There’s a subtle but logical reason Southern Utah has become the place where Southern Nevadans seem to have the best luck at leaf-peeping. When you’re looking for fall foliage colors, it’s best to look in a region with plenty of variation in elevation. Because colors peak at different times partly according to elevation, this gives you the best chance of seeing that glorious metamorphosis on a given day.
The peak has already passed on the Markagunt Plateau, including Brian Head, Cedar Breaks National Monument and other places more than 10,000 feet high. But lower areas are reaching their most colorful period or soon will be.
Right now, the Cedar City area and the upper elevation areas of Zion National Park such as Kolob Canyons and Kolob Terrace are good places and usually reach their peak over the last weeks of October. But the lower, main area of the park, Zion Canyon, is typically at its showiest in the last week of the month, or early November. If you want to see the foliage along Zion’s six-mile scenic drive before the end of October, you will need to take the park’s free shuttle bus. Starting in November, and through March, you can take the scenic drive in your own vehicle.
One of the best trails to enjoy fall color is the Riverside Walk, a two-mile roundtrip that starts at the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop. The trail flanks the north fork of the Virgin River and presents the walker with a rich riparian environment. You will see the golden yellow leaves of the Fremont cottonwoods and even bigtooth maple with their leaves turning a vibrant red. You will also find velvet ash and box elder.
The trail is entirely paved, so it’s a good one for just about everyone, including those in strollers or wheelchairs, if they have assistance. It climbs only about 60 feet overall in elevation but does pass potentially dangerous drop-offs in some areas.
At the end of the Riverside Walk is the Gateway to the Narrows, a popular famous hike where the river itself serves as your route upstream. This time of year, the water is pretty cold, but you can get outfitted with proper gear in the town of Springdale. If a dry suit and river shoes are attire you wouldn’t use often enough to justify their purchase, you can rent them for a day or two from Zion Adventure Company. Before you set out, though, check with the backcountry desk at the visitor center for updated weather and water flow information. Entering the Narrows when rain is expected could have consequences ranging from no fun to fatal.
Keep in mind that Mother Nature doesn’t schedule leaf-turn to coincide exactly with the free weekends on mankind’s calendars. Besides the predictable length of daylight, the amount of recent rainfall and the amount of sugar the leaves have been able to manufacture affect the schedule. Wind and long periods with cool, sunny skies without heavy frost are also factors. But the universal lack of a guaranteed schedule of peak leaf show is one more reason Southern Utah is one of the best places to hope for one. Even if you’re so unlucky as to miss the show entirely, you’ve spent it in country that is spectacular even when it’s not trying to be.
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.Directions
From Las Vegas, take Interstate 15 north 125 miles to Utah Route 9 (Exit 16-Hurricane/Zion National Park). Follow Route 9 east for 19 miles to the main entrance of Zion National Park.