Heading out on a fabulous fall drive? Check out our guide to the best autumnal ambles in the area.
Bear Sign Trail No. 59
The remote upper reaches of Bear Sign Trail host surprisingly rich woodlands of deciduous trees that transform into a canopy of color in early autumn. To find these hidden thickets, hike on the juniper- and scrub-lined Dry Creek Trail to the Bear Sign junction, veer left and pick up the trail heading uphill. Much of the path parallels boulder-filled ravines lined with sycamore, willows and cottonwoods eking out a living where water collects among gigantic boulders. Throughout the hike, haphazard webs of canyon grape vines sprawl in viral abundance, forming veils of diffused sunlight.
An especially photo-worthy section of the route passes through a concentrated stand of Arizona cypress trees. The spindly trunks and shaggy bark of this tenacious species are marred by claw marks, scat and gnawed stumps – the “bear signs” for which the trail is named. The black bears that roam this area are shy creatures and will usually skulk off unnoticed when roused by approaching hikers.
To learn more about hiking in bear country, bebearawaresw.org.
LENGTH: 3.5 miles one way
ELEVATION: 4,800-5,450 feet
DISTANCE FROM PHOENIX: 135 miles
GETTING THERE: From the “Y” intersection of state routes 179 and 89A in Sedona, go left (toward Cottonwood) and continue 3.2 miles to Dry Creek Road. Turn right, go 2 miles to Vultee Arch Road (Forest Road 152), hang a right and continue 4.5 miles on unpaved road to the Dry Creek No. 52 trailhead, located past the Vultee Arch parking loop on the left. A high-clearance vehicle is required on FR 152.
FEE: $5 Red Rock Pass required per vehicle
INFO: Coconino National Forest, Red Rock District, 928-282-4119, www.fs.fed.us/r3/coconino/recreation/red_rock/bear-sign-tr.shtml
View Point Trail
Prescott National Forest
A traipse through an archway of golden Gambel oaks sets the stage for the hallmark mountain vistas and brilliant foliage of View Point Trail No. 106. Beyond this “grand entrance,” the slender path begins its gradual descent along the east face of Mingus Mountain, weaving through a mixed bag of terrain that includes exposed juniper-agave high desert and pine-oak forests fringed with Bigtooth maples. From the trail’s high vantage point, the towns of Jerome and Cottonwood appear like scribbles on a map far below, while the course of the Verde River paints a lazy swath of green on a brown landscape.
Just past the 1.3-mile mark, at the junction for trail 105A, the route takes a severe dip into the canyon. It’s here that the hike rating goes from moderate to difficult as the path clambers roughly 700 feet downhill on loose rocks to the turnaround point at Allen Springs Road. Casual hikers can opt to stay on the high road and make the junction their turnaround point instead.
LENGTH: 4 miles roundtrip
ELEVATION: 7,800-6,000 feet
DISTANCE FROM PHOENIX: 108 miles
GETTING THERE: From Jerome, go seven miles southwest on Highway 89A to Mingus Mountain Road (Forest Road 104). Turn left and continue on FR 104 for 2.4 miles to where it ends at a “T” intersection in the campground. Make an immediate left and park in the circular turnout near the “106” trail sign.
FEE: $2 per person daily fee. Bring exact change for the self-serve permit kiosk.
INFO: Prescott National Forest, 928-443-8001
This popular trail offers easy access to fall hiking in Rim country. Following a level, mostly-paved route situated just a few feet from the rim’s edge, this path is open to the sky and exposed to crisp, canyon breezes. Among the jumbled boulders that crowd the edge of the escarpment are clusters of low-growing oak trees that teeter precariously over the precipice, shedding a flurry of golden leaves into the canyon 1,000 feet below. In addition to unobstructed views and the colorful oaks, sun-drenched glens along the trail foster wildflowers that bloom profusely well into mid-October.
LENGTH: 3.5 miles one wa
RATING: easy with paved, accessible segments
ELEVATION: 7,500 feet
DISTANCE FROM PHOENIX: about 120 miles
PEAK FALL COLOR: early October
GETTING THERE: From Payson, go east (right) on Highway 260 for 30 miles to Rim Road (Forest Road 300, which is located across from the Rim Visitor Center). The trailhead is located along FR 300 between mileposts 39 and 40.
INFO: Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, Black Mesa District, 928-535-7300,
Superstition Mountains Fish Creek Canyon
Full of boulders and jaw-dropping beauty, Fish Creek Canyon harbors rare desert water in the middle of nowhere. The canyon’s perennial creek supports robust stands of white-bark sycamores, elegant, slim-leaf Goodding willows, cottonwood, velvet ash and Arizona walnut trees. The hearty plants are opportunistic parasites – earning their living by sinking their roots deeply into the earth to gorge like vampires upon the water that settles into the porous volcanic soils.
Beginning in late October, crisp autumn air creeps into the canyon, painting the vegetation in loose, random strokes of russet, ocher and sulfur-yellow. Mottled, spent leaves collect in the clear waters and stony crevasses that house this wild, desert stream. Although there’s no established trail into the canyon, reasonably fit hikers easily can scramble up the creek to the roughly 1.5-mile point where a major barrier of disheveled rock denies further access to all but the most determined adventurers.
LENGTH: 3 miles roundtrip
ELEVATION: 2,200–2,400 feet
DISTANCE FROM PHOENIX: 61 miles
GETTING THERE: From Phoenix, go east on Highway 60 to the Highway 88 exit (Idaho Road). Turn left at the off-ramp light and continue on Hwy. 88 for about 27 miles (past Canyon Lake and Tortilla Flat). Continue downhill on the steep, dirt, mountain road to the Fish Creek Bridge, which is located just past milepost 223.
FINDING THE ROUTE: The hike starts near the yellow turn sign on the west side of the bridge. From there, scope out the cave in the cliffs and head toward it following primitive footpaths. Once at the cave, scramble downhill to the creek. From there, hike upstream (go right) among the boulders, sand and shallow pools.
INFO: Call the Globe Ranger District, 928-402-6200, or visit www.fs.fed.us/r3/tonto
Woodchute Mountain Trail Woodchute Wilderness Area
Cooler temperatures and shorter days work together to paint the oak trees on Woodchute Mountain in a palette of orange and gold. The mountain is really more of a long ridge-line with Prescott Valley on one side and grand views of the red cliffs of Sedona and the peaks of Flagstaff on the other. Easy-to-follow, trail No. 102 ascends the mountain in a gently meandering style that swings from east to west, showcasing vistas of much of northern Arizona. The hike culminates with an easy stroll across a breezy high prairie that dead-ends at the steep east face of the mountain. Here, blood-red maples and honey-colored scrub oaks frame views of Jerome and the Verde Valley.
LENGTH: 7.4 miles roundtrip
ELEVATION: 7,000–7,700 feet
DISTANCE FROM PHOENIX: about 110 miles
GETTING THERE: From Prescott, take U.S. Highway 89-A north to the turnoff for Potato Patch Campground at Mingus Pass. Turn right (west) and continue .3 miles to the signed road for the Woodchute trailhead, FR-106, on the left. Follow this road to a parking loop with restrooms. Those without a high clearance vehicle should park here. To find the trailhead, head right (east) and hike or drive (high clearance needed) up Forest Road 106 (also signed as FR 102/106) for a half-mile to the wilderness sign and trail register. If you opt to hike the road, add 1 mile to the trip length above.
FEE: $5 for a one-day parking pass, available at any Prescott National Forest office or fee site; Wednesdays are free.