Fall is one of my favorite times to camp. It is so perfect because the weather is cooling off and the bugs are becoming less frequent. So many bugs, so many bites! Another great part about fall is the fact that the leaves start to change. There really are not too many things that are better then sitting in your camp chair watching the leaves changing. Did you know that to get colorful fall camping you don’t have to just be in the Northeast of the United States? In fact, there are great spots all over the United States that offer wonderful leaf-peeping experiences! So let’s take a look at some of those areas so you can book a site for your own colorful fall camping adventure!
Depending on where you want to travel the leaves will change at different times. Below is a guide to those locations as well as a quick way to estimate when to travel to those locations.
What types of Trees are in Colorful Fall Camping Adventures?
I am going to go out on a limb here and say that you likely aren’t an expert on tree types. (Sorry I had to!) Well, you are in luck as I am going to give you a few pointers. If it has needles it is a pine tree and therefore is not going to change colors. While green is a color it isn’t something that paints the countryside in quite the same way during fall.
Instead, we will be looking for Maple, Hickory, Dogwood, Cherry, and Sumac trees. These turn from green to bright yellow, burnt orange, and deep auburn. It is these wonderful splashes of color that make colorful fall camping so amazing. Get a handy tree identification guide and learn more about the trees in your favorite leaf-peeping locale!
The Interactive Map
As I mentioned above, leaves can change colors at different times of the year depending on the type of weather that is occurring that specific year. So it can be hard to know when to time your trips to see the best fall foliage. In fact, you may miss it by only a couple of days. So you have to be spot on in planning. Luckily SmokyMountains.com has created a Fall Foliage Map that allows you to better estimate when the leaves will be ready to view. Check out the foliage map now!
For those of you that would like to know a little bit more about how the whole leaf-changing process works, SmokyMountains.com also provides an overview. It is a very detailed description with pictures of the process. I know that my little ones loved reading this additional information as they ventured out into the woods.
Alright! Enough with the helpful aids. Lets get into our list of the best places to head for colorful fall camping.
1. Stanley, ID
Stanley, Idaho is one of those places that people wouldn’t think of going to very often. However, in September and early October, the Sawtooth Mountains become awash with color. the Sawtooth Mountains are an amazing place to stay, to begin with but camping beneath the cottonwoods and alders is sublime. Stay at the Stanley Lake Campground for a truly amazing fall time. It is not full of amenities but it has everything you need for a true camping trip.
2. Mt Hood & Columbia River Gorge
Mt. Hood and the Columbia River Gorge are other prime locations to visit in the Pacific Northwest. During the summertime these areas have amazing hiking and wildlife viewing. However, in the fall the color changes along the gorge make the hikes even more spectacular. Not to mention when you see Mt. Hood hanging in the background.
Within the gorge, you will still be able to hike to the waterfalls and view the cliffs. However, during your colorful fall camping, you will see the changing colors against those cliff walls. If you choose to hike further up Mt. Hood you will see those colors reflected off of the crystal clear waters. With so many different trails to choose from within the park, you are sure to find a special scene that is just for you.
In this area, you are going to generally find good peeping around late September through late October. The higher you go though, the earlier it will happen. So plan accordingly!
Camping in this area is plentiful. I prefer to stick to forest service camping sites in this area. There are so many options that it is best to check out the Forest Service for the full listing. All have their pros and cons but all are perfect for camping in the fall and looking for those colorful leaf changes. My favorite is Trillium Lake Campground.
3. White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire
From the Northwest, we head over to the Northeast. I couldn’t leave the Northeast off. It is the quintessential area for leaf peeping. One of the best places, in my opinion, in the Northeast is the White Mountain National Forest. The biggest downside to this location is the fact that it is so popular. You will have to deal with crowds in this location as people travel from all over to see the changing colors.
The area is pretty remote being in the near middle of New Hampshire near the border with Maine. Like our first two areas, you will want to visit in the September and early October time frame. This is due to how far north the area is. So make sure to time it right or you will be doing less leaf peeping and more watching the leaves fall.
Since this is another National Forest the camping options are plentiful with 22 campgrounds in and around the area. So pick the one that is best for you. Of all of them, my favorite are the Sugarloaf campgrounds. They are remote enough but still offer amazing views for colorful fall camping
4. The Catskills
Not to be outdone in the Northeast are the Catskill Mountains. This is a significantly large area for leaf-peeping. Not to mention that for families it is filled with incredible activities to do when you need a break from the trees. The small communities that dot the area are fun to explore and have many fall festivals that occur.
The Catskills also offer a wide breadth of different levels of camping and excursions. If you would like to sit peacefully in camp and view the colors you can! Or get out with some adventurous hiking. Either way the colors are sure to impress you in late September and early October.
Need something even more different? There is a train, The Catskill Mountain Railroad, that will allow you to enjoy the train ride through the fall foliage. You are likely to view the rich wildlife, rolling hills, and rivers as the train chugs along.
The Woodland Valley Campground is the best place to stay to escape for colorful fall camping. This is because it is out and away from things but still close enough that you can partake in the amenities of the fall festivals and the train ride. Just make sure to make your reservations early!
5. Great Smoky Mountain National Park
We can’t leave the south out of the mix! There are amazing places to head to the south to view the changing colors. The first that I like to go to is the Great Smoky Mountains. Fun fact that there are over 100 types of trees in this park. Each one provides a different paintbrush to the mountains! Not only does the park have a diversity of trees but it has numerous hiking trails (850 miles!) all over which make getting to secluded locales for viewing even easier.
