Utah leaf-peeping: Fall colors could be especially spectacular this year

Colors will peak in northern Utah soon, and later in southern Utah.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fall colors pop along the Cascade Springs Scenic Backway, on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.

Peak fall color season in Utah is almost here, and it could be a better-than-usual season for “leaf-peepers.”

That’s because one of the greatest impacts to how vibrant fall colors will be is “good moisture,” and this year, the state saw a significant snowpack, followed by “good spring rains,” Katie Wagner, an associate professor of horticulture with Utah State University, said.

Although July was largely hot and dry, “we had some really good monsoonal rains that came through in August,” Wagner added.

The other key ingredients for bright swaths of red, orange and yellow leaves across the Wasatch Range are sunny days and cool, temperate nights — which most of Utah has been getting in recent weeks.

“If it’s cloudy and wet, it can dull the colors,” Wagner said.

Best time to see Utah fall colors

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fall foliage near Midway, on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.

Utah’s fall colors vary year to year, but generally, the best time to see them in northern Utah is from the end of September through early October. Peak time is typically considered Oct. 9.

In southern Utah, fall colors usually peak in late October or early November.

That matches current predictions from smokymountains.com, which tracks fall foliage for travelers across the country. It also matches general outlines from the National Weather Service’s Salt Lake City office.

“It’s always going to be a little bit later in southern Utah, which is nice,” Wagner said “So if people are interested in looking for color over multiple weekends, they may want to be hanging out in these northern Utah areas now, and then heading to southern Utah in a few weeks.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Deep orange and red fall colors on display near Midway, on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.

So-called “leaf-peepers” will also want to specifically head for higher elevations, because some of the state’s native alpine plants are our best fall-color producers, Wagner said.

That includes quaking aspen, which turn a bright, bold yellow that gorgeously contrasts with their white bark trunks. A great spot to see the sight in Utah is Pando, a quaking aspen clonal colony located in Fishlake National Forest, near the shores of Fish Lake. The stand is also considered the world’s most massive living organism.

Bigtooth maples — smaller deciduous trees or shrubs with rounded crowns — can turn anywhere from yellow to orange to red, Wagner said. And Gambel oaks, though a little less saturated, often turn a darker red or purple.

But it’s the clusters of color — groves where all different kinds of tree leaves have turned — that are the most spectacular. “It’s almost like a paint stroke through those areas,” Wagner said.

Best scenic Utah drives to see fall colors

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Changing fall leaves create a tapestry of brilliant fall colors in the Wasatch Mountains on Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021

Utahns can sometimes spot fall colors in residential areas, where ornamental trees in yards or park strips can experience autumnal color changes, too. But they are often not as vibrant, or dense.

According to Visit Utah, among the best scenic drives to see fall colors are:

Big Cottonwood Canyon Scenic Byway; Little Cottonwood Canyon Scenic Byway • Near Salt Lake City.

Ogden River Scenic Byway • East of Ogden

Logan Canyon National Scenic Byway • Through the Cache Valley.

Provo Canyon Scenic Byway • In Utah and Summit counties.

Alpine Loop • Through American Fork Canyon.

Energy Loop: Huntington and Eccles Canyons National Scenic Byway • In the Manti-La Sal National Forest, in southeastern Utah.

Fish Lake Scenic Byway; Beaver Canyon Scenic Byway • On either side of the Fish Lake National Forest in south central Utah.

Utah’s Patchwork Parkway National Scenic Byway; Markagunt High Plateau Scenic Byway; Cedar Breaks Scenic Byway • In southern Utah, on State Routes 143, 14 and 148, respectively.

Best scenic Utah hikes to see fall colors

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fall foliage near Midway, on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.

If you’d rather “leaf-peep” by foot, Visit Utah also compiled a list of scenic hikes, which includes:

Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon hikes • State Routes 190 and 210, respectively, near Salt Lake City.

Cascade Springs Trail • Alpine Loop Scenic Backway (State Route 92), near Provo and Heber.

Lakeshore National Recreation Trail • Fish Lake Scenic Byway (State Route 25), near Capitol Reef National Park.

Great Western Trail (Fish Creek Reservoir) • Scenic Byway 12, between Boulder, Utah, and Capitol Reef National Park.

Skyline Trail, and other North Ogden Divide hikes • North Ogden Divide Canyon Road, near Ogden.

Wind Cave Hike • Logan Canyon National Scenic Byway (U.S. Route 89), near Utah’s northern border.

Little Hole National Scenic Trail • Near Flaming Gorge–Uintas National Scenic Byway (U.S. Route 191), in eastern Utah.

Aspen Mirror Lake Hike • Markagunt High Plateau Scenic Byway (State Route 14), near Cedar City and Zion National Park.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fall foliage by Guardsman Pass near Midway, on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.