If the last hints of summer have you airing out your tent, packing away your sleeping bag, and fishing the last trail mix crumbs out of the bottom of your backpack—wait! Fall is still prime backpacking season. The heat of summer is gone, and the crowds have died down. Autumn ushers in crisp evenings around the campfire and the natural fireworks of changing fall foliage. Take advantage of it all on these five fantastic backpacking trips around the country.
1. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Distance: 14 miles (one way) Difficulty: Strenuous
You don’t typically think of the Grand Canyon as a place for fall colors, but the area does indeed feature a different look once autumn comes, with yellow aspens and red maples dotting the north rim. But the biggest reason to visit this time of year is the decrease in tourists who flood the park in the summer. It’s much easier to enjoy the quiet of the canyon and river. Plus the fall has cooler temperatures, allowing you to actually enjoy the awe-inspiring views as you head down the more remote and rugged North Kaibab Trail. There’s a 14-mile descent to the Colorado River and Bright Angel Campground, meaning there’s also a 14-miles ascent out of the canyon on the backside of your trip.
2. North Cascades National Park, Washington
Distance: 33.5 miles (round trip) Difficulty: Strenuous
New England may grab most of the national press when it comes to fall colors, but the Pacific Northwest puts on a show of its own. Take a trip during “Larch Madness,” when the larch trees short needles turn to gold from September to early October. Take in the fall color along the Copper Ridge/Chilliwack River Loop through North Cascades National Park, which offers a rare ridge walk and treks through old-growth forest along a salmon river. You’ll have to earn those views, however, as the trail ascends steeply. The trail gets very hot in the summer, so fall is the perfect time to visit—as long as you beat the snow.
3. Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Distance: 18.7 miles (one-way) Difficulty: Moderate
Want to trek America’s most-visited national park without the crowds? Do it in the fall. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is world-renowned for its biodiversity, and in the fall it comes alive with the rust, golden, and orange colors of autumnal foliage. Strike out along the Appalachian Trail from Davenport Gap to Max Patch Road. You’ll pass several relics that make this area such a draw, including old homesteads and logging camps. The trail ascends 3,000 feet, so be ready for a climb along this two-to-three day excursion.
4. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Distance: 22.4 miles Difficulty: Moderate
Blazing heat and exposed trails make Southwestern backpacking trips challenging in the summer. September through November is the perfect season for desert excursions. While people continue to flood into Arches National Park, opt for the more remote yet no less stunning Capitol Reef National Park, where you can pick up a backcountry permit the same day you want to set out for your trip. In the heart of red rock country, Capitol Reef offers a different kind of autumnal color. It’s a maze-like landscape of cliffs, broad river canyons, beehive formations, and natural bridges located near the Waterpocket Fold—a geological wrinkle in the earth that stretches nearly 100 miles. Head to the spectacular Halls Creek Narrows to take in the park’s southern reaches. Be sure to include the Grand Gulch, a narrow canyon through white Navajo sandstone.
5. Vermont’s Long Trail
Distance: 272 miles Difficulty: Moderate
OK, there’s a reason that Vermont comes to mind when it comes to fall colors. Explore the state’s splendor along the 272-mile-long Long Trail System. While it would take 20-30 days for a thru-hike, there are ample opportunities for section hikes along the trail as it follows the ridge of the Green Mountains from the Massachusetts-Vermont state line to the Canadian border. That vantage offers incredible views over and through the hardwood forests bursting with fall color.
Written by Ashley M. Biggers for Matcha in partnership with Gregory Mountain Products.
Featured image provided by Jeff Hollett