Surprisingly, Arizona is a hotspot for fall color. One usually thinks of Arizona as solely a hot desert destination without the slightest evidence of fall. On the contrary, Northern Arizona is home to a number of high altitude areas which see plenty of golden aspens and brisk temperatures this time of year. While temperatures in Southern Arizona cities like Phoenix and Tucson are still pushing into high 80’s and 90’s this time of year, Northern Arizona cities like Flagstaff (elevation 7000 ft) see pretty chilly daytime highs in the lower 60’s and even colder nighttime lows in the 30’s. The temps are so cold at night that you could end up seeing some early snow!
Flagstaff, in particular, sees the most traditional 4 season climate with a colorful fall season, mild summers, and cold, snowy winters. The majority of the higher altitude trails in town are just loaded with bright yellow aspens when the leaves begin to change. Around town, you will also find a nice medley of colors due to the various deciduous trees that have been planted.
Whether you are a Phoenix resident trying to escape the heat, a new Arizona transplant craving that traditional fall ambiance, or simply a tourist seeking a great fall getaway destination, Northern Arizona will surely fit the bill. Here are 9 great places to take in the beauty of the fall season in Arizona.
1. The Inner Basin Trail
If you really want to feel rare-for-Arizona fall ambiance, head over to Lockett Meadow Campground: the starting point for the fantastic aspen loaded Inner Basin trail. It’s the best fall trail in area, and not just good for Arizona, but one of the better fall foliage trails you will ever find. Be aware – this hike is no easy feat with an elevation ranging from 8000-10000+ feet and a very steep incline. However, you can go out to your comfort level – the colors begin to appear as soon as you being the trail. The entire trail is about 3.4 miles.
As soon as you embark on this gorgeous trail and begin to immerse yourself in the colors of the season, you will not want to stop! Nothing says fall in Arizona like a walk along the Inner Basin trail. If you are a Southern Arizona resident missing that feeling of fall in the air this time of year, you will definitely want to plan a visit to Flagstaff to hike Inner Basin. At this high of an elevation, the temps will be extra cool, so be sure to dress in layers. Chilly temps, fall foliage surrounding you in every direction, and a peaceful, relaxing trek into nature – it doesn’t get much more fall than this in Arizona!
2. The West Fork Trail
The West Fork Trail is a gorgeous & very popular leaf peeping destination in the fall. In fact, it is really difficult to find a parking spot because so many people want to hike this trail. This leafy trail, reminiscent more of the type of trail you would find somewhere like New England, is located in Oak Creek Canyon, a gorgeous area between Flagstaff and Sedona. The area is home to a wide variety of deciduous trees, and thus, you get to see more of the East Coast medley of fall foliage rather than solely aspen trees.
Although this gorgeous 7 mile adventure featuring 13 creek crossings is great anytime of the year, nothing beats a fall hike. For starters, the temperatures in this area are so much more bearable this time of year. Second, the trail here is the most colorful of any you will find in the Arizona area. For a more traditional fall feeling with scattered leaves amongst the ground, beautiful creek views, and a diverse variety of colorful trees everywhere you look, be sure to check out the West Fork Trail.
3. The Aspen Nature Loop
In Flagstaff, you will find 3 great nature trails at Snowbowl, the state’s most popular skiing destination. When it isn’t snowing, it’s time to hit the trails! And fall is the best time to do so, as all the trails are sparkling with the golden colors of the season. One of the best options for all skill levels is the short, yet super scenic Aspen Nature Loop, a 1.5 mile stroll which takes you past both ponderosa and aspen groves. This trail just sparkles with golden aspens this time of year. Aside from the gorgeous foliage, there are nice mountain views to take in as well. And, it is so much less crowded than most of the other fall color trails in town. For a tranquil nature experience with picture perfect fall views, plan for a relaxing stroll around the Aspen Nature Loop.
