Americans have flocked to national parks this year and that’s no surprise. Roadtripping provides an extra bubble of personal space and the great outdoors offer a natural opportunity for social distancing. With fall just around the corner and no end in sight for closed international borders, seeing more of our nation’s natural wonders remains a strong travel contender.
Although national parks are appealing destinations year-round, a few stand out from the pack in autumn. Fall colors are an obvious draw at some parks, but there are also other benefits to traveling in September through November. These seven parks are prime fall destinations but lack the crowds you might find at more stereotypical leaf-peeping parks.
As with all travel in the COVID era, you’ll need to be flexible with your plans. Health and safety risks—and business operations—can change on a dime. You should be ready to pivot your plans if things change between making reservations and leaving home. Check the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, read local news and inquire about community laws and sentiment before traveling. If you’re feeling sick or you’re traveling from a high-risk area, stay home.
Acadia National Park, Maine
Acadia is a winner on our list of getaways year round, but leaf peepers take note: Acadia takes fall foliage to a whole new level. Here, not only will you enjoy the reds, golds and yellows of hardwoods, but it will be juxtaposed against dark green pines and a deep blue sea. This is nature’s paintbrush at its finest.
Visiting in 2020 brings several challenges to travelers. For the first time, Acadia is requiring pre-reserved permits to drive into the park between October 1 and 18, coinciding with expected peak colors. Additionally, the state of Maine requires travelers to bring proof of a negative COVID test or quarantine upon arrival (there are exceptions for residents of nearby states, including NH, VT, CT, NY and NJ). Because of this, crowds will feel lighter than normal.
To visit, stay in the town of Bar Harbor, which should be delightfully quiet this fall without the normal cruise ship daytrippers.There are numerous independent hotels in town, but you can save money by redeeming hotel points at a few hotels. The waterfront Holiday Inn Bar Harbor Resort starts at 22,500 points per night. Hilton loyalists should choose the Hampton Inn Bar Harbor (60,000 points per night), which is walking distance to Main Street and the Shore Path.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Colorado’s Rocky Mountains are best known for their shimmering yellow aspens in the fall, but that’s not the main reason to visit the state’s best known national park. Instead, time your visit for the elk rut in mid-September through mid-October (it sometimes lingers into November).
Seeing dozens of elk with a spectacular mountain backdrop is special on its own. The chance to see a hundred or more while listening to their bugles resonate through the woods is unforgettable. If you pack binoculars, you may also witness bighorn sheep head-butting on the mountainside, especially in October and November.
Rocky Mountain National Park also has a permit system in place to drive into the park before 5pm daily. However, anyone can enter at dusk when elk are more likely to bugle. Though the park has several entry points, you’ll need to stay in Estes Park to redeem points without a long commute. The Ridgeline is part of the Ascend Hotel Collection, requiring 20,000 Choice points per night.
Channel Islands National Park, California
Off the coast of southern California, Channel Islands National Park offers an experience that birders won’t want to miss. Fall is a prime opportunity for pelagic (ocean) birding, as species migrate up and down the coast.
Operators such as Island Packers run specialty cruises in pursuit of sightings which may include the Red-billed Tropicbird, Leach’s Storm-Petrel or Carveri’s Murrelet. If the limited dates don’t line up with your schedule, you can take regularly-scheduled ferries to the island (also offered by Island Packers) to search for Scripp’s murrelets en route or landbirds like the island scrub-jay.
You won’t find hotels on the island, but there are several chain hotels near Ventura Harbor, making it convenient for a day trip. Of these, the Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach stands out for its resort amenities and optional upgrades to ocean view suites (prices vary, typically 45,000 to 55,000 Hilton points per night).
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas
For traditional fall colors in an untraditional setting, head to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The park blazes in fiery colors, primarily from maples. Although the park can be busy on weekends, the park is less visited than most of the country’s parks and is manageable most weekdays.
To plan your day, check the park’s fall color report because different sections of the park peak at different times depending on elevation. McKittrick Canyon is a particularly popular spot for hiking between mid-October and mid-November to enjoy the views.
The nearest hotels to the park are in Carlsbad, NM, 45 minutes away. However, New Mexico currently requires all visitors to self-quarantine for 14 days, which makes this an unreliable option. Instead, stay in El Paso, TX and take a day trip to the park. You’ll find redemptions with all major hotel chains. Staying near the airport puts you on the east side of the city for a shorter drive. Rewards start at just 5,000 points for the Hyatt Place El Paso Airport hotel.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio
Cuyahoga doesn’t have the same prestige as other national parks. In fact, you may not have heard of it if you don’t live within driving distance. Regardless, this park is home to brilliant fall colors and ample recreational opportunities, just 30 minutes from downtown Cleveland.
A normal highlight of a fall visit is a ride on the two-hour round-trip Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. While it hasn’t been determined if the train will run this October, there’s still plenty to keep you occupied if it doesn’t. Visitors can hike on trails to Brandywine Falls or past covered bridges. You can also bike, canoe, kayak or fish.
The closest points hotels to the park are the Country Inn and Suites (42,000 Radisson points per night) and a LaQuinta Inn & Suites (15,000 Wyndham points per night), both in the town of Macedonia, OH. For hotels in other loyalty programs, you can easily commute in from Cleveland or Akron.
Arches National Park, Utah
Utah is home to five national parks, four of which are certified dark sky parks. All of them are well suited for stargazing, but Arches offers something that the others don’t. Here, not only can you enjoy majestic views of an expansive sky, but you can also see the silhouette of natural rock arches against the sky at dusk, dawn or under a full moon.
Stargazing is a year-round activity, but fall is a good bet to see meteor showers. The season kicks off with the Draconid meteors (peaking October 7), then the Orionids (October 21), South Taurids (November 4 to 5), North Taurids (November 11 to 12) and finally the Leonids (November 17). The Orionids, in particular, can produce up to 20 meteors per hour. Despite peaking on October 21, they can be seen all month long.
Arches National Park is easily accessible from the town of Moab, which is also the gateway to Canyonlands National Park. You’ll find hotels at all service levels and brands here. The Hoodoo Moab is a Hilton Curio Collection property, known for blending independent design with brand consistency and loyalty perks. Rooms here require 70,000 Hilton points per night.
Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Back on the west coast, Lassen Volcanic National Park is another park where you might not expect fall colors. This quiet northern California park has a few pockets of cottonwood, oaks and sagebrush which together create a vivid palette. Crystal clear Manzanita Lake is one area of the park with bright colors in addition to the ubiquitous evergreens. Even if you don’t time it right for the fall colors, you’ll still enjoy an iconic view of Lassen Peak.
Because the park has several high elevation areas, autumn arrives early. Your best chance of seeing brilliant foliage is in September and October. As the season progresses, be prepared for temporary road or trail closures due to snow at higher altitudes. Don’t be disappointed if you see snow instead of fall colors, though. The geothermal areas of Sulphur Works and Bumpass Hell Trail are beautiful in a different way.
Lassen Park is in a remote area without many hotels in the immediate area, so most visitors drive in for the day. You’ll find plenty of hotels in Redding, including the Sheraton at the Sundial Bridge for 35,000 Marriott points per night.
Outdoor enthusiasts will quickly learn there’s plenty to do in the region and may want to stay awhile. To stay closer to the park, use flexible points like Chase Ultimate Rewards or Citi ThankYou points as a cash equivalent to book an independent hotel.
The national parks above offer the opportunity to enjoy fall’s splendors without jostling the crowds at other autumn hotspots. You may even discover a new favorite sight. No matter what, traveling to any of these national parks in fall is a captivating way to explore some of America’s most special places.