Enjoying Autumn in Flagstaff: A Day Trip From Phoenix To See Golden Aspens

Though we love this time of the year in the desert, autumn in Flagstaff is the best place to enjoy the season in Arizona. Especially if you like aspens dressed in their fall colors.

Flagstaff is home to several growths of aspen that add a burst of color to the mountains surrounding the town in the fall, usually in mid-October. Driving up to Snowbowl for example, through the forest, you’ll encounter all shades of gold, from neon-bright pale yellow to the deepest orange. Mixed with the dark green of the surrounding Ponderosa pines, the drive is a feast for the senses.

As long as we’ve lived in Arizona, I don’t remember ever missing this spectacle. Over time, we’ve tried different trails, and often found new favorites. We also learned when to count on the peak, and how to time our trip to beat the crowds.

Since aspen colonies peak at slightly different times, even in the same area, we always have at least two weeks to experience the best of fall colors in Flagstaff.

Aspens at their peak fall colors in Flagstaff, AZ. October 14th, 2019

Often, when we go, we experience different stages of fall colors in the vicinity of Flagstaff. One of our favorite spots, a large colony in Snowbowl, would peak, covering a large area in a golden hue. The colony across the meadow from it usually peaks later, so at the same time it showcases a lighter shade of yellow, with some bright green leaves in the mix. And the colony we like to visit on the Kachina Peak might still be a light shade of green. All this within walking distance from the same parking spot.

Why Do Aspens Turn Color at Different Times?

I always suspected that it had to do with aspens growing in colonies. Then about a month ago, while writing a piece for Roadtrippers Magazine, I ended up researching the answer and got to talk to Professor Tom Kolb from NAU’s School of Forestry, and he confirmed my guess. Yes, I was proud of myself, so of course I have to talk about it, right? Although he added that micro climates also play a role, something I didn’t know. So I learned something new, too.

Aspens close to each other turn color at different times when they belong to different colonies.

I learned about aspens, cloning and colonies about ten years ago, from a ranger at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Since then, I’ve been fascinated by aspens. I always liked them, for their white straight bark and distinctive leaves fluttering in the slightest breeze. They do that because the leaves’ stems are flat. Colonies all have the same root system, and the aspens belonging to a colony are clones. Nature knew about cloning thousands of years before humans came up with it – but isn’t it the same with everything?

Anyway, different colonies react to the same stimuli at different pace or in different ways, resulting in the discrepancy in color.

Also, small areas of any forest create their own microclimates. Which to me is absolutely amazing. Did you ever notice how temperatures change sometimes as you walk through a forest? Yes, after I learned about micro climates, I started noticing. So, this also results in different timing in the change of colors of the same type of trees, within the same forest.

Which all means that we might experience peak colors one day on the Aspen Nature Trail, we can go back in a week, after these leaves are already on the ground, and enjoy the spectacle on the Kachina Trail.

When to see fall colors in Flagstaff?

Because of what I was just discussing above, it is safe to say that you can experience fall colors in Flagstaff during the whole month of October, in different areas. Usually, during the first and second week of t, colors somewhere on the mountain.

A day trip from Phoenix in Search of Fall Colors: Golden Aspens

A few years ago, we drove up to Flagstaff mid-week, since my husband had the day off. We dropped off our youngest child at school, leaving her sister to pick her up even if we didn’t make it back by the time her school ended.

Though we already saw golden aspens that year, when we drove to Colorado two weeks prior, when they peaked there, we couldn’t miss our yearly tradition of watching the Flagstaff spectacle of fall colors.

As we arrived, we noticed huge machinery breaking the ground by the parking lot. Noise, smell and a general “I hate humans, ruining everything” feeling took over me. I didn’t know what they were building, but I wished they left nature alone.

But they didn’t dig up any trees, only moving dirt in the open space between the aspen colonies and in front of the parking lot. We visited the area since, and realized they only added more parking space, making access to the trails more convenient. To be fair, the area needed a larger parking lot, since it has become extremely popular in the past several years.

Maybe there is a reason for this digging that has nothing to do with greed; maybe it’s going to protect the aspen colony in some way… I can dream, can’t I?

This meant we had to take a long way to reach the aspens. We didn’t mind, though. This time, since was easier access, we spent most of the day on the Aspen Nature Trail, in the colony farther from the parking lot. A glimpse of it confirmed that we arrived when this colony was showcasing its peak colors.

