Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
NPS Photo

Under-the-Radar National Parks to Visit This Fall

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Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
NPS Photo

Fall Under the Radar

While it may be hard to imagine that any national park is truly under the radar, there are certainly lesser-visited destinations in the shadow of more famous neighbors. Or perhaps the park’s name is well-known, but because of its location, it simply doesn’t get the same level of visitors as others in the national park system. In honor of National Public Lands Day, which celebrates the connection between people and green spaces on the fourth Saturday of every September, here’s a look at some of those national parks and monuments, which are particularly stunning come fall.

Note: While most of the destinations here are officially designated national parks, of which there are 62, we also included several sites that are part of the National Park System such as seashores, battlefields, and monuments.

Related: 50 Best State Parks That Might Just Beat National Parks

Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Scott Prokop/shutterstock

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Utah is legendary for its national parks. It’s home to such crowd pleasers as the magnificent and picturesque Arches National Park, Zion National Park, and the stunning red hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park. With all that, Canyonlands National Park can sometimes get left off the itinerary, local officials say — it’s one of the least visited parks in the state. But with its sweeping mesas and plateaus, not to mention red-rock formations of its own, Canyonlands is worth a trip. Come fall, the copper and bronze rocks of the park create an unforgettable backdrop for the golden autumn foliage created by Fremont cottonwood trees. The park is open despite COVID-19.

Related: 30 Stunning Photos of Iconic Landscapes in the American West

Saguaro National Park
benedek/istockphoto

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Come fall, Arizona’s often blistering heat declines a bit, making it a more pleasant time to take in Saguaro National Park. Split into two — in the east, the park is in the Rincon Mountain District, and in the west the Tucson Mountain District — the park is legendary for the towering, majestic saguaro cacti that have become a universal symbol of the American West. While under normal, non-pandemic circumstances, the park offers guided tours and stargazing parties, the best way to take it in now is by biking or hiking. Roads, picnic areas and hiking trails are open, but the park’s visitor centers remain closed.

Related: 21 Places to Safely See Wild Animals Up Close

Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina
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Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina

Remote Cape Lookout National Seashore, accessible only by boat, provides a picturesque option for avoiding crowds. On this 56-mile stretch of undeveloped beach renowned for shelling and birding opportunities, fall is a particularly appealing time — there are mild temperatures, and even fewer people than summertime. As a bonus, fall at Cape Lookout is said to bring some of the best fishing on the Atlantic Coast, thanks to large schools of false albacore, red drum, bluefish, and Spanish mackerel. Visitors can reach Cape Lookout by private boat or ferry from Harkers Island and Beaufort.

Related: Awesome Views in All 50 States

Isle Royale National Park
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Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

A unique destination in the Midwest, Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park is a rugged and isolated island surrounded by Lake Superior. On the island visitors will find lush forests and plenty of secluded beauty. “Isle Royale is on another level of remoteness,” says Beau Ragland, CEO and founder of Voyista Travel. “You can reach the island by 30-minute seaplane service or by boat. But passenger ferry service has been suspended this summer because of COVID, so you'll have to take your own.” The island itself is almost fully open, including most campgrounds and trails, which means those who make it to the island can experience the park in all of its fully isolated beauty.

Related: 30 Serene and Secluded Lakes Worth the Drive

Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Kyle Kempf/istockphoto

Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

There are so many reasons to visit Voyageurs National Park come fall — the vibrant colors, the crisp air, the mirror-like lakes. A stunning park any time of the year, really, Voyageurs is particularly enchanting come autumn when vibrant yellow and red leaves contrast with the park’s evergreens and clear blue waters. More than one-third of the 218,000-acre park is covered by lakes, and the best way to experience it is by houseboat. There’s also about 500 islands and 27 miles of trails. And don’t miss the hidden waterfalls and ancient petroglyphs. Fall is also a good time to spot wildlife, including 100 species of birds and more than 50 types of mammals. The park’s visitor centers are closed, but much of the rest of the park is open.

Related: 22 Photos of Beautifully Serene Lakes Around the World

Congaree National Park, South Carolina
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Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Known for its remarkable biodiversity as well as being the location of the largest, intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States, visitors can experience autumn’s beauty by taking tree-lined hikes through Congaree National Park. South Carolina’s heat and humidity eases come fall, making it the best time to explore the 26,000-acre park. Canoeing is another way to make the most of the season and take in the fall colors at Congaree. The park is conducting a phased reopening. All hiking trails and paddling trails are open.

Related: 33 Historic National Park Photos for Vintage Views

Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Autumn
LarryKnupp/istockphoto

Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

Not far from the metropolitan centers of Cleveland and Akron, Cuyahoga Valley National Park is made up of forests, rolling hills, and open farmlands. It is also traversed by the Cuyahoga River, which offers another vantage point for taking in the park’s fall foliage, says Allan Jiang, a travel expert and co-founder of Vacation Home Rents. “This park is special in the fall because travelers can have the unique experience of canoeing or kayaking along the water trail and enjoying the beautiful maple leaves on the river bank,” Jiang says. The park trails are open, though the Boston Mill Visitor Center is closed.

Related: 32 Charming Small Towns With Stunning Fall Colors

Great Basin National Park, Nevada
NPS Photo

Great Basin National Park, Nevada

A particularly off-the-beaten-track option in Nevada, Great Basin National Park includes the 13,063-foot summit of Wheeler Peak, as well as ancient bristlecone pines and foothills covered by sage. To catch this park at its fall finest, visit mid-September. “Visitors will find gorgeous fall Aspen trees, especially around Wheeler Peak and the road to drive there,” says Jennie Flaming, chief adventure officer for Ordinary Adventures. “There are also incredible dark skies here, making the park great for astronomy lovers.” Like many other national parks, Great Basin is in a phased reopening. The visitor center, some campgrounds, restrooms, trails, and park roads are open.

