Autumn is here, and with it hiking trip jackpots to view changing feasts of foliage. North America has some of the best fall colors in the world (New England, we’re looking at you).
We feel, however, that the dry climate of the Amerian Southwest doesn’t get the love it should when we fall for fall this time of year. Don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s only desert and cactus without classic maple and rainfall charm. Autumn adorers in the southwest aren’t as gypped as you might think, and we’ve got some of the best trails and spots to prove it.
Warm sunny days and cool crisp nights before frost appears are the ideal conditions to catch leaves at their most fall-ish. It’s a short window of opportunity, though. Depending on temperature and precipitation, vivid colors can peak near Columbus Day weekend and then go away, so make your plans now.
Ski Santa Fe
It’s not ski season yet but that 10,350-foot elevation in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, whose parents are the Rocky Mountains, is the call in fall. Clusters of quaking aspens shape-shift the scene into shades of gold and blazing orange, alongside their equally tall evergreen neighbors, the conifers.
Just 16 miles from the heart of Santa Fe, check out two weekends worth of Balloon Fiesta Week, Oct. 6-7 and 13-14, and even disc golf through Oct. 14.
The last thing you’ll be worried about during your stroll is what time it is, but FYI the last chairlift ride down the mountain is 3:30 p.m.
A palette of fruit trees, junipers, sycamores, and cottonwood trees pack their way into 27 acres of fertile valley farmland within the Albuquerque city limits. One tree blogger (now THAT’S a cool job) describes sycamores in autumn as “like someone has tied colored handkerchiefs to all the branches. Each leaf is so large that it makes its own splash of color.” Cottonwoods go yellow-gold, and junipers tend to go red. So there’s a lot to work with here for sure.
The Bachechi trails are open to the public from dawn to dusk.
West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon Hiking Trail No. 108, Sedona
Take the Coconino National Forest’s word for it, when they tempt hikers with one of its most popular trails.
“In autumn, the canyon is ablaze with color, with red and gold leaves floating in clear reflecting pools under a canopy of solid color,” the Forest Service website tempts and tantalizes.
The trail itself is a leisurely stroll, good for a 2-3 hour round trip. The trail is marked and maintained for the first three miles, and you’ll be guided to cross the stream’s shallow water in a few places.
Rim Vista Trail, east of Payson
Rim Lake Vista Trail No. 622 skirts the Mogollon Rim from start to finish. Hikearizona.com rates it as an easy hike, with great views just a few feet from the rim’s edge. Hiking the trail from west to east, starting at the Mogollon Trailhead and ending at the Rim Top trailhead, is recommended.
The trailhead’s elevation is 7,635 feet, and hikers will lose only about 100 feet of elevation on the 3.5-mile (one way) path with stunning views of brilliant fall foliage.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Panhandle
For a short window during the year, Palo Duro Canyon – dubbed the “Grand Canyon of Texas” and quite literally the second largest canyon in the country behind you-know-what – manages to get upstaged by its trees.
This Texas Panhandle park goes as high as 3,500 feet in parts, but the Cottonwood trees are the star of this autumn matinee. The brilliant yellow color scheme is best observed by hiking, mountain biking or even horseback.
Oh, and if you check out History Day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Oct. 20, entrance to the park is free, with living historians in full period costume presenting hands-on activities. October 20th may be cutting your window to catch fall foliage close, however, so cross your fingers.
Garner State Park, Concan
The three-mile Frio River winds through almost 1,800 acres of scenic Hill Country terrain in Uvalde County, south Texas, in this beauty that’s a popular summer destination (the park will close when it reaches maximum capacity). You might beat the crowd come fall, though.
Because the park’s canyons angle southeast to northwest, says Texas Parks & Wildlife, prevailing winds cool and moisten the area to allow lusher vegetation than normal for this region. Best this time of year is the lacey oak, tucked into steep slopes and canyons. But the highlight might just be the bald cypresses that line the Frio River. The National Wildlife Federation describes bald cypress leaf colors in the fall as “tan, cinnamon and fiery orange.”
So, yeah, it’s time to start planning.