The fall colors were at their peak on the Aspen Nature Trail

On the Aspen Nature Trail

Did you ever notice the smell of an aspen forest? I don’t know how to describe it, but it differ than a pine forest, or any other forest. As soon as we walked into this aspen colony, the fresh, earthy and distinctive aspen smell enveloped us. Surrounded by yellow hues, both on the ground and above, mixed with the straight white trunks, we walked without a word, listening to the wind fluttering the aspen leaves.

Walking on a carpet of golden leaves…

Golden leaves were falling around us, adding to the carpet under our feet. Walking on the blanket of fallen leaves, occasionally crunching under my feet, I was transported back to my childhood, kicking up the fallen leaves as we played in the forest or parks in fall.

We noticed one of the lean-to shelters my daughter had explored in previous years – I entered. I had a great view when peeking out from it.

The view from my new home in the woods.

A group of people walked into the forest, their chatter breaking the spell. Sometimes I don’t understand how someone can walk into a forest, and not feel like they need to stop talking, stop making any unnecessary noise.

I know it’s not just me. Sometimes I notice others who stop talking, or only whisper as soon as they walk into a forest. That’s when you hear the trees, the wind, the insects, the squirrels, or other creatures. The sound of our own voice drowns it, but when we are in a group, with friends, we are oblivious to it.

We were lucky though, the group just walked through. We were alone in the forest for most of the time, enjoying the solitude.

An occasional pine tree breaks up the rows of aspens…

The wind kicked off for a moment once and again, sending a rain of golden leaves our way. The tall aspens seemed to dance in the breeze, losing leaves off their golden crown.

In the Meadow

We eventually, slowly, followed the trail out into the meadow. Looking back, we enjoyed the full colors of the aspen colony we just visited. In the distance, the surrounding mountain peaks were showing off their fall colors. We met a few people, mostly walking their dogs, but this was nothing like the crowds we experience here on the weekends.

The views in all directions were spectacular, with the bright gold and yellow of aspens juxtaposed on the green pines and the surrounding peaks.

View from the meadow. The aspen colony we just walked out of with Snowbowl behind.

On the Aspen Loop Trail

Across the meadow, aspens were showcasing a different shade of yellow.

Eventually, we crossed the meadow and followed the Aspen Loop Trail down the hill. We left the aspens behind and here we enjoyed the smell of fresh pine. The pine cones were still green and fresh, covered with sap, emitting their distinctive fragrance.

The pine cones were covered with fragrant sap.

As the trail wound back uphill in the dense aspen colony, I was enjoying their bright colors, so different from the ones across the meadow. Still light green in spots, they were mostly a pale electric yellow, almost see-through in the sun.

Trees were showcasing different shades of yellow on the Aspen Loop Trail

Eventually, we made our way back to the first aspen growth and spent more time there, reluctant to leave. But as the forest became filled with people in the afternoon hours, we made our way out. We still wanted to see the aspens on the Kachina Trail before returning to Phoenix.

On the Kachina Trail

We were alone on the Kachina Trail. Since the aspens in here didn’t turn colors yet, and the trail mostly meanders through pine forests anyway, no one was walking this way.

Peeking through the green pines, I glimpsed a few bright aspens by the road.

A few bright aspens peaked out from the pines on the Kachina Trail.

Sounds of birds accompanied us as we walked over to the edge of the aspen colony in the pine forest. No yellows yet, but their green was lighter shade than usual. They would showcase their fall colors in another week. Maybe we’ll return to see them.

I stopped to watch a young squirrel run around and jump from tree to tree, holding a bunch of pine needles in his mouth.

A squirrel was running around with a mouthful of pine needles…

Returning to the Desert

Although we live in the desert, and miss fall foliage and weather, we are close enough to these spectacular forests to come up and enjoy them every time we had a free day.

Though it’s still hot in Phoenix, in another week or two, we can start enjoying fall colors in the desert, much different from what we think of “fall” or “autumn”, but still spectacular in its own way.

When nature turns yellow and dry everywhere else, in the desert it becomes green, and filled with color from wildflowers. Though we don’t have crispy cool air, we still get golden yellows of flowers in the desert. But we’ll wait for that for another week or two.

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