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Arizona fall colors: Best hikes, scenic drives to see the leaves turning

Despite what it seems like by the time September rolls around, summer is not endless. It really is winding down. So it’s time to start planning your quest to see some autumn color. Arizona has plenty if you know where to look. These scenic drives and hiking trails deliver the goods. Just don’t forget your jacket, if you can remember where you packed it away so many months ago.

North Rim Parkway

If you have time for a leisurely road trip, aim for the North Rim of Grand Canyon. It’s a long scenic drive just to reach the Kaibab Plateau, skirting Marble Canyon and the rising ramparts of the Vermilion Cliffs. Turn onto State Route 67 at Jacob Lake, a high-country road under skies so crisp they seem brittle.

About a mile south of Jacob Lake, you’ll spot an 80-foot-tall fire tower rising above the timber. Stop and climb the 1934 steel tower for a bird’s-eye view of the landscape. A few miles south, you’ll pass through burn scars from the 2006 Warm Fire. Hillsides are dotted with scorched tree trunks but the healing is well underway with heavy undergrowth of aspen saplings.

Soon damage is past and you’re enjoying a beautiful blend of mixed forests and open meadows. The road dead-ends at Grand Canyon National Park. You can extend your fall-color drive by following the 23-mile Cape Royal Road, a beautiful drive through big aspen groves with multiple canyon overlooks along the way.

Expect peak autumn color in late September and early Oct. The Grand Canyon Lodge and restaurant close on Oct. 15. Park admission is $30 per vehicle. 928-638-7888, www.nps.gov/grca.

Details: From Flagstaff, take U.S. 89 north to Bitter Springs. Go west on U.S. 89A to Jacob Lake, then south on State Route 67 to the North Rim.

Rim Road (Forest Road 300)

Autumn adds bold splashes of color to the forests of the Mogollon Rim. Drive Forest Road 300 between State Routes 260 and 87 for spectacular hues and panoramas. The route, also known as the Rim Road, covers about 45 miles.

Starting from the east on FR 300, you’ll enjoy big overlooks, a scattering of lakes, hiking trails and dense forests. Past Woods Canyon, the road changes to dirt — a bit bouncy at times but it can be managed in a cautiously driven sedan. (Avoid making the drive on a rainy day if you don’t have high clearance.)

For most of the drive, FR 300 plays peek-a-boo with the edge of the rim, skirting the timber and meadows. Often the road lies just a few feet from the cliff.

Details: From Payson, drive east on SR 260 for about 29 miles, then turn north onto FR 300 once you reach the top of the rim. (The Mogollon Visitor Center is on the right, opposite FR 300.) Most of FR 300 is a well-graded dirt road. It ends at State 87 about 10 miles north of Strawberry.

Hart Prairie Road

When you want autumn fast and flashy, head for Flagstaff and mountain slopes drenched with aspens. Prowling the western flank of the San Francisco Peaks, Hart Prairie Road (Forest Road 151) winds through high meadows and thick conifer forests interrupted by enormous stands of aspens.

Go on the right October day and every breeze will trigger a cascade of lemon and gold leaves, as if it were raining dollops of sunshine. The dirt road can be managed in a passenger car although there are a few bumps along the way.

Details: From downtown Flagstaff, take U.S. 180 northwest for about 10 miles to Forest Road 151 (near mile marker 226). Hart Prairie Road winds through colorful timber for 10 miles then reconnects to  U.S.180. 

Kachina Trail

A network of trails loops over and around Flagstaff’s San Francisco Peaks, the hulking remains of an eroded volcano. One of the most stunning is the Kachina Trail, which takes off from the parking lot below Arizona Snowbowl.

Kachina dips immediately into lush woodlands and you’re immersed in aspens almost as soon as you’re out of your vehicle. The trail rambles for 5 miles across high slopes painted in yellow hues. The most vibrant color is in the first half of the hike.

Details: Drive 7 miles northwest of Flagstaff on U.S 180 and turn right on Snowbowl Road. Follow the road about 6.4 miles to the ski area. Turn into the first parking area on the right. 928-526-0866, www.fs.usda.gov/coconino.

