Flagstaff, a small town in Northern Arizona located at 7000 feet (the highest elevated city in the state of Arizona and one of the highest in the US), is the go to spot for fall in Arizona. The many aspen trees found along various hiking trails make it a popular leaf peeping destination come fall. Although several other cities in Central and Northern Arizona also see some fall colors (Sedona, Prescott, Payson, and Williams), Flagstaff by far outshines them all with the most dramatic and abundant changes.
The Inner Basin Trail, a beautiful 4 mile round trip hike starting in Lockett Meadow, is the premier fall hike in the area. The abundance of aspen trees, gorgeous mountain views, and peaceful location far away from town easily make it the top pick in the area. The trail is so beautiful during the fall season that it rivals many of the stunning options found throughout New England. During your hike, you will be treated to some of the most gorgeous fall colors you can experience anywhere in the Southwest.
Not surprisingly, residents from the more barren cities of Southern Arizona flock to the area most weekends in October. Due to the high number of people longing for a little hint of autumn color and cool temperatures, the majority of the trails are very crowded all month long. On the first 2 weekends of October, the Inner Basin trail is so popular that traffic has to be monitored. Due to the small parking lot and narrow road, only a select number of cars are let in at a time. A 50 car line wait is not unusual!
The drive to the hike itself is scenic as well. Check out the beautiful views you will be greeted to just before you make your way up the windy, narrow road. Below is a picture of the San Francisco peaks with the golden colors of fall, along with a little snow!
The trail is 2 miles each way, which may seem easy to a regular hiker, however, it’s basically uphill for an entire 2 miles and you also have to take the high altitude into account (8600-10500 feet!). Luckily, you can relax a bit more on the return route, which is all downhill. Those not accustomed to the high elevation should drink plenty of water, take it really slow, and perhaps get used to the elevation around town for a few days before attempting this hike. We saw many mountain bikers coming in each direction, which seems really scary and a bit risky in my opinion!
The beginning of the trail starts off with a pretty mixture of ponderosa pine and aspens. The striking difference between the golden aspens and green pines makes for a very picturesque setting. If you are able to complete the entire hike, you will notice that the aspens become more dense and colorful as you move forward. The trail only becomes more beautiful the further you continue on.
As you meander along the 2 mile trek, you will come across more and more aspens which shimmer a beautiful golden hue in the sun. The weather is usually beautiful this time of the year with temperatures in the 50s and 60s with little rain. The fallen leaves along the trails create the perfect fall setting. Who knew you could experience colors like this in Arizona of all places?!
The mountains covered with aspens are truly breathtaking. The picture perfect opportunities seem to never end. Every turn you will find yourself reaching for your camera.
Anyone visiting Flagstaff from a barren portion of the Southwest (and longing for a bit of fall fun) should definitely plan for a hike (the 1st or 2nd weekend in October) on the spectacular Inner Basin trail. The same goes for anyone else who enjoys the colorful leaves, cool temperatures, and perfect hiking conditions found throughout the picturesque fall season.
*Bring lots of water. It’s a long hike and the elevation is very high, thus requiring you to take in extra fluids. You can dehydrate much easier due to the lower oxygen levels and dry air.
*Eat a full meal before setting out for your hike. Due to many contributing factors such as the long waiting time to get in during the busy fall season, the high altitude, and the strenuous uphill climb, you will thank yourself later as taking in extra carbs will reduce your chances of getting altitude sickness. Tourists not from the area should get use to the elevation around town before immediately attempting this hike.
*Check the Flagstaff Leaf O Meter to plan your hike during peak. The first 2 weekends in October generally see the best color.
*Be aware of possible wildlife sightings. Bears frequent the area. Bring with bear spray and wear bells for extra safety (not as much a problem during the busy fall season due to the crowds).
*Arrive as early as possible on October weekend mornings to avoid a lengthy wait to get in. Arriving at 10am on a Sunday, we had to wait over a half hour. Expect the wait to be much longer Saturday afternoons. Or better yet, plan your hike on a weekday if possible.
*Check the weather forecast in advance. Be prepared for dramatic weather changes, due to the high elevation. Also, be prepared for much colder temperatures than in town. Dress in layers and be prepared for possible snow in October.
*Wear good hiking shoes and workout clothes. I saw many people wearing jeans and boots on this hike! It’s not a good idea. You will get in a good workout going uphill and appropriate fitness clothes will allow you to move more freely, while shoes with traction will help you stabilize yourself when completing the downhill portion of the hike. I also bring with a hiking stick – you can find these in any sports/hiking store around town.
*Take your time on this hike. The elevation reaches 10,000+ feet. Those not used to the high elevation could feel sick very quickly if safety precautions are not followed. Slow down and drink lots of water. Also eat salty, high carb snacks – it’s supposed to help.
*And lastly, bring a good camera! You will want to take lots of pictures on this spectacular hike!
Drive northeast of Flagstaff on US 89 for 12 miles to FR 420 directly across from the Sunset Crater turnoff. Turn left (west) for about 1/2 mile, turn right (north) on Forest Road 552. Turn right at the Lockett Meadow sign and continue to the trailhead. There is no fee to park. Restrooms are available.