National parks are free Sept. 24. Visit these 10 lesser known.

Rangers and experts share their favorite underrated parks for fall

(istock/Washington Post illustration)

A previous version of this article said Wind Cave National Park is in North Dakota. It is in South Dakota. The article has been corrected.

In honor of National Public Lands Day on Sept. 24, entrance to all National Park Service sites will be free.

The holiday is one of five days in 2022 when NPS offers free admission to visitors — and comes just after the start of fall, perhaps the most underrated season for a trip.

“Schools are back in session in most places, and the summer tourism rush is waning ... fall colors are happening,” said Naaman Horn, NPS spokesperson for the Intermountain Region and former park ranger. “It’s just a wonderful time to visit.”

While many visitors will use the free day for recreation, National Public Lands Day is the largest single day of volunteering for parks and public lands in the country.

“There’s something to be said for planting a tree or doing invasive species removal or a cleanup around a river versus just going to see the sites,” said Kelly Burnett, conservation program director at the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF). “It makes you a steward of that space ... it leaves an impression."

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To get involved with a volunteer project near you, visit the NEEF online portal. And don’t forget: Places you can help out go beyond national parks. There are also federal public lands, national monuments, wildlife refuges, historic sites, seashores and recreation areas you can visit without admission.

Instead of competing with the crowds at America’s most famous parks, go see lesser-known options. Here are 10 sites to visit across the country, recommended by park rangers and experts.


Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

As its name suggests, Wind Cave National Park is famous for its cave. “It’s the seventh longest cave in the world, in fact,” said Riley Mahoney, who runs the blog The Parks Expert and has been to 256 of the country’s 423 national park sites. “It’s very, very cool.”

But the reason she recommends visiting Wind Cave National Park during the fall isn’t underground.

“There are so many trails, the wildlife is incredible, and in the fall there is really great foliage in the prairie,” she said. The park’s bison are active this time of year, and visitors may also see elk, burros and prairie dogs.

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Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

The least-visited national park in the Lower 48 isn’t overlooked because it isn’t special — it’s just hard to reach. That’s part of what makes Isle Royale National Park so special, and Burnett’s top recommendation for the season.

“It is one of the best places to see fall color because it’s untouched,” Burnett said.

The park’s located on an island in Lake Superior, so getting there requires taking a private boat, ferry or seaplane from either the Minnesota shore or Michigan’s. There are no cars allowed on the island; it’s just wilderness with hiking trails, boat rentals, some campsites and a full-service lodge. If you can make the effort to get there, it’s worth it; Burnett says it’s the best park trip she’s ever done.


Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

Despite being easily accessible — from Cleveland and Akron, Ohio — Cuyahoga Valley National Park can feel worlds away, says Supervisory Park Ranger Pamela Barnes, an NPS community engagement supervisor and public information officer.

“The forests explode with color in October and into November,” Barnes said in an email.

To fully appreciate the foliage, Mahoney and Barnes recommend taking the Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s scenic train’s Fall Flyer excursion, or you can walk, run or bike ride along the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail and catch sunset at the popular Ledges Overlook.


New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, West Virginia

Mahoney is a fan of one America’s newest national parks: New River Gorge National Park & Preserve. “Not only is it great for fall foliage, but they also have a really cool event every year called Bridge Day,” she said.

Every third Saturday in October, Bridge Day brings thousands of spectators to watch BASE jumpers fling themselves off the New River Gorge Bridge. Don’t want to run into those crowds? Skip Bridge Day.

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Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, Colorado

Travel back to the 19th century with a trip to Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site in Otero County in southeast Colorado.

“The park’s beautiful any time of the year, but especially in the fall when the cottonwoods are turning yellow,” Horn said. “The park also has a great hiking trail that goes through the wetlands and Arkansas river.”

At the reconstructed 1840s adobe fur trading post, site staff wear period clothing and host guided tours and events to showcase what life was like on the Santa Fe Trail between 1833 to 1849 for the traders, trappers, travelers and the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. Wildlife residents include oxen, horses, mules, chickens, peacocks, pigeons, goats, guinea fowl and some fort cats.


White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire

While it’s not technically a national park, Burnett said she’d be remiss if she didn’t shout out White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. Technically a U.S. Forest Service site, it can get busy on fall weekends but offers 1,200 miles of hiking trails — including 160 miles of the Appalachian Trail — in its 800,000 acres.

“You can’t have a fall park article without talking about those guys up there,” Burnett said. “It’s amazing with the small towns you can stay in, or campsites or cabins.”

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Valles Caldera National Preserve, New Mexico

The product of a volcanic eruptionmore than a million years ago, Valles Caldera National Preserve is a 13-mile wide depression with mountain meadows, aspen trees,and wildlife like elk, black bears, golden eagles and badgers. It’s also the homeland of ancestral American Indian tribes and pueblos.

“It’s a great drive from either Bandelier National Monument or the Manhattan Project National Historical Park,” Horn said.


Congaree National Park, South Carolina

With itsproximity to Charleston and Columbia, S.C., Congaree National Park is another Burnett pick. To get more bang for their buck, “a lot of people will tack on to a trip with Great Smoky Mountains,” she said.

The largest intact stretch of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States, Burnett says the park is worth a day trip of its own particularly in the fall (for the best colors, visit closer to November). The park floods with waters from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers, but many trails are on boardwalks, Burnett said. “Like 80 percent of the park is underwater and you’ve got all these soaring trees ... it’s a really neat place.”

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San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, Texas

San Antonio may be one of the biggest cities in America, “but this park is kind of on the not-so-traveled path,” Horn said of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. “And it’s an incredible historic site.”

The city’s group of five Spanish colonial missions — of which San Antonio Missions National Historical Park is included — is Texas’s only UNESCO World Heritage site. Between the park’s bike trail, hikes, the history and original fresco paintings of the missions, "it can be quite peaceful and great for beautiful fall weekends,” Horn said.


Everglades National Park, Florida

After a muggy summer and before the crowds come for dry season in the winter, fall is a quiet shoulder season at Everglades National Park, the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States.

“There’s not as many bugs, it’s not as hot as humid,” Mahoney said. “So it’s a really great time to visit.”

Mahoney says active travelers may be interested in the Tamiami Trail “Triathlon” a program hosted by Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve visitors can attempt year-round.

“It’s different than a normal triathlon because the activities are a little bit different,” she said. Participants bike a 15-mile loop, then hike a 3-mile loop and finish with canoeing or kayaking a 3.5-mile route.