In many parts of the country, catching the vibrant fall foliage display at its best is a matter of timing, judgment and outright luck in picking exactly the right date. Pick wrong, and you’re too early or too late. In Southern Utah, though, the window for seeing great color remains open for weeks on end because of the wide disparity in elevations you can choose within a relatively compact region. In Southern Utah, if your chosen date proves a little early at your chosen location, you’ll likely find good color in higher elevations nearby. If you waited a little too long, a detour to the canyons may save your leaf-peeking day.
The colors are changing already in the higher elevations up on the Markagunt Plateau, which can reach 10,000 feet, including Cedar Breaks National Monument and Brian Head. Yet, they usually wait to peak until late October and early November in the lower elevations of Zion National Park, including Zion Canyon proper.
One of my favorite foliage excursions in mid- to late September starts in Cedar City, at an elevation of about 5,800 feet, and makes a loop up to the Markagunt Plateau, at about 10,000 feet. The route travels mainly through Dixie National Forest land, yet also through Cedar Breaks National Monument, Brian Head and then down to Parowan to Interstate 15, which returns you to Cedar City. Although less than 70 miles, I would plan at least half a day’s time for this trip, so you can take photographs and enjoy the viewpoints and overlooks along the way.
Starting in Cedar City, head up Cedar Canyon along Scenic Byway 14 for about 18 miles. This road is as scenic as you can get in this region and brings you up to the Markagunt Plateau. Go left onto Utah 148, and in three miles, you will be in Cedar Breaks National Monument. On the north end of the park, you will hit National Scenic Byway 143 where you stay to the left (north) to head toward Brian Head to continue your loop.
A good short side trip once you reach that intersection with Byway 143, though, is going right. Just traveling this road a few miles and returning is often very rewarding, and you can find some of the most substantial aspen groves on the plateau. Many of these aspens often have a more orange or reddish color than you will see in other groves. This area usually peaks in mid-to late September.
Back on the main road to Brian Head, follow the steep yet well-maintained paved road for about 15 miles, which takes you down to Parowan and to I-15. From there, go south, and it is only about 20 miles back to Cedar City.
Many of us like to combine a foliage-viewing expedition with shopping for fall bounty in rural roadside stands and farmers markets. One location you could easily visit on your drive back to Las Vegas is the Downtown Farmers Market in St. George, conducted in Ancestor Square from 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays. And if you are seeing the foliage in Zion, try the Zion Canyon Farmer’s Market, which meets from 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays, at the Bit and Spur Restaurant in Springdale. Each continues at least through mid-October.
When seeking fall foliage, it’s best to keep a Destination B and even a C in mind, for Mother Nature may not arrange her schedule to match yours. While daylight plays an important factor, the amount of rainfall the plants had over the summer, and the amount of sugar their leaves have been able to manufacture, greatly affect the quality of the display and the date it will peak.
But when you’re leaf-peeking in Southern Utah, it’s hard to have a completely unsuccessful expedition. For even if you’re so unlucky as to miss the fall display entirely, you’ll still see, through the bare trees, some of the most stunning cliffs and peaks in the whole Southwest, and that alone will reward you well for your trip.
For the Fall Color Report or information on lodging, camping and outdoor recreation in the Cedar City, Cedar Breaks or the Brian Head area, contact the Iron County Visitor Center at 581 N. Main St., Cedar City. It is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, call 435-586-5124, or visit scenicsouthernutah.com..
Deborah Wall is the author of “Great Hikes, A Cerca Country Guide” and “Base Camp Las Vegas: Hiking the Southwestern States,” published by Stephens Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.