Autumn begins to blaze at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon.
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It takes a Rocky Mountain state like Utah to rival the autumnal brilliance usually given New England. And rival it does-with canyon and mountain wilderness New England couldn't begin to challenge. If fall evokes that craving for foliage flaming up in color before it goes down in brown, put northern Utah on your itinerary.
The Wasatch Mountains flanking Salt Lake City to the east are cut by seven accessible canyons splashed with color as the days get shorter. Bright yellows to purplish reds dress parts of City Creek, Emigration, Millcreek, Red Butte, Parley's, Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons. The granite and fragrant pines, fir, and blue spruce in the higher canyons provide a spectacular backdrop to the deciduous show.
Aspen stands run golden streaks down timbered slopes, a familiar herald of winter. Back-fired by hard sunlight, their glow is so thrilling it's hard to believe it's the visual equivalent of a swan song—those leaves are soon to drop, leaving sketchy white trunks. The Rocky Mountain maple, too, will blast then shed its contrasting crimson notes.
Also in the Wasatch look for bigtooth maple bleeding across the landscape at about 5,000 feet to 9,000 feet. It's usually in north-facing canyons along streams. The lobed leaves of gambel oak turn yellow, some of them even deep red. In lower to middle elevations, alder and western water birch blush shades of yellow, as do narrowleaf cottonwood and the box elder along wet areas.
Utah has variety. Many shrubs, too, can light a fiery spectacle in fall. In wet places along bottom valley areas chokecherry bushes burst into red. In drier exposed sites you'll see golden currant, wood's rose, oakleaf, serviceberry, and sumac burning the spectrum from soft to vivid scarlet.
An especially nice sight of fall in the high desert: The rubber rabbitbrush turns golden yellow, but not from its leaves. A late bloomer, it flowers yellow with silver foliage. You'll see it right along the roadside.
The Wasatch, as well as the Oquirrh Mountains to the west of Salt Lake City, are webbed with trails—the rule of thumb being that where there's fall color, a good hike might be nearby. In the Oquirrhs, Butterfield and Middle are two scenic canyons less traveled. The Uinta Mountains, just northwest of Salt Lake, hold Utah's highest peak, and are a good place to find fall's pyrotechnics.
Autumn drama awaits in Provo Canyon about 40 miles south of Salt Lake on I-15, the setting for Robert Redford's resort, Sundance. You can take the Heber Valley Railroad (801-654-5601) through this area.
Logan Canyon, about 90 miles north of Salt Lake and just east of the city of Logan, has a scenic byway, Highway 89, with cliffs, rushing river, aspen groves, and towering firs. The canyon road winds 40 miles to Garden City on the shores of Bear Lake and is popular with bicyclists.
Photography courtesy of Scott CAtron/Wikimedia Commons
This article was first published in September 1996. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Mid- to late-September is optimum time to catch the change. Pick up maps, AAA Colorado/Utah TourBook, and Triptiks to any of these areas from your local AAA office.
For information on lodging, dining, local events, contact Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau, 180 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City, UT 84101-1493, (801) 521-2822. For more help planning a visit contact Council Hall, Capitol Hill, SLC, UT 84114 (801) 538-1030.
A worthwhile stop in Salt Lake for the botanical minded: Red Butte Garden & Arboretum at the University of Utah. The Autumn Festival takes place there in late September. Call for details: (801) 581-4747.
For organized hikes with experienced hikers contact the Wasatch Mountain Club in Salt Lake City: (801) 463-9842.