At this time of year Mother Nature ushers in cooler temperatures and breathtaking views in Gila County's mountain ranges and surrounding Tonto National Forest.
Arizona’s mild climate and almost-guaranteed sunny days make viewing fall foliage ideal. So, grab a jacket and your hiking boots and head up the hill for stunning autumn color along with awesome sunsets to boot!
Fall colors typically begin the second weekend in October in the higher elevations of Gila County, with most of the peak viewing in early to the middle of October. The lower elevations usually peak in late October or early November and can continue through the month of November.
It doesn't last long but it is worth the trip! Below are some great places to visit in your search for “Good Color”.
Northern Gila County Fall Color Destinations
In the secret heart of the Mogollon Rim, hidden groves of maple, oak and aspen await the cold breath of fall. Arizona's Mogollon Rim Country made up of the small communities of Payson, Pine, Strawberry and Christopher Creek offer the Fall Color visitor something that is truly amazing. If you are a seasoned photographer or a budding freelancer, Rim Country does have fall displays to fill the portfolio of any photographer. Check out the list below of great places to go and see fall color. Best time to visit: Mid to late October (depends on the weather and best to call the Payson Ranger District before you come to find out for sure there is "color in them there hills"! Mogollon Rim Road 300
Payson to Forest Road/Mogollon Rim: 29 Miles
Rim Road Drive: 51 miles
Back to Payson from Highway 260: 30 miles
Begin this scenic venture by driving northeast from Phoenix to the mountain town of Payson, climbing 4,000 feet into Rim Country. The scenery is dominated by the nearby Mogollon Rim—a dramatic escarpment on the edge of the Colorado Plateau that looms 2,000 feet over the towns below. On top of the precipice is cool high country, swathed in forest foliage. From Payson, take Highway 260 to the beginning of Forest Road 300 and skirt the edge of the Rim heading east. You’ll be treated to sweeping views and a perfect palette of fall color in mid to late October. For more info on the Mogollon Rim Road 300 - click here. Tonto Natural Bridge State Park:
Payson to Tonto Natural Bridge State Park: 13.9 Miles
North of Payson on Highway 87 features the largest natural travertine bridge in the world. Visitors here will enjoy the short hike down to the bottom of the waterfalls that gently cascade over the bridge and surrounding rocks. All that water has created an ideal environment for the brilliant aspen, cottonwood and elder trees that surround the park with magnificent fall color. For more info on the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park - click here. Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery
Payson to The Tonto Fish Hatchery: 21.1 Miles
Located off of Highway 260 at about 6,500 feet elevation in the Tonto National Forest, there is a great place to escape the searing desert summer heat. The hatchery and surrounding wetland area provide outstanding opportunities for learning adventures and family outings such as picnics, hiking, and observing wildlife. The wet conditions provide a great place for trees to grow, and the color is great in this area. Click here for more. Horton Creek, east of Payson
Phoneix to Horton Creek (Google Maps): 109 Miles
Payson to Horton Creek: 19.3 Miles
This 4-mile scramble to a gushing spring is no summer wonder. It flashes gaudy fall foliage along the perennial stream, with its cascade of mini falls. The Horton Creek Trail follows an old wagon road paralleling the creek, with several filaments of trail leading to the water, which is guarded by cottonwood, Arizona sycamore and box elder. Bright-leaved sumac illuminates the underbrush, and Virginia creeper, a prolific woody vine that turns scarlet, wreathes tree trunks like so much Christmas garland. The last section of the trail before the spring steepens. Beyond the frothy little geyser that triggers Horton Creek, the path continues up the Mogollon Rim. Especially enjoyable when wildflowers are blooming because - guess what? - this makes a great spring hike, too. Rim Lake Vista Trail No. 622
Phoenix to Rim Visitors Center (Google Maps): 119 Miles
Payson to Rim Visitors Center: 29.9 Miles
This popular trail offers easy access to fall hiking in Rim country. Following a level, mostly-paved route situated just a few feet from the rim’s edge, this path is open to the sky and exposed to crisp, canyon breezes. Among the jumbled boulders that crowd the edge of the escarpment are clusters of low-growing oak trees that teeter precariously over the precipice, shedding a flurry of golden leaves into the canyon 1,000 feet below. In addition to unobstructed views and the colorful oaks, sun-drenched glens along the trail foster wildflowers that bloom profusely well into mid-to-late October. Length: 3.5 miles one way Rating: easy with paved, accessible segments Elevation: 7,500 feet Peak fall color: Mid - Late October Barbershop Trail No. 91 This undulating route penetrates the thick forests of Barbershop and Dane canyons where, in autumn, a wide variety of trees and plants paint the landscape in a riot of warm color. Along this trail, a multi-level canopy of foliage begins on the forest floor, where oaks with spiced-mustard-tinged leaves compete for space among compact blue spruce trees. Above the oaks, Bigtooth maples blush crimson against cool, blue-green firs. Towering high above the confetti-like layers of airborne