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Tue, Feb. 18

See northern Arizona's fall colors
Hurry, the display won't last long

Arizona doesn't get the traditional fall colors of the eastern United States. Still, if you know where to look, you can see some amazing fall sights. (Courtesy of Ted Johnson)

Arizona doesn't get the traditional fall colors of the eastern United States. Still, if you know where to look, you can see some amazing fall sights. (Courtesy of Ted Johnson)

My friend said he was going to Payson for the weekend to see the fall colors. I suggested he wear a yellow shirt, otherwise he wouldn't see much.

The latest issue of the magazine "Outdoor Photographer" has a special feature on fall colors across the United States but Arizona is not included. Obviously, there is a lack of information about viewing fall colors in the Grand Canyon state. However, this past weekend, the Coconino National Forest was regulating traffic into the Inner Basin north of Flagstaff as people were creating a traffic jam trying to see the glorious display. Therefore, it would be worthwhile to present some tips on where to go and what to look for this fall as our display of fall colors will be brief and somewhat different from that seen in other parts of the country.

The elevation range in Arizona is quite broad, from 12,633 on Humphrey's Peak to around 75 feet south of Yuma. Fall colors will begin high and move to lower elevations as the season progresses. The elevation gradient mimics the latitude gradient from north to south, however, within the state, the elevation gradient is the most important. Now is the time to head to the high country, as many folks were doing recently.

The forests in Arizona are primarily conifers, pines and such, which do not change color in the fall. This is why there isn't much to look at around Payson, Prescott, the Mogollon Rim, etc. Therefore, broadleaf trees and shrubs such as aspens, maples, roses, and sumac are on display at the higher elevations now.

The aspens are the most widely distributed, so they put on the most glorious display. Other plants are spotty, so they may be very beautiful, but you won't see very many together. Since fires have been so tightly controlled over the past 100 years, there are fewer aspens on display, since the conifers gradually shade them out of existence. Aspens need fire to clear the competition for light.

Fortunately, canyons across Arizona provide habitat for a wide variety of trees that are beautiful in the fall. Moving downhill, you should look for walnut, box elder, alder, ash, cottonwood and willow as well as shrubs such as poison ivy and vines like Virginia creeper and canyon grape. Like a snake slithering downhill, so the riparian trees change color in serpentine fashion as the season progresses. Our wide elevation gradient and numerous canyons extend the opportunity to enjoy the fall color display in Arizona.

The best show, aspens on the San Francisco Peaks will not last long. The secondary show, canyon trees throughout the state will continue to delight your eyes for some weeks. This show is not as breathtaking overall, but some of the bigger trees, especially cottonwoods, will take your breath away.

Ted Johnson is the assistant director of the Prescott Valley Public Library.

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