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The beauty of autumn in southern Utah

Story and photos by Ray Boren

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Nov. 8 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

Evergreen pine and juniper trees stand out in fall near the nature-carved red-rock amphitheater of Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah.

Ray Boren

Pssst. Want to know a secret?

Southern Utah, that geologic and scenic wonderland, is dazzling in every season — but in autumn the annual invasion of sightseeing visitors from around the world drops to a trickle.

As desk manager Ron Stensfors notes from behind the service counter at Zion Lodge, seasoned (so to speak) American travelers, especially savvy locals from Utah and the rest of the West, know fall is a great time to take in Zion National Park.

And that's equally true for Utah's four other national parks (Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon), national monuments (Grand Staircase-Escalante, Natural Bridges, etc.) and the autumn-tinged highlands, canyons and pioneer communities all around them.

"Southern Utah," says Riley Mitchell, chief of interpretation at Capitol Reef National Park, "is often synonymous with red rock, but if you are lucky enough to encounter the areas along streambeds or the higher elevations during a good spring or fall season, the variety of colors can be amazing, especially against the backdrop of the dramatic sandstone landscape."

"Color, history, solitude, beauty — it all converges on an autumn day in canyonland," Ben Guterson observes in his pleasurable book, "Seasonal Guide to the Natural Year," which spotlights "natural events" in Utah and the other states of the Four Corners region.

Autumn usually gains a foothold in mid-September in places like the Tushar Mountains, above Beaver and Junction, and the LaSal and Abajo mountains, looming over southeastern Utah.

Golden aspen groves blanket entire mountainsides. Intermittent storms — as has been the case this year — bring early snows that frost peaks towering more than 12,000 feet above sea level and add yet another transitional, pre-winter, flavor to the landscapes just below.

Utah's famed "Highway 12" — the awe-inspiring National Scenic Byway between Red Canyon near Bryce Canyon National Park and Torrey, Capitol Reef's gateway — is a much-recommended drive. The rise over Boulder Mountain, in particular, is "really terrific in autumn," Joe Bensen writes in his Falcon Guide, "Scenic Driving in Utah" — with Bensen emphasizing "terrific" in italics.

Then, by mid- to late October and into November — depending upon where you are — the lower-elevation Colorado Plateau canyons are speckled and streaked with dazzling variations on red and yellow and orange as presented by the scrub oak, willow, ash, alder, box elder and cottonwood trees.

The canyons of the Southwest "are cooler and crisper in fall, allowing the visitor to enjoy their color without the glaring summer sun that seems to blister the sandstone," Guterson says in his "Seasonal Guide."

At its most pleasant — when storms aren't parading across the countryside — and even into November, temperatures often rise to the gentle 60s or 70s, with nighttime lows in the 40s.

Autumn can be a wonderful time to visit Bryce Canyon National Park and vicinity, says Brady Syrett, manager of Ruby's Horseback Adventures and the rodeo at Ruby's Inn.

He and his team continue horse-riding excursions, of one hour along the plateau rim or a full day in the Paria River drainage, as long as the weather holds out.

By contrast, Ruby's outfitters host a whole range of activities in summer, from ATV and horseback rides to the rodeo and cookout dinner. "And we're trying to get more people here in the winter," for sleigh rides, cross-country skiing and the Presidents Day Winter Festival at Bryce, Syrett says.

Autumn displays are variable in Capitol Reef, the park's Mitchell says, but "this year has been an exceptional exception! What brilliant fall colors over an extended time." Late September through mid-October offers the best opportunity to catch the colors there, she says.

However, take note: Because of mild temperatures and the promise of autumn along the Fremont River corridor, Sulphur Creek, Pleasant Creek and the washes, September and October are among the busiest months of all in the park, she says.

Besides the usual array of coloring trees, shrubs and grasses, Capitol Reef is home to Fruita, a one-time pioneer community — and nearly 2,700 fruit trees, including heritage and heirloom varieties, Mitchell says.

"The peach trees seem to have the best color, turning bright orange to red. Fruit trees turn colors about the same time as all of the rest," Mitchell says. Other fruit varieties include cherries, apricots, peaches, pears, plums, apples, mulberries, pecans, walnuts and quince.

October seems the ideal time for an autumn visit to Arches and Canyonlands national parks, as well.

The sculpted sandstone plateaus, cliffs, hoodoos, fins and arches of these great parks often seem kin to a moonscape, whatever the season. But autumn shades sneak in as plateau-top grasses and rim-edge brushes make subtle changes.

And trees and tamarisk along the Colorado and Green river canyons, most accessible at the town of Green River and along the Colorado near Moab, can shimmer with color.

Courthouse Wash in Arches National Park is also supremely accessible, and the box elders, cottonwoods and other trees extending beyond the bridge over the wash along the park's main roadway offer bright contrasts to the red-spectrum Navajo and Entrada sandstone cliffs nearby, as well as the white-tipped LaSal Mountains to the southeast.

The end-of-October Halloween holiday, and shortly thereafter, is actually a reliable target date to drop by Zion Canyon, as evidenced this past week.

The usually vibrant under-shrubbery was tempered a bit this year, Stensfors acknowledged. But color was still eye-catching in places along the upper elevations of state Route 9, while the golden trees — mostly Fremont cottonwoods — along the Virgin River were just getting a good start.

The park lifts the car-banning, shuttle-buses-only system in Zion Canyon proper at the end of October, and room rates drop for the season, he notes.

Autumn — and its pleasant temperatures — usually continues, with a gradual decline in color, right up to Thanksgiving in Zion, which has been celebrating its 100th anniversary as a national park unit this year.

"And Thanksgiving is very busy" at 122-room Zion Lodge, "largely a local tradition," Stensfors says. "It's our favorite food and beverage time of year," a great time for families to get together.

Then, the year-round park prepares for winter, and this year that means the loss of some rooms: Zion's 40 cabins will be closed for remodeling in January, February and March, he says.

Of course, the challenge every year is to catch southern Utah's fall phenomena at their mercurial peak.

"All too frequently, the leaves turn pretty quickly and fall off with the first big wind," Mitchell observes. "This year's display has been fabulous and long-lasting" in Capitol Reef, "with trees turning throughout a two-week period. This last storm has been the death knell, however."

And remember, not all of the season's wonders are in national parks, by any stretch of the imagination.

There's always state Route 12, as mentioned. But also consider such routes as state Route 279 (the Potash Road) and state Route 128, along the Colorado Riverway near of Moab, which can be spectacular, as can cottonwood-filled red-rock ravines along Utah's Bicentennial Highway, state Route 95, between Hanksville and Blanding.

State Route 14 east of Cedar City offers not only access to hoodoo-filled Cedar Breaks National Monument, many roadside aspen groves rise dramatically upon or beside fields of gray-to-black volcanic boulders.

And pastoral U.S. 89 offers one of the great autumn drives in southern Utah, from the Arizona border and Kanab north toward Richfield. The route, through historic pioneer villages like Orderville, Panguitch and Circleville, has been officially designated the Utah Heritage Byway.

The fact is, almost any road or side-canyon is southern Utah is going to offer a memorable patch of fall-spangled scenery somewhere along the way.

One of Utah's most seasonally striking (and park-like) routes is along U.S. 89 between Marysvale and I-70, south of Richfield, where cottonwoods and oaks add yet more color to the steep mountainsides' igneous grays, purples, burgundies and sulfur-yellows.

One of the route's most famous attractions is Big Rock Candy Mountain, famed in song for its "lemonade springs" and other hobo wonders.

As the song says, with any luck, "I'll see you all this coming fall in the Big Rock Candy Mountains."

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