Autumn returns in red, orange and yellow

Fall colors come to life over Cascade Springs and in the background, Mt. Cascade looms. The oranges and reds will soon be joined by the bright yellows of aspens.
David Jackson/Park Record

This year, the autumnal equinox falls on Saturday, Sept. 23, ringing in the arrival of the next season. But, here in our higher-elevation mountain towns, the trees have already announced fall’s arrival as pops of red and orange decorate the hillsides. 

To the trained eye, this seasonal arrival is actually later than usual. “The colors are coming in a little behind, slightly slower than average, and there’s still a lot of green,” says Johnny Adolphson, a Heber City-based scenic photographer whose images have been available at the Park Silly Sunday Markets.

A wetter-than-usual winter and summer has caused delays in leaf turning, but that same water might deliver a brighter-than-usual autumn. “The trees got a nice big drink this year, so that could potentially make for more vibrant colors,” says Adolphson. “I’m hoping all these healthy trees will make for good foliage over the next couple weeks. But it’s all up to Mother Nature as far as how cold it gets.”

While capturing fall colors tend to be a crap shoot, there are trends that locals and photographers notice.

“Usually the mid-elevation maples, oaks, that stuff tends to turn first, kind of the reds and oranges. And then, as those begin to past peak, the yellows and the aspens tend to turn on,” says Adolphson. However, there have been some rare years when everything peaks at once, he says, remembering the fall of 2019.

The variety of colors accessible in the Wasatch Back is what makes these autumns so spectacular, says Adolphson. 

“One of the things that really sets the Wasatch and Park City areas apart from, let’s say for example, the Colorado Rockies, is the fact that we do have this amazing combination of reds and yellows … a spectrum of colors that you won’t get anywhere else in the Rocky Mountains,” he says.

While fall is a major shoulder season for the Park City area, with the two primary activities being mountain biking and fly fishing, autumn’s arrival can be an ideal time for some visitors.

“There is something special about riding through the colors or being in your waders in the middle of a river while the colors are turning. It’s a special time and there are visitors who do circle this as an ideal time … just to commune with nature while it’s bursting with color,” says Dan Howard, Vice President of Communications at the Park City Chamber/Bureau.

However, the change into autumn doesn’t serve as a major tourist draw because “the colors go too fast here,” says Howard.

This time of year is quiet and slow, but that can be part of the appeal, especially for locals. Unlike New England, “it’s a secret place for fall foliage,” says Howard.

For residents and visitors wanting to get out under the changing leaves, Adolphson says there’s no need to wait. 

“People wait for a certain date that they think is the peak, but from now on through whenever the cold snap hits, there’s going to be some peak color going on at some elevation in some type of foliage,” he says. 

When it comes to photographing autumn, Tom Kelly, local ski legend, photographer and writer of our Sunday Drive column, says, “Always think about the light. … Think about which direction it will be coming from and how it illuminates the leaves.” 

Golden hour, near sunrise and sunset, is always a safe bet because the light is softer on the leaves. 

“Get out there early. A sunrise drive during fall color period takes the crowds out of the picture and gives you a spectacular time of day to shoot,” Kelly says.

Adolphson also recommends grabbing the camera on gloomy days. “Some of my favorite days to get out are stromy, gray, cloudy, rainy days. Wet weather saturates the leaves and makes them even brighter. And the autumn leaves tend to stand out against the clouds. … The storms keep the good light coming,” he says.

Unlike eastern regions, the season in Utah burns bright and fast, with peak color lasting typically for five to seven days, says Adolphson. 

“Get out and enjoy it when it hits, because it’s always a fleeting season but it’s pretty amazing to witness,” he says.

Let the Autumn Vibrancy Begin
A jeep trail above Cascade Springs Road in Wasatch County weaves between bright red trees. Mt. Timpanogos and Cascade Mountain loom in the distance.
David Jackson/Park Record

Here are some nearby roads and trails to snap pics of fall colors before they’re gone, best seen now through the first week of October:

Empire Pass to Midway

From Empire Pass, hang a left onto S.R. 222 (Pine Canyon Road) before the climb up to Guardsman. This will take you down to Midway. 

What to see: best for red scrub oaks and other hardwoods, also yellow aspens

Guardsman Pass to Big Cottonwood

The drive up the Guardsman Road offers great color on the backside of Clayton Peak and down through the lakes. “The real spectacle is dropping over into Big Cottonwood Canyon with brilliant yellow aspens just over Guardsman and all along the mountains around Brighton and Solitude,” says Kelly.

What to see: best for yellow aspens 

Alpine Loop and American Fork Canyon

The scenic drive from Cascade Springs southwest of Midway over to American Fork Canyon is packed color. With a 4WD, look for some of the side roads going west up into the mountains. Continue to drive west to the mouth, then double back to Sundance. “The entire route is jam packed with yellows and reds. Finish up with a drink at the Owl Bar at Sundance,” says Kelly.

What to see: yellows and reds, views of Mt. Timpanogos

White Pine Canyon

The first section of White Pine Canyon off S.R. 224 offers some idyllic farmland color scenes. “Add the McPolin Farm into that and you have a real close-to-home opportunity,” says Kelly.

The Aerie 

From the Aerie neighborhood, look over Old Town and the ski runs for spectacular views of autumn colors.

Utah Olympic Park

The hillsides surrounding the Utah Olympic Park and nearby trails showcase the full spectrum of fall colors.

The Montage

The drive up S.R. 224 (Marsac Road) is especially gorgeous around the Montage.

Mid Mountain Trail

Running 23 miles from Deer Valley to Park City to Canyons, the Mid Mountain Trail crosses through some of the best color country in the area.

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