If you’re making plans to go “over the river and through the woods” to Grandma or someone else’s house this Thanksgiving, you might want to include a little extra time to drive through some of the national parks in the West, and perhaps spend a night or two where campgrounds are still open. Visiting the most popular parks when there are fewer crowds makes for a much better experience. And this time of year, the fall foliage not only amplifies the scenic beauty, but the waning light also makes for nicer photos. And after the heat of summer, the crisp air offers a nice reprieve.
Washington’s Mount Rainier is the most heavily glaciated peak in the lower 48 states, so its snowy summit is quite a sight any time of year. The views get even better, though, with a fresh blanket of white and the addition of gold, amber, and crimson leaves from the vine maples, huckleberry bushes, and aspen trees. Although 140 miles of road loop through Mt. Rainier National Park, only the Nisqually entrance in the southwest corner of the park is open year-round. After the first six miles, you’ll arrive in the Longmire Historic District. Even if you won’t need a room at the National Park Inn, choose a chair on the rustic hotel’s wide covered front porch and admire the alpenglow on the south face of 14,410-foot Mount Rainier. Stunning! The weather in the park can change quite dramatically and quickly in any season, so be prepared. Call 360-569-2211 to confirm road conditions or visit www.nps.gov/mora
In November, Crater Lake is visible about 60% of the time. The park’s North Entrance Road and popular 33-mile Rim Road are closed for the season, but access via the South Entrances on Highway 62 to Rim Village (café, gift shop, visitor information but no gasoline) remains accessible year-round, except in dangerous road conditions. When skies are clear, excellent views of 1,943-foot deep Crater Lake can be obtained right from Rim Village. And a smattering of snow on Wizard Island only adds to the scenic beauty. If you’re driving the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway All American Road (one of 17 best drives in the United States), the 500-mile route begins at Crater Lake and extends south to the active geothermal features at Lassen Volcanic National Park in California. For the latest road and weather information, call 541-594-3000 or visit www.nps.gov/crla
Spending just one day in Yosemite National Park barely puts a dent in all there is to explore— waterfalls, cliffs, endless views, and wilderness hiking trails— within the park’s 1,200 square mile boundary, but without the summer traffic jams, you’ll be able to enjoy many of Yosemite Valley’s highlights in a shorter amount of time. El Capitan Meadow provides excellent views of El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks. Sentinel Bridge is famous for its views of Half Dome reflecting in the Merced River. The area around Sentinel Meadow and the Yosemite Chapel is a good place to admire Yosemite Falls. More roads in the park will likely be open, but short-term closures may occur due to snow, especially along the Tioga Road. Yosemite is not known for having spectacular fall colors because most of the trees here are evergreen, but you won’t miss the foliage since you’ll be looking UP at so many rock formations jutting into the sky! Check current road conditions/chain restrictions by calling 209-372-0200 (press 1 then 1) or visit www.nps.gov/yose
The Tetons in Wyoming have large stands of deciduous trees—cottonwoods, aspen, willows— whose leaves blaze yellow and orange come fall. There’s also plenty of wildlife action in Grand Teton National Park as elk spar and sound their mating bugle, bull moose search for a mate, and bears scramble for berries before hunkering down for hibernation. If a little snow falls in adjacent Yellowstone National Park (use the North and Northeast Entrances), the geothermal features look even better. The warmth feels extra good to tourists, just as it does to the buffalo and elk that often congregate by the hot springs and gushing geysers. For Grand Teton National Park road information call 307-739-3682. Yellowstone road conditions hotline is 307-344-2117.
If you’ll be on the road the day before Thanksgiving, try to get an early start. According to historical traffic data from Google Maps, pre-Thanksgiving traffic peaks between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Wednesday. Safe travels!