Find Utah fall color gold on the road less traveled. Often overlooked for New England or the Smoky Mountains, Utah’s national parks and woodlands– combined with live performances and plays– offer not only stunning colors but a rich cultural experience.The color component includes Zion National Park, Cedar Breaks and Kolob Canyon. Here Mother Nature’s paintbrush sketches a brilliant palette of orange, gold and scarlet set against a backdrop of soaring red rock towers, deep canyons and massive monoliths. The cultural gold glitters in nearby Cedar City at the annual Utah Shakespeare Festival now in its 56th season. Here are my top tips for a Utah fall color gold getaway.
Color: A prime starting point is Zion National Park, the state’s oldest and most visited attraction. You can choose the hike that best suits your fitness level, from the easy Riverside Walk with soaring sentinels of sandstone walls to the more difficult, short but steep, Weeping Rock Trail. Here is where you’ll find stunning stands of golden aspen and red maple. Zion generously shares the glory of Utah fall color gold.
Zion Wings: Up to a challenge and not afraid of heights? Earn your Zion wings with a careful navigation up to the peak of Angels Landing. Like an island in the sky, the trail ends at a breathtaking summit high above Zion Canyon. it’s an eye-popping trek along a narrow ridge, often enshrouded in clouds. At the peak, I stood in the mist holding my breath. Looking down on the painterly panorama below. I felt on top of the earth, literally and figuratively. No question in my mind, I had earned my Zion wings for the “flight” back down the trail..
Time spent at Zion was never enough for me. Day hikes offer stunning views. If you can, devote a full day to the East Mesa Trail, just south of Angels Landing. Capture the vista of the 2,300′ Great White Throne, a Navajo sandstone formation perched in the foreground with Red Arch Mountain as a backdrop. No need for Kodachrome. Fall colors abound at every turn.
Touring Tip: During peak foliage season, the park service runs a shuttle along the 12-mile round trip drive through Zion Canyon. The route highlights Utah fall color gold nestling against Zion’s massive stone formations as they reach for the sky. https://www.nps.gov/zion/index.htm
I noticed the intriguing names of many sites and learned that early explorers gave biblical titles to several of Utah’s monoliths. The monikers include Angels Landing, Great White Throne, Three Patriarchs and Cathedral Mountain. These were named prior to Zion becoming a National Park in 1918. Zion, meaning “promised land,” was named by the Mormons. Native Americans called nearby Cedar Breaks the “Circle of Painted Cliffs” The various titles are almost as awe-inspiring as the sites themselves.
Kolob Canyon: Part of Zion, Kolob is much less developed which I found to be part of its attraction. Even in peak season, you can usually avoid crowds. Some say the Kolob canyon views of rugged red sandstone rival the Grand Canyon in terms of texture, layers and color. Like a park within a park, its series of deep, narrow finger canyons jut up along the edge of the Colorado Plateau. A five-mile scenic drive through the canyon ends at a high viewpoint with a short nature trail and views as far as the Kaibab Plateau at the north rim of the Grand Canyon.
Canyon Trek: A rock-strewn trail side creek was our constant companion on a sun splashed fall day when friends and I hiked through the canyon, During our three-hour escape we saw only a handful of other hikers yet, each time we met up with others, there was a feeling of oneness, a shared sense of appreciation for the serenity of our environment.The hike culminated at a spectacular site when we reached Kolob’s red-rock double-arch alcove, one of the most photogenic phenomenona in the entire park.
Bryce Canyon: Quaking aspens, majestic oaks and cottonwoods strut their stuff in shades of gold, red and orange during Bryce’s fall season. Although you can plan on “color season” early to mid-September, peak fall foliage varies by elevation. Colors change sooner at the higher elevations whereas lower elevations like Escalante typically peak by mid-October so this is a good time for those of us late-comers to get their hit of Utah fall color gold later in the season. Try the scenic drive on Hwy 14, the back road from Bryce to Zion. It climbs to 10,000′, passing Cedar Breaks National Monument along the way. Here, fall colors will run the gamut from newer blooms to blazing hues as colorful as hoodoos.
Cedar Breaks. A little out of the way but, for me, well worth exploring, Cedar Breaks resembles Bryce Canyon on a smaller scale. Called the “Circle of Painted Cliffs” by Native Americans, its huge amphitheater of pinnacles, arches, stone spires and columns radiates reflections, shadows and lights in shades of purple, yellow, coral and red. At 10,000 feet elevation, the three-mile wide canyon drops 2,000 vertical feet to its floor. and is three miles from rim to rim.
The high point for me was Cedar Breaks National Monument. I drove north along the road through the Monument stopping at observation points. Point Supreme near the entrance affords a panoramic view of the amphitheater. Carved spirals with dazzling multi-colored ridges and rock formations march up the walls. From each of the overlooks, you’ll see across Cedar Valley, over Antelope and Black Mountains and into the Escalante Desert. Watch for swifts and swallows soaring overhead. Binoculars are, of course, handy to have along.
Touring Tip: Cedar Breaks Visitor Center features park information and interpretive activities from June through October. https://www.nps.gov/cebr/index.htm
Hoodoo Heaven: You can see hoodoos in Zion, Bryce and Cedar Breaks. For me, the Point Supreme outlook in Cedar Breaks National Monument is hoodoo heaven. Because they are weird looking spires, hoodoos are sometimes called “fairy chimneys” or “goblins.” Freezing and thawing cycles throughout the year produce rock spires that rise up from the canyon floor, often seeming to march skyward in group formation. Hoodoos vary in size and color depending on their location so, if you’re a hoodoo hunter like me, be sure and visit each park to see these enchanting earth pyramids.
Fall season in southern Utah’s national parks is an incredible oasis for leaf peepers. Native trees create brilliant hues of red, orange, yellow, and purple (Look for some all on the same tree!). A cascade of color comes from canyon maple, quaking aspen, scrub oak, Douglas hawthorn, evergreens, and more — each turning in succession. Utah’s wide array of forests, national parks and scenic byways are all located at different elevations and receive varying amounts of rainfall. This creates a multitude of peak viewing times so you can come early or late in the season and still spot breathtaking colors.
Culture: See even more Utah fall color gold at the award-winning Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City at Southern Utah University. Plays by the bard are complemented with Broadway hits and backstage seminars. A refreshing counterpoint to a day spent outdoors in nature, the festival season continues into late October with something on the bill for just about everyone.
Where to Stay: A haven for lovers of the arts and outdoors, Cedar City provides an excellent base for exploration. Not only are you within easy driving distance to the area’s highlights but the prices in this great little area tend to be more reasonable than higher-end resorts. Kolob Canyon lies about 20 to 25 miles south of Cedar City. Cedar Breaks National Monument lies about 23 miles to the east.
Contact the Cedar City-Brian Head Tourism & Convention Bureau, 581 N. Main St., Cedar City, UT 84720. Telephone (800) 354-4849 or (435) 586-5124. From the San Francisco Bay Area, flights into Las Vegas Airport provide economical access to car rentals for the scenic drive to Southern Utah.
Related Article: Fall Foliage Tour of New England.