leaf litter, graceful white-barked aspens and Ponderosa pines seem to brush the clouds in a wind-fueled arboreal ballet. The trail, which is named in honor of a long-gone sheepherder who used his sheering blades to give haircuts to cowboys, ducks in-and-out of the forest and passes through sunny meadows of spent ferns and golden-brown grasses. Adding visual interest to the trail, two lush, soggy spring sites feed hardy daisies and yarrow flowers that bloom stubbornly until the first frosts of late autumn send them down for the winter. Length: 4.5 miles one way Rating: moderate Elevation: 7,200 to 7,600 feet Peak fall color: Mid-late October Getting there: From Payson, go east (right) on Highway 260 for 30 miles to Rim Road (Forest Road 300, which is located across from the Rim Visitor Center). Follow FR 300 for 23 miles to Forest Road 137. Turn right on FR 137 and drive four miles to the trailhead, which is located across the road from Buck Springs Cabin. Info: Coconino National Forest, Mogollon Rim Ranger District, 928-477-2255 or Click here for more info Drew Trail No. 291 While the downside of wildfires is the destruction of our beloved woodlands, the upside is improved forest health and the opening up of previously obscured views. Although recent wildfires have scorched sections of Drew Trail, the result has been mostly positive. Before the fires, dense stands of trees (some unhealthy due to bark beetle infestation) had blocked views that now showcase the stunning geology and beauty of the area. The hike starts out at the See Canyon trailhead below Rim Road, then heads east on Highline Trail through a 2.25-mile checkerboard of creek-side ferns, manzanita scrub and soaring pines before it encounters the Drew Trail junction. From here, hiking becomes more difficult as the steep path climbs 820 feet in just more than a mile. As the route gains elevation, the fire damage wanes and the forest grows thicker. Finally, at trail’s end on top of the 7,600-foot escarpment, shimmering aspens, billowing oaks and a healthy crowd of unscathed pines shade the path. Length: 7 miles roundtrip Rating: moderate Elevation: 6,780 to 7,600 feet Peak fall color: mid-to-late October Getting there: Lower trailhead: From Payson, go east (right) on Highway 260 for 21 miles to the Christopher Creek Loop exit. Continue on Christopher Creek Loop to Forest Road 284, which is located directly across the road from the Tall Pines Market. Follow FR 284 for 1.6 miles (stay on the main gravel road, ignoring the many spur roads) to the signed See Canyon trailhead, where there’s a restroom and corral. The Rim Road trailhead is located roughly six miles from the Highway 260/300 turn-off near Forest Road 9350, marked only by a generic trail post. Consult a good forest service map to make sure you’ve found the right path. Info: Tonto National Forest, Payson Ranger Station, 928-474-7900
Central Gila County Fall Color Destinations
It may not seem possible that a desert would have a fall foliage season, but the Sonoran Desert’s wetland areas along streams and washes (called “riparian” habitats) are loaded with wonderful sycamores and cottonwoods that turn vivid yellow and orange come fall. Located in central, Arizona sits the largest man-made lake in the state - Theodor Roosevelt Lake. In early to sometimes late November "Roosevelt" is a vibrant mix of different colors that will simply take your breath away. Roosevelt Lake was created in 1911 by damming up the Salt River, and the water level rises and falls. Roosevelt Lake is an enormous lake whose southern shore runs for some 50 miles. In many places, the saguaros seem to stand around in groups. They seem to be conversing in the morning sun, one with another. The beauty of this area is unmatched and a visitor coming to spend the day here in early to mid-November will be rewarded with an awe-inspiring sight. There are three routes to the lake depending upon point of origination and the type of scenery you would prefer to enjoy. See the Roosevelt Lake Map below. Apache Trail Route. This is one of the most scenic drives in Arizona, particularly during the spring months when the desert is in bloom. From Apache Junction, it's about a 50-mile drive, but a slow drive since about half of the route is winding dirt road along the northern edges of the Superstition Mountain Wilderness area. Take Highway 88 (Apache Trail) from Apache Junction which is a Phoenix suburb. You will pass Canyon Lake before entering the Ghost Town of Tortilla Flats. Shortly after the road through hairpin turns alongside sheer cliff dropoffs at Fish Creek Hill as the views of Apache Lake appear. Apache Trail then continues until it reaches Roosevelt Dam and Roosevelt Lake. From Globe Arizona. Take Highway 188 for about 30 miles north of Globe. From North Phoenix, Mesa, and Scottsdale. Take Beeline Highway (Highway 87) north to Highway 188. Take 188 south for about 40 miles passing through Jake's Corner and Punkin Center to Lake Roosevelt. The route is all paved. For More Information Tonto National Forest Tonto Basin Ranger District (928) 467-3200 (928) 467-2245 (Marina) (602) 236-5929 (Lake Level Information)
Southern Gila County Fall Color Destinations
No need for a road trip north to see and photograph vivid Autumn foliage, the Pinal Mountains outside of Globe, Arizona offer camera-ready aspens, maples, sumac and sycamore trees. Lovely fall leaves also beckon hikers and leaf-peepers to Payson and Rim Country trails; to the Sierra Anchas: Workman Creek, Reynolds Creek, and the scenic high desert town of Young.
