Get ready for Arizona’s best leaf-peeping season

While it may seem far away, very soon the hot, hot summer will give way to cooler temperatures and fall breezes. As autumn ushers in, the higher elevation destinations in Arizona put on their annual rush of natural splendor with trees bathed in rich hues of red, gold and purple.

Many believe prime leaf-peeping is relegated to the Northeast United States, but here in Arizona, there’s plenty of fall foliage to feast our eyes upon. Arizona is home to six national forests with millions of acres of trees. Oak, maple, elm, poplar and aspen are just some of the trees producing vibrant colors as they shed their green summer coats.

This year, like others, the National Forest Service expects the fall color season to begin in early September. The colors will emerge in the higher elevations and then work their way down to the lower elevations, peaking in late September/early October. While it’s still too early for any definite predictions on how the season will go, there’s no better time to plan ahead with these five fabulous drives to check out Arizona’s best fall foliage.

Flagstaff/San Francisco Peaks loop

It’s true: Flagstaff seems to be Arizona’s favorite mountain destination, and for good reason. Cool weather, towering pine trees and an eclectic downtown are all a big draw. The area is also one of the first places in Arizona where one can experience fall’s brilliant splendor with prime leaf-peeping kicking off (usually) in early September.

The Peaks Loop, a 44-mile drive around Flagstaff’s San Francisco Peaks, is one of the most scenic, with meadows of brilliant gold and aspen forests donning bright yellow leaves against the aspen’s stark white trunks. Be sure to allow for plenty of time (about two hours) for the drive and be prepared for some bumps and dips along the graveled forest road.

While in Flagstaff, be sure to drive up to Arizona Snowbowl. At an altitude of 9,200 feet, this skiing and snowboarding destination offers a bird’s-eye view of fall foliage, especially while riding he chairlift up the western side of the San Francisco Peaks – up to 11,500 feet. Another stop: the Arboretum in Flagstaff. The 200-acre gardens showcase native plants and have some pretty impressive views.

Sedona/Oak Creek Canyon

A popular destination anytime of the year, the yellow, red, gold and purple hues of the changing leaves in the fall really pop against the red mountain backdrop of Sedona and nearby Oak Creek Canyon.

Foliage in this area normally peaks in late September/early October, so hop in the car and head north on Hwy 89A from Sedona toward Flagstaff. This drive meanders through Oak Creek Canyon and alongside Oak Creek. Several pullouts along the way will provide vantage points to take some photos and enjoy the dramatic fall colors or the tall trees set up against the canyon walls. While in Sedona, be sure to peruse the shops downtown, take one of Sedona’s famous jeep tours or simply relax at a café along the banks of Oak Creek.

The cooler weather means it’s also the perfect time to take a hike on one of Sedona’s multitude of trails. Arguably the best display of fall colors is along the West Fork Trail, which begins at the Call of the Canyon trailhead just off Hwy 89A. The six-mile trail is fairly easy, although there are a couple of stream crossings with stepping stones. Grab a picnic lunch while in town and take in the changing leaves reflected in the babbling brook.

White Mountains/Pinetop-Lakeside

A drive on Highway 60 northwest from the Valley traverses through the Salt River Canyon, a picturesque drive sporting dramatic canyon views and the sounds of the Salt River snaking through the canyons. Shrubs and bushes take on a glorious sheen of gold and red during the fall.

But the main destination is the White Mountains, nestled in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, which encompasses over two million acres. Here, elevations of 11,000 feet mean fall foliage usually begins in early October. A drive along highway 260 through the small towns of Pinetop, Lakeside, Greer and Show Low offer remarkable colors among the towering oak, pine and fir trees.

In the shade of yellow, orange and red leaves, visitors can cast a line in one of the 50-plus area lakes, try their luck at the Hon-Dah Casino or just enjoy the cool, crisp mountain air.

Mt. Lemmon/Catalina Highway

Southern Arizona doesn’t usually come to mind as a typical leaf-peeping destination, but Tucson’s towering Santa Catalina Mountains rise above the city at more than 9,000 feet, providing the high elevation needed to make leaves turn to vibrant, earthy shades.

Mid to late October is time to hit the 27-mile Catalina Highway, which will take you through the Coronado National Forest to the peak of Mount Lemmon. Amber, red and gold leaves dot the hillside trees and several turnoffs and trails provide many opportunities for exploration along the way.

Be sure to stop at the Mt. Lemmon General Store and Gift Shop in the small community of Summerhaven to pick up some of their famous fudge. Or make advanced reservations for a SkyNights StarGazing evening at the Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter, which features two of the largest telescopes in the Southwest.

South Tucson/Madera Canyon

Also located in the southern portion of the state, Madera Canyon sits about 50 miles south of Tucson. The area is popular with birdwatchers – it’s rated the third-best birding destination in the United States – and it’s also a robust riparian preserve. Fall colors abound here, usually in mid to late October with oak, cottonwood and sycamore trees popping gold and orange leaves.

Take Interstate 19 past Tucson to the Continental Road exit and follow the signs to Madera Canyon. The narrow, two-lane curving road is paved through the canyon and takes visitors alongside the northwest face of the Santa Rita Mountains. In addition to world-class bird-watching, there are plenty of creeks, picnic areas and trailheads to explore.

While in the area, be sure to stop at Mission San Xavier Del Bac in Tucson. The Spanish Colonial, white adobe church was built in the 1700s and has some amazing sculptures and carvings. Also nearby is the Titan Missile Museum, where visitors can get an up-close view of the last remaining Titan II missiles from the Cold War era.

Bonus Drive: Mogollon Rim

Just north of Payson lies the Mogollon Rim, a rugged escarpment that forms the southern limit of the Colorado Plateau within the Coconino National Forest. At an elevation of 4,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level, the Rim provides amazing views and borders the 2.8 million-acre Tonto National Forest.

Forest Road 300/Rim Road is an approximate 45-mile trek along the edge of the Mogollon Rim. Go north on State Route 87 from Payson and turn right onto FR300. Continue on the dirt road until you get to State Route 260. Make sure the weather is decent, pack a picnic and gas up in advance for this trek. It’s not unusual to only see trees and wildlife for the entire journey on this seldom-traveled route.

Fall colors are reflected in the waters of Oak Creek near Sedona. (Photo by Larry Lane, Coconino National Forest)