One good thing about heading farther south for leaf peeping is that the season lasts much longer. In Great Smoky Mountain National park trees in the higher elevations start to change as early as late September. However, the colors continue to change through November. I find that the best time is late October into early November.
If you can get a reservation the best place to camp is within the Park itself. However, there are numerous private campgrounds that dot all sides of the park. Being close to Pigeon Forge is another fantastic option for you because of the other exciting things to do.
Check out our Great Smoky Mountains National Park Quick Guide for more information on trails and campgrounds.
6. Big Bend National Park, Texas
You may be surprised that you can have colorful fall camping in Texas. It is true though. In this case though, I do have to say that this is not something that is bigger in Texas. However, at Big Bend National Park you will find a fall color change event that is a little different from other places. The colors change much later in the year. Additionally, the landscape within the park is truly a unique backdrop for the color changes of the leaves.
This National Park is outside of El Paso, Texas. It is not close to anything really, but in Texas what is? The best time to start your colorful fall camping is mid to late November. So you could tie this trip in with another color change event farther north! Just be prepared for the drive. You can arrive to early for these leaves. This is the opposite of what happens in other areas. So mind your dates when you are booking.
Since Big Bend National Park is fairly remote, it is best to stay in the Park itself. Choose from Chisos Basin, Cottonwood, and Rio Grande Village Campgrounds. Only Rio Grande Village offers RV spots and they fill quickly during the year.
7. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Shenandoah is one of the most popular National Parks in the country. This is due to its proximity to many major metropolitan areas. Additionally, sitting at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains it provides stunning panoramic vistas from the mountain tops over the colorful scenery of the valleys. It could likely be the best place in the south to visit.
The best time to view the changing colors here is in October. The higher elevations change early in the month. As the month progresses you can view the colors moving down the mountainsides. From yellows to oranges you are sure to be stunned by the sheer beauty.
The trees aren’t the only thing at this park though. There are hundreds of miles of trails. Additionally, out of the south gate of the park, you can enter onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. This will give you even more opportunities to view the colorful leaves as you drive down the parkway.
Mutch like The Catskills, the rural area surrounding the park is littered with small towns. Each town has its own quaint feel and many have fall festivals. Make sure to do some apple picking at Carter Mountain Farm while you are in the area. Or better yet, do some leaf peeping from Monticello and mix in a little history.
The campgrounds within the park are fantastic. However, Misty Mountain Campground is a local favorite for camping. They put on numerous activities during the fall season that are sure to make your family trip extra special.
8. Minnesota and Lake Superior
In the midwest, there are some great options for colorful fall camping also. On Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior, the fall foliage is truly spectacular. This is because there are actually two times to watch the leaves change here. The maple trees will start their change in September. Then the trees along the shoreline hit their stride in mid-October. So you can travel from the northern highlands down to the lake and get a few weekends of camping in.
There is so much to see and do in the Minnesota area. The midwest is rife with activities for the outdoor enthusiast. The highlands are no different. With all of the options for backpacking, canoeing, and fishing you are sure to keep your family busy. Getting up against the lake is just as fun. There are many scenic bike trails and drives that will stun you during your colorful fall camping.
With so many options though where should you camp? Well, my go-to in this area is always Cascade River State Park. It has wonderful campgrounds and is close to everything you want to see in the fall. Not to mention the stunning hiking and waterfalls that can be seen!
9. Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
Isle Royale National Park is another of the National Parks that you might not consider going to. However, you will find it enjoyable all year long. Especially in the fall though. It is a small island cluster located in the eastern part of Lake Superior nearly at the border of Ontario. This stunning wilderness is about as remote as you can get so visitation is fairly limited.
Since the park is so far north, you will find that you want to visit during the middle of September. Leaf viewing in October is possible but it starts to get spotty towards the middle of October. So make sure that you time your camping reservations.
The camping here is all remote camping. If you are not comfortable camping in a tent then there are lodges available. Or you could camp outside the park at a state campground. However, if you are willing to tent camp then you are in for a real treat. For me, there is something very special about smelling the fall smells as I awake in my tent.
5. Rocky Mountain National Park
While we hit the mid and northwest we haven’t yet talked about the intermountain west. There are numerous places all throughout Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado which are amazing for viewing leaves. However, Rocky Mountain National Park is likely the most easily accessible due to its proximity to Denver.
Autumn in Colorado does not disappoint. With the numerous and seemingly neverending clumps of aspens, you are sure to see a blaze of yellow anywhere you look. The higher elevations in the park start changing colors in August! That makes this experience one of the earliest that you will likely have. In this case, it is the high elevation of the mountains and not how far north that causes the early change.
While close to Denver, cruising up the canyon will make it feel like this park is very remote. You will have some amenities from the little town of Estes Park. You can certainly get resupplied in this little town. With many trails in and around the park, you are sure to see the colors change against some truly stunning backgrounds.
The park is extremely popular all year round. You will need to make your camping reservations almost immediately as they open for the year. If you don’t manage to get a spot in the park then you can always find a decent campsite in Estes Park. Or go for a bit of glamping (hotelling) at the Stanley Inn. Just don’t get lost in the maze!
Final Thoughts on Colorful Fall Camping
Hopefully, this list has provided you with some wonderful options to plan your colorful fall camping adventure. Leaf-peeping doesn’t have to just be something for those in the Northeast. There are options all across our country that will work. Just make sure that you plan your timing so that you are there during the peak!
Regardless of where you decide to go, make sure to experience the local communities that are nearby. The adventure in the fall is about more than just the leaves. It is about making memories with those you love and experiencing new places.