Autumn is the perfect time to explore any one of our five favorite fall hiking trails.
By Kraig Becker
The warm days and crisp, cool nights of autumn make the perfect conditions for a weekend hiking and camping excursion. There is nothing quite like exploring a scenic trail on foot while the leaves overhead make their annual shift in color. The reward for a long day of trekking is gathering around the campfire at night, where stories are swapped and tall-tales are told while the stars shimmer brightly across the dark sky.
But the recipe for a perfect fall outing doesn’t just include spectacularly colored leaves and a shift in weather conditions. You’ll also need the perfect trail to stretch your legs on, too. If you’re planning a weekend backpacking trip this year we have a few suggestions on where you should go and the trails you should hike. These are our top 5 picks for the very best fall hikes across the U.S.
One of the best fall hikes in the entire eastern U.S. is located inside Shenandoah National Park. That’s where you’ll find the 9-mile-long trail that leads to the top of Old Rag Mountain, a challenging trek that is well-suited for experienced hikers looking for a challenge. The walk is a difficult one, but the pay off at the summit is a 360-degree view of the surrounding countryside, made all the better thanks to the amazing fall colors that are typically on display starting in late September and running into early November.
The National Park Service prohibits camping above 2800 feet on Old Rag Mountain, but descend below that height and you’ll find a few places to rest for the night. Campsites can be a bit limited so be sure to reserve yours early and grab your backcountry camping permit ahead of time.
Quick Tip: When reserving campgrounds in national parks and forests, visit recreation.gov. The site is a one-stop-shop for reserving campgrounds and purchasing permits, making it easier for hikers and backpackers to get all of the paperwork they need.
This 7-mile long trail is a scenic one all year long, but it turns into something truly special during the fall. Found inside the Huron National Forest in Michigan, the Highbanks Trail wanders along a series of tall bluffs overlooking the Au Sable River, and on a clear day it is even possible to see Lake Huron in the distance.
The hike offers spectacular views of the autumn colors throughout, with the river reflecting the shades of yellow, crimson, and orange in its waters. Start your hike at the Largo Springs trailhead and spend the day hiking to the Monument Campgrounds where you’ll find a secluded spot to set up your tent for the night. The next morning you can make the return trip, completing the out-and-back excursion with relative ease.
There are few places as scenic in the fall as the Maroon Bells Wilderness Area, located in the White River National Forest near Aspen, Colorado. This stunningly beautiful place is known to attract crowds each September thanks to the changing colors of the local aspen trees. The higher altitude causes autumn to arrive a bit earlier than in other parts of the country, setting the area aglow in golden hues.
The highlight of this hike is a visit to Maroon Lake, which not only reflects the brightly colored trees on its still waters, but two 14,000-foot peaks that tower impressively overhead. There are multiple trails to hike throughout the area, the longest of which is 13 miles in length and will provide a full days’ worth of adventure.
And when you’re ready to pitch your tent for the evening, head to nearby Silver Bells Campground where you’ll find a quiet, peaceful place to enjoy a fall evening.
Quick Tip: When hiking and camping in the fall, be sure to dress appropriately. The days can be quite warm and yet temperatures can drop off sharply in the evening. Bring extra layers and a jacket. You might not need them on the trail, but they’ll come in handy at the campsite.
The state of Washington is blessed with some truly amazing hiking trails, but one of the very best can be found in the shadow of Mt. Baker at Heather Meadows. That’s where you’ll find the Chain Lakes Trail, an 8-mile long path that is especially beautiful throughout September and early October when the fall foliage begins to change color.
The route features numerous mountain meadows and a series of alpine lakes, each more breathtaking than the last. Several of the lakes have campsites located not far from their shores, making them an idyllic spot to pitch your tent for the evening. And since this is a loop trail, backpackers can elect to hike it in either direction. There is no wrong way to go here, as the route is equally stunning no matter which way you walk.
The Gila Loop Trail, located inside New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, is another challenging hike that can test the legs of hikers. At 20 miles in length, it typically takes two full days to walk the entire route, but visitors are rewarded with plenty of solitude for their efforts. This wilderness area stretches out for 3.3 million acres and is one of the largest sections of roadless land in the entire U.S.
The hike wanders through a variety of landscapes and even passes by ancient cave dwellings, with golden aspen trees dotting the landscape throughout the fall. One of the best aspects of this hike is that there are no designated campsites to be found along the trail. This gives backpackers the opportunity to stop for the night at any point that they choose, providing extra flexibility to the outing. There is no shortage of scenic places to set up camp either and chances are you’ll have the entire site to yourself.
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About The Author: Kraig Becker is a freelance writer, journalist, and consultant who covers mountaineering expeditions, polar exploration, adventure travel, and other outdoor pursuits. He is the editor of The Adventure Blog, the founder of The Adventure Podcast, and a contributor to online and print outlets like National Geographic, Popular Mechanics, Gear Institute, Digital Trends, OutdoorX4 Magazine and others. He serves as the Adventure and Outdoor Travel Expert for about.com and is currently working on his first book, Reaching Beyond Boundaries with co-author Don Mann.