Here’s a sneak preview, from Photographer Lisa Langell https://www.langellphotography.com/Travel/Pinal-Mountains-Arizona/n-DqrmK6 Looking for more? Explore maple-lined canyon drainages where you’re unlikely to see another photographer – or anyone -- near Point-of-Pines Lake on the San Carlos Apache Reservation. Pinal Mountain fall foliage usually peaks around Oct. 20-25 -- with the best maple trees found along the top quarter-mile of the Ice House Canyon Trail. Preview the lovely leaves online, here’s what David Burba filmed in Fall 2018 David’s aerial video https://youtu.be/4h7A0tVfRoM still photos https://www.flickr.com/photos/dazlm/albums/72157709538360616
Pinal Mountain fall foliage usually peaks around Oct. 20-25 -- with the best maple trees found along the top quarter-mile of the Ice House Canyon Trail. Preview the lovely leaves online, a variety of galleries posted by AZ photographers are all linked at: The Pinal Mountains lure leaf-peepers and photographers to Globe-Miami, just 90-minutes drive from most Valley communities, making Gila County an excellent Fall weekend destination. For a truly memorable overnight book a room a unique local bed-and-breakfast. Dream Manor Inn offers panoramic 360-degree views of surrounding mountains (dreammanorinn.com). Noftsger Hill Inn owner Rosalie Ayala offers ‘birds, bed & breakfast’ tour packages, and has maps to hiking trails for optimal Autumn foliage. The 17,000 square foot inn was the city of Globe's elementary school from the 1940s through the 80s. Now six of the cavernous classrooms have been appointed with antiques and decorated with various themes (a ‘Cowboy Room,’ bold primary-color-painted Mexican Room) and you can, quite literally, ‘sleep in class.’ Read more at noftsgerhillinn.com DIRECTIONS: ICE HOUSE CANYON TRAIL, FERNDELL SPRING & SIGNAL PEAK From the East Valley, it takes about 2.5 hours driving to reach the top of the Pinal Mountain range, or about 90-minutes if you're driving there from the vicinity of Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior. The best color is found down the first half-mile of the Ice House Canyon hiking trail, and around Ferndell Spring and the Six-Shooter Trail. Forest Service outhouse toilets are at the Sulfide de Rey campground and also Ferndell; picnic tables and firepits are available. Check the Tonto National Forest website to verify seasonal fire restrictions. Check out Jim Van Housen’s album https://www.flickr.com/photos/cuesmacros/sets/72157636921524713 Getting there from the East Valley: take Highway 60 East past Superior and through the town of Miami and then through the smaller community of Claypool. After milepost 247, just past the Walmart plaza, turn right (South) at the stoplight where you'll see a brown sign for the Pinal Mountain Recreation Area. Now you're heading South on Russell Road; be sure to watch for a sharp right turn within a quarter-mile – and stay on Russell Road; after 2-3 miles Russell Road turns into Forest Road #55. Continue straight on FR55 another few miles as it winds through Russell Gulch Canyon uphill to the intersection of Forest Road 651. At that intersection turn right at the sign which reads ‘Pinal Mountains 11 miles.’ This beautiful, winding mountain road ascends through low desert canyon country up into chaparral and then Ponderosa Pine forests. You'll pass the Sulfide del Rey campground - which has Forest Service toilets, campsites and fire rings. Just past Sulfide del Rey campground, bear left towards Signal Peak and Forest Road 651 winds around the south side of the mountain range – giving sweeping views across the Dripping Springs Valley below - and rows of dramatic mountain ranges extending to the south. Look to the East, when skies are clear on that far horizon you can see the Catalina Mountains looming and shadowy 100 miles away. Dave Langdon posted these after an Oct. 25 visit https://onedrive.live.com/?authkey=PaXhsglXSic%24&id=28C73D5E3993D648%21239&cid=28C73D5E3993D648 It takes about 10 miles of graded dirt road after you turn onto FR651, before you'll reach the Ice House Canyon trailhead. Watch for this at left, with a sign