Autumn sneaks up on us in Zion. The temperatures stop breaking 100 sometime in early September, then the weather turns various shades of gorgeous for the next two months – highs in the 70′s and 70′s, crisp nights – while each day whittles back its daylight hours. For a hardwoods Midwesterner like me, it doesn’t really feel like fall until the leaves change colors, and on the canyon floor, this happens quite late. Since the cottonwood trees along the creeks and rivers don’t take color until early November, it’s easy to forget about fall colors… sometimes I miss them altogether. But if you love fall foliage (and who doesn’t) it’s not too difficult to find it in spades around here… you just have to know where to look.
Go up high. Leaves begin changing as early as mid-September in the highest regions of the Park. One of my favorite autumn drives is the loop from Springdale up to the Cedar Breaks high country and back, which typically packs a wallop of arboreal majesty. To make the most of this trip, don’t use the highway. Instead, take SR 9 from Springdale to Virgin, then turn up the Kolob Terrace Road, ascending layer upon layer of mesa until you reach the prized aspens above 7,500 feet. From near Lava Point on to Hwy. 14, you’ll see some spectacular scenery, and hopefully some great fall color. Return to Springdale via the North Fork road, which you can find (with some perseverance) heading south from Navajo Lake. This trip feature a LOT of dirt road, but it is usually well graded. Don’t go after a big storm, and you should be okay in most reasonable vehicles.
Seek out the canyons. As any easterner knows, the best trees for fall color are the maples, and Zion has plenty of them in its nooks and crannies. Sawtooth maples thrive in Zion’s shadier spots; to find them, explore side canyons that offer plentiful shade. You can find colorful maples along the Riverside Walk, Hidden Canyon, and Emerald Pools trails. My favorite scores, however, are in the side canyons on Zion’s East Side, or the high canyons of the Kolob Plateau or West Rim. Behunin Canyon, in particular, is lined with maple after maple, and in October this makes for a sublime canyon approach.
Wherever you look for your fall color, just remember to plan ahead. Fall foliage comes and goes without warning, and the timing is different each year. Come early and come often, and you’ll likely find the right time for leaves in prime condition.