Despite what it seems like by the time September rolls around, summer is not endless. It is winding down. So it’s time to start planning your quest to see some fall colors.
Grand Canyon North Rim Drive: Highway 89 from Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Lodge
Driving Distance: 208 miles from Flagstaff
Turn-by-Turn Directions: Head north from Flagstaff on US-89 to Bitter Springs. Here, turn left onto US-89A. Follow this north to SR-67. Turn left and drive south on SR-67 to the lodge.
There’s nothing like tracing the Grand Canyon’s edge with the Colorado River raging below. If that isn’t enough to inspire a drive on Highway 89, I’ll also tempt you with Marble Canyon, Vermilion Cliffs, and the aspen golds of the North Rim.
Plan this trip for early fall, since the Grand Canyon’s North Rim closes for the season on October 15. Launching from Flagstaff, you emerge from the pine forest to a desolate expanse of land with sightlines for miles. The road moves over rounded slopes while reddish sandstone cliffs tower on either side. At Bitter Springs, veer left on Highway 89A to Marble Canyon which offers a good stopping point for breathtaking photo-ops and sustenance. First up, pics: Stand on the Navajo Bridge, a historic span over the Colorado River. Then, food: Marble Canyon Lodge serves hearty lunch and dinner with outdoor seating to boot.
Marble Canyon marks the beginning of the Grand Canyon and nearby is a campground and popular put-in for river runners and Horseshoe Bend paddlers. Push on southwest, nestling close to the bewildering spectrum of reds, yellows, and oranges of Vermilion Cliffs rising from Paria Plateau.
You’ll spot junipers and pines the closer you inch to Kaibab National Forest but once you reach the North Rim the scenery explodes in leafy canopies of firs, spruces, tall pines, and aspens.
Southern Arizona Drive: Highway 83 from Tucson to Bisbee by way of Sonoita and Sierra Vista
Driving Distance: 109 miles from the starting point in Tucson
Turn-by-Turn Directions: Follow I-10 east to SR-83. Drive south on SR-83 to SR-82. Take this east to SR-90. Head south on SR-90 to Sierra Vista and continue southeast on SR-90 to SR-80. Follow this east to Bisbee.
The southern half of the state can’t compete with Flagstaff’s autumnal glow. And yet… This south-of-Tucson trip is fraught with scenic vistas.
From Tucson, you’re on I-10 for only a short stretch before you get to ease off the accelerator and enjoy the leisure of Highway 83. The road weaves through the Santa Rita Foothills where desert flora fades into one of the finest grassland valleys of the Southwest—45,000 acres to be exact. Las Cienegas National Conservation Area preserves this landscape of cottonwood trees, spiny mesquite, and the rare marshes of a perennial creek. Stop and stretch your legs before the quick drive to Sonoita.
Sonoita and nearby Elgin boast the largest concentration of wineries and vineyards in Arizona and the Santa Rita, Whetstone, and Huachuca mountain ranges that envelop grasslands and vine-covered hills. Take Highway 82 east to explore the tasting rooms; this will also link to SR-90, your route to Sierra Vista.
The Huachuca Mountains punctuate the expansive views in Sierra Vista. Pine trees crowd the peaks and thick-leafed oaks in crimson and orange blanket the lower elevations. And all around, the sycamore and maple trees of Ramsey Canyon and the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area bloom in full fall color.
Finally, arrive in Bisbee in style. By style, I mean Mule Pass Tunnel, a dramatic entrance through the Mule Mountains that leads travelers into the stair-clinging slopes of Bisbee.
Apache Trail Bypass: Highways 60 and 188 from Apache Junction to Roosevelt Lake
Driving Distance: 80 miles from Apache Junction
Turn-by-Turn Directions: From Apache Junction, drive east on US-60 to SR-188. Turn left and follow SR-188 north to Roosevelt Lake.
As scenic drives go, the 40-mile Apache Trail (Highway 88) winds through the Southwest’s most stunning scenery. It’s a rugged ribbon of hairpin turns and stark drop-offs that meanders past three lakes and carves through canyons and over the Superstition Mountains before concluding at Roosevelt Dam.
Highway 88 runs northeast from Apache Junction passing through Tortilla Flat along the way to Roosevelt Lake. While you can still access the road to Tortilla Flat, the portion north of the town is temporarily closed.
Travel Advisory: In 2019, the Woodbury Fire burned several areas on the Apache Trail, and a 7-mile section of the road from Fish Creek Hill Overlook (milepost 222) to Apache Lake Marina (Milepost 229) remains closed.
