Fall Colors on the Coconino


Yellow aspen

By October each year, colors are usually in full splendor on the Coconino National Forest. Many of the trees in the higher elevations near Flagstaff reach their prime in early October, but the views are still beautiful throughout the season. The maples on the Mogollon Rim District are worth the visit, and the deciduous trees in Oak Creek Canyon and the Sedona area are spectacular. Watch for the latest fall color photos on our Fall Colors album on Flickr and updates @CoconinoNF on Twitter.

Fall Color Update: October 5, 2015  

The upper reaches of Mt. Elden were reaching their peak earlier last week, and color is currently creeping down the eastern face, particularly in the drainage northeast of the lookout tower. On the Peaks, Lockett Meadow, Inner Basin, and the north side of the Peaks color continues as some trees drop their leaves as others are just reaching their peak. Kendrick Peak also has a lot of color on it. Many areas around the San Francisco Peaks area are at their peak, and overall 50% to 70% of the trees have turned significantly Over the next week and through the weekend the area should continue to be in full color.

Weather: Wet weather moved in Sunday, October 4. Temperatures are forcast for mid 50°Fs early in the week, warming to high 60°Fs for Flagstaff as the wet weather has passed by Thursday, October 8. Temperatures in the upper reaches of the Peaks (Inner Basin, Abineau-Bear Jaw, and the Snowbowl) may be around 10°F to 15°F cooler than Flagstaff, so be sure to dress a little warmer than you would for the lower elevations.

Mountain weather can change quickly and unpredictably, and blue skies can quickly become a downpour. Dress in warm layers, and be sure to take rain gear early in the week. Thunderstorms are forecast through Wednesday, October 7. Such storms may bring lightning and hail, especially at the higher elevations in the Peaks and surrounding hills, where trails lead to high, open areas over 9,000 feet. Rain can make Forest roads slippery and muddy. 

Watch the National Weather Service forecast closely. The weather forecast may change unexpectedly:

Keep an eye on this page and @CoconinoNF on Twitter for updates through the fall season.

The next week and through the weekend is a good time to:

San Francisco Peaks

  • Around the Peaks Loop Scenic Drive: Great views of the northern flanks of the Peaks turning. Aspens are turning towards the western end of 418 and along Hart Prairie Road. 
  • Snowbowl Road and the area around the Arizona Snowbowl are turning, with around 40% of the trees turning.
  • Snowbowl Scenic Chairlift: Trees are turning along the chairlift, which is a beautiful ride any time of year!
  • The trees are turning around Hart Prarie, including along Bismark Lake, Aspen Loop, and Arizona trails.
  • Lockett Meadow: A lot of the aspens are turning throughout the meadow and views towards the Peaks will just get better and better!
  • Inner Basin Trail: There are large patches of strong color up the trail and in the Inner Basin. Many trees have reached their peak and are dropping leaves, while many are still green or just turning, especially right along the switchbacks leading up to Waterline Trail. The next few days and possibly next weekend should be good for hiking into the Inner Basin as green trees are expected to turn gold. This report is based on a hike up Inner Basin Trail to near the end of the trail not far from the junction with Weatherford Trail.
  • Abineau-Bear Jaw Loop: Many of the aspens along this very strenuous loop are turning, and any time over the next week should be rewarding.
Notice: Traffic to Lockett Meadow and Inner Basin Trailhead will be managed during the first two weekends of October, 2015. The road to the meadow is narrow and close to a steep slope. The number vehicles for day use of the meadow will be limited. Expect delays when Lockett Meadow is at capacity. See the press release Vehicle access to Lockett Meadow to be managed for fall color viewing first two weekends of October 2015 or call Flagstaff Ranger District at 928-526-0866 for more details.


Mt. Elden

  • Elden Lookout Road: Drive to the top for spectacular fall color views. For a short hike, Sunset Trail from the lookout tower to the junction with Heart Trail provides moderate hiking with fantastic views.
  • Sunset, Heart, and Elden Lookout Trails: strenuous trails that ascend Mt. Elden. Heart is accessed from Sandy Seep or Little Elden trails. Sunset can also be accessed from several signed access points near and at the top of Elden Lookout Road. 
  • Sandy Seep Trail: This easy trail takes you to the base of the eastern face of Mt. Elden and Little Elden, providing excellent views of the color up the slopes.


Other Areas



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General Recommendations for the Fall Color Season  

Here are some of the most spectacular and popular locations for viewing fall colors on the Coconino National Forest as the season gets into full swing.

Flagstaff Ranger District

This district surrounds Flagstaff, Arizona, and the San Francisco Peaks.

Mogollon Rim Ranger District

This district is north of Strawberry, Arizona around C.C. Cragin (Blue Ridge) Reservoir.

  • Forest Road 321 also known as “Dane Ridge” (Hwy 87 to FSR 95 next to the Mogollon Rim Ranger Station, right on FSR 96, right on FSR 321)
  • Forest Road 300, also known as “Rim Road” or “General Crook Trail” (Hwy 87 or Hwy 260 to FSR 300, 2.5 miles east of Hwy 260, 10 miles north of Strawberry)
  • Cabin Loop Trail

Red Rock Ranger District

This district surrounds Sedona, Arizona, covering Oak Creek Canyon, and extending to the Verde River, Fossil Springs Wilderness, Clear Creek Wilderness, and Wet Beaver Creek Wilderness.

