A National Park for All Seasons
Sure, we all love 'em, but there's a fine line between love and hate when you're stuck in gridlock trying to access those acres of unquestionably beautiful national parkland. So, in order to spare you the hassles of crowds and ugly weather, and the disappointment of unfulfilled outdoor dreams, we've crawled through a mountain of visitation statistics and pulled together a list of seasonal park recommendations that'll ensure your next trip to a national park will be truly worthy, whether you want to know the best, the one to avoid, or some unstomped diamond in the rough.
1) Most Popular:
With two of Virginia's premier leaf-peeping drives, it's no wonder Shenandoah National Park takes the autumnal crown. Skyline Drive snakes through the entire park and links up with the Blue Ridge Parkway (the southern Appalachian granddaddy of byways). Most of Shenandoah's hiking trailheads start on Skyline Drive, with the exception of the ever-popular Old Rag Mountain. If you can endure some road traffic prior to an up-close examination of those oak and hickory brick-reds, GORP shares five hikes that leave the pavementand its motoristsin the dust. A word of advice: If you plan to hit Shenandoah on its peak fall weekend (the third week of October), get there the night before and beat the hiking crew commuting in from D.C. and Northern Virginia...the road leading to Skyline Drive can resemble a parking lot in late October.
2) Hidden Gem:
A newcomer to the pack, Colorado's Black Canyon of the Gunnison was granted national-park status at the tail end of the Clinton Administration. Compared to the Colorado antediluvians Rocky Mountain and Mesa Verde, Gunnison remains comparatively quiet, and even the landscape looks startlingly fresh. Although the gorge was formed 30 million years ago, it is strikingly narrow and steep compared to other well-worn canyons. The hikes along the rim offer more than a little vertigo, and the Gunnison River below foams with Class V whitewaterprime for the expert kayaker.
3) On the Cusp:
At Big Bend in autumn, there's no chance of colliding with that uniquely American species of southwestern invader: the Spring Breaker. Not that it's unpopular; it's just more a place for the discerning crowd this time of year. GORP readers awarded this sprawling southwestern Texas park second place in their list of all-time park faves. Crowds are at their lowest ebb in September, but visiting in late autumn guarantees you'll miss the severe desert heat. The park gives visitors free range when it comes to camping and cross-country hikingbut in forging your own trail, make sure you have a free backcountry permit.
4) Be Warned:
Unless you're planning to blow in with late fall's cold air, expect to see as many colorful tourists as trees this fall season in Acadia National Park. The park is beautiful year-round, and deserves your attention when not so cluttered with crowds; so opt for sea-kayaking and hiking in early summer and do your leaf-peeping elsewhere.
5) Seasonal Cure:
Just when you're mourning summer's end, Florida's Dry Tortugas National Park still offers those mild temps we begin to long for as the cooler weather takes root. The 80-degree waters are perfect for scuba divers and snorkelers, and the pelicans are still nesting in September. But make sure you check the storm-watch before heading southevery month except April and May is fairly unpredictable.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication