5 of the Best US National Parks to Visit this Autumn

With the added benefit of being able to apply for ESTA online, without the need for a visa, there are plenty of reasons to plan a US trip this autumn. For a little inspiration, here’s our pick of the best National Parks in the US to visit before the winter kicks in:

As summer gradually fades out across the northern hemisphere, many parts of the USA are now transforming into a beautiful autumnal scene. This period of change is almost like a welcome ritual to British visitors seeking post-summer prices and pre-winter cold! Undoubtedly one of the best times of year to visit the USA, British visitors can easily travel to the USA thanks to the Visa Waiver Programme.

Under the Visa Waiver Programme, citizens from the UK, as well as 38 other countries, can apply for ESTA online. ESTA is the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation, and allows Brits to travel to the USA as tourists, or on business, without the need for a traditional US visa. So, with the USA’s vast array of natural spaces and untouched beauty, what’s worth visiting this time of year?

Fortunately, the USA protects and flaunts its natural spaces with pride. National Parks are spectacles all year round, with the seasons naturally introducing a heavy dose of variety every few months. Although the summertime is often favoured, these exciting wonderlands can be just as enjoyable in the autumn. In particular, October serves as a happy medium between high and low season, offering several advantages:

  • The temperature is cooler but still pleasant so you can get the most from your hikes, climbs and other activities without being hindered by the heat.
  • The parks burst into colour, with trees and plants rapidly altering green landscapes.
  • Wildlife is more active as many prepare for winter. For some, it is also mating season so you can expect to see and hear more from elk, bison and antelope.
  • There are likely to be fewer crowds, giving you more room at park viewpoints and shortening your journey times.
  • Air travel and accommodation are generally cheaper at this time of year.

Zion National Park – Southwest Utah

Located along the edge of the Colorado Plateau in Southwest Utah, is the naturally diverse, Zion National Park. It is home to enormous vertical cliffs, lush hanging gardens, magnificent waterfalls, striking mountains, hot springs and of course the impressive Zion Canyon.  The park is open all year and is especially beautiful in the autumn when it’s a varied spectrum of colour from vibrant greens and yellows to deep oranges and reds. This is also when conditions are best for trekking, biking and climbing. An adventurer’s paradise, the park has a number of hikes from the less strenuous lower Emerald Pool route to the challenging, yet rewarding, Angels Landing trail. For the thrill seekers, canyoneering is an excellent way to experience the park. The lower end of The Narrows is an ideal place to begin, or for a more advanced challenge, head for the Orderville or Subway Canyons.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park – North Carolina, Tennessee

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a rich cultural heritage.  Covering over half a million acres, it straddles North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee, making it one of the largest National Parks in America. It is renowned for its spectacular fall foliage. From mid-September through to November, the landscape transforms as the leaves gradually change colour. This begins at the higher elevations with the yellow birch and American beech, then slowly progresses down through the valleys to the red maples and sourwoods, into the meadows where the American sweetgums, sassafras and flowering dogwoods are some of the last to turn. To view this vivid scene in all its glory, head to Inspiration Point, Look Rock Tower or hike along the Appalachian or Alum Cave trails. For sweeping panoramic views try a Wonders of Flight tour or take in the colours from the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel.

Yellowstone National Park – Wyoming

Yellowstone Park is located in Wyoming, but also passes into Montana and Idaho. It is best known as the location for the world’s largest caldera (a type of volcanic crater), but also for being the first National Park in the world! It has many attractions, including thousands of geysers, hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles, as well as waterfalls, a vast petrified forest, and an array of native trees and plants. In autumn, the park is alive with colour and wildlife, making it a spectacular time of year to visit this vast and picturesque national park, and to witness some of Yellowstone’s native wildlife…
Driving along the Buffalo Bill and Chief Joseph Scenic Byways, you may catch sight of grizzly bears foraging for food before they begin hibernation. Elk and bison can be seen in the Lamar Valley and at Mammoth Hot Springs as they migrate from the higher areas to the lowlands for winter. For elk, it’s also rutting season, a rare chance to witness some elaborate displays as they compete for female attention. For keen anglers, October is particularly good for brown trout fishing, as they leave the lairs on the hunt for bigger meals.

Yosemite National Park – California

Situated in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is the breathtaking Yosemite National Park. It is famed for its giant sequoia trees and epic waterfalls like the 2,425 feet high Yosemite Falls and the 2,000 feet high Sentinel Falls. To take in the fantastic scenery and natural attractions, head to one of the many observation areas like the Pothole Dome, Olmstead Point, El Capitan Meadow, Glacier Point or the O'Shaugnessy Dam. Although the waterfalls slow down and may even dry up in the autumn months, there is still plenty to see and do here. The park hosts a number of events including the Grand Grape Celebration, where wine makers and experts come together to host a programme of wine tasting and seminars. The park service also offers morning camera walks where enthusiasts can learn how to photograph the fabulous fall landscape. During October and November, the park is the perfect location to see the Orionid and the Leonid meteor showers. Astronomers affectionately call it ‘Mother Nature’s special fall program’, given that between 10 and 20 meteors can be seen each hour.

Acadia National Park – Maine

Acadia National Park is located on Mount Desert Island in Maine but also includes the Schoodic Peninsula, Isle Au Haut and parts of Baker Island and Bar Island. The area is a source of incredible variety from the rugged coastlines and imposing granite mountains, to tranquil lakes and picturesque woodland. Intense autumnal colours provide stunning vistas making it a popular destination for ‘Leaf Peepers’ during the fall. Some of the best views at this time of year can be found at Cadillac Mountain, Jordan Pond, Otter Cliff, Sand Beach and Thunder Hole. To experience the park from a different perspective, take a fall foliage cruise. These tours promise remarkable sights and an opportunity to visit the quaint Bar Harbour seaside resort before it winds down for winter.
Inspired yet? If you’re due a holiday, the USA can provide one of the most spectacular autumn getaways. As a British citizen, the only thing you’ll need, as well as your passport, is online ESTA authorisation before you travel. Instead of having to go through the traditional procedure of applying for a US visa, you can simply fill out an online ESTA application form. The application itself simply consists in a few questions; you’ll need to provide some personal information, and answer a few security questions as part of your application. All in all, the ESTA application process can be completed in around ten minutes.

Once you’ve submitted your online ESTA application, you’ll receive your approval status within 24 hours (and generally within one hour). As soon as you receive your ESTA approval, you’re authorised to travel to the USA for periods of up to 90 days at a time.
The ESTA authorisation itself lasts for a period of two years, unless your passport expires first. If your passport does expire first, your ESTA will automatically be void. For this reason, we suggest that you make sure your passport has a couple of years left on it when you apply for ESTA.
So, ESTA in hand, you’re ready for your American adventure. With each of these spectacular National Parks offering a range of different experiences and awe-inspiring scenery, an autumnal trip to the USA is guaranteed to give you memories that will last a lifetime. Which will you visit first?

Travelling to the United States? Do you have your pre-planning checklist in order? Visit our ESTA Guide for more information about obtaining your travel permit. We'd love to hear from you. Send us your comments or questions for travel assistance.

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