Fall Colors on the Coconino
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.
The best bet for good fall color viewing opportunities over the next week is on Mount Elden near Flagstaff.
Flagstaff Ranger Distict Fall Color Update: September 23, 2016
The fall color season for the Flagstaff is just beginning in the higher elevations around Mt. Elden and the San Francisco Peaks. There are just a few small spots of strong color in Lockett Meadow, Inner Basin, and around the north side of the Peaks in the area of Bear Jaw, Reese, and Abineau canyons. There is nearly no color around Hart Prairie, Snowbowl, and the western slopes of the Peaks.
The best color is on Mount Elden along Elden Lookout Road and the slopes below the lookout tower. Color progress is approximately a week earlier than last year. Recommended trails for viewing fall color on Mount Elden:
Lockett Meadow, the Inner Basin and the north side of the San Francisco Peaks are also turning. Some trees are approaching peak color while others are still green. Recommended trails, routes, and areas for viewing fall color on the San Francisco Peaks:
- Inner Basin Trail moderately strenuous hike into the Inner Basin of the San Francisco Peaks. High clearance vehicle is recommended on Lockett Meadow Road.
- Lockett Meadow campground and day use area in a meadow in the interior of the San Francisco Peaks with access to Inner Basin Trail. High clearance vehicle is recommended on Lockett Meadow Road.
- Abineau-Bear Jaw Trails Loop strenuous hike on the north side of the San Francisco Peaks.
- Around the Peaks Loop scenic driving loop around the north side of the San Franciso Peaks. High clearance vehicle required to complete the loop due to the rough and rocky nature of the road. Good fall color viewing can be found on the smoother parts of the route accessible to low clearance vehicles at the eastern and western ends of FR 418.
The higher elevations of the San Francisco Peaks trails will be much chillier than Flagstaff. Be prepared for temperatures 10°F to 20°F cooler than Flagstaff. Dress in layers and carry at least two quarts of water for a half day hike. Watch the National Weather Service forecast closely. The weather forecast may change unexpectedly:
Mogollon Rim Ranger District Fall Color Update: September 22, 2016
The Mogollon Rim reports maples are turning in the Dick Hart Ridge and Dane Ridge area within a few miles of the Rim Road (FR 300). This should be a beautiful weekend to go out to explore the area, as many of the trees will be approaching their peak. The maples can be spotted in the draws from the ridge roads (FR 139 and FR 321), and hikes into the draws at the southern ends of the Cabin Loop trails should be rewarding.
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.
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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 when 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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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?
Aspen (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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