Planning the Perfect Fall Adventure
The autumn season is the best time for exploring nature in general. The air is crisp, the weather is perfect, and the animals are active. Really diving head-first into the wilderness and being able to experience all that a park has to offer, is what most outdoor enthusiasts want, so why not try out the top-rated destinations for the cooler seasons? Gear up and come along, as we venture through the parks of South Carolina, Colorado, and the Northern Maine Woods!
Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park is an old growth paradise that protects the largest area of bottomland hardwood forest in the country. Exploring Congaree National Park in the cooler months means fewer insects and beautiful weather. The park is nearly 27,000 acres in area, and is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including bobcats, feral hogs, turtles, turkeys, otters, deer, coyotes, and snakes.
Camp out in the park for a night or two! Backcountry camping is free, but venture into the primitive sites at your own risk. There are two popular campgrounds within the park, Longleaf and Bluff. The Longleaf Campground is $10 per night, and $20 for group sites. The Bluff Campground is $5 per night for a regular tent site. If you sign up for an annual pass, there are additional discounts that will be given along with that. Longleaf provides restroom facilities, but Bluff does not. There isn’t any running water at either campground, but water is available 24 hours a day at the nearby Harry Hampton Visitor Center.
Congaree National Park is known as the “Home of Champions,” because of the beautiful old growth forests and the “champion trees” that call it home. Congaree has one of the largest concentrations of these “champion trees” in the world! Fifteen species here are the tallest, including loblolly pine, cherrybark oak, swamp chestnut oak, sweetgum, overcup oak, American elm, and the common persimmon. The loblolly pine stands at 167 feet tall, and the height of the oaks range from 130 feet to nearly 160 feet.
There are plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy here, especially while you’re camping, such as canoeing and kayaking, hiking, nature watching, and fishing. Hiking is self-guided or ranger-led, depending on what you feel more comfortable with. Brochures for self-guided trips are available at the visitor center. If you’re up for a true hiking adventure, try taking on the Kingsnake Trail, which is over eleven miles in length, and winds through some of the most beautiful – and pristine – parts of the park. The Kingsnake trail is also the most likely place to spot bobcats! With gorgeous scenery and amazing fall weather, this is one of the best parks to travel to in the cooler months.
Rocky Mountain National Park
The Rocky Mountain National Park is much bigger in area than the Congaree National Park, and the great wide open spaces and mountain bluffs make for amazing photographs, especially in the fall. The colors are vivid, the air is cool with a subtle breeze, and the skies that sit above the mountain ranges are as blue as an ocean. The Rocky Mountain National Park is nearly 267,000 acres in area, and is home to some busy wildlife during the fall, including elk and bighorn sheep. Although we just missed the bugling season, some elk can still be heard making those signature grunts and bellows off in the distance. Until late November, you can expect bighorn sheep to be head-butting each other and strutting around the park.
The unique combination of habitats within the park, and the fact that the Continental Divide runs north to south through its center, makes the Rocky Mountain National Park a must-visit destination for the scenery alone. Lookouts, like the ones from Bear Lake or Pikes Peak, bring so much color and variety to the eye, that you’ll spend a good while simply staring off into the wilderness.
Rocky Mountain National Park has a very high elevation, one of the highest in the country, that ranges from 7,000 feet to nearly 15,000 feet. The highest point in the park is Longs Peak, which has an elevation of 14,259 feet. The variety of ecosystems makes Rocky Mountain one of the most unique parks in the nation. There are four distinct ecosystems within the park: montane, subalpine, alpine tundra, and riparian. The riparian ecosystem is one that thrives on the banks of rivers and occurs throughout the entire park. The variety of different habitats allows for nearly 400 species of mammals and birds to thrive within the park boundaries. Spectacular sightings include the gray wolf, the American bison, and the grizzly bear.
There were a recorded 4.5 million visitors that came to see the park in 2016, so you may want to plan ahead before dropping in. Take advantage of the free park shuttle in case parking lots become full. Call ahead for campground reservations and always check the weather before heading out. Popular campgrounds, such as Glacier Basin and Aspenglen, will fill up quickly, so reservations are a must if you’re wanting to camp out here. The Timber Creek Campground is on the west side of the park, and usually fills up last, so that may be a better option if you are planning a quick, last-minute trip. You will want to arrive at the visitor center as early as possible for information, guide schedules, brochures, and permits. For the best chance at avoiding larger crowds, trying visiting on a weekday during the fall season.
Baxter State Park
Located in the North Maine Woods region, Baxter State Park is a hardwood forest habitat, with native trees, such as maple, birch, beech, spruce, and more. The park is nearly 210,000 acres in area and much of the land is covered in these beautiful trees. Baxter State Park is also home to the state’s highest peak, Mount Katahdin. Mount Katahdin is a very steep formation, formed from “a granite intrusion” that, over time, was weathered to the surface. The Penobscot Indians named the mountain, as “Katahdin” means “The Greatest Mountains.”
There are 215 miles of trails to hike within the park, such as the Traveler Loop, which combines four trails to extend your hike for more than 10 miles. Easier day hikes include: Roaring Brook Nature Trail, South Branch Falls Trail, and the Sandy Stream Pond Trail. The Roaring Brook Nature Trail is a leisurely nature walk through the Roaring Brook and highland bogs, with several great viewing points of Mount Katahdin. There are observation platforms and plenty of level pathways for an easy hike. The length of the trail is 1.2 miles.
The South Branch Falls Trail is only a mile round trip, and is considered to be a quick hike, simply for viewing the South Branch Falls. Head down to the pools to watch the water cascade down, and don’t forget your camera! The Sandy Stream Pond Trail is also a quick hike, being only 1.5 miles round trip, and including sightings of moose! There are also excellent views of Mount Katahdin on this trail, and of course you’ll get to see the Sandy Stream Pond.
Some trails and campgrounds within the park will require a reservation, so make sure you plan in advance if you’re looking to camp overnight or stay in the area for the weekend. Parking spots are better off being reserved, as the remaining spots are first-come, first-served.
Whether you’re looking to camp out amongst the waterfalls of the Northern Maine Woods, searching for the vast scenery of the Rocky Mountains, or wanting to view the champion trees of the Congaree, the fall is the best time for all three. Of course, the beauty here is year-round, but the weather and the season makes for a beautiful time to explore America’s parks!
Last modified: February 8, 2018