Under-the-Radar National Parks to Visit This Fall

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

NPS Photo

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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. Here’s a look at some national parks and monuments that are particularly stunning come fall, including one that may soon start charging visitors for the first time ever.

Editor's Note: While most of these destinations are officially designated national parks, we also included sites that are part of the National Park System such as seashores, battlefields, and monuments. Some services may still be limited due to the pandemic; check each park's website before you go.

Related: 31 Bucket-List Experiences in America's National Parks

Boy hiking along dune succession trail in Indiana Dunes National Park
Jon Lauriat/istockphoto

Indiana Dunes National Park

If you didn't even know Indiana had a national park, that's forgivable: Indiana Dunes is among the nation's newest, achieving the designation when it switched from being a national lakeshore in 2019. And fall is a lovely time to visit, because there's far more than dunes, including 15,000 acres of forests, prairies, and marshes. Hiking and birding are particularly pleasant as temperatures cool off. Indiana Dunes has become more popular during the pandemic, likely thanks to its proximity to Chicago and other population centers — so popular, in fact, that the National Park Service is considering implementing the park's first-ever visitor's fees to help offset the costs of much-needed upkeep. The fees would start at $15 and take effect in spring 2022, so now is the time to go for free.

Related: The Must-Visit National Park in Every State

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. 

Related: Stunning Photos of Iconic Landscapes in the American West

Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park (Arizona)

Come fall, Arizona’s 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. 

Related: Places to Safely See Wild Animals Up Close

Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina

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, fall is a particularly appealing time — there are mild temperatures, and 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. 

Related: Best State Parks That Might Just Beat National Parks

Isle Royale National Park

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,” said Beau Ragland, CEO and founder of Voyista Travel. Visitors can reach the island by seaplane or ferry, but this should be an early-fall excursion: Isle Royale is closed every year from November through mid-April. 

Related: 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 in the fall — the vibrant colors, the crisp air, the mirror-like lakes. A stunning park any time of the year, 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.

Related: Photos of Beautifully Serene Lakes Around the World

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park (South Carolina)

Known for remarkable biodiversity as well as being the location of the largest expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States, Congaree National Park is an ideal place to experience autumn’s beauty. 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.

Related: Stunning Photos of Every National Park in America

Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Autumn

Cuyahoga Valley National Park (Ohio)

Not far from 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, said 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 said. 

Related: Charming Small Towns With Stunning Fall Colors

Great Basin National Park

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,” said Jennie Flaming, chief adventure officer for Ordinary Adventures. “There are also incredible dark skies here, making the park great for astronomy lovers.” 

Related: 35 Surprising Facts About America's National Parks

North Cascades National Park, Washington
NPS Photo

North Cascades National Park (Washington)

One of the least-visited national parks, North Cascades in northern Washington is a place where hikers will find spectacular golden larch trees from late September through mid-October, Flaming said. The park is an alpine landscape known for its jagged peaks, more than 300 glaciers, and forested valleys. 

Related: 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 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.

Related: Awesome Views in All 50 States

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota)

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 said. “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 becomes more accessible after summer crowds have dispersed. “Bison, elk, prairie dogs, and even wild horses are common sights,” Vallieu said. 

Monocacy National Battlefield
Grant Wylie/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, said 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 said. “What makes it particularly special in the fall is the glorious color of the changing leaves that we get here in Maryland.” 

Related: Awe-Inspiring Memorials and Other Places Honoring Our Vets

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 the world’s largest trees. Giselle Langley, creator of travel site The Lovers Passport, said 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.” Langley suggested driving the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway to get the best views of the canyon. Kings Canyon also offers impressive views of the Milky Way, Langley noted.

Related: Travel Destinations Where One Visit Isn't Enough

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah
NPS Photo

Cedar Breaks National Monument (Utah)

There's 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 said. “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: 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, and visitors can actually hike a dormant volcano right up to its crater, said 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 said. “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. 

Related: 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,” said 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 said. 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 said.

Related: Natural Hot Springs to Shake Off Fall's Chill