7 National Parks in the South That Are Must-See Spots for Fall Color
In the South, spending time outdoors only begins to be actually pleasant—as in, not sweaty—when the calendar hits October. That’s when we finally start to feel autumn knocking on the door, bringing gifts like a welcome morning chill and bursts of colors from changing leaves.
There’s no better way to take in the South’s autumnal beauty than by hitting a national park. We’re privy to some of the prettiest sights in the country, whether you’re cruising Skyline Drive in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, horseback riding in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, or visiting Clingmans Dome, the Appalachian Trail’s tallest peak found in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Get ready to catch all the yellow, orange, and red fall color you could ever want. These are the best national parks in the South to visit for fall foliage.
Shenandoah National Park
We came for the views, right? The 105-mile Skyline Drive, which runs along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains inside the Shenandoah National Park, should do you a solid. Drive along the scenic road to catch the entire park absolutely rife with leaf-peeping potential. Park the car and take to the hike for autumnal activities like biking, fly-fishing, and rock climbing. If you’re up for a real-deal hike, take in a magical moment at the 3,284-foot peak of Old Rag Mountain, which formed a billion years ago.
Where to stay: Harrisonburg, Staunton, Charlottesville
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
State: Tennessee, North Carolina
Say hello to the country’s most-visited national park, a fact that definitely earns it a spot on everyone’s bucket list. Straddling the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, you’ll be able to drive, hike, and wander amongst autumn’s finest (and most colorful) showing. Cades Cove, a famous 11-mile driving loop, is a popular fall pastime. This park is also where you can find the Appalachian Trail’s tallest peak, Clingmans Dome.
Where to stay: Gatlinburg, TN; Townsend, TN; Bryson City, NC; Cherokee, NC
Mammoth Cave National Park
You might know it from the bourbon, horse racing, or bluegrass—but Kentucky really sings for its supper once late October hits. The countryside bleeds fall color, largely due to the golden sugar maples and blood-red maples that line your drive from one small town, bourbon distillery, or famous racetrack to another. Mammoth Cave National Park is, as the name suggests, famous for the passageways carved into ancient limestone underneath south-central Kentucky. There are almost 400 miles of explored caverns just within the 52,800-plus-acre park, which makes it the longest known cave system in the world. Back on the surface, make sure to venture onto one of the horseback riding trails or hikes.
Where to stay: Cave City, Bowling Green, Glasgow
Read more: 10 Things You Should Do in Kentucky
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Fall leaves? In Texas? Groundbreaking.
Whoever said Texas doesn’t have fall color just wasn’t going to the right place. The Guadalupe Mountains National Park is not only home to the state’s highest point, the 8,789-foot Guadalupe Peak, but also to the popular hike, McKittrick Canyon Trail, where desert scrub gives way to oak, ash, and maple trees that come alive during the fall in orange and red. It’s also within an hour’s drive to New Mexico’s renowned Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Where to stay: El Paso, Pine Springs; Carlsbad, NM
Read more: 16 Adventures in Texas’ Hidden Hill Country
Hot Springs National Park
What sounds cozier for a fall getaway than hot springs? Nothing that’s what. These soothing thermal waters have been used as a healing source for hundreds of years, back when Native Americans inhabited the land up to last year when your cousin Becky took a dip. The doughnut-shaped park encompasses downtown Hot Springs—there’s no gate or fee—and includes Hot Springs Mountain, which is part of the Ouachita Mountain range. Amongst all of those pretty leaves and steamy pools, you can spend time in the charming downtown.
Where to stay: Hot Springs
Read more: A Perfect Day in Hot Spring, Arkansas
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
Where: West Virginia
At the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, you’ll find this historical park that is better known as the place where Thomas Jefferson once said, "The passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature," after visiting in 1783. It consists of 4,000 acres and a tiny town named Harpers Ferry. This might not be on as large of a scale of most of these Southern national parks, but the historical value sure gives it weight.
Where to stay: Harpers Ferry
Congaree National Park, South Caorlina
State: South Carolina
This national park isn’t like most you’ll visit, which is exactly what should make it a frontrunner on your fall adventure list. It’s the largest old-growth floodplain forest left in all of North America, and that means you’ll be walking amongst ancient pines, oaks, elms, hickories, maples, and cypress as they were hundreds of years ago. There’s even a 2.4-mile, wheelchair-accessible Boardwalk Loop Trail that features an elevated walkway through the dreamy shadowed forest.
Where to stay: Hopkins, Columbia
Read more: It's Time to Head on a Carolina Roadtrip