Fall has arrived in the Northern Hemisphere. The autumn equinox on September 22—one of the two times a year (the other is the spring or vernal equinox) where day and night are the same length—ushers in a explosion of fall colors across the United States, making it one of the best time of year to visit the national parks. Summer’s crowds fall by nearly half, wildlife springs into a final frenzy of activity before winter, and verdant foliage transforms into a stunning riot of color for a few brief but brilliant weeks.
The Smoky Mountains’ annual Fall Foliage Prediction Map notes that much of the U.S. will start seeing the most dramatic changes in colors by late September to mid-October. However, the U.S. is coming off its third-hottest summer on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Factors such as extreme weather, precipitation or the lack of it, and insect infestations could cause fall foliage to fall behind schedule—continuing a long-term trend that, according to one recent study of maples by researchers at George Mason University, has pushed the appearance of fall colors back more than a month since the 19th century, Nat Geo’s Sarah Gibbens reports.
Still, while the timing can shift from year to year, there is one thing travelers can be sure will not change: Trees will shed their leaves, but not before a grand finale of radiant color. From Virginia’s Skyline Drive to Alaska’s roadless wilderness, explore the national parks that offer one of nature’s most stunning displays.
This story was originally published October 18, 2019. It has been updated to reflect new information. Additional reporting by Starlight Williams.