Photo by Kevin Kaminski. Grand Falls during monsoon

Seven Wonders of Arizona & Fall Color Guide

Category: Travel Issue: October 2017
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Fall has fallen, and there’s no better time to savor Arizona’s most exalting natural treasures. Which picturesque “wonders” made our list?

PROLOGUE
Before we reveal our septet of Arizona splendors, let’s meditate a bit on the nature of wonder, best-of lists and fall travel.

First, Why 7?
From the “seven heavens” of Abrahamic religions to the “seven wonders of the ancient world” immortalized by Hellenic poets, the number has an irresistible cosmological ring to it. Here are the original seven wonders, in case you were, um, wondering:
Great Pyramid of Giza
The lone ancient wonder of the world still standing.

Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Skeptical historians wonder if this tiered, plant-covered temple actually existed.

Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
Located in present-day Turkey, it was a Doric stone temple as big as a football stadium.

Statue of Zeus at Olympia
The 43-foot gold monument to the king of the gods took 12 years to build. It was ultimately destroyed in a fire.

Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
This 45-foot-tall Turkish crypt survived until the 15th century, when it was demolished by earthquakes.

Colossus of Rhodes
About the size of the Statue of Liberty, it greeted ships at Rhodes harbor in Greece until an earthquake toppled it in 226 B.C.E.

Lighthouse of Alexandria
Soaring 330 feet into the air, this formidable tower stood for 1,300 years. It was also felled by earthquakes.

 

And Why in the Fall?
Because it’s Arizona’s loveliest, most travelable month. Find our full Fall Color Guide – including out-of-state destinations.

 

WONDERful Criteria
Which factors did we consider while compiling our list?
Naturals only
No man-made locations, i.e. Hoover Dam, Westward Ho, Crescent Ballroom.

Arizona-ness
How unique to Arizona is it? Do we share it with another state? If so, points docked.

Visual Splendor
We’re magazine 
editors. We like pretty pictures. Thus, our list is visually weighted.

 

5 HONORABLE MENTIONS
Our five most painful omissions from the 7 Wonders of Arizona list.

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Monument Valley

Monument Valley
Those colors, those buttes, those John Ford movies. But let’s be honest – the best parts are in Utah.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Undeniably gorgeous. However, it’s a distant second among Arizona’s great canyons.

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Havasu Creek

Havasu Creek
The six stunning waterfalls that line up on this tributary to the Grand Canyon are the most photogenic things in Arizona. But in our minds, they fall under the GC umbrella.

Navajo National Monument Cliff Dwellings
Betatakin and Keet Seel are truly miraculous. 
But they violate our “naturals only” clause.

Humphreys Peak
Granted, Arizona’s highest peak is a handsome hunk of rock. But it’s not that high, or hunky.

 

Spoiler Alert: The GC
Not to tip our hand but, yes, the Grand Canyon is one of our seven wonders. It also routinely makes worldwide “seven wonders” lists. To wit:

USA Today’s
New Seven Wonders (2006)

CNN’s
Seven Natural Wonders of the World (2010)

ABC’s

Seven Wonders of America (2008)

 

And now,without further ado, our seven Wonders of Arizona…

MOGOLLON RIM
What makes it wondrous: It’s geology porn. Spanning 200 miles and scaling 2,000 feet in several areas, the Rim is the massive rock escarpment that forms the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau – a piece of soul-emboldening eye-candy eons in the making.

The Mogollon Rim is said to be the backbone of Arizona. In a literal sense, this is true. It juts up abruptly thousands of feet, bisecting the state right through the center, from Ash Fork in the west all the way to New Mexico in the east. But figuratively speaking, the Rim and its surrounding environs embody everything that makes Arizona special and odd and wonderful. It’s an ancient, surreal land of canyons, waterfalls, cliffs, meadows, mountains, lakes, jaw-dropping vistas, wildlife and pine trees. So many pine trees. (It sits squarely within the Coconino National Forest, home to the largest stand of Ponderosa Pines in the world.) The Rim is also a showpiece for Arizona’s rich natural diversity, and it’s the keeper of secrets millions of years old. And the Rim’s edge – that staggering, rugged, enormous rock face – is the silent sentinel that keeps watch over our state.
 