As the peak of the season passes on the Rim and around Flagstaff, the colors are just getting started in Oak Creek Canyon and Red Rock Country.


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Additional Resources  


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photo showing many different colors of fall foliage

Fall Colors Banner

Changing leaves herald the coming of autumn to the Coconino National Forest as early as mid-September. That's when forest roads and trails begin to hum with the crowds of nature lovers who come to enjoy the display. The Coconino encompasses such a broad range of habitats that it's possible to stretch this most colorful of seasons into more than a month of celebration within its boundaries. The gold rush begins on the higher slopes of the Forest's volcanic highlands as the aspen leaves change to amber while summer is still in the air. From there, the transformation gradually migrates to the crimson sumacs and fuchsia maples of the desert canyons as brisk nights confirm the full onset of autumn. The climax of this parade of color generally occurs around the second week of October, but remnants of reds, oranges and golds can linger in the canyons as late as mid-November.

What Makes Leaves Turn Colors?

The leaves on deciduous trees do not really “turn” colors. They just lose their green. Leaves actually begin to prepare for autumn in the spring. At the base of each leaf is a layer of cells called the “abscission” or separation layer. All summer, small tubes pass through the abscission to carry water into the leaf. The leaf uses this water with carbon dioxide, sunlight and chlorophyll to produce food. This process is called photosynthesis.

The word photosynthesis means “putting together with light.” The food, or “sugar,” is carried back out through the tubes in the abscission into the tree. 

In the fall, the cells of this abscission layer begin to swell and form a cork-like material, reducing and finally cutting off flow between the leaf (leaves) and the rest of the tree. Also, because of cool nights, the sugar still produced in the bright fall sun is not readily transported from the leaves to the stems and roots. The less sunlight (shorter days at the end of summer, beginning of autumn), the less green chlorophyll is produced, and is, in fact, broken down.

This is when you begin to see the yellow xanthophyll and orange carotene that are present in the leaf all year around but are covered by the green chlorophyll. No one is sure what purpose these other elements serve, but scientists believe they also have something to do with photosynthesis. Certain species of deciduous trees will begin, at this time of warm days and cool nights, to produce anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are the reds and purples and are produced only in autumn; they are not present in the leaves all year.

During this dormant period, the trees use the reserves they have stored up over the summer to stay alive. They need this time to take a rest from producing.

What do autumn leaves and bananas have in common?

The green color in unripe bananas comes from chlorophyll, the same pigment that gives green leaves their color. As bananas ripen, the chlorophyll breaks down and disappears, revealing the yellow color, which has been there all along. The yellows and oranges of autumn leaves are also revealed as their chlorophyll breaks down.

Why Is It That Some Years We Get Great Color And Relatively Bland Results In Other Years?

Good reds are produced when the days are warm and sunny and the nights are cool (45°F or less, but not a frost), coming one after another. In this setting, the leaves produce lots of sugar using the abundant sunlight, but the cool nights prevent the sugar from flowing through the leaf veins. At this point, anthocyanins (the reds and purples) are produced. Yellow and orange are fairly constant, because they are already in the leaf and do not require specific weather situations.

A warm, wet period in the fall will cause the changing to be not so brilliant because sunny days producing the sugar and cool nights halting it’s spread produce the best color. A severe frost will kill the leaves, ending the show immediately.

Why Is It That Some Portions Of The Mountain Or Flagstaff Get Better Color Results From The Changing Leaves?

Sunshine is the key. The more sunshine, the more sugar is produced. While there will not be enough sunshine to produce chlorophyll, some sugar and anthocyanins (the red/purple/blue colors) will be produced as a last ditch effort to bring nutrition to the leaves. In trees where anthocyanins are not produced, we will see only the yellows and oranges.

The sunnier spots of the mountain and less-shaded trees in town will become reddish/purplish, if they are predisposed to do so. In addition, a single tree may be red on one side, the side more exposed to the sun, and yellow and orange on the other.

When Do The Leaves Typically Change Color In Flagstaff? Closer To The Peaks?

Typically, trees in the highest elevations begin to change mid-September. Then, like a slow-moving wave, the color descends into town. The show usually ends in late October.

What Are The Types Of Trees In Northern Arizona That Turn Colors?

Fall Colors on the Mogollon Rim thumbnailAspen (yellow), Maple (yellow, orange, red), Oak (yellow, orange, brown), Cottonwood (yellow), Various fruit trees (red, orange, yellow), Elm (yellow), ash (yellow), poplar (yellow), willow (yellow), and even weeds and bushes like sumacs (Orange, red) and poison ivy will change colors and decorate the roadsides.

What Makes Evergreens…Well, Evergreen?

Evergreen trees (pines, spruces, cedars and firs) don’t lose their leaves in the fall. They are covered with a heavy wax coating and the fluids inside the cells contain substances that resist freezing. Evergreen leaves can last for several years before they fall and are replaced by new growth. They may, however, become brownish if the winter is particularly cold.


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