The lure of fall foliage is no secret. Bursts of saturated yellow and fiery red demand your eye and call you to the open road. With forecasting apps and digital foliage maps, terms like peaking and peeping are common language among RVers with a craving for visual fall flavor.
But when it comes to Utah’s fall foliage, travelers pursue the leaf peeping road-less-traveled. Often overlooked for New England or the Smoky Mountains, Utah’s wide array of forests and state and national parks—each located at different elevations and receiving varying amounts of rainfall—make for a diverse foliage spectacle.
Utah’s geography creates a multitude of peak viewing times throughout the state, so you can come early or late in the season and still spot breathtaking colors courtesy of the canyon maples, quaking aspens, scrub oaks, Douglas hawthorns, serviceberries, and more.
A good gauge is to assume that the colors begin in the highest elevations in mid-September and wrap in mid-October across most of the state. The season beckons for weekend drives on Utah’s scenic byways and taking in views as you make your way to the trailhead. Find something pumpkin flavored, fill your apple cider canteen, button up your flannels, and hit the open road for some awe inspiring leaf peeping.
Pair with the World’s Heaviest Organism: Fish Lake Scenic Byway (SR-25) and Beaver Canyon Scenic Byway (SR-153)
These two scenic byways bookend Fishlake National Forest, an often-missed oasis that features three mountain ranges broken up by desert canyons.
Approaching from the east on Fish Lake Scenic Byway, you’ll pass the forest’s prize jewel, Fish Lake, which is known for its recreational bliss and yellow-blazen aspen forests. Seize the opportunity for a scenic drive in Utah to see the leaves change on an aspen clone known as Pando, which is believed to be the heaviest organism ever found at nearly 13 million pounds. Pando is located about 1 mile southwest of Fish Lake on State Route 25. If you want to pair your drive with mountain biking, hiking, camping, or fishing for eager-to-bite mackinaw and rainbow trout, make sure to add this spot your autumn itineraries bucket list.
On the western side of the forest, the Beaver Canyon Scenic Byway climbs from the town of Beaver to a high point at Eagle Point Ski Resort. If you’re feeling adventurous and your clearance allows, continue the route on the unpaved Kimberly/Big John Scenic Backway over volcanic remnants that are now the 12,000-foot Tushar Mountains and down into the Sevier River Valley corridor.
Pair with a Miraculously Resilient Landscape: Utah’s Patchwork Parkway National Scenic Byway (SR-143), Markagunt High Plateau Scenic Byway (SR-14), and Cedar Breaks Scenic Byway (SR-148)
This high-elevation and densely forested area of Southern Utah offers a particularly unique leaf peeping experience this fall. During June and July, a fire consumed 70,000 acres near the area of Brian Head, though the town and resort were fortunately saved. In many ways, the patches of charred backdrop make the contrast of the multitude of spared trees even more dramatic.
Yes, you will see fire damage along Utah’s Patchwork Parkway National Scenic Byway, but you will also see maples and aspens, golden and fiery red along your journey up to a 10,000-foot plateau. Remarkably, this area connects three scenic byways and features the outstanding Cedar Breaks National Monument—the topmost rise of the geological Grand Staircase.
Known as Southern Utah’s Fall Color Loop, begin your loop in Parowan at the start of Utah’s Patchwork Parkway National Scenic Byway (S.R. 143), weaving through a patchwork of historic towns, geological formations, wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities. The pink cliffs of the Paunsaugunt Plateau glitter in the distance as an ancient lava field sprinkled with aspen trees line the road.
Continue as long as you like, but at some point turn (or make your way back to) the junction of S.R. 143 and S.R. 148, which becomes the Cedar Breaks Scenic Byway as you head south. Along this journey you will encounter the large, natural amphitheater of Cedar Breaks, which creates a supreme backdrop for fall leaves. To finish the loop, turn west back towards Cedar City at the junction of S.R. 14. You’re now on your third scenic byway: the Markagunt High Plateau Scenic Byway.
Autumn . . . the year’s last loveliest smile.
—William Cullen Bryant