Secret Stay
Camp at the Rim’s precipice, an unrivaled experience of expansive views below and starry skies above. For a prime car-camping spot, turn right off SR 87 on Rim Road (FR 300), then scan for an unoccupied patch of land along the cliff. There are no designated campsites, just an unspoken rule among campers to keep a polite distance. More info at: Mogollon Rim Ranger District. 928-477-2255, fs.usda.gov/coconino

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Mogollon Rim Visitor Center. Photo by Mirelle Inglefield

Sunset Spot
The Mogollon Rim Visitor Center gives you a clear vantage point from which to soak up spectacular views. 8738 Ranger Rd., Happy Jack, 928-477-2255, fs.usda.gov/coconino

WONDERful Hit list
1. Take SR 87 north from Phoenix, as it’s one of the most scenic drives in all of Arizona, then stop in Payson at the Beeline Café for the best slice of pie this side of Rock Springs. 815 S. Beeline Hwy., Payson, 928-474-9960

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Zane Grey’s cabin. Photo by Mirelle Inglefield

2. Nearby, visit Western novelist Zane Grey’s cabin, a replica of his original 1920s hunting hide-out. $5 admission. 700 Green Valley Pkwy., Payson, 928-474-3483, paysonrimcountry.com

3. Ready for views? Take in the awe-inspiring vistas along the 50-mile Rim Road (FR 300). Don’t miss Tonto Natural Bridge, a 183-foot-high arch believed to be the largest natural travertine bridge in the world. $7 admission. Located off SR 87, 10 miles north of Payson. More info at: Arizona State Parks. 928-476-4202, azstateparks.com/tonto

4. There are a number of lakes in the area, the most secluded being Knoll Lake. A dense stand of pines surrounds the tranquil 75-acre body of water, which is also a favorite spot for trout fishers. From Payson, take SR 260 to Rim Road (FR 300). Off Rim Road, turn right on FR 295E and follow it to the lake. More info at: Mogollon Rim Ranger District. 928-477-2255, fs.usda.gov/coconino

5. To stretch your legs – and to spot elk, mule deer, maybe even a wild turkey – hike below the Rim. From Lower Control Road (FR 64), park near the Geronimo Trailhead to take Geronimo Trail to the lush Webber Creek Trail. No cost to access trails. More info at: Mogollon Rim Ranger District. 928-477-2255, fs.usda.gov/coconino
— Jessica Dunham

If you go
Driving distance from Phoenix: 120 miles (2.5 hours)
Directions: To access Rim Road, take SR 260 east from Payson for 29 miles, then turn left at SR 300.

 

SEDONA
What makes it wondrous: Those famous rust-red rocks, naturally – a beauty so magical and confounding, it’s given rise to a modern spiritual movement.

Molded into a breathtaking menagerie of shapes and formations, from craggy, mesa-topped buttes to jutting spires, the sandstone rocks of Sedona have a powerful effect on the human psyche. Do the cathedral-like formations really focus the Earth’s energy like a lens – as many residents and admirers believe? Is Sedona truly a magnet for UFO sightings, as others insist? One thing is certain: People are inexorably drawn to the place. Spiritual seekers, New Age healers, artists and metaphysical believers, along with families, honeymooners and tour groups, cross the globe to visit. They come to answer the call, to revel in the energy that surrounds the area. You’ll start to feel it as soon as your car dips down into the Verde Valley and the red rocks rise up around you. You’ll breathe deeper. Your heart will open. Your mind will expand, your vision will sharpen. Whatever it is in Sedona that’s speaking to us, it goes beyond Mother Nature’s astonishing artwork. It’s otherworldly.
 
Secret Stay
Hidden along wooded Oak Creek (a 15-minute drive north of Sedona, longer if you stop for fall foliage photo ops), the Forest Houses Resort offers a choice of 16 “houses” in which to bed down. Reserve the Bridge House, a cozy one-bedroom with a fireplace that is perfect for autumn nights. From $135/night. 9275 N. SR 89A, Sedona, 928-282-2999, foresthousesresort.com

Sunset Spot
Even the local Safeway parking lot grants access to the luminescent glow of the setting sun amid the red rocks. Even better? Airport Mesa with its 360-degree views. 483 Airport Rd., Sedona, 928-203-2900

WONDERful Hit list

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Cathedral Rock. Photo courtesy Adobe Stock Images

1. Hit the ground running – or, more accurately, hiking – with a quick scamper after you exit 1-17 and head west into the Village of Oak Creek on SR-179. Our suggestion: the Baldwin Trail, a lesser-known path to Cathedral Rock, one of the area’s most iconic and gasp-worthy natural landmarks. Most people use a more popular trailhead, so when you pop out on to the rock, expect curious stares. Directions: From SR 179, go left on Verde Valley School Road, following it for 4.7 miles. Turn left into the Baldwin Trail parking lot. On foot, cross Verde Valley School Road; the trailhead is across the street.

