4 Unique Ways To Leaf Peep

red, yellow, and green trees of grand teton national park
Grand Teton National Park

When autumn is fast approaching, national parks from coast to coast offer some of America's most extraordinary fall colors. 

For many people, leaf-peeping activities are limited to taking a drive to a scenic overlook – and that's just fine, but if you want to experience the autumn colors in a new way this season, these four parks each offer their own unique view.

Whitewater rafting

New River Gorge National River

Whitewater enthusiasts may recognize West Virginia's New River as one of the best rafting rivers in the nation. New River Gorge National River preserves 53 miles of free-flowing water surrounded by the lushly forested ridges of the Alleghenies, and while summer is the peak season for river trips, fall offers a unique opportunity to roar through the gorge surrounded by fiery hues of red, yellow, and orange. 

The upper (southern) part of the river is best for beginners, offering placid sections and a few relatively easy rapids, ranging from Class I to III. Advanced rafters can find a challenge in the lower (northern) section, which boasts colossal rapids up to Class V. Run the river on your own, or go with the assistance of a licensed guide. 

Horseback riding

Colorful fall leaves at the Great Smoky Mountains

Colorful fall leaves at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The vast mountain landscape of Great Smoky Mountains National Park lies across the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, where the relatively chilly mountain climate creates an autumn display that you could easily mistake for New England’s. During the peak fall foliage period from late October to early November, the park's sugar maple, scarlet oak, sweetgum, and hickory trees are simply stunning.

While there are plenty of roadside spots to pull over and check out the changing leaves, 500 miles of horseback riding trails offer a far more exciting option. Whether you bring your own steed or join a guided riding tour, ambling down the trail on horseback is a leaf peeping adventure like no other. Equestrian camping is also available.

Fall fishing trips

Where do you go for an unforgettable river fishing trip? That's easy: Yellowstone National Park. Hundreds of miles of flowing water have made Yellowstone a premier fly fishing destination for decades. The more important question is: When do you go? For anglers who want to elude the maddening summer crowds and catch the year's best run of brown trout, the answer to this question is easy: fall.  

Every autumn, Yellowstone's fat, feisty browns make their annual spawning pilgrimage up countless streams and tributaries, snapping grasshoppers from the surface as they glide beneath overhanging branches decked out in yellow and gold. Changing colors and abundant wildlife make fall the most underrated season to visit Yellowstone. Just be sure to get your permit, pack warm clothing, and keep your distance from wildlife. 

Backcountry camping

Fall starts early in the Rockies. Even at lower altitudes, freezing temperatures can occur as early as September, creating a singular transformation – nearly all the park's deciduous trees turn bright yellow, standing out in high contrast against the dark evergreen spruces and firs. 

The best way to see the changing leaves is to spend some time among them. Backcountry trails and campsites throughout the park stay open straight through the fall, giving adventurous campers the chance to spend a night, a week, or even longer in the wilderness. Backcountry campers are responsible for their own food and water, and for leaving the wilderness just as they found it. 

This year, you can catch the best fall colors in the nation at a national park near you. Just remember to bring your camera and a few friends to share the experience with! 

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