Fall in Phoenix means the end of the unbearable heat and more pleasant temperatures, which translates to opportunities to spend time outdoors in the desert. However, we still have hot days when we try to get out of town. More than that though, autumn in other parts of Arizona brings traditional fall colors into the state, many close enough to Phoenix for day trip opportunities.
Those of us who love the autumn color and miss it in the desert don’t need to go too far to find it. Besides day trips in search of autumn colors, we can also enjoy some unique desert sites that we were avoiding in the summer.
The following are only a few of the day trips from Phoenix that are perfect for fall.
Distance From Phoenix: 144 miles
My family’s favorite fall destination in the state, Flagstaff, is the place to go in Arizona for the most amazing autumn foliage. Our favorite hikes in aspen colonies are in and around Snowbowl, where autumn colors fill the drive up the mountain at every turn, from neon-yellow to deep orange aspen colonies, mixed with the dark green of the Ponderosa pines. Sometimes we take the chair-lift to the top for more spectacular views of the surrounding mountains bathed in autumn colors.
On the other side of the mountain, the Inner Basin is even more popular, but worth the drive to Lockett Meadow for some of the largest and most spectacular aspen colonies in Arizona.
The town itself is a burst of autumn colors this time of the year, with its tree-lined streets, featuring all shades of deep reds, oranges, and yellows added to the green of the pines. Stop at the visitor center in the historic train station to learn more about the history of the town and watch a train go by, then walk through the historic Downtown Flagstaff for a full experience of this Arizona town at 7,000 feet elevation in the high country.
Distance From Phoenix: 89 miles
The gateway town to the dramatic Mogollon Rim, Payson, is the perfect autumn destination from Phoenix.
Although Ponderosa Pines dominate the Rim Country, you’ll also find patches of autumn color in mid to late October here. One of the best ways to enjoy the autumn palette near Payson is to drive east on Forest Road 300 along the edge of the rim.
Besides the gorgeous views, you’ll find several hiking trails along the road to immerse yourself in these colors. One of the shorter trails with views of colorful oaks, is the 3.5-mile, easy, partially paved Rim Lake Vista Trail. Besides the autumn leaves, Arizona’s unique weather also makes wildflowers bloom in October, often in clusters along this trail, adding to the burst of color.
The town of Payson itself is also worth a stop. Spend some time at Green Valley Park, walking around the lakes, and stop at the Rim Country Historical Museum or shop in town for unique gifts.
Distance From Phoenix: 99.5 miles
Although the town itself is a popular destination for its old-world cowboy charm, the main reason to drive to Prescott from Phoenix in the fall is the beautiful shades of golds, yellows, and oranges of the trees in the area.
You’ll find autumn colors in downtown Prescott, along the Greenway Trail Systems, along Granite and Miller Creek, and in the Historic Courthouse Plaza.
In a more spectacular setting, the lakes in and around Prescott and Prescott Valley, surrounded by deciduous trees, showcase their bright oranges and golds at this time of the year. You’ll find cottonwood and ash trees near Watson Lake, along the 4.8-mile-long Watson Lake Loop Trail. Or on the shores of Granite Basin Lake, and Fain Lake in Prescott Valley.
Gorgeous autumn colors surround Lynx Lake in Prescott National Forest in mid-October. And if you love aspens in the fall, with their shimmering yellow-gold leaves, you’ll find them near Prescott in the Aspen Creek/Copper Basin.
Distance From Phoenix: 116 miles
Known as one of America’s prettiest small towns, Sedona is probably the most popular destination in Arizona, offering a perfect day trip from Phoenix at any time. However, autumn is one of the best times to visit this picturesque town nestled among towering red rock formations.
Although the town’s art galleries, boutique shops, and restaurants for all tastes and budgets are worth the drive, fall in Sedona is best experienced outdoors. Temperatures are perfect for hiking, and several trails offer not only views of the stunning red rocks but also boast some autumn colors.
The best leaf-peeping trip through Sedona revolves around a scenic drive through Oak Creek Canyon from late September through mid-October. The scenic drive connecting Sedona to Flagstaff takes you up the canyon through switchbacks, perfect for views of the canyon walls and the Coconino National Forest. Stop for a hike at the West Fork Trail to enjoy the autumn colors along the creek.
Or, for more fall colors set against the red rocks, drive Dry Creek Road to Boynton Canyon Road or the Red Rock Loop.
