Fall foliage fine but fleeting in West’s high country

Although summer’s heat in our region can hang on doggedly through September and even October, relief is on the way. The change of seasons is coming. Nights feel a little cooler. Early mornings seem a little more brisk. And something just feels different in the air.

Autumn takes its time coming to the desert, but it extends that mellow season well after Thanksgiving, one of the reasons the desert Southwest is such a popular area in which to live and to visit. In the West’s high, forested areas, however, autumn arrives and departs quickly, over by the end of October.

Closest to Las Vegas, the Spring Mountains National Recreational Area west of town soon will display the first fall color. The highest stands of snow-stunted quaking aspen trees change first with shades of yellow. By the beginning of October, the golden tide sweeps lower into the canyons, where aspens stand taller and create a brilliant canopy overhead. The high-country color will be gone by the middle of the month. Color in the canyons and lower mountainsides lingers a little longer, but freezing nights and snow flurries bring an end all too soon.

Nevada’s many lofty mountain ranges provide splendid autumn color options. Consider a fall foliage trip to Ely, 240 miles from Las Vegas in eastern Nevada. Surrounded by high mountains, Ely is a hub for scenic roads with autumn displays. Nearby Great Basin National Park, Cave Lake State Park and Success Summit in the Schell Creek Range are excellent fall color destinations.

Seasonal color in neighboring Southern Utah is just a few hours away by car, enhancing spectacular scenery wherever you go. The season in Utah starts a bit before autumn in Southern Nevada, so don’t dilly-dally. Aspen trees in Utah’s Color Country have a range of fall color from butter yellow to orange-red, probably because of minerals that vividly stain the stone and soils. Utah also enjoys more precipitation than Southern Nevada, as well as a number of trees and plants not found here, adding varied hues to the palette.

Head first for Utah’s high mountains and plateaus, where foliage changes are definite by the end of September and gone by the end of the second week in October, especially if there have been frosts at night. So many fall color drives beckon in Southern Utah that one brief season is never long enough.

The Pine Valley Mountains near St. George, Utah, are locally popular in autumn, with good reason. Take the scenic drive through the historic village of Pine Valley into a Dixie National Forest recreation area with a fishing stream, campgrounds and trails into the high meadows, aspen groves and evergreens.

The gorgeous Cedar Breaks area north of Zion National Park provides a network of roads with outstanding fall foliage displays at 10,000 feet elevation and higher. You can access this area by way of Utah Route 14 from Cedar City, which runs east across the forested Markagunt Plateau to U.S. Highway 89. It can be reached on a long scenic back road from near Zion’s main entrance, too.

An access road also climbs from the town of Parowan to Cedar Breaks through Brian Head village, a popular winter sports resort area. A short side road from near Cedar Breaks National Monument reaches an observation point atop Brian Head Peak, where autumn visitors enjoy panoramic views over hundreds of miles of color-stained landscape and forest. Views will be splendid on the road from Cedar Breaks to Panguitch, past Panguitch Lake and down a lovely canyon to the frontier-era town.

East of Panguitch, Utah Route 12, a National Scenic Byway and an All-American Road, takes visitors into more high country, where splendid fall foliage awaits. In Bryce Canyon National Park, the rim drive skirts meadows fringed by evergreens accented by the colorful foliage of aspen and other trees and vegetation. Beyond the park, side roads access forested mountains and plateaus where foliage blazes against dark evergreens in an area dotted with campgrounds, trails, lakes and streams.

When high-country color fades, Utah’s valleys and canyons offer scenic options. Drive through Zion for seasonal splendor to enjoy well into November.

Margo Bartlett Pesek’s Trip of the Week column appears on Sundays.

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