Where to See Fall Leaves Change Color in Arizona

Prescott National Forest's season is best from late September through late October, along the Verde Valley.EXPAND
Prescott National Forest's season is best from late September through late October, along the Verde Valley.

The East Coast calls them "leafers" — some with affection, some without.

They're the tourists who travel to see the most ubiquitous fall association: colored leaves. Those reds, yellows, and oranges are a preparation for winter as the green chlorophyll disappears from the leaves. Snowbirds and transplant residents will remember color-changing well, but native Phoenicians have a different, sometimes absent, fall experience. While our cousins to the north and south of the state often enjoy a distinctly four-seasoned year, residents of the metropolitan area are stuck with two slightly different periods, characterized by hot and, well, not. Green leaves and dead leaves, essentially.

Not so in the areas around us, where aspens turn yellow and maples become a variety of yellow, orange, and red (or a combination of all three). Oaks get a touch of yellow, orange, or brown, while cottonwoods take on a yellow hue — as do elms, ash, and willows.

Luckily, "leaf peeping" is still a pleasure plenty of Phoenicians can partake in, requiring nothing more than a full tank of gas and a few spare hours. Here are five easy-to-drive day trips that provide many opportunities to see the leaves — and snap a shot.

Head east.
Head east.

White Mountains
Toward the east, nearing New Mexico, the White Mountains offer one of the earliest glimpses of color in the state, due to their elevation of 11,000 feet. Leafing is best during early October (generally the first three weeks), and while the area is known for plenty of pine and fir trees, it is speckled with a healthy dose of Gambel Oaks, which turn a gorgeous yellow-orange sunburst, and aspens which offer a bright greens that turn into brilliant yellows. The Show Low, Pinetop-Lakeside, and Greer communities are among those around the range with their own beautiful forest drives, and Greens Peak off Forest Road 117 north of State Route 260 between Sunrise Park Resort and the town of Greer, offers a bird's-eye view of the expanse of trees below. Blue Vista Viewpoint and the areas around Alpine and Big Lake are also great lookouts, the latter is off State Route 273 south of Eagar, though the area is still recovering from the Wallow Fire of 2011 — the biggest fire in recorded Arizona history.

Depending on stops and ultimate destinations, the drive east can take anywhere from four hours to five and a half. Go to www.azwhitemountains.net for information on the range and its surrounding communities.

Coconino National Forest.EXPAND
Coconino National Forest.

Thanks to the Coconino National Forest, Flagstaff is probably the state's biggest leafer draw. For those without lead feet, it's about a 90-minute to two-hour straight shot up the I-17 North and offers a variety of places to capture fall color, from late September through November when snowfall starts.

Hart Prairie Road is a winding drive along Forest Service Road 151. Take U.S. 180, Flagstaff's main drag, 10 miles north to connect to 151. The loop drops you off almost right back where you started after a cruise through fall foliage. Near the base of Arizona Snowbowl is a similar 1.8 mile hike, the Aspen Nature Loop, offering an easy workout and view of the San Francisco Peaks and Kendrick Mountain, which are home to plenty of, you guessed it, aspens. Don't feel like hiking? Snowbowl's summer chairlift season continues on weekends through mid-October, allowing you to look at the virtual sea of changing leaves below — all while sitting down. Chairlift operates from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Friday through Monday through fall color season; prices range from $13 to $19. Call 928-779-1951 or click www.arizonasnowbowl.com for reservations and details.

The Weatherford Trail, Abineau and Bear Jaw Loop, and Lockett Meadow are all great places to view and explore the changing color among the aspen groves. Luckily, the city has no shortage of them, and with a snowy-capped backdrop like Humphreys Peak it's a great location to have your camera at the ready.

Visit www.flagstaffarizona.org or www.flagstaffchamber.com for other ideas and details on routes and closures.

Visit the Kaibab National Forest.
Visit the Kaibab National Forest.

North Rim, Grand Canyon
We would be remiss not to mention one of the natural wonders of the world in a list of must-see places. The Grand Canyon is home to much of the state's aspen population within the Kaibab National Forest, and it's pretty hard to take a bad picture surrounded by the sheer rock walls of the canyon and Colorado River below. The Kaibab Plateau is arguably the best place to catch a wide view of all the golden leaves, but the drives up to the canyon, following smaller, forest route roads, offer a feeling of being totally encapsulated by the leaves.

Upcoming Events

For those willing to turn their day trips into an overnight (or a really, really long day) the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is one of the state's best bets when it comes to fall color. From Phoenix, head north up the I-17 toward Flagstaff, From there, take Highway 89 north to Bitter Springs, then follow Highway 89 Alt. West to Jacob Lake. Highway 67 South from Jacob Lake leads right to the North Rim. It's a good five- to six-hour car ride, but the North Rim is far less populated than its southern sister and hosts just as many breathtaking views.

The North Rim experiences a shorter season than the South, with most restaurants and lodging closing on Saturday, October 15. Weather permitting, the park may remain open for day use through Thursday, December 1. The park will officially re-open in mid-May, but it's a great place for leaf-looking earlier in the season, generally from early through late October. For more information and updated road or canyon conditions, go to www.nps.gov/grca or call 928-638-7888.

Read on for more places to see fall leaves in Arizona.

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