4. Snowbowl Drive
If you are not a hiker, you are still in luck as there are numerous scenic fall drives to enjoy in the Northern Arizona area. One of the most picturesque and relaxing options is the 7 mile drive up Snowbowl Road. As you begin your journey, the ponderosa trees will eventually begin to switch over to beautiful colorful aspens. Awaiting you at the end of your drive at Snowbowl will be gorgeous views of the mountains, surrounded by the beauty of fall. So pick up a seasonal Pumpkin Spice Latte (Starbucks has a great one and so does local coffee house Cultured), put on your coziest fall sweater, get your camera, and get ready for some amazing foliage, in Arizona out of all places!
5. Downtown Flagstaff
For those of you limited on time, you may want to simply enjoy the colors around town. And fortunately, there are plenty to enjoy. The colors in the lower altitude areas around town begin changing much earlier, typically starting as early as the second week of September. There is more of a diverse variety of hues with aspens as well as beautiful red and orange foliage that you won’t find along the the trails. Some of the top leaf peeping areas include downtown, Wheeler Park, community parks, and any of the side streets and residential areas. Many restaurants downtown have great garden patios where you can enjoy a meal while surrounded by the colors of the season.
6. The Weatherford Trail
Although the colors are not as striking as some of the other trails mentioned above, the Weatherford is a great add on for anyone who is planning a longer trip and/or has already completed the top trails and is looking for something new. Both novice and advanced hikers will like this trail as you can complete either a short section or the entire 20 miles. Beginning hikers can simply complete the first mile and a half or so and still enjoy plenty of fall leaf peeping, while advanced hikers may want to continue on for more dramatic mountain scenery and a more intense workout, of which fall offers the perfect weather (cool and dry) for doing so. Overall, The Weatherford is a peaceful trail with little tourist traffic, providing both wonderful views and the chance to get in a nice little overall body workout.
More info and fall color pics from The Weatherford Trail
7. Veit Springs trail
Veit Springs is another great fall hike up Snowbowl Road. This one is not located at Snowbowl, but rather about 1/2 way up the road, and thus tends to get less congested making it a great option for anyone seeking a bit more solitude. This trail features a relaxing walk through a dense forest, comprised of mostly ponderosa pines with occasional aspen trees intermixed, which in turn creates a striking contrast during the fall season. I love this hike because of the woody setting – it sorts reminds me more of a New England trail, a definite bonus in a desert area like Arizona. Another cool aspect of this trail is a few hidden pictographs located on a side trail. Overall, I highly recommend Veit for anyone seeking a quiet nature refuge with nice fall foliage.
8. Aspen Corner
Aspen Corner, located about 5/6 miles up Snowbowl Road, is one of the most popular photography hotspots in the fall. Named as so for the abundance of aspens, it’s one of the go to spots for both tourists and locals during the spectacular fall season. Here, you will find a high density of towering aspens trees, which all turn a sparking gold as soon as the leaves begins to change. It really is a mesmerizing experience to stand amongst the sea of towering golden trees. From here, you can take an easy little nature stroll, or connect to a section of the Arizona Trail, which will take you through even more golden aspen forests, along with offering the additional pleasure of spectacular views of the mountains and open meadows.
9. Bear Jaw/Abineau Loop
Bear Jaw is by far the most strenuous trail on this list, however, it is much less crowded than the Inner Basin trail and offers similar splendid views. The entire loop is about 7 miles, starting at an elevation of 8500 and ending at over 10,000 feet! This is a really tough trek, so I recommend just doing the 2 mile out and back Bear Jaw trail, which is a major workout in itself.
The trail starts through a ponderosa forest with a few aspens here and there, until you finally end in a dazzling forest of nothing but yellow aspens. Near the end, you will be treated to the most striking views of the golden trees covering the mountains. It’s a peaceful trek without half the crowds of Inner Basin, with just as picturesque scenery. FR 418, the road you will take to get to the trail, is very rocky with tons of potholes and uneven ground, therefore, a high clearance vehicle is highly recommended.