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There are some national park trips that can be spontaneous and taken at any time of the year, while others will need plenty of forward planning. Visiting during peak foliage season is one of those experiences that needs to be booked early to avoid disappointment and a multitude of "no vacancy" signs. It's time to think about and book your leaf-peeping getaway at one of the country's spectacular parks.

I'd love to tell you that there are great deals out there and that you may save a bundle by booking now, but the reality is that for some parks, foliage season is peak season with unparalleled demand for accommodation, so bargains will be hard to come by. In general the foliage season starts in September in the north of the country and extends all the way into mid-November as you travel southwards, depending on the region you wish to visit.

The national park with perhaps the most prolific reputation for stunning foliage color and variety is Shenandoah in Western Virginia. Each fall, the park's 100 or so tree species transform into a kaleidoscope of color with blazes of red and yellow maples, orange oaks, and purple dogwood foliage. Although seasonal peak dates can vary from year to year, in general, optimal viewing dates expend from mid October to early November, but the park's website (www.nps.gov/shen) always posts accurate annual foliage reports as the season progresses.

There are three main accommodation options within the park: Big Meadows Lodge, Skyland Resort and Lewis Mountain cabins, all operated by Aramark. If you check online (www.visitshenandoah.com) for reservations now, you will already see scarce availability for weekends in October, but if you are able to travel mid week, then not only will you experience lighter crowds and vehicular traffic, but you will be assured of a greater chance of finding somewhere to sleep and lower rates. Deluxe rooms without views (or TV for that matter) in mid-October at Skyland Resort start from $121.50 per night -- not bad when you consider that these rooms accommodate up to four people. A standard room with two double beds, mid week at Big Meadows Lodge in early November starts from $101.50 per night, but there rooms are filling up quickly with limited availability. The rather rustic one bedroom cabins at Lewis Mountain cabins start from $91.50 per night with extremely limited vacancies, especially during the month of November. I would suggest that you call the properties' central reservation number (tel. 888/896-3833) rather than attempting to book online to speak to a reservation specialist about when room are available, rather than trying to search for dates online.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (www.nps.gov/grsm) which straddles the Tennessee- North Carolina border is another exceptional foliage experience. Sometimes it seems hard to believe that this area was almost logged to oblivion in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Although there are hundreds of accommodation properties located around the periphery of the park, especially in towns on the Tennessee side, there is only one in-park option, the remote Le Conte Lodge (www.leconte-lodge.com) which only offers accommodation inclusive of meals (breakfast and dinner) due to its location. If you want to wake up on top of Old Smoky each morning without the need of a car, this is the place to stay.

Getting here is not for the fainthearted -- a minimum of four to five hour hike along one of five trails is required. Even the food and supplies have to be brought in this way -- but by llamas. Prices are standardized to $110 per adult and $85 per child (aged four to 12) per night staying in one bedroom cabins or larger two or three bedroom lodges that can accommodate up to 13 people (taxes of 9.5% are additional).These cabins are pretty rustic with no electricity or showers but they do provide kerosene lanterns for light, propane heaters for heat and wash basins and buckets to take sponge baths. With space for only 60 guests at any one time, it is best to reserve quickly. Up here, foliage starts as early as mid-September starting with yellow birch, American beech and mountain maple. During the first two weeks of October, leaves are usually at their peak colors in the high elevations above 4,000 feet. Throughout October, the Smokies shine with the hues of red maple, dogwood, sugar maple, scarlet oak, and sweetgum in the mid to lower elevations.

Perhaps less known for its foliage but offering impressive color and variety, the North Cascades National Park (www.nps.gov/noca) in Washington State is a lovely alternative to Shenandoah if you want to travel earlier in the season and steer clear of large crowds of day trippers. Rather than large imposing forests, the area is drenched in color from more low lying foliage in the form of the golden larches, red huckleberry, yellow mountain ash, blueberries, and wildflowers. Stehekin, the gateway to the North Cascades, is a great accommodation base for seasonal adventures in the Park including hiking, river-rafting, horseback riding, mountain biking, wildlife viewing, fishing, canoeing, and kayaking. Of course, all of these activities are set against a backdrop of yellows, oranges, reds, and purples during foliage season.

Waterfront cabins at The Silver Bay Inn (www.silverbayinn.com) sleep up to four people are priced from $225 per night during the fall foliage season from September 20 to October 10, 2009.Riverview rooms are priced from $145 per night The Inn is only accessible by passenger ferry, tour boat or float plane from Chelan. Ross Lake Resort (www.rosslakeresort.com) is located in the Park's recreational area and again, is only accessible by ferry or hiking so you get that authentic wilderness experience. Cabins here, with hot water, electricity and cooking facilities (bring your own food as there are no restaurants) start from $128 per night for two people mid week with a 20% discount for all cabin rentals during the month of October, 2009. More luxurious two-story peak cabins that sleep four people are priced at $270 per night. This area is best known for its fishing, hiking, kayaking and canoeing along the lake and foliage viewing can be quite dramatic, especially in September and early October. You can call the Washington Fall Foliage hotline on tel. 800/354-4595 for regular regional updates.

Foliage in New England usually peaks the last week of September through mid-October, with October 4 to10 often a prime color week and Acadia National Park (www.nps.gov/acad) in Maine provides scenic coastal foliage viewing in a relatively smaller scale park that is easily accessible for day trips or overnight stays in nearby Bar Harbor. The best trees for color include maples, red oaks, and birches. Located only one and a half miles from the entrance to the Park, the Bar Harbor Grand Hotel (www.barharborgrand.com) has king or queen rooms including breakfast starting from $169 per night between September 12 and October 12, 2009. Check the Maine State foliage website (www.state.me.us/doc/foliage) for updated details about foliage peaks in Acadia and around the state.

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