Autumn has been taking its own sweet time this year. But not to worry: Fall happens - if not now then later; if not down here then up there. That's just the way it is in Utah.

"We get phone calls from movie producers in Southern California asking: `What day can we come to Utah to get the best colors?' " says Dick Hildreth, Red Butte Garden's education director. "We have to say, `This fall sometime. Maybe.' "Despite the imagery and messages conveyed by our license plates, the Beehive State - as Utahns know and others are discovering - is more than a land of winter skiing and red-rock deserts.

In fact, says Hildreth, "fall is our best-kept secret" - an excellent time for hiking, biking, touring, photographing and simply enjoying the outdoors.

Dougan Sherwood of Park City seconds that. "I think if anyone spends time here, it takes maybe five minutes to realize how wonderful it is in all the seasons - and especially in the fall," he says.

"If I were to come to Utah, I'd come right now," says Sherwood, marketing and sales coordinator for the Norwegian School of Nature Life, a nonprofit educational organization that sets up guided tours, among other things. "It's beautiful. It's crisp. It's 60 degrees - and you're not going to have 50,000 people on the trail."

"Nobody ever told me about the fall color in Utah," says Hildreth. He grew up in Cheyenne, and to him autumn was a time when the prairie grasses changed shades. He subsequently witnessed the brilliant autumn displays in New England and New Brunswick. But when Hildreth moved to Utah 22 years ago, he was delighted by the reds of the big-tooth maples on hillsides and in the canyons and by the shimmering golds of the cottonwoods and high-country quaking aspen.

Scott Gollaher, who answers vacationers' telephone queries for the Utah Travel Council, gets calls both from within the state and from afar. "The last two weeks, we've started getting calls (about autumn), particularly from the South," Gollaher says. He's happy to tell people about Utah's fall variety and where to go see the colors, north to south, east to west.

"We have a uniqueness here," he says - a mix of trees, like the blue spruce among the aspen; a startling range of elevations, from deserts at 2,000-plus feet above sea level to 13,000-foot mountaintops (and even then, "8,000 feet at Brighton is different than 8,000 feet above Ogden") and quick getaways. "Within 45 minutes, you can go from the Salt Lake Valley and be on the Alpine or Nebo loops."

If Utah's autumn has been slow in coming, the laggardness appears justifiable.

"Everything is a little late this year," says Marita Tewes, Red Butte's horticulture director. Summer too seemed behind schedule, beginning with a June that was cool, wet and springlike.

"We have several flowers that didn't bloom until a few weeks ago" in the garden and arboretum on Salt Lake's eastern foothills, Tewes says. "I was telling people how beautiful the boltonia was this year." A member of the daisy family, "it just started to flower - and the season is almost up."

Tewes and Hildreth said September's summery weather gave many gardens, including Red Butte's, more time to bloom.

"Ornamental grasses look fantastic at this time of year - they always do," Tewes said. "Asters are looking very nice, as are some of the others, like black-eyed susans."

Where do these autumn appreciators head when Utah's season is in full sway?

Sherwood says the guides, or mentors, from the Norwegian School of Nature Life, based in Park City, take students and guests higher into the hills.

"The more time they can give us, the farther out of town we like to go," to favorite lakes, the Mormon Trail and mountain paths, he says.

Hildreth's favorite Utah spot in the fall is Sardine Canyon, between Brigham City and Logan. "You get some marvelous vistas, and the other elements that comprise that canyon - the rock outcrops, the wonderful conifers and the douglas firs . . . it's just very photogenic. I like Millcreek for some of the same reasons," though it doesn't have the broad landscapes.

Like many people, he admires the Alpine Loop, between Highland and Provo Canyon, for its aspens and rugged peaks. "But I think the prettiest aspens I've seen are in the Henry Mountains and also the Deep Creeks." These are two of Utah's most remote ranges, one in the south-central part of the state, the other on the Nevada border. The solitude, he admits, is part of their allure.

Gollaher's suggestions, as you'd expect, take in pretty much the entire state.

Depending upon temperatures, elevations and other factors, autumn peaks at different times at different locations, he notes, but pastel foliage can be chased down generally from early September through October - and the next four weeks should be the heart of the season in Utah. Popular destinations include:

- The aforementioned Alpine Loop, from American Fork Canyon to Sundance, "which is almost bumper to bumper this time of year," he says.

- The Nebo Loop, a scenic byway behind the southern Wasatch peak of that name, between Pay-son and Salt Creek Canyon above Nephi.

- Northern Utah's Sardine and Logan canyons, U.S. 89 (and U.S. 91 part of the way) between Brigham City and Bear Lake, as well as Ogden Canyon, Trapper's Loop, Blacksmith Fork and the Monte Cristo highway (U-39).

- Zion National Park in southwestern Utah, which because of its lower elevations experiences fall in late October.

- The Wasatch canyons east of the Salt Lake Valley, including Big and Little Cottonwoods and Mill-creek. And keep in mind the eastern side of the range, Gollaher says, including the hills and canyons above Heber and Midway, as well as Wasatch Mountain State Park.

- The Uinta Mountains, including lovely drives over the Mirror Lake Highway (U-150), Wolf Creek Pass (U-35 between Woodland and Tabiona), U.S. 191 between Vernal and Flaming Gorge and other routes, paved and unpaved, into the range above the Uintah Basin.

- The high-climbing LaSal Mountain Loop above Moab offers an amazing contrast to the sandstone canyons farther west, as do the Abajo Mountains to the south.

- When roads are dry and the weather unthreatening, he says, adventurous backroaders might consider central Utah's Skyline Drive, a high unimproved backway above communities like Fairview, Ephraim and Manti in the Manti-LaSal and Fishlake national forests; or the backroads around Strawberry Reservoir. (South-central mountain byways like U-14, between Cedar City and the Bryce Canyon area also well worth the trip.)

- Travelers might also keep in mind relatively remote but rewarding high country like the Stansbury Mountains west of Grantsville and Tooele, the Pine Valley Mountains near St. George or the Raft River Range in extreme northwestern Utah, part of the Sawtooth National Forest "if you want one that's a real gem," Gol-la-her says.

"Most of our state parks are beautiful in the fall - and we have eight national forests in the state," he notes.

Autumn, says Hildreth, is indeed a time to savor. And, he suggests, that includes letting the leaves fall where they may . . . for a time.

"We are reluctant to let leaves lay on the ground for any length of time," he says. Even as the leaves flutter down - trying their utmost to create a colorful quilt - people reach for rakes, leafblowers and plas-tic bags.

Wait awhile. Appreciate nature's ways.

"I'd much rather just leave them on the ground," Hildreth says . . . "and then ultimately not put them in plastic bags at all but till them into the garden or put them in a com-poster."