Skip to main content

5 Best Hikes for Fall to Enjoy the Burst of Autumn Colors

A spectacular view of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in fall.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

America’s national parks are especially spectacular in the fall. Summer crowds have thinned at many parks, and the cooler weather is ideal for hiking. And, as the days get shorter and temperatures drop, forests from the Rockies to the Great Smoky Mountains burst into a spectacular collage of color, in preparation for winter. Here are just a few of the best hikes for fall so you can admire the dazzling seasonal transition in America’s national parks.

Emerald Lake at Rocky Mountain National Park

The Emerald lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

At the end of the summer, the beefy ungulates descend from the park’s alpine meadows, gathering at lower elevations — and during the fall mating season, anxious males bugle vociferously in hopes of enticing female companions. For a sampling of the park’s stunning seasonal color, hike Emerald Lake. The 4-mile out-and-back through Tyndall Gorge begins with a ramble through stands of quaking aspen and ponderosa pine and rewards hikers to a photogenic view of Emerald Lake, overshadowed by Flattop Mountain.

Old Rag at Shenandoah National Park

The Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Spread over a 300-square-mile swath of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the diverse woodlands forests of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park consistently provide a dazzling autumn display. Nearly 95% of the park is covered by mixed hardwood forests, with chestnut and red oak woodlands at higher elevations and woodlands of maple, birch, and yellow poplar spreading downslope. In the fall, the protected area becomes a montage of fiery color, with scarlet red maples, pumpkin-colored black gum, and golden-hued poplars stealing the show.

For a spectacular, bird’s eye view of the vibrant seasonal transition, make a 5.4-mile trek from Berry Hollow to the summit of 3,291-foot Old Rag. The freestanding peak offers 360-degree views, including the park’s string of peaks to the west and the pastoral Virginia piedmont to the east. Post-climb, spend some time exploring Skyline Drive. The 105-mile motorway bisects the national park, providing access to 75 different scenic overlooks, perfect for admiring the park’s seasonal foliage show.

Apgar Lookout at Glacier National Park

A view of Lake McDonald from Apgar Lookout.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

For a spectacular glimpse of the park’s fall transition, head for the southwestern portion of the park and hike to the historic Apgar Lookout. The 3.6-mile out-and-back provides a peak-framed view of Lake McDonald from the flanks of Apgar Mountain, with Stanton Mountain, Mount Vaught, and Mount Cannon filling the horizon. For an overnight getaway, the primitive Apgar Campground, the largest in the park, typically stays open through the month of October.

Cadillac Mountain at Acadia National Park

A view of a body of water in Cadillac Mountain.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

New England is renowned for its stunningly vibrant fall foliage — and Maine’s Acadia National Park is a spectacular place to admire the seasonal transition. Located primarily on Mount Desert Island, the largest island along the coast of Maine, the national park is blanketed with a blend of boreal and deciduous forests — and in autumn, the park’s blueberry bushes blaze red, while beech, maple, and oak trees also add splashes of seasonal color — all juxtaposed against the steely water of the Atlantic Ocean.

For a spectacular view of the park, hike South Ridge Trail to the summit of 1,520 foot Cadillac Mountain, the highest peak along the Eastern Seaboard. The 7.1-mile out-and-back trip offers plenty of panoramic ridgelines — and during the fall, Cadillac Mountain’s expansive summit is also the ideal place to catch migrating birds of prey, including broad-winged hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, and American kestrels. The park’s annual fall Hawk Watch program is even based on top of Cadillac Mountain, along the North Ridge Trail.

Mount Cammerer at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A picturesque view of Mt. Cammerer before sunrise.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Shared by North Carolina and Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most biodiverse national park in the country — and the park’s rich diversity of flora and fauna includes more than 100 native tree species, making for a spectacular autumn display. The park’s loftiest peaks rise above 6,000 feet, so fall color begins in the higher reaches of the Smokies, and the spreads downslope, with golden hickories, ruby red maples, and fiery scarlet oaks providing a kaleidoscopic seasonal show.

For a taste of the park’s foliage fireworks, make the 11-mile hike from Low Gap to the crest of Mount Cammerer. The 4,298-foot crag is studded with a historic fire tower built in 1939, offering climbers an expansive view of the rippling peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains and Pigeon River Gorge. Post-hike, continue the leaf-peeping with a cruise on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The 469-mile scenic motorway stretches from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park.

Editors' Recommendations

Malee Oot
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Born in Bangkok and raised partially in the suburbs of Nairobi, Malee has been fascinated by the natural world – and all…
The 9 Best Places to Sleep Under the Stars
These are the best places to camp, glamp, and sleep under the stars.

For nature-loving outdoorsmen, it’s hard to imagine a more enticing phrase than “sleeping under the stars.” There’s something so instinctual, serene, and just right about sleeping outdoors, staring up at the sky, contemplating our place in the universe. These days, you needn’t be a hardened backcountry survivalist to find the right place. If you like your outdoor experiences with a few more creature comforts, here are the best places to sleep under the stars in 2021.

Related Guides

Read more
The 5 Best Beaches for Camping Like a Castaway
The landscape of False Cape.

Discovering a private stretch of beach is like stumbling on a slice of paradise. And, one of the best ways to seek out your own swath of shoreline is with a beach camping trip. Offering a chance to spy migrating marine creatures, catch epic sunrises, and fall asleep to the sound of the tide, a beach campout makes for an idyllic getaway any time of year. In the south, ocean temperatures are still warm enough for swimming well into the fall, and beaches situated along the Atlantic Flyway offer the chance to admire masses of migrating waterfowl during the fall and winter.

While on the other side of the country, beach campers have the opportunity to spot migrating gray whales bound for the warm waters around Baja during the fall and winter. The best places to visit throughout the United States are a number of state and national parks, national seashores, and wilderness areas that offer opportunities for beach campers to snag a spectacular spot in the sand.

Read more
The 5 Best Rucksacks for Men To Wear in 2022
best mens rucksacks in snow.

Need a sturdy pack for your everyday adventures both in the city and out of town? Sure, you could just strap on that trusty old Jansport, but where's the fun in that? We think that's where a good rucksack comes into play. Rucksacks are the kind of bags that tote your laptop during the week and your adventure gear during the weekend. Here are some of our favorite rucksacks of every flavor for all the guys out there carrying something other than schoolbooks on their backs. As an added bonus, they look great doing both.
Related Guides

Best Backpacks for Men
Best Duffel Bags for Men

Read more