2. Grab a map of the vortexes from the Sedona Visitor Center. People pilgrimage from all over the world to Sedona to experience what many believe is a palpable spiritual energy that emanates from the rocks. A self-guided vortex tour is the best way to see for yourself. 331 Forest Rd., 800-288-7336, sedonachamber.com/visitor-center

3. Enjoy lunch at Sedona Memories Bakery Café, famous for its oversize sandwiches on freshly baked bread. One ‘wich is enough for two people. Cash only. 321 Jordan Rd., Sedona, 928-282-0032

4. At Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village, visit Esteban’s for handcrafted Southwestern pottery – from the purely decorative to the functional. 336 SR 179, Sedona, 928-282-4686, tlaq.com

5. Snag seats near the cozy outdoor fire pit and order a cocktail at Tii Gavo. The laid-back vibe of this restaurant at Enchantment Resort belies its million-dollar views. 525 Boynton Canyon Rd., Sedona, 888-250-1699, enchantmentresort.com
— Jessica Dunham

If you go
Driving distance from Phoenix: 116 miles (2 hours)   
Directions: Take I-17 north to exit 298 for SR-179. Go left on SR-179 and follow it to SR 89A, where you’ll make a right. visitsedona.com

 

THE WAVE
What makes it wondrous: The sandstone ribbons of colorful strata have been described as hypnotizing, almost vertigo-inducing – a mind-bending beauty made all the more mysterious by its remote location within Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.

Vermilion Cliffs are like a lost land: difficult to get to and full of lore from those who’ve emerged to tell the tale. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) limits access to 20 people a day, and of those, 10 are selected in an online lottery four months in advance. The cliffs run for 30 miles and encompass an impressive landscape, including the sculpted Coyote Buttes. It’s here that adventurers stumble upon the Wave. Visually surreal and a dazzling phenomenon of wind and water erosion, the Wave is like something ripped from a Tolkien fantasy – except that it’s very, very real. Undulating dips and domes are remnants of 150 million years of nature’s forces frozen in time: The Wave’s elegant lines give a glimpse into the past, when dinosaurs roamed and the desert was an ocean. The Wave is such a psychedelic spectacle, and accessing it requires one to literally win a lottery, that it’s no wonder it makes every wannabe (and actual) National Geographic photographer’s bucket list. While the cliffs straddle our border with Utah, the Wave sits squarely in Arizona.

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The Wave. Photo by Jim David

Secret Stay
Paria Outpost sits on the Utah side and offers RV and tent camping, a single teepee for rent and a B&B room. No phone or television, but you get proximity to Vermilion Cliffs, plus showers, breakfast and hammocks. From $65/night. Located on US 89 between mile markers 21 and 22, 928-691-1047, paria.com

Sunset Spot
We love an Arizona sunset as much as the next person, but the dramatics of the Wave’s beauty are best captured at midday when there are no shadows, specifically from the main entrance of the Wave.
 
WONDERful Hit list
1. Since only 20 people are allowed in the park per day, apply early for the online lottery or try your luck with the 10 spots available via the in-person lottery at the state-run Kanab Visitor Center on Highway 89, 1 mile east of the junction with alternate 89. blm.gov/visit/kanab-visitor-center

2. Once you’re in, use the path from the Wire Pass Trailhead in North Coyote Buttes. Since much of the three-mile hike to the Wave is unmarked, hire a guide to accompany you. The BLM has a list of registered guides who don’t need an additional permit to accompany permitted hikers.

3. If you have the time – and stamina – organize a multiday backpacking trek through the Paria River Canyon. Starting from the White House Trailhead, you can navigate the 38 miles of slot canyons in about four days, ending at Lees Ferry on the Colorado River. Plan wisely and be prepared; the deep and narrow gorge is prone to flash floods. Access the trailhead in Page, Arizona. From here, travel 35 miles northwest on US 89. Turn left on the dirt road, traveling 2 miles to the parking lot. For information on weather and permits, contact the Kanab Field Office. 318 N. First East, Kanab, Utah, 435-644-1200, blm.gov/office/kanab-field-office

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Vermilion Cliffs. Photo courtesy Adobe Stock Images

4. ake pictures. Obviously. The Wave is so photogenic, you don’t need a fancy $500 DSLR camera to capture its beauty. Your smartphone will do.

