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Tue, Feb. 18

Johnson: The contrasting colors of autumn
Hiking Arizona

Looking through my directory of hikes across the Southwest (Hoof’n It), I find several hikes in Arizona noteworthy for their display of fall colors. I addressed this topic in a previous column (September 21st, 2017), focusing on the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff and the White Mountains of eastern Arizona. Yet, there is so much more to this story, especially beyond Arizona where fall colors go to a whole new level.

The single most important element in the colorful landscape of fall in the Southwest is aspens. Therefore, Aspen, CO is the “not to be missed” place for hiking in the fall. Specifically, Mt. Elbert, the State’s high point can be approached from a variety of directions. Each has its advantages and disadvantages but all will display the splendor of fall with groves of aspens everywhere and all around.

My first trip there, I marveled at the red rocks, snow-capped peaks and the expansive swaths of aspens, pure gold, in stark contrast with emerald green of the conifers with which they grew. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

What is it that is so delightful about hiking in the fall? Splashes of glorious color. Chilly mornings. Cozy fires in the fireplace. It boils down to contrast and the contrast in color across the landscape from broad-leaved trees as well as flowers or fungi is a most thrilling aspect of this season.

Yet, grand displays of fall color are not the norm in Arizona. In spring, we don’t often find sweeping landscapes filled with wildflowers. More often than not, we find pockets and limited displays of color, spring or fall.

If traveling to Colorado is not on your agenda this fall, all is not lost. You may just need to modify your expectations when looking for a display of fall colors. Since trees catch our eyes first, were can we hike with broad leaved trees in view?


That’s where the water is, so that’s where the trees are. From Grapevine Canyon west of Mayer to Aravaipa Canyon south of Superior, riparian zones host stands of cottonwood and willow trees which vary in extent and unfold later in the season than higher elevation stands of aspens. Other species, such as ash, walnut, box elder, maple, oaks, sumac, etc. may suddenly appear around the next bend in the trail or canyon, depending on the elevation. They may be unnoticed in the summer but now, they seem to shout out, “Behold! Look at me.”


This is the season for fungi as well as some wildflowers and hiking trails such as the Cabin Loop Trail, which includes a portion of the Arizona Trail near Blue Ridge Reservoir, displays quite a variety. I never studied fungi, formally but I marvel at their form and color.

Wildflowers - Baboquivari Wilderness, southwest of Tucson

This unusual mountain range is home to Kitt Peak and is recognized as a wildlife corridor from the tropics. Plants too, extend their range into Arizona along this mountain chain, so here you will find some unusual characters, such as Passion Flower, Rouge Plant, Hummingbird Trumpet and Desert Honeysuckle. With eyes open and permit in hand, you’ve got what it takes to enjoy a hike on the wild and beautiful side this fall.

What? No permit for Baboquivari Peak or Aravaipa Canyon? Let’s come back to the topic of hiking permits next time.

Ted Johnson is a columnist for The Daily Courier. Reach him by email at

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