Flagstaff, Northern Arizona’s most populated high altitude city, is most well-known for being located in the world’s largest ponderosa pine forest. At 7000 feet in elevation, the scenery is quite different than the rest of Arizona. Tourists from Southern Arizona and all over the West flock here each summer to enjoy cool recreation in the beautiful pine forests.
With stunning mountain & pine scenery, as well as temperatures at least 30 degrees cooler than Phoenix on average, it really is a gorgeous escape from both the heat and also the typical Arizona desert scenery. It’s no surprise that Phoenix residents plan weekend escapes here year-round, due to the easy drive located just 2 hours north.
Snowbowl – “The coolest place in Arizona”
Just about any type of outdoor recreation including hiking, camping, biking, and running are all popular past times in Flagstaff. Arizona Snowbowl, the state’s most popular ski resort, offers plenty of recreational activities year round, including 3 gorgeous hiking trails. These trails offer the perfect cool escape on summer days due to the heavy tree coverage, high elevation (8000+ feet), and secluded nature away from town.
Fall in Flagstaff
While summer in Flagstaff is great, nothing really beats a fall visit. While the trails around town do not offer much in the way of fall foliage, the higher up you go in altitude, the more the gorgeous aspens begin to pop up. All of Snowbowl’s trails are a fall wonderland this time of year. There really is no better destination in the state for leaf peeping. The scenery rivals that of some of the top fall foliage destinations in the country.
The 7 mile drive up Snowbowl Road is simply spectacular in the fall, and hand’s down one of the best places in the state for colorful fall foliage. As you start the fall drive, you will take in the beautiful quiet scenery of the country’s largest ponderosa forest. Mountain views pop up every now and then. And then, the real scenery starts when the colorful aspens starting popping up here and there, before eventually dominating the landscape.
Amazing views from the drive up Snowbowl Road
Be sure to plan for a stop at Aspen Corner, an incredible leaf peeping destination about 6 miles up Snowbowl Road, that is loaded with towering aspens. You will see a large parking area that will likely be packed the entire fall season. There is a short trail here too or you can simply admire and take family photos by these majestic trees. The aspens are dazzling, especially when shining against a bright blue sky.
From here, you can also take a walk along the Arizona Trail for more great foliage. The entire trail stretches out more than 800 miles, however, there are short sections throughout Flagstaff. The section that starts at Aspen Corner is particularly scenic as it goes through many aspen groves. The mountain vistas are tremendous as an added bonus. Go as little or as far as you like – just remember that the return route will be much hillier!
Gorgeous views from Aspen Corner & The Arizona Trail
There are 2 moderately easy hiking options at Snowbowl: The Aspen Nature Loop and the Kachina Trail. Both of these hikes are real winners during the fall due to the abundance of aspen trees. The third option, the Humphrey’s Peak trail, goes to the tallest peak in Arizona (12,637 feet). This hike is suited only for the most advanced hikers. If you are simply seeking a great leaf peeping destination and a nice relaxing hike, the other 2 hikes are casual hiker approved.
The Aspen Nature Loop
The Aspen Nature Loop is one of the easier trails in town due to the short distance (just 1.5 miles) and the mostly flat terrain (just one minor hill near the end). However, due to the high altitude (9000+ feet), hikers not used to the area should take it easy and drink extra water.
This hike is great because you get to take in the ponderosa pines, golden aspens, and also some of the best mountain views in town. The fall foliage scattered amongst the trails and the golden leaves of the aspens shimmering in the sunlight really creates a wonderful fall atmosphere that is hard to top. The aspens here tend to get the brightest in town, creating the most vibrant fall setting.
The Kachina Trail
The Kachina Trail is another fantastic hiking option as the first mile or so of the trail is jam packed with aspens. On a sunny fall day, the entire trail appears to be glowing with the golden hue of the aspen leaves. This trail is 10 miles round trip, however, you only need to hike the first mile or so and back to take in the gorgeous fall aspen scenery.
