Thursday, September 29, 2016

Best national park trails to enjoy autumn

Cuyahoga Valley's Brandywine Falls in autumn.
Photo courtesy of Cuyahoga Valley NPS.
The following article originally was written for and appeared in the September 2016 Coach-Net newsletter.

Ah, autumn – the world appears to have been repainted, as red, gold and sienna orange leaves contrast with the blue sky. For many travelers, fall is their favorite time to hit the road.

But there’s more to see than the leaves. As those they fall to the ground, the landscape opens up, allowing you to spot interesting geological features or terrain that summer’s green foliage keeps hidden. More animal sightings also are possible as birds migrate while mammals gorge in preparation for winter’s cold. As the foliage no longer is as thick, seeing them is easier.

America’s national parks offer a number of great places to experience autumn’s beauty. And with summer vacation over, many of the parks will be less crowded.

Six national parks particularly deliver great autumn experiences for travelers.

Cuyahoga Falls National Park
Brandywine Falls ranks among the most popular of the Ohio park’s several waterfalls. The area surrounding the falls is gorgeous in October beneath autumn leaves, and the Brandywine Gorge Trail to it is shaded almost the entire way by red maples and eastern hemlocks. With a combination of segments from the Stanford Road Metro Parks Bike and Hike Trail, the gorge trail loops 1.5 miles to the falls then back to the trailhead with several crossings of Brandywine Creek.

Great Sand Dunes National Park
Most people visit this Colorado park for the sand dunes soaring 60-plus stories in the sky. There’s more to the park than dunes, though. The Montville Trail provides an excellent sample of that as it heads into the surrounding mountains. The 0.5-mile loop partially runs alongside a creek, where the golden canopy of cottonwood and aspen trees sends you to an autumn wonderland.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The 1-mile round trip Clingmans Dome Trail heads to the highest spot in the national park and Tennessee and the third tallest east of the Mississippi. Autumn leaves on the road to Clingmans Dome usually change about mid-October, offering a spectacular red, orange and yellow display. At the dome’s top, views of those swaths of harvest colors can stretch for up to a hundred miles in all directions.

Hot Springs National Park
Though hardly thoughts of as a backcountry wilderness experience, the Arkansas park does offer a number of forested trails to enjoy. The best in autumn is the Hot Springs Mountain Trail. Heading through a beautiful mixed hardwood and pine forest, the route offers a gorgeous fall leaf display – and cooler temperatures than during muggy summer.

Shenandoah National Park
Spectacular autumn color views await day hikers on the Stony Man Trail, a segment of the famous Appalachian National Scenic Trail. At the trail’s top, you’ll be rewarded with an expansive view of the Shenandoah Valley and the Massanutten and Allegheny Mountains beyond, their trees alit in harvest colors, as you breathe in clean, crisp air.

Death Valley National Park
OK, there’s no autumn leaves here at all – but September’s cooler temperatures ensure you actually can stand leave an air conditioned vehicle for a lot longer than a minute to experience the forbidding desert landscape. Among the best places in the California park to visit is the Golden Canyon Interpretive Trail, where you can learn to read rocks that tell the tale of how a lake once here vanished.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.