Since moving to the Arizona desert 27 years ago, fall has become my favorite season. For different reasons than it would be in other parts of the world, though. Here, as temperatures drop, I can finally walk outside and enjoy the outdoors everywhere in the state, in both desert and forest environments.
Not that summer is miserable in the entire state. It has several places perfect for outdoor activities in the summer, at least in Northern Arizona. And those same places have their autumn charm, too. Flagstaff, for example, is my favorite spot in the fall because its aspens show off their dazzling golden hues. But I mostly love fall in the desert. I can leave the house, which has been my refuge from the heat during the summer months, and enjoy the outdoors.
In the fall, it feels like the entire state wakes up, and we have opportunities for some incredible experiences throughout Arizona. The following are only a few of them.
1. Hiking Through Golden Aspens Near Arizona Snowbowl
I can’t think of anything more beautiful in fall than the Flagstaff landscape, especially near the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort. It is our family’s yearly pilgrimage site. We enjoy walking through the spectacular golden aspen groves. The trails in this area showcase the special trees’ brightest colors, from deep gold to bright pale yellow to lime green and every shade in between. One of our favorites is the Aspen Nature Loop trail, but you’ll find several others in different aspen groves all over the mountain. During the peak, the area is also a local favorite, so it gets crowded, especially on the weekends. But no matter how busy it gets, walking through an aspen grove here is always worth it.
Even if you don’t have time to hike, all you have to do is drive up the road to the Snowbowl to see several aspen groves, with their neon-bright leaves glinting in the sunlight. You’ll find several spots to stop for short — or longer — hikes in this magical setting.
2. Enjoying Diverse Fall Foliage Near Red Rocks
Sedona And Oak Creek Canyon
They may not get as bright as the aspen leaves in Flagstaff, but the autumn colors of Oak Creek Canyon offer more of a variety. Surrounded by different deciduous trees, you’ll find fall colors ranging from deep crimson reds to oranges and golden yellows. One of the best hikes to enjoy this fall spectacle is the 6.5-mile West Fork of Oak Creek Trail, located in the Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness. Though long, the flat trail is not a hard one to navigate.
If you don’t hike the trail, you’ll still find stunning autumn colors if you just drive through Oak Creek Canyon in mid-October.
Sedona offers more than colorful foliage in autumn. The drop in temperature makes this time of the year one of the best times to hike among the town’s gorgeous red rocks. And if you want to combine them, several trails near Cathedral Rock showcase both fall foliage and views of the famous rock formations.
3. Learning About The Geology Of The Colorado Plateau
Grand Canyon National Park
Fall in Arizona is not only about the color of the autumn leaves. It also brings the perfect weather to enjoy the unique environment of the Colorado Plateau and the world-famous Grand Canyon. This wonder of the world is a must-visit sight in Arizona, no matter the season, and it’s worth experiencing it any time of the year. However, fall is my favorite time to visit the Grand Canyon.
Part of the reason has to do with being able to enjoy it with fewer visitors. Each year, we notice the crowds thinning soon after Labor Day, as schools and universities all over the world open their doors for the new sessions. Weather also plays a role in my preference, since I find daytime temperatures perfect for walks along the rim and short hikes inside the Canyon.
4. Wandering Through Gorgeous Desert Environments
In Arizona, fall also marks the time when we get to enjoy the outdoors in the Sonoran Desert. This unique environment and its beauty were the reason I fell in love with the state and moved here. And, after staying indoors or leaving town in the summer, fall brings cool enough temperatures to walk outside and hike through spectacular desert scenery in several parts of the state.
Desert Preserves In The Greater Phoenix Area
I don’t need to go far to enjoy the Sonoran Desert. In the Greater Phoenix area, we have several nature preserves filled with trails for hikers of all abilities. From the short, easy trails in Papago Park and other regions in Phoenix to the strenuous hike up Camelback Mountain, anyone can find a trail to enjoy.
