Color Peeping in Southern Utah

The desert southwest has a beauty all of its own. Crystalline blue skies hover above red rocks as cacti and palm trees stretch toward them. Desert dandelions and marigolds, California poppies and golden suncups, and desert lavender and sand verbena stand out against the terracotta and umber landscape in spring and summer.

Red leaves stand against the red rocks of Zion.

I lived almost a third of my life in Las Vegas, and that desert always mesmerized me. I will admit, though, that when the colors faded in autumn and left an earth tone blanket under the skies, I missed watching leaves change colors. Autumn was the time we would head to southern Utah to leaf peep. While Utah doesn’t have maple, sycamore, and ash trees that you’ll find in the northeast United States, it does have quaking aspens, scrub oak, and cottonwoods that paint the landscape for a few weeks each fall.

Color season in southern Utah is an amazing time of year. Predicting exactly when is prime color time is difficult, but you can check a number of fall foliage guides to help you plan your trip. The Smokey Mountain interactive map is a good reference, and the Farmers’ Almanac is another.

Should you plan a trip to southern Utah this year, be sure to check out three of my favorite spots to enjoy the changing seasons.

A fence made of aspen trunks lines a field outside of Duck Creek.

Zion National Park

Located in southwest Utah, Zion National Park covers 146,597 acres of forested plateaus, massive sandstone cliffs, wide desert plains, slot canyons, rivers, and streams. While driving through the park is limited, you can catch a shuttle to visit Zion Canyon. The canyon, which is 15 miles long and 3000 feet deep at points, is the heart of the park.

There are many hiking trails throughout the park, and you can find one to suit every skill set. For those desiring an easy hike, check out the two-plus-mile Emerald Pools Trail. The uphill trek to Angel’s Landing is a strenuous four-plus-miles that starts relatively easily but quickly brings hikers higher through a series of 21 switchbacks. Scout Lookout, which you’ll reach after the last switchback, offers a great view of the canyon. At this point, you can turn around, as we did, or continue on the narrow trail along the ridge to reach Angel’s Landing at an elevation of almost 5800 feet. Note: There are chains to help you along the ridge, but there are no guardrails at the top.

I do prefer the more gentle walks because I can concentrate more on the world around me than on not rolling off of a mountain. Watchman’s Trail, just inside the park from the Springdale entrance, is an easy three-mile round-trip hike.

Cedar City

Located about three hours north of Las Vegas, Cedar City is home to Southern Utah University, the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and the Utah Summer Games. A small town surrounded by grand natural beauty, Cedar City and the surrounding area is full of scenic byways that offer breathtaking views. Easily accessible from Cedar City are Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Kolob Canyon, Lake Powell, Zion National Park, and Brian Head.

Head to Brian Head for a bit of adventure after you peep at the leaves. It offers adventure seekers fun during every season. During the winter, Brian Head has 71 runs for skiers of all levels. During the summer and fall, though, it offers 200 miles of backcountry and downhill trails for hikers and mountain bikers.

Low shrubs of gold line a creek.

Duck Creek Village

The small community of Duck Creek sits on Cedar Mountain near Brian Head and Cedar Breaks National Monument. The town was the setting of several movies (including National Velvet) and television shows (How the West Was Won and Daniel Boone).

Surrounding Duck Creek Village is the Dixie National Forest, which is, at 2,000,000 acres, Utah’s largest national forest. The forest’s altitude varies greatly (from 2800 feet to more than 11,000+ feet) as do the plants that inhabit the forest. Lower elevation shrubs include juniper and sagebrush, while aspens, pine, and spruce grow higher up. The aspens light up the forest with color during autumn.

When you’re not searching for color, you can hike one of the many trails in the area to check out Cedar Breaks National Monument, Mammoth or Ice Cave, or Navajo Lake. The lake also offers boating, swimming and trout fishing. With so many things to do and experience, southern Utah is a great place to take in the colors that decorate autumn and the activities that go with it.

Golden foliage dots the landscape along the Virgin River
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