5. Plan for side adventures. Within two hours, you can visit Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park. $30 admission per vehicle valid for seven days, or $15 admission per person valid for seven days. 435-834-5322, nps.gov/brca
— Jessica Dunham

If you go
Driving distance from Phoenix: 317 miles (6 hours)   
Directions: Follow I-17 north to Flagstaff, then jump on US 89 north. In Bitter Springs, US 89 becomes US 89A, which will take you to Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. 345 E. Riverside Dr. Marbl eCanyon, 435-688-3200, blm.gov/visit
Park fee: Online lottery: $5 per person, per day, available through the Bureau of Land Management, blm.gov/az/paria; in-person lottery: $5 per person, per day, available at Kanab Visitor Center, blm.gov/visit/kanab-visitor-center

 

SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK
What makes it wondrous: Nothing says “Arizona” quite like the noble saguaro – statuesque, solitary, protector of the Sonoran. You’ll find legions of them here.

Sure, we can spot a saguaro driving down Loop 101. If you’ve lived in Phoenix longer than six months, it’s likely you don’t even notice them anymore. It often takes a visiting houseguest from the Midwest to call our attention to this striking Southwestern cactus. And it is striking – its towering height and giant arms stretched to the sky, a soft white bloom capping the top, maybe a cactus wren poking its tiny head out from the side. There’s nothing quite like this strange plant. Though used as a lazy shorthand for all things “Old West,” from hot sauce labels in Texas to shopping malls in California, it’s specifically an Arizona treasure – in all the world, it’s only found right here in the Sonoran Desert. This is why, as locals, we need Saguaro National Park. It should be mandatory that every Arizonan make a visit to this place. Not just to remind us of the saguaro’s rarity, but because the stark beauty of an unobstructed view of hundreds upon hundreds of the majestic saguaro is, quite simply, overwhelming.
 
Secret Stay
Hiking to the Manning campground at Rincon Mountain District (RMD), the section of the park on the east side of Tucson, requires legwork, but it’s worth it – pine trees, cooler temperatures and hardly another soul around (Manning offers just six campsites). The campground is a 10-mile hike, a strenuous but rewarding journey. $8 per day, per camp site. 3693 S. Old Spanish Trail, Tucson, 520-733-5153, nps.gov/sagu/planyourvisit/camping.htm

Sunset Spot
What’s more iconic than the sight of a saguaro silhouetted by a sunset? Catch a glimpse at Javelina Rocks, accessible just off the Cactus Forest Loop Drive, at RMD.  

WONDERful Hit list
1. Located near Tucson Mountain District (TMD), which is the section of the park west of Tucson, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum offers an interactive education on the Sonoran Desert. It’s also an ideal launching point from which to tour the park. $20.50 admission. 2021 N. Kinney Rd., Tucson,
520-883-2702, desertmuseum.org

2. At TMD, don’t miss the Signal Hill trail with petroglyph rock drawings dating from 450 to 1450 CE.

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Valley View Overlook. Photo by Tom Norris

3. Be sure to stop at the Valley View Overlook on the Bajada Scenic Loop Road in TMD for a bird’s-eye perspective of the saguaro forest.

4. It’s 33 miles between the Tucson Mountain and the Rincon Mountain districts, easily doable in a day. The Rincon Mountains sit at a higher – and wetter – elevation than the Tucson Mountains, allowing it to sustain plant and animal life not present in TMD.

5. At Batch Café & Bar in Tucson, dinner is all the fun stuff: grilled cheese and from-scratch donuts, plus whiskey. 118 E. Congress St., Tucson, 520-203-7370, batchtucson.com
— Jessica Dunham

If you go
Driving distance from Phoenix: 110 miles (2 hours)   
Directions: To TMD, the closer of the two areas from the interstate, follow I-10 east toward Tucson. Take exit 236 for N. Sanders Road. Sanders dead-ends at Avra Valley Road; go left, then make an immediate right on Sandario Road. From Sandario, make a left on Mile Wide Road, which leads you to the park entrance.
Park fee: Saguaro National Park, $15 per vehicle, valid for 7 days and includes entrance to both districts, or $5 per person, valid for 7 days and includes entrance to both districts. 3693 S. Old Spanish Trail, Tucson, 520-733-5153, nps.gov/sagu

 

PETRIFIED FOREST
What Makes It Wondrous: It’s a giant playground of dinosaur bones, rock art, Indian ruins and petrified logs, so you get to be a paleontologist for a day.  

