Take a quick jaunt, or a long and winding one, for a palette of blazing hues.
By Kathleen Clove
The hills are alive … with the sound of crunching. Yes, it’s that time of year again. When leaves turn from humdrum green — so last season — to golden yellow, burnt orange and rusty red. The time when you have a hankerin’ to pull on your wool socks and hiking boots, head to the hills and just be. When your days are numbered, there’s no time to waste on piddly displays. Hold onto your Hydro Flask, kids, we’ll take you to the best fall hikes in northern Utah.
Short n’ Sweet
Can’t wait for cooler weather? Visit Green Pond, near Snowbasin Ski Resort, for some shady fall color. The well-maintained trail is surrounded by trees, where you can fully immerse yourself in a world of orange and yellow. The leaves begin changing in early September and are often gone by mid-October. Along the way, about three-quarters of a mile, follow the picnic area path to find the pond. While you’re there, watch for a beaver and possibly a moose. Carry on and you’ll come to a bench (whew!) with a viewpoint that meets up with a network of trails. This hike is 2.6 miles out and back, but you can continue on — or turn back sooner. Take a breather to look out over Eden (the town, not the biblical version). Admittedly, the first incline of this hike is a bit steep (as are all roads to heaven, amirite?). But don’t let that discourage you.
There’s no doubt, Big Cottonwood Canyon is one of the best places to see fall colors in Utah. In fact, (minivan) loads of locals hit the mountains come fall, and trails can get a little crowded. Not so with the Willow Heights hike. The loop trailhead is hard to spot from the road, so it’s kinda secret. That means you can pretend to be a forest fairy with no social repercussions. It’s overgrown in parts — be warned if you don’t like to actually touch nature. At the fork, you can take a boardwalk or dirt path. If you head right, you’ll walk through a grove of aspens — a gauntlet of shimmering yellow — then across a meadow. At this fork, go either east or west (it’s another loop) to walk around a small lake. The entire trail is a fairly easy 2.5 miles round trip. There is some serious climbing for the first 0.4 miles, so take a few breaks to admire the adjacent mountainside. Visit in early to mid-October for your best chance of mild weather and vibrant colors. No dogs allowed in the canyon.
Alpenbock Loop │ Sandy
Little Cottonwood Canyon is also filled with noteworthy trails, but a lesser known one is the Alpenbock Loop. This trail is the start to several climbing routes, but it’s a prize all on its own. It’s an easy to moderate 1.7-mile loop near the mouth of the canyon, although it takes about an hour to fully enjoy. There are plenty of swaggering trees — practically on fire when the sun hits them — perched alongside the stately granite peaks. This one’s for humans and native wildlife only: No dogs allowed.
Moderate, Not Mediocre
Clayton Peak │Brighton
For spectacular vistas, you can’t get much better than the Guardsman Pass to Clayton Peak trail. It begins at a lofty 9,700 feet and climbs another 1,000 as you walk along a ridgeline. It’s 2.5 miles round trip, but plan on spending a couple of hours or more. At that elevation, it may leave you breathless in more ways than one. It’s an unmaintained trail and gets quite rocky in some places. Still, it’s not technically difficult. Definitely worth it for the unparalleled panoramic views, from Park City to the north and Heber Valley to the south. Go early in the fall, while the leaves are still around. You can also take a loop down to the lakes in the basin. This hike is just one small part of the Great Western Trail, which extends from Arizona to Montana.
Skull Crack │ Huntsville
Despite the intimidating name, Skull Crack is a moderate hike the whole family can tackle. It starts out a bit challenging, but quickly mellows out. The out-and-back trail follows along the south shore of the Causey Reservoir. While it’s open year-round, fall may be the most charming, with a forest of oaks interspersed with evergreen trees. While a bit longer at 4.7 miles, there’s plenty to keep the kids interested. Keep an eye out for moose, wild turkeys and rabbits along the way. In early to mid-September, you’ll see spawning salmon at the right-hand fork. But for the most color, go in October. This is a popular trail — start early to avoid crowds.
Wind Caves │ Logan
Logan Canyon knows how to pack a punch when it comes to fall color. You could call it the punch bowl. Yep, it’s pretty sweet. Travel about 5 miles up the canyon to Wind Caves Trail for 4 miles (out and back) of purebred color saturation. Not awesome enough? We’ll throw in some bats. And a view of China Wall (Logan’s own Great Wall of China). And Crimson Trail, just for fun. There may even be a few wildflowers left in late September. Though the trail isn’t long, you will climb about 1,000 feet in elevation — stop and take your time. And some pictures. Lots of pictures. Wear a hat and sunscreen as shade is minimal.