For a still-scenic alternative, leave Apache Junction via Highway 60. The Superstition Mountains with their jagged peaks are to the north. The “Supes” backcountry area delineates the transition from the Southern Sonora Desert to the Central Mountains. Take in the sight of thousands of saguaros set against colorful rock layers as you approach Miami.
Here, you have two options: Continue on Highway 188 or hang in town to peruse the shops on Main Street, grab a bite to eat (crispy fried chicken at Dick’s), or visit the impressive Bullion Plaza Cultural Center & Museum.
Then it’s north on 188. Unlike the original alignment of the Apache Trail, here the bends are gentle and the curves wide. No white-knuckling the steering wheel. Roosevelt Lake’s serene blue sparkle comes into view.
Old Pueblo Back Way: Highway 177 from Phoenix to Tucson through Winkelman and Oracle
Driving Distance: 163 miles from Downtown Phoenix
Turn-by-Turn Directions: Drive east on US-60 out of Phoenix. Turn right and head south on SR-177. In Winkelman, pick up SR-77 and follow it south to Tucson.
Travel east on US-60 to Superior and Globe. Visit Besh-Ba-Gowah Museum, search out a rare find at the Pickle Barrel Trading Post, or munch on quiche at the Copper Hen. Follow SR-77 past the Pinal Mountain-shrouded ghost town of Christmas. You’ll want to spend time in Winkelman delighting in the fall glory of Aravaipa Canyon.
Continue south to see the Galiuro Mountains rise from the golden grasslands. Thickets of oak, Ponderosa pines, maple trees, and Douglas fir cover the slopes, the tallest of which tops at 7,671 feet. Stop for a quick visit to the mining camps of Mammoth and Copper Creek.
Next up: Oracle, where the hardwood forests of the Santa Catalina Mountains meet the desert. Oracle is your destination; good news because after sundown you’re rewarded with the celestial sights of the city’s International Dark Sky.
In the morning, venture up to Oracle State Park, then south again on Highway 77 past Oracle Junction to Catalina State Park on the northwestern edge of Tucson.
Palm Springs & Mad Max Cities: I-10 to Palm Springs and home through Joshua Tree National Park
Driving Distance: 653 miles round trip from Downtown Phoenix
Turn-by-Turn Directions: From the I-10, go south on CA-78 to CA-115. Turn right. Drive north on CA-115 to Wiest Road. Turn right and head north on Wiest. At Noffsinger Road, turn right, then make a quick left on Highland Canal Road. When you reach Beal Road, turn right and follow it to Salvation Mountain.
“Let’s plan a fall colors drives on Interstate 10!” Said nobody, ever! But hear me out. This trip features all the hallmarks of an autumn getaway: quieting the noise, slowing the pace, and discovering new places.
Heading west on I-10, saguaro sightings become fewer and sand gathers in windswept piles. After crossing the Colorado River (you’re in California now), drive south on Highway 78. But first, fuel up in Ehrenburg, Arizona, and avoid the high cost of gas in the Golden State. This is the route to the Salton Sea through the hottest, driest corner of the Sonoran Desert.
The Salton Sea sounds like a magical place ruled by a Greek god. In reality, it’s more mythological than magical. Accidentally created thanks to an irrigation “oops” in the 1900s, the Salton Sea once reigned as a 1950s retreat. Today, over-salinity has nearly dried it up. What’s left: brackish, murky water, a shore lined with decomposing bird and fish bones, and an abandoned beach town or two. Well, almost abandoned.
Bohemians and wanderers have made their way here to set up desert communes of makeshift homes and life-size art. One striking example is Salvation Mountain, an art installation of discarded tires, old windows, rusted auto parts, and bright paint spelling out spiritual messages. The work is so strangely beautiful that it boasts a stamp of approval from the Folk Art Society of America and has been covered in National Geographic.
From Salvation Mountain, drive north on Highway 111 to join I-10 to the Coachella Valley cities of Indio, Palm Desert, and Palm Springs. Immerse yourself in the fall foliage of the San Jacinto Mountains which loom over the valley at nearly 9,000 feet. The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway ferries you from the foothills to the peaks and hiking trails letting you wander among the vibrant leafy color.
For the trip home, opt for the roundabout drive through Joshua Tree National Park. Start at the West Entrance, then follow a paved, two-lane road scattered with scenic pullouts and dotted not with maples and oaks, but with yucca, ocotillo, “jumping” cholla cactus, and its namesake Joshua trees.
Alone in the open desert, I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy. The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before.
I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, and sand blowing in the wind, the slow, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night. I have seemed to be at one with the world.