Unearthly and apocalyptic. That’s what some say about Petrified Forest National Park’s moonscape vistas and its gray cone-shaped hills dotted with randomly scattered fossilized logs of agate, jasper and other crystallized beauties. You’ll see nature’s sculpted mounds of blue-grays and chalky whites with chocolate brown bands on the south end of the park. Shades of pink, red, orange, blue and purple form the cliffs on the north end. In the center lies the ancient Puerco River. The park – which also encompasses portions of the Painted Desert, that mythic impasto of sandy, oxidized wilderness on the Colorado Plateau – is home to one of the best deposits of late Triassic-era fossils. Mixed in are beautiful, vast badlands, surprising grasslands with wildflowers that bloom during the summer and early fall, and more than 10,000 years of human history. “It’s an approachable park with a subtle beauty that reveals itself over time,” says Richard Ullmann, director of interpretation and education.
 

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Painted Desert. Photo courtesy Adobe Stock Images

Secret Stay
Primitive backcountry camping is now allowed in the park’s wilderness area. Permits are required. Obtain them in person at either the Painted Desert Visitor Center, the Painted Desert Inn or Rainbow Forest Museum. nps.gov/pefo/planyourvisit/camping.htm

 

Sunset Spot
Stop at Pintado Point overlook in the fall. At 5,874 feet, it’s the highest elevation in the park, with views of the sunset over the vast Painted Desert and the San Francisco Peaks in the distance.

WONDERful Hit list

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Giant Logs Trail. Photo courtesy Adobe Stock Images

1. Grab the trail guide and follow Giant Logs Trail behind Rainbow Forest Museum to see some of the park’s largest and most colorful examples of petrified wood.

 

2. Take the new guided or self-guided “Off the Beaten Path” hikes. Red Basin Clam Beds near Blue Mesa is the longest at 8 miles roundtrip.

3. Buy a copy of Dawn of the Dinosaurs: Life in the Triassic by Nicholas Fraser at Rainbow Forest Museum. The book highlights the fossils of the late Triassic era found at the Petrified Forest.

4. Bring your bike for a closer-up look. Ride the full length of the park (36 miles) and linger at the 10 viewing points. In September, you can make the same ride with more than 200 other cyclists at Pedal the Petrified (npc.edu/pedal4scholarships), a fundraiser for local Northland Pioneer College.

5. On the way home, visit nearby Rock Art Ranch to see a working cattle ranch, learn pioneer history and tour petroglyph-filled Chevelon Canyon. Reservations required. 928-386-5047 or 928-288-3260
— Jackie Dishner

If you go
Info: The Painted Desert Diner is the lone on-site restaurant (breakfast, lunch and dinner). Specialties include Navajo tacos, chile con carne and tepary bean burgers. It’s illegal to remove petrified wood or other artifacts from the grounds, but petrified wood souvenirs are available at the Rainbow Forest Lodge Gift Shop. To check the schedule for upcoming programming and other information about the park, visit nps.gov/pefo.
Driving distance from Phoenix: 260 miles (4 hours)   
Directions: North on I-17 to Flagstaff, east on 1-40 past Holbrook to enter at Painted Desert side
Park fee: $20/car (good for 7 days); $10/motorcycle, bike, pedestrian; free camping permits

 

GRAND CANYON
What Makes It Wondrous: Oh, it’s just that mile-deep symphony of color and erosion that stretches across half the state, and you can see from space.

River runners facetiously call it “the big ditch,” but they understand the inner power and beauty of this magical place. The canyon’s 277-mile long, 10-mile wide and 1-mile deep vastness lures millions of visitors each year to hike its many trails, raft its mighty river and gaze out at its kaleidoscopic mix of colors, layers and textures. The North Rim (pictured below and opposite) in particular is prized for its remoteness. Drawing just 10 percent of the nearly 6 million people who visit the Grand Canyon National Park each year, the high-elevation gem is pocketed deep within the Kaibab National Forest on the isolated Arizona Strip and accessible by a single road. Inspiring green mountain meadows, colorful cliff faces, richly forested rim trails, cooler weather and fresh pine- and juniper-scented air await. There’s also a fall color parade of aspen groves beginning in late September. “It’s a very special place to visit in the fall,” park ranger and interpretation supervisor Mandi Toy says. “It has a warmer feel. Even the oranges and reds on the canyon walls are a little deeper and brighter there.”
 
