Question: We heard that Arizona has fall colors, and that will save us a trip to the East Coast. Can you tell us where in Arizona we need to visit and the time of year?
Theola and Norm Kirschenbaum
Answer: I snickered when I received this query from the Kirschenbaums, the same way I snickered 25 years ago when I moved to California and someone asked me to take a fall color day trip. Apparently, I didn’t learn my lesson.
Fall in the Southwest is different in ways you might not expect. John Poimiroo, editor and publisher of CaliforniaFallColor.com, which focuses on the Golden State but occasionally strays to Arizona, Japan and other color spots, explained it to me this way: New England has “quaint towns and architecturally interesting places.
“We have these grand landscapes with color that goes up 1,000 feet in elevation,” said Poimiroo, whose website bears the tag, “Dude, autumn happens here, too.”
“It’s a completely different experience.”
Just as the viewing is different, so too are the trees and the process by which those leaves change, said Andrew Richardson, a professor at the center for ecosystem science and society, part of Northern Arizona University’s College of Engineering, Forestry, and Natural Sciences.
Sugar maples may be the stars of the show in the East, but in Arizona and beyond, aspens take center stage, supported by cottonwoods, canyon maple and ash.
Aspens have that natural yellow color, but it’s hidden, Richardson said. As the days get shorter and cooler, the “plant gets the signal that winter is coming, and it stops generating the chlorophyll in its leaves. As concentrations decline, it’s no longer masking those [yellow] pigments.” In the East, plants manufacture reddish and purplish pigments that give sensational scarlets.
Where to look
Kaibab National Forest, northern Arizona: “The very best place for viewing fall color is the North Kaibab Ranger District, which is immediately north of Grand Canyon National Park,” Jacqueline C. Banks, public affairs officer for the forest service, said in an email.
It has the most aspen trees, she said, but added, “Other areas of the forest …also have lovely fall colors, such as Bill Williams Mountain on the Williams Ranger District, but the North Kaibab is definitely the highlight.
“People will be blown away by the yellows, oranges and reds of the aspen trees that are offset by their …white bark as well as the evergreen trees surrounding the aspen stand.”
Prescott National Forest, north-central Arizona: “Traditional displays of fall color are usually found near lakes, waterways and drainages, but perhaps the most surprising fall colors in the forest are found closer to the ground: Fetid goosefoot covers the foothills and bursts with golds, oranges and reds in the fall, and Virginia creeper (a tree-climbing vine) goes unnoticed all summer but turns a vivid red before losing its leaves for the winter,” Debbie Maneely, public affairs officer in Prescott National Forest, said in an email.
“If you're set on seeing a concentration of fall colors in one place, you can always swing through any of the towns or cities adjacent to the forest where you'll find abundant ornamental trees.”
Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, east-central Arizona: Iris Estes, acting deputy public affairs officer for this national forest, likes the Alpine and Springerville districts. “They are at higher elevation than the other districts and have better aspen stands,” she said in an email.
And, she said, “To me the best time of day for viewing is early morning or evening. The sun makes the colors … pop at these times.”
Others mentioned by the Arizona Office of Tourism: Flagstaff, south of the San Francisco Peaks; Payson, about 90 miles northeast of Phoenix in the Tonto National Forest; Oak Creek Canyon in Coconino National Forest, about 10 miles northeast of Sedona; and the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona, part of the Coronado National Forest.
When to go
Nature has its own schedule, and the next few weeks are critical as Arizona deals with the effects of drought. If the monsoon rains occur, colors become more predictable. Those rains ”peak between mid-July and mid-August,” according to ArizonaExperience.org.
The fall color season in northern Arizona “typically only lasts a few weeks,” said Banks of the Forest Service, noting it often is in October.
Look for a U.S. Forest Service Color website (not yet available for 2018).
Dodging other people, what to pack
Color spots always attract admirers, but the good news is that there’s plenty of room to roam. Kaibab, for instance, is 1.6 million acres; Prescott is 1.2 million.
All the Forest Service folks suggest dressing for variable weather and taking binoculars.The bonus of being on Forest Service land: You’re apt to encounter wildlife.
It’s not New England, of course, but would we, as Westerners, transplants or not, want it any other way?