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After years of neglect and attrition, America's national parks are having something of a celebrity moment. Last year, darling documentarian Ken Burns made a glowing six-part PBS miniseries called >The National Parks: America's Best Idea. This year, the Parks Department unrolled a series of fee-free days at the 100-plus parks that ordinarily charge fees. (The next one is November 11, Veterans Day, and then again during the annual National Park Week in April. But the parks themselves—392 of them total—don't need a PR campaign and autumn showcases their best. A walk in the woods and open air is the much-needed antidote to the cloistered luxury of retreats (as much as we love the cloistered luxury of retreats). They can last an afternoon or stretch to a 30-day trek. We suggest something in between.
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The John Muir Trail
John Muir, the Scottish-born naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, once said, "In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks." This is certainly true of the 211-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail that bears his name. The trail stretches from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney, Calif. It courses along granite cliffs and runs through wildflower meadows and deep canyons. There are hot springs and ponds and waterfalls. It's not an easy trail—some mountain peaks reach 14,000 feet—but as Muir said, for he who seeks nature, ample are the rewards.
The Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail is the ur-scenic trail and the first one completed in the U.S. Finished in 1937, the trail starts atop the suitably epic-sounding Mount Katahdin in Maine and terminates 2,175 miles later, on Springer Mountain in Georgia. Try the 104-mile section that wends through the Shenandoah Valley National Park in Virginia. With neither the humidity of Georgia nor the arduous climbs of New England, it?s gentle and addictive, beset on all sides by oak trees and yawning vistas of fall color. Alternately, just 30 miles north of New York City, Harriman State Park?s 31 lakes and 40 marked trails are just a commuter rail trip away.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Looming like a mini Sahara in southern Colorado, Great Sand Dunes National Park is one of those only-in-America phenomena. Although the park itself is only 6 years old, the 750-foot-tall dunes reach back 440,000 or so. Huff to the top and spy fall foliage through binoculars—and then sandboard or sled down. Surrounded by scrublands, wetlands, and grasslands (yes, where the buffalo roam) on three sides and alpine forest on the fourth, it?s a microcosm of nature in one easily explored 30-square-mile package.
Tahoe Rim Trail
You don?t come to the Tahoe Rim Trail for fall foliage—it?s all evergreen conifers up here at 6,300 to 9,400 feet; you come for the 165 miles of vistas. Straddling California and Nevada and looping around Lake Tahoe, the Sierra Nevada mountains? icy azure jewel, the trail is an uninterrupted peak-to-peak single track (created and maintained by a volunteer legion of hiking enthusiasts) accessible by boot, bike, or sure-footed stallion. Revel in the crisp air with easy-to-follow maps and nine drive-up jumping-off points, including 50 miles along the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, the West Coast cousin of the A.T.
Hocking Hills State Park
Not everything in Ohio is flat. Hocking Hills, an hour south of Columbus, is every bit the equal of better-known parks, and threaded with waterfalls, towering hemlocks, and limestone gorges. Hike the plunging gorge of Conkle?s Hollow, opting for the Rim Trail for a thorough workout, before sleeping it off at the gay-owned Glenlaurel Inn (800-809-7378) with its excellent breakfasts (including morels in season). Then wake yourself up again with a zipline tour through the fall foliage in Rockland.