Secret Stay
Want to stay at the Grand Canyon Lodge? Plan early. Cabins and rooms are available May 15-October 15 but require a 13-month advance reservation (grandcanyonforever.com/lodging). Similarly, you need a six-month reservation window to camp (nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/cg-nr.htm). Our last-minute-stay solution: primitive camping opportunities outside the park which provide “front-row views” at the North Rim. Try Locust Point along Rainbow Rim Trail (via Forest Road 22) and pick a spot to sleep right on the canyon’s edge. Available on a first-come, first-served basis, it’s free. fs.usda.gov/kaibab

 

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Grand Canyon. Photo by Kevin Kaminski

Sunset Spot
Order drinks from the Grand Canyon Lodge’s Rough Rider Saloon and watch the light change from an Adirondack chair on the veranda outside. grandcanyonforever.com/lodging

 

WONDERful Hit list
1. En route on SR 67 (see If You Go), stop at Jacob Lake Inn (jacoblake.com) for its famous cookies. Fall favorites: German chocolate and pumpkin chocolate chip.

2. Pull over beside the meadows on SR 67 and watch for wildlife (coyotes, mule deer and bison) within 30 miles of the park entrance.

3. Take a nature hike on the Transept Trail (3.4 miles round trip), a flat path between the park lodge and campground. Then do dinner at the Grand Canyon Lodge restaurant. Reservations recommended: 928-638-8560.  

4. Order sandwiches to go at the lodge’s Deli in the Pines. Then drive the scenic route to Cape Royal to gaze out at Angel’s Window and the rare North Rim glimpse of the Colorado River below.

5. Bring your bike for 18 intermediate miles on Rainbow Rim Trail. Outside the park, it zigzags through forest and several viewpoints along the way. Order pizza and drinks afterward at the lodge saloon.
— Jackie Dishner

If you go
Info: The GCNP officially closes for day use on December 1, or the first heavy snowfall. For updated programming, visit nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit or fs.usda.gov/kaibab.
Driving distance from Phoenix: 351 miles, 6-7 hours
Directions: North on I-17 to Flagstaff, east on 1-40 to U.S. 89, north on U.S. 89 to U.S. 89A, west on U.S. 89A to SR 67 at Jacob Lake, south 30 miles from Jacob Lake on SR 67 to park entrance and visitor center
Park fee: $30/car (good for 7 days). Includes new North Rim Pocket Map and Services Guide

 

GRAND FALLS
What makes it wondrous: Cutting a spectacular swath through the arid Painted Desert, Grand Falls amazes with its height – taller than Niagara! – its chocolate-milk waters and its rugged volcanic terrain.

The roar will draw you in the minute you arrive – that glorious sound of rushing water at the end of a long, dusty drive. This isn’t just any babbling brook. Time it right, and you’ll see a ferocious rush of reddish-brown water, tumbling over a sheer rock wall more than 180 feet tall. Located about 70 miles northeast of Flagstaff, the formation is known as Grand Falls or Chocolate Falls, and it’s the pièce de résistance of the Little Colorado River system. In terms of inspiring oohs and ahhs, the falls vary a bit with the season, running heaviest during the winter/spring runoff months of March and April. Still, you can catch satisfying eyefuls of the falls’ tiered, cathedral-like beauty after a summer monsoon or fall storm. The falls are the pride of the Navajo Nation’s Leupp Chapter, which requires no permit, but asks visitors to be respectful of the beautiful spot.

Secret Stay
Step back a millennium or so, and sleep where the ancient people slept at Homolovi State Park, about 45 minutes from Grand Falls. The Winslow-area state park includes a campground with 53 RV and tent spaces. $25 with electricity; $18 without electricity. azstateparks.com/homolovi

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Little Colorado River. Photo by Kevin Kaminski

Nearby Hike
A short but steep trail leads from the Grand Falls overlook to the Little Colorado River bed below. Another hiking option: Walnut Canyon National Monument, located along I-40 near Flagstaff, with trails offering close-up views of ancient cliff dwellings. nps.gov/waca/index.htm

Wonderful Hit list
1. Make a loop of it. Spanning 150 miles, a circuit driving tour of Flagstaff/Grand Falls/Leupp/Winslow/Flagstaff holds plenty of treasures. This is Arizona’s big-sky country, so expect sweeping views of rounded knolls, jagged rocky ridges and twisty dirt roads.

2. The route also offers a peek into Arizona’s past tourist trade. Just east of Leupp sits the picturesque remains of the Sunrise Trading Post, an array of crumbling red-rock structures with gaping holes and windows that frame the blue sky.

3. Another slightly spooky ruin site is located along Interstate 40 west of Winslow at the Two Guns exit. Here, walls are caving in on an old gas station and camping clubhouse, and a kidney-shaped swimming pool sits nearby, sporting ever-evolving graffiti.

