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Handy guide to finding fall foliage

Handy guide to finding fall foliage

  • Updated

Nothing says farewell, adios and sayonara to summer like colorful autumn leaves. Even in arid Arizona. True, the high country of Colorado and the woodlands of Vermont might be superstar sites for leaf peeping - but we can find plenty of fall color on our home turf as well.

The key is to look in the right places.

Today, to help you find some fetching fall foliage, we offer a guide to sites soon to flash hues of red and gold.

Don't expect the grand, dazzling displays of forests in northern climes. Autumn is a more subtle season in these parts - but one that still serves up plentiful pockets of color.

You might find a bit of that color now, but Southern Arizona sites usually show their best after the first fall cold snap - usually in mid- to late-October.


Here's why leaves change color in the fall:

The simple answer is that most of those pigments are always there, serving important physiological functions. When the plant prepares to shed the leaves, it pulls out some of the more valuable chemicals and stores them in the stems and roots.

Chlorophyll production stops and it is bleached by sunlight, exposing the other pigments that the chlorophyll had been masking. In montane plants (those in cool, moist zones usually dominated by evergreen trees), it's cold temperatures that trigger dormancy and leaf fall, but the same process occurs in many tropical plants in response to drying at the end of the rainy season.

SOURCE: Mark Dimmitt, director of natural history at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Autumn’s hues color Southern ArizonaCatalina color

Catalina color

The Catalina Mountains north of Tucson fly colors of the season at several sites - usually peaking in mid- to late-October.

Your yellow-leaf road is the Catalina Highway. Take Tanque Verde Road to the highway ($5 fee per vehicle) and follow it to these leafy sites on the mountain heights.

• Bear Wallow

This site, near milepost 22, offers some of the best "drive-up" color in the Catalinas. Maple trees are often showy in the area - sporting autumn leaves in varied tones of rust and red.

Once cool weather has triggered a color change, you'll see it in maples and yellow-gold aspen leaves on trees along the highway.

Turn right onto Bear Wallow Road and watch for more maples along a watercourse below the road. This is a good spot to get out for a walk on carpets of fallen leaves.

• Aspen Vista

Stop at this pullout near milepost 23 and you will see - how did you know? - a nice splash of aspen color at the apex of the season.

• Turkey Run Road

After passing milepost 24 and entering the mountain community of Summerhaven, watch for Turkey Run Road on the right, near the community center building.

Drive to the end of the road, park where a gate blocks further passage and walk up the unpaved road. In less than half a mile, you'll come to a streamside area of maples, aspens and Arizona walnut trees capable of dressing out in a rich array of colors. Shrubby plants add to the color in hues of yellow and red.

After walking up the road a half-mile or so, watch for a small sign indicating the Aspen Draw Trail. A trek up the trail will take you to some beautiful aspen groves.

• Marshall Gulch

This scenic spot - at the end of a mile-long road leading south from Summerhaven - is another place to find fall.

Pick up the Marshall Gulch Trail near a parking lot and walk a quarter-mile to streamside sites with maples wearing beautiful reddish leaves.

• Ski Valley

Just before entering Summerhaven, watch for a right turnoff for Mount Lemmon Ski Valley. The 1.4-mile road leading to the ski area passes slopes cloaked with aspens.

• Mount Lemmon

From Ski Valley, follow a narrow, winding road uphill 1.7 miles to a parking area near the summit of 9,157-foot Mount Lemmon.

Golden aspen leaves are the main attraction, but watch also for colorful shrubs and ferns that have given up their summer green for coppery brown.

Farther afield

Take an autumn day for an excursion in Southern Arizona - or a few days to travel to central or northern reaches of the state - and you will expand your leafy possibilities.

Here are some options:

• Madera Canyon

A mile-high gash in the Santa Rita Mountains about 40 miles south of Tucson, Madera Canyon can fire up dazzling color in late October and beyond.

Riparian, or streamside, trees - cottonwoods, sycamores and others - show rich, saturated colors in large, shapely leaves.

Watch for those, as well as some colorful oaks, along Madera Creek in the heart of the canyon.

A trail trek to Bog Springs leads to lovely glades of enormous sycamores.

• Ramsey Canyon

The Nature Conservancy's Ramsey Canyon Preserve, in the Huachuca Mountains south of Sierra Vista, often hits its fall-color high point in late October and early November.

Yellow and gold leaves of sycamore trees and reddish maples play starring roles.

• Arboretum in autumn

The Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior offers a late-season look at leaves in their swan song.

Chinese pistachio trees "reach peak hues of gold, pumpkin-

orange and red around Thanksgiving weekend," says arboretum spokesman Paul Wolterbeek. "That's a full month after the higher elevation aspens and maples have dropped their leaves."

A Fall Foliage Finale Festival at the arboretum Nov. 26-27 will show off the pistachios and other plants in fine fall fettle.

• Flagstaff area

Aspens on the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff can produce nearly Colorado-quality color displays in October.

Drive up the paved road to the Arizona Snowbowl for a casual look. Hike the Kachina Trail from a trailhead at the Snowbowl's lower parking lot to savor a mature aspen forest at its golden best.

• White Mountains

Even though the Wallow Fire this summer destroyed vast expanses of forest in this area of east-central Arizona, many trees survived the flames and will brighten autumn days with color.

Aspen gold is likely to show up in surviving stands from Alpine and Greer to Show Low and lands of the White Mountain Apache Tribe. Consider calling ahead to your destination to learn where to find color.

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