I grew up in Michigan, where fall meant the arrival of colorful leaves, jackets (sometimes it would snow before Halloween), and hot apple cider with crumbly donuts.
It never meant air conditioning, flip flops or tan lines. Ever. So, like many desert transplants, we’ve made a habit of seeking a fall experience in Arizona, even if it means a drive, a day off work and overly optimistic outfits. (No, sweet child, you probably won’t need a knit cap).
Although we’re surrounded by cactus and desert landscaping in Phoenix, there’s no shortage of fall scenery to explore on a day trip. From Williams to Payson to the Santa Catalina Mountains or Mount Lemmon, the Arizona landscape transforms over the course of a few weeks before the trees go bare for the winter. It’s a must see.
The fleeting season creates a greater sense of urgency for those of us who crave a taste of the fall we know and love. We have a couple favorite spots, in Sedona and Flagstaff, that each offer their own special moments to remember.
When we visit Sedona, we head to West Fork Trail, a popular trail along 89A with a small parking lot and a big draw. If you’re not there early, prepare to park along the highway — but do it safely. Too many people don’t.
The easy-to-hike trail crosses water a number of times, and guides you back into a wooded area filled with rainbows of leaves against towering canyon walls. Be prepared to manage wet feet (and maybe more if your crew is super curious), navigate a heavily trafficked trail, and temperature changes. Depending on the weather, the shade can be chilly deep on the trail while spots in the sun warm up quickly.
And then, just enjoy. Our kids had fun trying to collect an actual rainbow of leaves, crossing the water without slipping (most of the time), and finding a pretty spot to stop and have lunch.
The showstopper for us is the aspen trees. In the fall, aspens turn from green to gold, creating a canopy of color that has to be seen. There are a number of places to see clusters of aspen, but for accessibility, Flagstaff’s Arizona Snowbowl was easy for us and the dogs. I’m pretty sure all the kids gasped when the trail we were on wound itself toward a cluster of golden aspen. They had no idea what to expect and that collection of golden leaves left them a bit awestruck.
And on the way home, we hit an apple cider stand. Because it wouldn’t be fall without it.
Tips for enjoying fall scenery
- Head out sometime between late September and late October.
- Drive 89A between Sedona and Flagstaff, even if it’s just for the drive.
- Get to where you’re going early.
- Bring extra socks, no matter what, unless you’re cool with whiny kids with wet feet.
- Invite the pups, and bring a leash.
- Pocket a little cash to hit the roadside apple cider stands in Sedona.
- Leave no trace. Pack out what you brought in on your hike.
- Bring more water than you think you’ll need. You may want to hike farther than you think.
- Take a million photos.