Shenandoah National Park
A scenic byway runs through the middle of this Blue Ridge Mountains park, framing one side of the Shenandoah Valley. Stretching down from a point close to Washington, D.C. and connected to the long Blue Ridge Parkway further south, this park offers easy weekend access or the beginning to a long colorful journey through two or three states. Hike the trails and watch for wildlife, or take a detour to check out antique shops, historical sites and impressive caverns. It’s also apple cider season when the leaves are changing here in Virginia and many local wineries outside the park have tasting rooms.
Best time for a scenic drive: late October
Where to stay: The Inn at Sugar Hollow Farm
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Akron and Cleveland may not be the first places that come to mind when you think of getting into nature. The easy proximity of this national park between the two, however, makes it a good choice for a drive that won't take half a day just to get started. Stretched along the Cayahoga River, it features a 20-mile bike path built over a towpath that was once part of a canal system. With a scenic railroad and trails for biking, hiking and horseback riding, it offers plenty of reasons to get out of the car. Visitors sometimes spot bald eagles, peregrine falcons, foxes, minks, and river otters.
Best time for a scenic drive: mid-October
Where to stay: Silver Fern Bed and Breakfast
Yellowstone National Park
The world’s oldest national park established in 1872 is still the wildest park in the system, with almost 3,500 square miles of land filled with mud pools, gushing geysers, lakes, and mountain peaks. Original nature preservation advocate Nathaniel P. Langford would still recognize much of it today since highways only penetrate a small portion of the forests. You don’t have to go far to lose the crowds after parking. Safety precautions and navigation gear are packing essentials though: Yellowstone is home to the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states. Roaming the expanse are bears, bison, wolves, and mountain lions.
Best time for a scenic drive: late September through early October
Where to stay: Margo's Mountain Suite Bed & Breakfast
Yosemite National Park
More than four million people a year visit this popular park, but there’s plenty of room to roam in its 1,169 square miles of land. Although Yosemite's giant sequoias get all the fame, there are plenty of deciduous trees here as well, which start turning colors when the weather cools off in the highlands. The turning leaves look especially spectacular against the granite peaks. With the varied elevation and types of trees scattered around, the season here can be as long as five weeks.
Best time for a scenic drive: October
Where to stay: Tin Lizzie Inn at Yosemite
Olympic National Park
With 70 miles of coastland climbing to peaks dotted with snow and glaciers, the best time to find leaves changing color here depends on a lot on the elevation. Green moss on the ground and the trees beside many trails in the temperate rainforest offers a nice contrast to trees turning fiery orange and red. Aspens, alpine larches, and big-leaf maples put on a show and there’s even a “Maple Pass Loop.” Some of the best lake views require a walk, but at peak times there’s a wall of color flanking the road leading from Highway 101 to the Hoh Rainforest Visitor Center. Many animals call this expansive park of a million acres home, including golden eagles and elk.
Best time for a scenic drive: mid- to late October
Smoky Mountains National Park
The Smokies sometimes get smothered in love; this is the most popular park in the system and nearly 11 million people visited in 2015. While Gatlinburg is where the most action is all year long, you’ll have nature more to yourself on the North Carolina side of the mountain range. This southern region it’s the best procrastinators’ choice. The colors turn later here than in the states hundreds of miles to the north.
Best time for a scenic drive: late October to early November
Where to stay: The Swag
—by Tim Leffel