The Five Least-Crowded National Parks to Visit This Fall

Millions of people flock to the northeast each year, chasing fall colors. That activity generates about $8 billion dollars in tourism revenue, according to the United States Forest Service.

One town in Vermont, overwhelmed with leaf-peeping influencers, closed a famous photography spot altogether during autumn colors. Many other communities and rural areas deal with similar issues as social media has broadcast easily reached and sought-after destinations.

There are still plenty of destinations across the U.S. visitors can enjoy, free of tourists and influencers, however. All of those destinations happen to be national parks.

When people think of national parks, they likely picture a crowded Yosemite, Grand Canyon, or Great Smokey Mountains. There was a time when national parks were wild, empty, and pristine. One could hike, canoe, and admire the fall colors without seeing more than a handful of people. Those places that resemble the parks as they were decades ago still exist, thankfully. 

It’s just a little harder to find. 

Beautiful Places without the Crowds

The New England area is swarmed by millions of people yearly wanting to see its beautiful fall colors. Is it worth it? Yes. But travelers are also battling for parking, navigating crowded hiking trails, and likely paying higher rates for lodging. 

It’s no secret: crowds swarm to places that are beautiful and easily reached. Meanwhile, those slightly harder-to-reach destinations sit quietly without any fanfare, but the opportunity to educate visitors on protecting wild spaces.

The high peaks of Great Basin National Park.
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

Empty National Parks to Explore this Fall 

Some fall locations require long drives, flights, or even packing up the canoe for an otherworldly adventure.

Take Isle Royale National Park in northern Michigan or Voyageurs National Park near the Canadian border in Minnesota, for instance. These destinations see fewer than 250,000 tourists a year, combined. Both offer gorgeous fall colors, but you must bring all your gear to Isle Royale.

According to the National Park Service, the on-island services in the fall are limited to non-existent. Visitors should bring everything they will need for their trip. They also recommend bringing extra provisions, such as warmer gear or additional meals.

It’s a similar situation for Voyageurs, with operations winding down by the end of September. 

Luckily, fall hits early in these northern climates, with peak colors in mid-September with golds, rusts, and yellows glistening throughout the parks.

Farther north, fall can be unpredictable yet pristine in Denali National Park. Because it’s so far north, fall and winter can mix in Alaska. But the crowds aren’t around as tourists enjoy these subalpine forests turning a magical red and orange. Fewer than 450,000 people visit Denali annually, and most do that during the Memorial Day to Labor Day timeframe. 

Outside the busy summer months, the park winds down, and tourists are on their own to explore. Make sure to rent a car as you can drive further into the park when the buses stop operating. Visitors can still experience the continent’s tallest mountain and one of the country’s most magical national parks, much as it was 300 years ago. 

Easy Access National Parks

Back in the lower 48, the last two national parks to explore for fall colors are Great Basin National Park and North Cascades National Park. These two parks are among the least visited, car-accessible national parks in the continental United States, according to 2022 park data. 

Neither park requires payment to enter, so these numbers may not be absolutely accurate. Still, official data says fewer than 150,000 people visit Great Basin, and only 30,000 visit the North Cascades, in spite of their easy access.

These two parks pack a fall color punch that few other locations can compete with. 

North Cascades is three hours north of Seattle and sees the larches turn gold while the ground flora lights up in a bright red. As if it couldn’t get any better, towering four thousand feet above are the jagged peaks of these famous mountains. Hiking among these fall colors is nothing short of brilliant. 

As for Nevada’s Great Basin, the aspen lining the mountainsides look like someone spray-painted them with gold. Be aware that the highest drivable points in the park reach heights above 10,500 feet, so dress warmly, and don’t be surprised if the fall colors have a little dusting of white magic. 

Skyline Drive Shenandoah National Park Virginia

Plan And Prepare

Plan and prepare for your trip wherever you head this fall to ensure safety and maximize enjoyment. 

Adventuring during fall means a clash of seasons, and freak storms and conditions crop up out of nowhere. Bring proper hiking attire, plenty of food and water, and a communication device when hiking or camping.

Also, please follow the Leave No Trace principles and pack out what you packed in. The goal should be to leave the landscape better than you found it so those who visit after you can enjoy it as you did. 

As one plans fall trips in 2023, or beyond, consider ditching the usual crowded areas and set off into unspoiled territory at these five national parks. These destinations will spur a deeper connection with nature, and the stories and memories created will last a lifetime.

For many outdoor enthusiasts, that’s the ultimate win.

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