4. Stand on a corner in Winslow for a sweet history/pop-culture convergence: Iconic Route 66; the Eagles’ classic-rock nod to Winslow standinonthecorner.com; and (just down the road) the beautifully preserved La Posada for a glimpse into the golden age of Fred Harvey railroad hotels and restaurants. laposada.org

5. The earth and stratosphere live large at Meteor Crater, a nearly mile-wide, 50,000-year-old meteorite impact site, complete with interactive Discovery Center and visitor center, located about six miles south of I-40 between Winslow and Flagstaff. $18 for adults, $16 for visitors ages 60 and older, $9 for ages 6-17. meteorcrater.com
— Cindy Barks

If you go
Driving distance from Phoenix: 212 miles via I-17 and Flagstaff (3 hours 35 minutes)   
Directions: From Flagstaff, head east on I-40, and take exit 211 toward Townsend-Winona Road, continuing for 2.1 miles, then turn right onto Leupp Road/Navajo Route 15. After 19.9 miles, turn left onto the dirt Navajo Route 6910, which will connect with Navajo Route 70 after 7.9 miles. Continue for 1.1 miles, and park in a dirt lot to the left. Informational plaques and pit toilets are available. For a loop, return to Route 15 and continue east toward Leupp, and then head south on Highway 99, which connects with I-40.
Info: Updates on the current flow in Grand Falls are available on the Navajo Nation’s Leupp Chapter website. leupp.navajochapters.org


FALL COLOR FINDER
Get a grip on striking autumn foliage in Arizona and beyond with this regional guide.

Map O’ Color
Time your autumn road trips to a “T” with this color-coded leaf map.

 

Mount Lemmon - Tucson
Peak Viewing: Early November
In the Santa Catalina Mountains, aspens aren’t the only arboreal entities that undergo a visually exciting metamorphosis. The region’s maple trees show off rust-red hues, while the ferns and shrubs on the forest floor transform into shades of copper and tan. Because the drive to the 9,157-foot Mount Lemmon winds along Catalina Highway through the mountains, the leisurely trip affords plenty of leaf-spotting along the way.
Directions: Exit Grant Road off the I-10 and head east 3 miles to Tanque Verde Road. Turn left and go another 1.5 miles to Catalina Highway; take a left and follow the curvy route to Ski Valley, where a narrow road leads uphill to a parking area near the summit.

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Hart Prairie, Flagstaff. Photo by Jim David

Hart Prairie - Flagstaff
Peak Viewing: Late October
Aspens, aspens and more aspens. The slender, white-trunked beauties cover the slopes of Flagstaff’s surrounding mountains and typically grow in thick clusters, often with hundreds of trees sharing a common root system. This means the leaves burst into brilliant yellow at the same time, making for a show-stopping color boom. Bring your mountain bike and a camera for the easy-to-moderate 14.7-mile Hart Prairie Loop.
Directions: Drive north on US 180 from Flagstaff. Park in the lot at the intersection of Hart Prairie Road (FR 151) and FR 418. Hop on your bike and launch south on the loop, where you’ll ramble past dense aspen stands, meadows and tall evergreens.

Oak Creek - Sedona
Peak Viewing: Late October
When the urge to leaf-peep hits and you want to be all New England about it, lace up your hiking boots and hit the West Fork Trail in Oak Creek. This popular and much-touted path leads you along a gurgling stream and under a canopy of box elders, ash, willows, fruit trees, oaks and maples awash in scarlet. The trail is relatively easy, although expect several stream crossings along the way.
Directions: From Sedona, travel north on SR 89A until you get to the Call of the Canyon parking lot; turn here and access the trail from the far side of the lot.

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Greens Peak, White Mountains. Photo by Paul Gill.

Greens Peak - White Mountains
Peak Viewing: Mid-October
Thanks to an elevation of 11,000 feet, the White Mountains show off glorious fall colors earlier than most. Areas near Greer, Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside are known for thick groves of pine and fir trees. But come October, the stands of aspens and Gambel oaks burst into an autumnal rainbow of yellow, orange and ruby red, taking the spotlight away from their coniferous neighbors. You’ll want to witness the beauty from up high, so grab a pumpkin spice latte and enjoy the meandering, leafy drive to Greens Peak, the highest of a set of rounded knolls near Mount Baldy.
Directions: Greens Peak is just off FR 117, north of SR 260 between Sunrise Park Resort and Greer.
— Jessica Dunham and Craig Outhier


OUT-OF-STATE SPECIAL

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Photo courtesy Telluride.

