Leaf peeping in Arizona? The answer – which may come as a surprise – is a resounding “yes.” Between high-elevation forests, shaded canyons, riparian zones and sky islands – those isolated mountain ranges surrounded by desert – the state offers plenty of hikes, drives and picnic options for those who want to surround themselves in autumnal hues. Timing? Look for Arizona fall color as early as mid-September in mountainous elevations and lasting well into early December at high-desert spots. Here are just a few Instagram-worthy locales.
Flagstaff’s San Francisco Peaks are the epicenter of fall’s brilliance – particularly the shimmery, golden-hued aspens, which drift down mountain slopes into meadows. If you’re ambitious, follow the Around the Peaks Loop. It is a 44-mile scenic drive on forest service roads around the mountains and through aspen groves. You’ll pass Lockett Meadow, where the Inner Basin trail leads to the midst of an ancient volcano, as well as Hart Prairie. Nearby, Arizona Snowbowl ski resort offers scenic chairlift rides during peak color weeks.
Farther north, the Grand Canyon National Park’s North Rim and the surrounding Kaibab National Forest are ablaze with aspen, maples and other trees and shrubs. The park’s North Rim closes its concessions and programs October 15, but until then, you can join daily guided nature walks on trails through forest and along the rim. After mid-October, the park is open for day use until snow closes the roadways.
Also in Northern Arizona, State Highway 260 passes through the White Mountains between the towns of Pinetop-Lakeside and Springerville. This sure-fire roadway for fall color is flanked by small lakes where you can pull off for impromptu picnics in the aspens.
North Central Arizona
State Highway 89A twists north of Sedona through Oak Creek Canyon, where you’ll see maples, willows, boxelder, ash and other trees and shrubs displaying fall glory. After the highway climbs out of the canyon, pull off at Oak Creek Vista for a great view back down the canyon.
Near Payson, Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is anchored by a dramatic travertine arch, a geological wonder that spans Pine Creek. Short trails lead you down to get up close and personal with the formation, its waterfall and the aspen, boxelder and cottonwood trees that signal fall weather.
Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior is a surprising spot for fall color, given that the high-desert garden is only about 1,000 feet higher in elevation than nearby metro Phoenix. Follow trails through the 100-acre botanical garden to see colorful trees and shrubs such as canyon hackberry, sycamore, willow, ash, cottonwood, pomegranate and the spectacular red of the Chinese pistachio.
Tucson & Southern Arizona
Mt. Lemmon, part of the Santa Catalina Mountains, towers over Tucson at an elevation of more than 9,000 feet. Some 27 miles long, Catalina Highway zigzags spectacularly up its slopes, passing trailheads, picnic sites, campgrounds and a lake, through forests dense with not only pines, but also colorful aspen, maple and walnut trees.
South of Tucson, Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains is a popular birdwatching spot, but in fall, the riparian area surrounding the canyon’s creek is golden and orange as velvet ash and Arizona sycamore display their fall finery. Drive the canyon’s roadway, which crosses the creek at several spots, and stop at picnic areas and trailheads for a closer look.
Farther south, the Nature Conservancy’s Ramsey Canyon Preserve is also a birder’s paradise, best known for the 15 species of hummingbirds that dart through the air. In fall, the small birds aren’t the only things providing local color. Maple and sycamore trees illuminate the preserve, too. Visit on your own or join a guided nature walk, offered several times a week March through November.
Arizona’s West Coast
The Western Arizona desert near Kingman seems endless, but there, the Hualapai Mountains are a classic example of a sky island, rising more than 8,000 feet above the desert floor. Near the top, Hualapai Mountain Park offers hiking and mountain biking trails, campsites and cabin rentals, all great places to see aspens, maples, boxelders, walnuts and other trees showing off their seasonal color.