announcing trail #198. Park nearby and hike down the first half-mile of that trail, then back up again. Ice House Canyon holds the largest stand of aspen trees in the Pinals, and the steep trail winds through the heart of this forest and down in the drainage below. As you drive towards the trailhead that last quarter-mile of FR651 gives one particularly choice viewpoint where you'll see golden aspen color cascading down into Ice House canyon. Be aware that this is a steep trail; trekking poles and hiking boots are definitely advised. Want more? Check out John Aho’s gallery of Autumn color https://www.flickr.com/photos/planetwrite/sets/72157631893185778 After hiking the Ice House Canyon Trail drive another mile east along the Pinal ridgetop, watching for signs for Ferndell, followed by 20 private cabins, then signs for Signal Peak and the Upper Recreation Site. Drive over to Signal Peak and also drive through Ferndell before you head back down to Globe. Both are quite scenic, and the Six Shooter Trail downhill below Ferndell is less steep than Ice House Canyon. Photographers take note: aspen groves and maples mostly occur on the cooler North-facing canyons near the top 1,000 feet of the Pinal Mountain range, so consider about sunlight and back-lighting when planning your trip. October middays from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. are best for photos on the Ice House Canyon trail. Arrive much later and you'll find the sun has dipped low in the canyon and trees too backlit for colorful photography. Maps and hiking trails of the Pinal Mountain Range can be obtained from the Tonto National Forest Service Globe Ranger District office, for details call 928-425-7189 or https://www.fs.usda.gov/tonto. Here's another gallery of Dave Langdon’s fall foliage https://onedrive.live.com/?id=28C73D5E3993D648%21283&cid=28C73D5E3993D648 Directions to Pioneer Pass: For a different experience of the Pinals, drive the Forest Service road that ascends the northeast side of the mountains to Pioneer Pass. General road directions are similar; take Hwy 60 East to Globe, once you reach town watch for the railroad overpass at the Broad Street signal light. Turn left on Broad Street, drive through downtown Globe, and follow signs to the Besh Ba Gowah archaeological park (or just set your GPS for Besh Ba Gowah). After the Besh turnoff (at right), turn right onto Kellner Canyon Road. Proceed a few miles to the Ice House Canyon Road intersection, then bear left (its actually straight, though) here, where Kellner makes a sharp right turn. Ice House Canyon Road takes you all the way up through Pioneer Pass. Pavement road turns to graded dirt after a few miles, near the DC Cattle ranch and Ice House campground. Continue on Pioneer Pass - a winding dirt road that ascends up-and-over the east side of the Pinals, complete with Forest Service outhouse toilets, campsites and fire rings. Thanks, Trish Gunther Van Housen for posting this album https://www.flickr.com/photos/danceswithtripods/sets/72157636914826443 Suggested Hike: Six-Shooter Canyon trail (about 2 miles past the Ice House CCC campground). Six-Shooter Canyon trail climbs alongside a sycamore-lined creek drainage, the trail crossing through the creek bed four times within 1.5 miles. How to find it? The trailhead is above ‘the Iron Bridge,’ there's no sign announcing this bridge by that name - but you'll know it when you see it. park just below the iron bridge, then continue walking uphill on the road another 100 yards, watching on the right for the trailhead, which makes a hairpin turn uphill and back up the drainage. Six Shooter Canyon Trail is a favorite; hikers appreciate the canyon funneling cooler air from the mountaintop – and during late October the vivid red leaves of maples can be seen in the creek within 10 minutes walk uphill of the Iron Bridge (a surprisingly low elevation to find maples). Globe professional photographer Kenneth Chan shared aerial footage he filmed by drone https://www.facebook.com/kennethphotography/videos/1736422663043806
Looking for adventure opportunities in Gila County? Visit www.discovergilacounty.com