Long and Winding
Lake Blanche │Mounthaven
This is an arduous one, but the Lake Blanche trail is absolutely beautiful in the fall. Incredibly vibrant aspens and oaks put on a show through October. Start early and plan on spending much of your day — it’s 6.8 miles out and back and takes about 5 hours. There are no real flat portions, so when you need a break, just tell your hiking buddy you’re looking at the abundant wildlife. While challenging, the payoff is just as rewarding. At the top, there’s a lake surrounded by colorful rock — perfect for taking a lunch break. Walk to the west side of the lake to see two smaller lakes just below. On your way back down, you get a birds-eye view of the Salt Lake Valley. No dogs permitted on this trail, as it’s within a protected watershed.
City Creek Canyon │ Salt Lake City
One of the best fall hikes near Salt Lake City is actually within city limits. The City Creek Canyon Trail is a moderate out and back, but at 6.5 miles, it’s a pretty good workout. Don’t have that long? Cut it short. We won’t tell. The trail includes paved and dirt portions that follow a gurgling creek lined with oak trees. You’ll even get a glimpse of the Capitol building. Plan on 2-3 hours, depending on how many photo ops you stop for. This trail is popular through October. Watch out for mountain bikers on the first half mile, but after that it’s all yours. For wheelchair or stroller access, use the City Creek Canyon Road that runs adjacent to the trail.
North Skyline Trail │Ogden
Miles and miles and miles. When you reach the top of the North Skyline Trail, you’ll see vistas of fall color for.ev.er. Although it’s not particularly steep, per se, you’ll gain 3,500 feet in elevation as you traverse some 20.8 miles out and back to Ben Lomond Peak. You’ll cover switchbacks, then walk along the ridgeline for a splashy display across the Ogden Valley. There are no water sources, so pack plenty of your own — and a few sandwiches — because this will take 8 to 10 hours.
For Your Mom (or Toddlers)
Temple Quarry Trail │Sandy
Got 10 minutes? Couch potatoes, this one’s for you. The Temple Quarry Trail is the gentlest of hikes, a mere .3 miles. It’s a stroll, really, through gorgeous cottonwood and oak trees along a creek. You’ll also approach the site where pioneers mined quartz monzonite to build the Salt Lake Temple and Assembly Hall. (There are still piles of boulders with chisel marks.) Beautiful from mid-September through October. You can even do this after the first snowfall, when the trees look sugar dusted. The paved trail is wheelchair and stroller friendly. No dogs allowed.
Cascade Springs │Heber Valley
Get a seasonal espresso shot at Cascade Springs — loads of color in a tiny package. The hike includes three loops, but the whole thing is less than a mile. Plan for half an hour, because you’re gonna want some pics. The paved trail and boardwalks meander alongside the springs that are replete with lush vegetation. There are even informational displays, in case you were too old to go back to school this fall (and wanted to, for some reason). Visit from mid-September through October for the best show. There is a day-use fee charged by the National Forest Service.
Grotto Falls │Payson
Grotto Falls is another quickie, just 0.5 miles out and back. The mostly level trail goes along the Mount Nebo Scenic Byway, one of the great places to see fall leaves in Utah. Plentiful oaks and underbrush cover all the seasonal colors. The well-marked trail follows a stream — crossing it occasionally — ending at a waterfall. Use the makeshift bridges to keep your feet dry. If it’s still warm enough, you can wade in the pond at the bottom of the waterfall. Or go a little later in the year to see the whole thing frozen over.
Want a serious challenge to go with your fall fun? Try Mount Olympus. In just 3.4 miles you’ll climb 4,152 feet. That’s one of the steepest hikes around these parts, so you’ll probably be about as famous as Edmund Hillary. Sort of. At the top, you’ll have a 360-degree view of some of Utah’s prettiest terrain, all laid out in its golden — and orange … and red — splendor. It’s 6.8 miles round trip, by the way, in case you’re not a math superstar, too.
How many hikes does it take to appreciate a Utah fall? Find out by using our handy guide of great places to see fall leaves in Utah. Match up your time and elevation inclination — no excuses for not making it up into the hills this year.