Related: 14 Beautiful and Budget-Friendly Road Trips Across America

North Cascades National Park, Washington
NPS Photo

North Cascades National Park, Washington

One of the least visited national parks, North Cascades in northern Washington (less than three hours from Seattle) is a place where hikers will find spectacular golden larch trees from late September through mid-October, Flaming says. The park is an alpine landscape known for its jagged peaks, more than 300 glaciers, and forested valleys. Though visitor centers are closed, much of the park has reopened.

Related: 30 Most Beautiful Places to Camp Across America

California Condor
Photo by NPS/Kurt Moses

Pinnacles National Park, California

Often overshadowed by neighboring Big Sur’s amazing coastal views, Pinnacles National Park features a landscape of Oak woodlands, chaparral, and canyons formed by volcanic eruptions 23 million years ago. In addition to putting on a display of fall foliage, the park is home to a diverse variety of wildlife and can be a good place to spot the California condor. Like many other parks on this list, visitor centers at Pinnacles remain closed but much of the rest of the park is open.

Related: The Best of California For Budget Vacations

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
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Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Said to be a charmer any time of the year, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is especially breathtaking in the fall. “This quiet gem of the national park system is located in the Little Missouri river valley in the northwest of North Dakota,” travel writer Sarah Vallieu says. “The fluctuations between daytime and nighttime temperatures provide vibrant fall colors that rival New England along the already breathtaking painted canyons of the Badlands.” In addition to the picturesque landscape, wildlife at Theodore Roosevelt National Park becomes more accessible after the summer crowds have dispersed. “Bison, elk, prairie dogs, and even wild horses are common sights,” Vallieu says. All hiking trails and roads within the park are now open, though restroom facilities are limited.

Related: 18 National Park Webcams Where You Can See the Wilderness from Home

Monocacy National Battlefield, Maryland
Joesboy/istockphoto

Monocacy National Battlefield, Maryland

Monocacy National Battlefield in Frederick County is home to the 274-acre Best Farm plantation, a bucolic plot of land that puts on a beautiful fall foliage display, says local expert Pam Stultz, creator of the site Housewives of Frederick County. “It is a beautiful property that’s visited often by locals, tourists, and photographers,” Stultz says. “What makes it particularly special in the fall is the glorious color of the changing leaves that we get here in Maryland.” The farm has reopened to the public and is just one part of Monocacy National Battlefield that visitors can explore. Trails and open spaces throughout this park remain open, but the visitor center is closed.

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Kings Canyon National Park, California
NPS Photo

Kings Canyon National Park, California

It’s hard to beat the fall colors of Kings Canyon National Park, a dramatic landscape famed for being the location of the world’s largest trees. Giselle Langley, creator of the travel site The Lovers Passport, says Kings Canyon often goes ignored as most people flock to neighboring Sequoia National Park. “It’s our favorite under-the-radar national park for fall. The colors are insane as the trees are all changing, and the park is usually less crowded,” says Langley, who suggests driving the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway to get the best views of the canyon. Also, worth noting, Kings Canyon offers impressive views of the Milky Way, notes Langley. Lodges, restaurants, and more are open at the park.

Related: 18 Travel Destinations Where One Visit Isn't Enough

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah
NPS Photo

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah

There is probably no better person to give an insider’s tip about parks than John Tillson, a park ranger for 20 years. His choice? Cedar Breaks National Monument. “Cedar Breaks has amazing fall leaves and is easy to reach from Las Vegas or Salt Lake City,” Tillson says. “Cedar Breaks is similar to a mini-Bryce Canyon with red rocks. And it has a color report that’s maintained starting Sept. 1 each year providing up-to-date information on the fall colors in the area.” The park, which is open year-round, is at more than 10,000 feet and provides a view into a half-mile deep geologic amphitheater.

Related: 33 National Monuments Everyone Should Visit at Least Once

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
NPS Photo

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen is perhaps most famous for being home to four types of volcanoes; visitors can actually hike a dormant volcano right up to its crater, says Kara Harns, creator of the lifestyle travel blog Whimsy Soul. There are also a few hydrothermal pools with steaming, bubbling waters that make for a unique hike. “My favorite hikes are Cinder Cone, Bumpass Hell, and Summit Lake,” she says. “This area at lower elevations gets stunning fall foliage in October. One of my favorite memories from a few years ago is driving into the park past miles and miles of orange leaves. It's also a haven for wildlife, making it the perfect destination for leaf-peeping and bird watchers.” Given its remote location near the California and Oregon border, the park attracts fewer visitors than other national parks in California. The park is open year-round, as is most of its facilities.

Related: 24 Beautiful Destinations Threatened By Overtourism — and Where to Go Instead

Big Bend National Park, Texas
NPS Photo/Cookie Ballou

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park is one of the “most beautiful yet untouched areas of the country,” says Maddie McElhenny of Wild Bum. “This park is larger than the entire state of Rhode Island and home to the gorgeous Chisos Mountains, the windy and iconic Rio Grande river, tall limestone canyons, desert, and forests,” McElhenny says. "You’ll find a blending of cultures, breathtaking landscapes, a warm and passionate community, a slower pace, and an oasis of beauty, peace, and solitude.” The park offers hiking, biking, kayaking, canoeing, rafting, plant and wildlife spotting, and stargazing, to name a few options. Its remoteness and limited number of visitors make Big Bend particularly appealing no matter what time of year you visit, McElhenny says. The park is open for day use.

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