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If you tend to put away your camping gear for the long haul as fall rolls around, you’re missing out on one of the best backpacking seasons. Why? Because in autumn, the heat, mosquitos, wildfires, and vacation crowds have all died down, and you stand a chance at having fall foliage, butterfly migrations, and meteor showers all to yourself.
Grand Gulch Primitive Area, Utah
Southern Utah is notoriously crowded and hot midsummer. But by early fall, the national parks and slots canyons empty out, the temperatures settle down to a tolerable level, and the cottonwoods light up yellow, making it the perfect time for a multiday journey through the high desert. Grand Gulch, the largest canyon on the Cedar Mesa plateau, has more than 50 miles of trails, stunning slickrock, and ancestral Puebloan ruins to explore. You’ll need a permit from the Kane Gulch Ranger Station for day hikes and overnights, or sign up for Four Season Guides’ four-day, 25-mile backpacking trip in late October, and they’ll take care of logistics, food, and gear ($1,100).
Trinity Alps, California
The Trinity Alps, between the Coast Range and the Cascades in Northern California, is a haven for backpackers, thanks to its 525,000 acres of rugged wilderness and some 550 miles of trails, including a section of the Pacific Crest Trail. In fall, you’ll avoid the pesky mosquitos that swarm the region in midsummer. If you’d like a guide, Wild Beginnings Adventure Co. leads a 15-mile, two-night trip ($375) from the Boulder Lakes trailhead in early October and will provide meals and camping gear.
Rock Island State Park, Wisconsin
You’ll find just ten miles of hiking trails around Lake Michigan’s Rock Island, 90 miles north of Green Bay, Wisconsin, but all of the island’s 40 designated campsites ($20) require a quick hike in, so it’s a great spot for a shorter haul. To get there, you’ll ride two ferries, starting from Northport, on the tip of the Door County peninsula. The island is packed in summer, and ferry service ends in October, so September through early October is the perfect time to visit. Hike the circumference of the island on the 5.2-mile Thordarson Loop Trail for a visit to a historic lighthouse.
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, Florida
From September to November, monarch butterflies make their mass migration south for the winter, and they often follow the same routes each year, meaning it’s easy to plant yourself right in their path. The Florida Panhandle in late October and early November is a good bet, and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is known for its monarch sightings. The refuge is also home to nearly 50 miles of the Florida National Scenic Trail, so you can spend a few days backpacking in search of fluttering orange wings. Campsites must be reserved, but you can score a permit at the visitor’s center.
Linville Gorge Wilderness, North Carolina
The Orionid meteor shower will peak on October 21, with up to 20 meteors per hour. The best place to catch it? Somewhere dark, like North Carolina’s Linville Gorge Wilderness, in the Pisgah National Forest. The 11,651-acre reserve has waterfalls, caves, and deep ravines, and Hikemore Adventures offers custom backpacking trips on the area’s 34-mile Linville Gorge Loop Trail (from $225). Guides will cook breakfast and dinner and equip you with lightweight backpacking gear. They also offer stargazing night hikes with a local astronomy expert.
North Cascades, Washington
The larch tree is a common sight in the Pacific Northwest, but the conifer really comes alive in fall when its signature short needles turn a golden yellow. Landscape photographers Stephen Matera and Scott Kranz are teaming up in early October to lead a three-day workshop on the east slope of the North Cascades to teach budding photographers how to capture the larch in its prime ($1,299). You’ll spend one night backpacking into the Cascades and another at local lodging in eastern Washington’s Methow Valley.
Mount Greylock State Reservation, Massachusetts
Leaf peepers love the drive to the top of 3,491-foot Mount Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts. It’s easy to escape the crowds and immerse yourself in some of New England’s finest fall foliage if you’re willing to hike a few miles. The only way to reach Mount Greylock’s lone campground (from $8) is on foot via a 1.3-mile hike. The park also has more than 70 miles of designated trails for day hiking.