Some, like South Mountain Preserve, also offer a close-up view of several petroglyph sites. Other wilderness areas in the city include the Dreamy Draw area and the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, both offering hiking trails of all levels of difficulty.
But my favorite trails in the Greater Phoenix area are in the Sonoran Desert Preserve in North Phoenix and in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve of Scottsdale. Both areas showcase some of the greenest parts of the Sonoran Desert, teeming with giant saguaros.
Saguaro National Park In Tucson
Though you can see giant saguaros on the trails in and around Phoenix, the state has a national park dedicated to this unique columnar cactus, a symbol of the American Southwest. Saguaro National Park hugs the city of Tucson in Southern Arizona on two sides.
You can take scenic rides and stop for a desert hike in either the Saguaro East or the Saguaro West districts. They each offer something unique, and walking among these giants is a pleasure in autumn.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument In Southern Arizona
Besides the saguaro, one of my favorite columnar cactus varieties is the organ pipe cactus, and we have another national monument dedicated to it. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is on the border with Mexico — so close, we can see our southern neighbor country from its trails.
And hiking those trails, among columnar cacti and other desert plants, is a joy as temperatures drop in the fall. An International Biosphere Reserve, the park showcases a unique community of plants and animals. Hiking and camping in the park are a pleasure in the fall, as you can experience a thriving, green desert.
5. Enjoying Both The Desert Flora And Fall Foliage Together
Boyce Thompson Arboretum In Superior
A few miles from Phoenix, in Superior, the Boyce Thompson Arboretum offers the best of both worlds. One of my favorite spots to spend an autumn day at, the arboretum showcases cactus varieties and fall foliage amid a rugged desert landscape.
Arizona’s oldest and largest botanical garden features collections of desert plants from all over the world, from Australia through South America to the local Sonoran Desert. Fall brings pleasant temperatures to the arboretum, perfect for hiking. You can stick to the short Main Trail, most of it paved and accessible, if you have little time. However, if you can, this time of the year is pleasant enough to hike the many side trails and enjoy all that the arboretum offers.
6. Taking Part In Fall Farm Festivities
People all over the U.S. look forward to autumn for farm activities like apple picking, pumpkin patches, and hay mazes. Most of Arizona might be a desert, but the state still offers these activities, if you know where to go.
The Pumpkin Festival and Corn Maze at Mortimer Farms in Dewey, near Prescott, starts mid-September and lasts through the end of October. The giant corn maze and the pick-your-own-pumpkin experience are only two of the highlights of the festivities — there are also farm-animal encounters, games, and activities. On the weekends, the list includes hayrides and grain train rides, live shows, and outdoor vendors.
Apple Annie’s Orchard in Wilcox
In Southern Arizona, Apple Annie’s Orchard offers apple and pumpkin picking throughout the season. From the last weekend in September through the end of October, they also offer hayrides to their pumpkin patch.
7. Riding A Train Through Fall Foliage
Verde Canyon Railroad, Clarkdale
A unique way of experiencing Arizona’s fall foliage is the Fall Colors Tour on the Verde Canyon Railroad. The Verde Canyon is filled with spectacular fall colors this time of the year, and this train ride offers some of the best views. The train takes you to some of the most remote places in the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness, inaccessible by car. Sycamore and cottonwood trees, the Verde River, and the red rocks of Sedona under the always-blue skies of Arizona offer an experience of brilliant colors during fall.
Bonus Autumn Activities: Fall Foliage Drives Throughout The State
As spectacular as it is, the train ride is not the only way to experience some of the best fall foliage in Arizona. Scenic drives throughout the state also offer opportunities to see the leaves turn color, even in this desert state.
Besides Flagstaff, you’ll find fall colors dressing ash, poplar, and oak trees scattered along highway 89A through Mingus Mountain in the Prescott National Forest. The Mogollon Rim is another obvious choice to look for autumn colors — just take Forest Road 300 east along the rim in mid-October. The White Mountains Scenic Byway, south of Pinetop, also offers views of large groves of golden aspens.