5. Montezuma Castle National Monument
Distance From Phoenix: 95 miles
Fall is also the perfect time to visit one of the most spectacular cliff dwellings in Arizona, Montezuma Castle National Monument. Built by the Sinagua (who had absolutely nothing to do with Montezuma and his people), the five-story cliff dwelling housed an entire village. Besides a look at the stunning cliff dwelling, in October you can also enjoy the changing colors of the sycamore trees along the trail.
Also, part of the national park, Montezuma Well is 10 miles away and is definitely worth the short drive. Here you’ll find a natural sinkhole fed by an underground stream in the desert. The resulting oasis is home to an array of wildlife, but you’ll also find a few Sinagua cliff dwellings on its steep walls. You’ll also find more giant sycamore trees here, along the short trail leading to the natural stream feeding the “well.”
6. Tonto Natural Bridge State Park
Distance From Phoenix: 104 miles
Featuring the largest natural travertine bridge in the world, Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is a perfect fall destination that is close enough to Phoenix for a day trip. You can enjoy the natural bridge almost any time of the year (not so much in the summer, when it still gets hot), but the surroundings are especially beautiful in the fall.
Besides this unique natural bridge, Pine Creek created an ideal environment for deciduous trees to grow on its banks. You also get to enjoy the fall colors of aspens, cottonwood, and elder trees when visiting the park in the fall, usually peaking in mid-October.
The park offers several hiking trails among these trees, a picnic area, and interpretive exhibits.
7. Tuzigoot National Monument
Distance From Phoenix: 107 miles
Tuzigoot National Monument sits on top of a hill overlooking a valley in the desert in a remote part of Arizona — though close enough to Phoenix for a perfect day-trip destination.
An ancient village of the Sinagua overlooks a marsh on top of a hill here, a hilltop pueblo, one of the largest in the area. The self-guided, third-of-a-mile trail through and around the 110-room ancient pueblo also offers gorgeous views of Verde River and Tavasci Marsh. The valley below, filled with deciduous trees, adds a splash of autumn color to the desert.
8. Mount Lemmon
Distance From Phoenix: 155 miles
The highest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson, Mt. Lemmon offers several leaf-peeping opportunities, making it a great day-trip destination from Phoenix in the fall.
The 30-mile-long Mt. Lemmon Scenic Byway leading to the top of the mountain offers stunning views, changing from giant Saguaro-filled areas to deciduous trees, aspens, and pines. In the higher elevations along the way, several hiking trails lead in the middle of this mix of pines and deciduous trees, bursting with color in mid-October.
You’ll find colorful oaks and maples along with pines in Bear Wallow, a small valley accessible from Bear Wallow Road. Or hike the Aspen Draw trail or Aspen Meadow trail on the top of the mountain to be in the middle of aspen colonies showcasing their gorgeous fall colors. Other areas to stop include the Cypress Picnic Area, the Palisades Visitor Center, and the Box Elder picnic area.
9. Ramsey Canyon Preserve
Distance From Phoenix: 197 miles
Ramsey Canyon Preserve in Southeastern Arizona is known for its birding opportunities, but around mid-October, it also showcases all the autumn colors of the Arizona sycamore, oak, and maple trees growing in and around it.
The Loop Trail, through the bottom of the deep, wooded ravine, takes you through a wooded area with a stream in the center, showcasing fall colors in October. Starting past the visitor center, it includes two connected loops linked by footbridges, a short, half-mile trail, or a longer one, just over a mile, through the valley floor. For those who need more of a challenge, a steep trail leads through a wooded area up the ridge.
Popular on weekends in mid-October when the leaves peak, the preserve is still quiet enough for a great time among fall colors. As a bonus, you are almost guaranteed to see wildlife — at least a few wild turkeys — besides the birds the preserve is famous for.
Other Day Trips From Phoenix
Fall is also the perfect time to explore the desert in and around Phoenix. Some of the day trips may mean spending time closer to town, like hiking through the wilderness of the Superstition Mountains or visiting Goldfield Ghost Town. It is also a great time to drive the Apache Trail and stop for a hike among giant saguaros along the road.
Visiting Boyce Thompson Arboretum also offers an opportunity to explore a unique environment, where you can even find autumn colors besides the different species of desert plants.
Autumn is the time when Phoenix and its surroundings wake up from a long summer hibernation, so no matter where you go, all outdoor destinations are going to be fun.