Wandering the West
Every year we look up and see that first patch of aspen over by Thaynes Canyon turn yellow and know the whole Wasatch will soon light up. We’re at that point. Aspen and cottonwood are just starting to go gold, and the oak and mountain mahogany are already well on their way to turning deep red. We don’t get as many colors as, say, New England or the Upper Midwest, where hardwood forests generate a wider palette, but red and gold mixed with green fir look pretty good to me.
We took a quick drive up Snake Creek Canyon above Midway to check fall color last weekend, and it’s still a bit early for that fall-color excursion. But you’ll want to get out in the next one to three weeks to catch one of the great times of year to be in the mountains.
There are several great loop roads for either bikes or cars that will get you in the seasonal mood. Close to home, a quick trip over Guardsman’s Pass to Brighton will give you a taste. At Brighton, take the loop walk around Silver Lake, or the more ambitious trail up to Twin Lakes Reservoir for a great lake view below Wolverine Cirque. Stop by Solitude Resort or cozy old Silver Fork Lodge for a bite afterwards and you’ve had a quick colorful getaway that will only burn a couple of precious gallons.
If you’re heading to Salt Lake City for errands, mix up your route by taking East Canyon Road to the top of Emigration Canyon and then down, dropping you by the University. It’s mostly oak along the way so the reds will be intense.
The classic fall-color routes in our part of the world are Mirror Lake Highway and the Alpine Scenic Loop. The Mirror Lake road starts in Kamas and runs to Evanston, Wyoming, topping out at Bald Mountain Pass at 10,687 feet before dropping into the best of the Uintas around Mirror Lake and Mount Hayden. You can either turn around and double back at Bear River Service the only pit stop for food or continue on to Evanston for real beer and a faster route home down I-80.
The other old standby, the Alpine Scenic Loop, never disappoints, although it is so popular now that weekends can be just too traffic intense to be that much fun. Starting from Sundance, the route winds on paved roads through 20 miles of aspen glades down American Fork Canyon. Grab food at Sundance and picnic along the way, and take the short detour to Cascade Springs to see trout in the pools of perfect, pure mountain spring water.
Farther south, but not that far, is another gem of a loop drive, around Mount Nebo, the highest (at 11,928 feet) peak in the whole Wasatch Range. The Nebo Loop runs 35 miles from Payson in southern Utah County to Nephi. Stop for a picnic at the Devil’s Kitchen and you might think you were in Bryce Canyon with all the eroded red sandstone formations.
In central Utah, try to Skyline Drive, or the road out to Fish Lake above Richfield.
If you’re farther south, there are a number of great options. It’s not all just red rock down there. The La Sal Mountains rising above Moab and the Abajo Mountains rising above Monticello are gems, rising from the slickrock plateaus along the Colorado River. The La Sal loop starts with a drive along the Colorado River outside Moab, heads out through Castle Valley and climbs into the cool aspen forests of the La Sal Mountains before dropping back down to Moab south of town.
The views from the Abajo, or Blue, Mountains near Monticello, are like no other. Few visitors see the Abajos because, when they’re that close to the Four Corners of the Southwest, there are just too many other things to see. But an extra day to loop around the Abajos with Monticello as your base is worth the investment of time. Like the La Sals, the Abajos are a high oasis of aspen rising from the red rock desert below.
Probably my favorite fall drive, just for the sake of driving and taking in the colors, is over Boulder Mountain. Start from Torrey near Capitol Reef National Park and head south to Boulder. In between is another of those mountain ranges rising from the desert, this one full of ponds and small lakes and thick 500-year-old Ponderosa pines. Take in the smell of the forest here and you’d think you were on Pa Cartwright’s Ponderosa spread over by Lake Tahoe. In Boulder dine at Hell’s Backbone Grill and take in Anasazi State Park, with its museum and preserved Indian village.
Wait too long and a cold snap and high wind will strip the leaves in a day. The next few weeks are the time to loop around the red and gold forests of Utah.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Insider tip: If you’re looking for good northern Utah road trips, try Logan Canyon from Logan to Bear Lake, or the Monte Cristo road from Huntsville to Woodruff.
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