Telluride, Colo.
Peak Viewing: Early October
Known primarily as a stylish ski enclave – Oprah Winfrey and Tom Cruise both own homes nearby – the high-elevation town of Telluride is also a canny option for fall travelers, due to the dense aspen colonies that blanket the surrounding San Juan Mountains. Come late September/early October, the “quaking aspens” earn their nickname, as the leaves turn a brilliant shade of taxi-cab yellow and appear to tremble when excited by the wind. Enjoy them from the famously picturesque vantage of Telluride’s free gondola.
Where to Stay: Contrary to its name, Peaks Resort & Spa is equipped for pre-winter gaiety, including a handsome pool overlooking the San Juans and an indoor water slide. Rates start at $297 in early October, about $100 less than peak-season winter rates. 136 Country Club Dr., 970-728-6800, thepeaksresort.com
How to Get There: Direct flights to the nearby town of Montrose go on hiatus in the fall – luckily, Telluride is a surprisingly skippy 8-hour car ride from the Valley. visittelluride.com

Roswell, N.M.
Peak Viewing: Mid-October
Like Arizona, New Mexico is full of high-elevation treats that few out-of-staters seem to know about. Case in point: the town of Ruidoso in the Lincoln National Forest about 50 miles west of Roswell. Cottonwoods are the main autumnal draw here, but there are also copious aspen stands. From Ruidoso, take Highway 532 west to access Buck Mountain. Park at Windy Point for views of a roaring golden symphony. seeroswell.com
Where to Stay: With a name like Inn of the Mountain Gods, how could it be anything but outstanding? You can also gamble. 287 Carrizo Canyon Rd., Mescalero, 800-545-9011, innofthemountaingods.com
How to Get There: American Airlines flies direct to Roswell from Phoenix ($310/round trip). aa.com

Napa Valley, Calif.
Peak Viewing: Mid-October
No aspens or cottonwoods in the cradle of Northern California wine country – but plenty of grapevines, which transmit a remarkable spectrum of vivid, limy yellows and deep, burgundy reds after harvest. “Autumn is a beautiful time to visit Napa,” says Oscar Henquet, estate director of Rudd Oakville Estate, a family-owned winery on the illustrious Oakville bench about halfway up the valley. “The wines are being crafted, the harvest is in full swing – it’s a special energy.”
How to Get There: Astoundingly, American Airlines offers round-trip airfare starting at $200 to nearby Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport in Sonoma. A 30-minute drive over the Mayacamas Mountains later, you’re in Napa.

5 THINGS WE LOVE MOST ABOUT NAPA
1. The Bison ribeye at Press
Located in St. Helena, about 10 minutes north of Napa proper, this esteemed steakhouse is famous both for its expertly curated, Napa-only wine collection and delicious proteins. Our pick: this must-split monster of a ribeye, running wild with juicy, free-range flavor. 587 St. Helena Hwy., 707-967-0550, presssthelena.com

2. The postcards at Durant & Booth
Styled like a St. Charles Avenue mansion, this boutique tasting room pours full-bodied, small-lot wines just steps from the legendary Oakville Grocery off of Highway 29. Grab a few of the winery’s complimentary postcards for friends back home – cheeky little portraits depicting animals in various manners of historical dress. Say hello to Kaiser Owl. 7856 St. Helena Hwy., Oakville, 707-947-3180, durantandbooth.com

3. Calistoga Ranch
Set on a wooded hillside in the north part of the valley, this Auberge property is the quintessential luxury Napa sleepover – each guest “room” includes a private patio, detached den and Jacuzzi. Go big and start your morning with a private Pilates session courtesy of local trainer Denise Sprengers (getenergizedpilates.com). 580 Lommel Rd., Calistoga, 855-810-1572, calistogaranch.com

4. Breakfast at Auberge du Soleil
If there’s a more breathtaking view of the Napa Valley that also includes a terrific brioche French toast with orange butter and tangy passion fruit syrup, we didn’t find it. 180 Rutherford Hill Rd., Rutherford, 800-348-5406, aubergedusoleil.com

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Photo courtesy Rudd Oakville Estate.

5. The Wine Cave at Rudd Oakville Estate
Want to be blown away? Take a by-appointment-only tour of this gorgeous vineyard and winery off the scenic Silverado Trail. The winemakers are spectacularly selective, bottling only 2,000 cases a year using the choicest free-run juice from their grape harvests. Those bottles are in turn aged in a 20,000-square-foot network of purpose-built caves under the winery, where the Rudd family keeps its personal collection. It’s wine-geek heaven. 500 Oakville Cross Rd., Oakville, 707-944-8577, ruddwines.com