With over 390 national parks to visit in the U.S., there’s no shortage of beauty to behold. The best part is that great outdoors lovers tout October as the best month of the year to visit a national park.
Why, you ask? There are several reasons that make this shoulder season the sweet spot for exploring. You can usually avoid large crowds, enjoy a slower place, leaf peep, and watch wild animals as they prepare for winter.
Let’s take a look at three national parks throughout the country and a few ways you can experience them in October.
Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks
Wildlife in Yellowstone and GTNP are very active during the fall as they prepare for the long winter ahead. Male elk — the ghosts of the forests — come out at dusk to do their annual mating calls at this time of year. Their breeding season (or rut) starts as early as mid-August and usually ends by mid-October, and if you’re lucky enough, you may be able to catch a few days of huge bull elk calling out to their harem.
Witnessing bugling elk in the parks, particularly along the Madison River in Yellowstone, is a unique fall experience. Meanwhile, grizzlies are preparing for winter and can usually be seen foraging. Sometimes the bears are hanging out within viewing distance of the road, but bring binoculars to be sure. Bison are migrating to lower ground in preparation for a harsh winter and can be seen in large herds in the Lamar Valley, Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful areas.
Be prepared for cold nights down into the 20s in October. Snow is a likely possibility. Unless you’re a hearty tent camper, you may be better off renting an RV for your nearby national park adventure or booking lodging within the parks or in the nearby towns of West Yellowstone, Montana or Jackson, Wyoming, for example.
Zion National Park
In stark contrast to the mountainous parks of Yellowstone and GTNP is Zion National Park in southwest Utah. Burnt orange colored sandstone, cliffs, canyons and plateaus are distinct features in Zion. It could be 80 degrees during the day even in October, dipping down into the 40s at night.
One of the most iconic hikes through Zion is the Narrows, which isn’t a trail but a steep canyon through which the Virgin River flows. You will be hiking through water on this 10-mile-out-and-back trek, so you want to make sure you’re wearing the appropriate footwear and clothing. The Zion Adventure Company is a great resource for your questions regarding the hike.
If you haven’t already stored your RV for the winter, keep in mind that you can go through the park in an RV, but many people choose to park at the visitor center, pay the park entry fee, and take the free shuttle bus into the park. If you do drive an RV through the park, you’ll need to pay the full-priced entry fee and an “escort” fee to go through the tunnel to the upper part of the park. There are many places for RVers to camp within the park, but be sure to book way in advance.
Shenandoah National Park
There’s some serious leaf peeping to be had in Shenandoah National Park from mid- to late October. For the most updated information on the status of fall colors, visit the National Park Service’s website.
Skyline Drive runs north and south for 105 miles through the park along the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is the only public road through the park. Without stopping, it takes about three or four hours to drive the length of it. But you’ll need more time than that if you truly want to take advantage of the 75 scenic overlooks along the way, go for a hike, take a picnic, go on a horseback ride, or stop at the visitor center.
Shenandoah has more than 500 miles of hiking trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Another draw is the annual Shenandoah Fall Foliage Bike Festival which is happening on Oct. 19-21 this year. It would be a fun event to plan your visit around.
Finding scenic spaces is the easy part, no matter what park you plan to visit. The hard part is choosing a time of year that will be stunningly beautiful yet not too crowded. October may be your best bet in some parks but not others. No matter the situation, try to slow down, enjoy nature and appreciate your public lands.
Avery: Avery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves exploring the U.S. mountains of SW Idaho and examining human interactions with the greater world at large. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.
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