Want more Flagstaff fall-colors hikes? Try one of these.

Oak Creek Canyon

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Fall colors at West Fork and Hart Prairie in northern Arizona.
Rob Schumacher/azcentral.com

The winding drive on State Route 89A through Oak Creek Canyon between Flagstaff and Sedona is astonishing any time but erupts with color during the cooler autumn months. If you’re looking for the closest thing Arizona has to a New England display of foliage, hike the West Fork Trail.  

Starting from the Call of the Canyon parking area about 9 miles north of Sedona, West Fork pulls you into verdant forests tucked beneath high cliffs. Echoes of birdsong and the splashing stream fill the canyon. The main trail parallels the meandering creek. Peak season for fall colors usually runs from mid-October well into November. The path burrows through a kaleidoscope tunnel of willows, boxelders, velvet ash and fiery scarlet bigtooth maples. They’re supported by an understory of grapevines, sumac and Virginia creeper in a tangle of varying hues.

Just know that this trail, popular all year, is in extra-high demand during the fall. The parking lot at Call of the Canyon Picnic Area is small and fills early pretty much every day.

Details: 9.5 miles north of Sedona on SR 89A. $10 per vehicle of up to five people. 928-203-2900, www.fs.usda.gov/coconino.

Huckaby Trail

From the Schnebly Hill trailhead in Sedona, the Huckaby drops in an out of Bear Wallow Wash. You emerge along an elevated ridge, overlooking the multi-hued ribbon of Oak Creek graced by cottonwood, velvet ash, sycamore and willow.

The trail descends to the creek where clustered sumac and a viney tangle of canyon grape and Virginia creeper enhance the kaleidoscope effect. After two creek crossings, the path switchbacks up the bank to Midgely Bridge, where you can enjoy splendid views up and down Oak Creek canyon. The trail is 5.2 miles round trip.

Details: From the junction of State Route 179 and State Route 89A in Sedona, take SR 179 south 0.3 mile. Turn left on Schnebly Hill Road and drive 0.8 mile to a signed parking lot. A Red Rock Pass ($5) is required and available at the trailhead kiosk. 928-203-2900, www.fs.usda.gov/coconino.

Want more Sedona fall-colors hikes? Try one of these five.

Parsons Trail

Follow the riparian corridor into lovely Sycamore Canyon on this easy hike near Clarkdale in the Verde Valley.

At the beginning, the trail scrambles 200 feet down the canyon wall to the creek bed. From there it’s a level stroll through a virtual tunnel of leafy shade alongside Sycamore Creek. Pools form along the way, rippled mirrors reflecting the canopy of multi-hued treetops and high cliffs that surround you.

The trail is generally easy to follow, crossing from one side of the stream to the other about a half-dozen times. After just under 4 miles, you reach Parsons Spring, a wide marshy area and turnaround point.

Details: From Cottonwood, drive northwest on Main Street, following signs to Tuzigoot National Monument. Turn right on Tuzigoot Road, cross the Verde River and turn left on the dirt and gravel Sycamore Canyon Road (FR 131). Drive about 11 miles to the trailhead. High-clearance vehicle is recommended. 928-203-2900, www.fs.usda.gov/coconino.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum

Even procrastinators can enjoy a bright slice of the season. Just about the time Santa shows up at the mall, colors are peaking at Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior.

The Main Trail is a 1.5-mile loop that follows a small creek swirling with brightly pigmented leaves, as if someone were brewing autumn soup. Honey locust, soapberry, canyon hackberry, black walnut and Arizona sycamore all contribute colorful ingredients. The trail circles Magma Ridge with gnarled and crumpled outcroppings then curves through a grove of burgundy red Chinese pistachio trees, framed by golden hedges of pomegranate.

Expect trees with yellow leaves to peak from mid-October through early November, while trees with red and orange leaves will be going full throttle from mid-November through early December.

Details: 55 miles east of central Phoenix on U.S. 60. $12.50, $5 for ages 5-15, 520-689-2723, azstateparks.com/boyce-thompson.   

Find the reporter at www.rogernaylor.com. Or follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RogerNaylorinAZ or Twitter @AZRogerNaylor. 

 

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