You may feel like this spring and summer blurred together and passed by as you stayed home amidst the coronavirus pandemic, but fall is a season that undeniably feels like change. If you want to embrace the crisp autumn air with some crunchy leaves underfoot, look no further than some of the nation’s most famous parks for a socially distanced adventure. Even better, the National Park Service's annual fee-free day in September is still taking place this year. On Saturday, Sept. 26, all of the national parks will waive their entrance fees in honor of National Public Lands Day, meaning you could save up to $35 per vehicle at some of the most popular parks.
Here are some ideas to inspire your autumn travels, plus places to stay nearby on points.
Following the summer of road trips and drive-in movies, Shenandoah National Park offers a stunning taste of the Blue Ridge Mountains without leaving your car if you don’t want to. The stunning Skyline Drive is 105 miles long, and you can take it at a leisurely pace to admire the fall foliage (and maybe even spot a wild turkey). You can also stop at any of the nearly 70 overlooks or take a hike to a waterfall. The closest lodging options outside the park are in Harrisonburg, Virgina, where the DoubleTree’s king room rates start at 26,000 Hilton Honors points. You could also use a Hilton free night certificate earned from a Hilton co-branded credit card.
The “Crown Jewel of the North Atlantic” comes alive in the autumn when the trees turn to vibrant hues of red, orange and yellow. You might have to do a bit of climbing to get the best views; some hikes like the Beehive Trail or Beech Cliff Ladder Trail involve using some metal rungs or ladders to help you traverse steep rocks to higher elevations. Don’t miss Acadia National Park at night either. The park usually hosts a Night Sky Festival in the fall to showcase the naturally dark skies and stars, but it’s been postponed until next year due to COVID-19. The Best Western Acadia Park Inn gets good reviews, and it’s just three miles outside of the national park entrance. Rooms start at 32,000 Best Western Rewards points.
The Great Smoky Mountains is a great fall destination; its so large with such a diverse landscape that you’re sure to see some nice colors. The park spans two states and is home to some 100 native species of trees. If you’re trying to go at the end of September or early October, try driving along some of the higher elevation roads like the Blue Ridge Parkway to get the best views of turning leaves. As it gets later in the season, trees at lower elevations will start to change colors as well. The Baymont by Wyndham Gatlinburg On The River has an excellent riverfront location near the Great Smoky Mountains, and rooms are an affordable 15,000 Wyndham Rewards points per night.
Autumn in the Rocky Mountains not only has spectacular aspens that turn hues of yellow and gold; you can also find elk bugling, where bull elks call out to their mates in an unexpectedly high-pitched fashion. (It’s pretty much what we imagine dinosaurs sound like.) The bugling occurs just before dusk and until dawn during the mating season in September and October, and it’s a wildlife occurrence that’s a must-hear if you’re at the park at this time of year. Moraine Park in Rocky Mountain National Park is a good place to spot the elk. Estes Park is a nearby town that many people use as a jumping off point for the park, but the major hotel chain options are limited there. If you’ve got Choice Privileges points to spare, the Quality Inn might be your best bet starting at 30,000 points.
Wildlife is also one of the main attractions of visiting Yellowstone National Park during the fall. In addition to elk bugling, you might see bears feasting before hibernation and hawks migrating south for the winter. Mammoth Hot Springs is a great spot to see both elk bugling and some of the park’s magnificent fall colors. There’s a Springhill Suites hotel just minutes outside of the park, and suites start at 50,000 Marriott Bonvoy points.
This national park might not have the name recognition of others on this list, but for people based in the Midwest, this park in Ohio is a great option for fall foliage spectating. Some of the reported best spots to walk are the Brandywine Falls or Pine Hollow, which offers views of the valley. Biking or walking the historic Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail is another great way to see what the park has to offer. Cuyahoga Valley National Park is very close to Cleveland, so you’ve got more lodging options available than at some other parks. The Hyatt Place Cleveland/Independence is a super affordable option, with rooms starting at just 5,000 World of Hyatt points per night.