the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop, where, if you’re lucky, you might spot a black bear or two. Detour to drive up to Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet the highest point in Tennessee. Fitness buffs can climb a steep 375-foot ramp to the 45-foot observation tower and be rewarded with 360-degree views.
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PHOTO BY: Julie Mowbray / Alamy Stock Photo
Arches National Park (Utah)
When the kids are back at school and temperatures go from bothersome to bearable, the arresting landscape of more than 2,000 red-rock arches and pinnacles can be admired in comfort. A main attraction at Arches National Park, considered one of the world’s geological wonders, is the freestanding sandstone Delicate Arch, rising more than 45 feet — an arresting image captured by countless visitors and upon Utah license plates. Wheelchair users can glimpse it from a short, flat trail at the Lower Delicate Arch Viewpoint. The park’s other rock stars include Three Gossips, Eye of the Whale, Balanced Rock, Dark Angel and Tower of Babel. Many arches can be seen by car on the park’s 19-mile scenic drive. Arches is 5 miles north of Moab, Utah, which many visitors use as their home base.
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PHOTO BY: Simon Dux
Everglades National Park (Florida)
Autumn is an optimal time to visit these vast wetlands, when temperatures are more tolerable, humidity is lower and wildlife viewing is easier as water levels drop. The rainy season is usually over by November. The headline diversion at Everglades is spotting crocs and alligators; this is the only place in the world you can find them together in the wild. Bird-watchers can train binoculars on more than 350 species, including flamingos, herons, hummingbirds and loons. The park, about an hour’s drive from Miami, is notably accessible. Tram tours are wheelchair-friendly, as are a number of trails and tour boats. Assistive listening devices are available for some ranger-led programs and boat tours.
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PHOTO BY: LarryKnupp
Cuyahoga Valley National Park (Ohio)
Ohio’s only national park charges no admission and is an easy half-hour drive south of Cleveland to boot. Fall brings fabulous foliage and weather to the region, making it an ideal time to hike and bike Cuyahoga’s more than 60 easy-to-moderate trails. Ride for miles on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, watch for migrating waterfowl and busy, bucktoothed rodents preparing for winter at the Beaver Marsh. The park is also home to dozens of waterfalls, including 60-foot Brandywine Falls, its most popular site. (Pro tip: Arrive at the park before 10 a.m. when parking is easier.) After sightseeing, sip wines made from homegrown grapes at Sarah’s Vineyard, conveniently located in the park.
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PHOTO BY: ntn/Getty Images
Shenandoah National Park (Virginia)
It's true — you will hardly be alone here in fall. That’s when leaf peepers pour into the park, about two hours west of Washington, D.C. They drive along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the main road, the two-lane Skyline Drive, where 70 scenic overlooks make for great photo ops. Expect traffic jams, especially on weekends. But the misty vistas and 500 hiking trails are totally tempting. The adventurous trek to the summit of Old Rag Mountain, the park’s number one attraction. The less energetic enjoy free and wheelchair-accessible ranger talks that run into fall and include topics such as black bears and birds of prey, both of which are found in the park. Big Meadows Lodge, inside the park, has ADA- and pet-friendly rooms and is a popular place to stay and gobble up a turkey dinner with all the trimmings. Book early (but note the strict cancellation policy). There's also the rustic Skyland lodge nearby.
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Kitty Bean Yancey, a former USA TODAY deputy managing editor, is a travel writer and the winner of multiple Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers.
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