The Kachina trail is such a hidden gem; an underused and underappreciated trail especially when it comes to fall beauty. Most tourists flock over to Inner Basin, which is gorgeous, although overcrowded. The Kachina offers incredible scenery in addition to a quiet nature experience- in fact, it’s the only trail I’ve ever seen any wildlife on. Like the Aspen Nature Loop, this trail also starts at over 9000 elevation, so take it easy and go no farther than your comfort level.
Veit Springs is not technically part of Snowbowl, however, it is located on Snowbowl road a bit farther down. This hike is one of the easiest in town. A flat 1.5 mile loop stroll through a mixed ponderosa/aspen forest is scenic anytime of year, but especially so when the aspens begin to turn gold.
There’s lots of aspens and pines here, and the contrast is strikingly beautiful in autumn. Lots of colorful leaves cover the ground, giving the trail a bit more of a traditional East coast feel. It’s shady and cool due to the dense tree coverage with lots of leaves crunching beneath your feet for a true fall atmosphere.
Another bonus of this trail is a little side route that takes you to some pretty cool ancient pictographs and an old abandoned log cabin. Veit Springs is an interesting trail with a little something extra other other trails in the area.
I love this trail anytime of the year. In the summer, the pines and high altitude of Veit Springs provide a cool escape. In the fall, the golden leaves on the aspens and falling leaves on the ground create a picture perfect fall setting. Winterime, the flat terrain and snowy pines makes Veit a picturesque choice for snowshoeing and cross country skiing. Veit Springs is definitely the 4 season wonderland in Flagstaff! The non-touristy vibe is also refreshing.
Whether you feel like taking a fall hike, a scenic fall foliage drive, fall photography, or are simply looking for a great place to take in the beauty of the season, Arizona Snowbowl is one of your best bets in the state.
Tips for a great fall hike
*Get used to the higher altitude around town for a few days if you are not from the area. Also drink plenty of water and eat extra carbohydrates to prevent altitude sickness.
*Always dress in layers. Expect cold temperatures in the morning. Keep in mind that a random October snowstorm is possible. Snowbowl is at least 15 degrees cooler than in town and also much shadier. Flagstaff fall temps can range from 35 in the morning and sunny and 60 just a few hours later!
*A hiking stick and camelback are always recommended. The hiking stick comes in handy for extra traction and protection in case of a wildlife encounter. The camelbak ensures that you have an adequate water supply.
*I recommend a D5100 Nikon camera for the best fall photography.
*To prevent multiple trips, keep track of fall color updates on Twitter. Arizona Snowbowl and the Coconino National Forest both regularly provide updated reports on current foliage. You can also check Fall Color on the Coconino on the National Forest website for weekly updates. Color typically peaks the 2nd-3rd week of October.
*Eat a full breakfast/lunch before heading out. It helps with the altitude adjustment to eat more prior to any strenuous exercise. Also be sure to bring a few snacks for along the way. It would be a shame to have to end your hike early due to a lack of preparation! Granola bars, fruit, and salty chips or crackers are good choices.
*Apply sunscreen before your hike. Your skin burns faster at high altitude, even if it is cloudy. Chapstick is also a must in dry climates like Flagstaff.
*Plan enough time to finish the hike before sunset. If heading out later in the day, remember that it gets dark earlier (usually around 6). You do not want to get stuck in the forest after dark!
*Wear proper workout clothes and hiking shoes. You’ll have better traction with the shoes and the workout clothes allow your body to breathe and move much smoother. I can’t tell you how many visitors I see wearing jeans!
*It’s rare in the fall, although the weather at high altitude can change drastically. I recommend stuffing a light raincoat/windbreaker into your backpack.
*Watch out for wildlife. It’s rare, although bears and mountain lions have been spotted on occasion. Read up on safety advice on what to do in a possible bear or lion encounter.
How to get to Snowbowl?
Drive north on US 180 from Flagstaff for about 7 miles until you reach FR 516 (Snowbowl Road). Veit Springs trail is about 4 miles up this road. The Aspen Nature Loop and Kachina Trail are about 7 miles up the road.