It’s time for the magnificent fall colors in the Southwest. From the golden aspens of Colorado and northern New Mexico to the stunning displays of red and yellow oaks along Oak Creek in Sedona, you’ll find that now is the time for fall foliage touring in the Southwest. These are some key areas where you’ll normally find brilliant yellows, oranges, and golds.
Santa Fe, New Mexico’s Hills of Gold
When you visit Santa Fe it is easy to determine if the aspens have turned. As you walk downtown, just look up into the Sangre de Cristo mountains. You’ll see the swaths of glittering gold on the sides of the mountains.
It’s amazing is that the drive up the mountain to Ski Santa Fe is only 15 miles from downtown Santa Fe. And along the way, you can explore the beauty of those golden hills—some of the most breathtaking fall colors in the Southwest.
From downtown Santa Fe, this popular route begins by traveling along Paseo de Peralta and turning left onto Bishop Lodge Road. Turn right at Artist Road (which becomes Hyde Park Road) and follow that to the top of the mountain. As you travel this scenic and winding road you’ll come to Hyde Memorial State Park. You’ll find a visitor center, hiking trails, and camping. On my trip, I noticed an RV camping site full of yellow aspens.
As the road enters the Santa Fe National Forest, there are some pull-outs, but many people stop at the Big Tesuque Campground parking lot. At the right time, the aspens are blazing gold and visible during a short hike from the parking lot. It’s a walk-in campground with small babbling creeks winding their way through the grounds.
After taking a short hike (the altitude is noticeable here) you can continue the scenic drive to an amazing place… the Aspen Vista Picnic Ground, also a trailhead. But what was fantastic are the wide vistas of the hills dotted with golden stands of Aspen. You can picnic or take a hike, or just hop out of your car and snap a few photos. This area is definitely a destination for the Santa Fe leaf peeper!
The road continues on up to Ski Santa Fe. On the way, on the left side of the road is a walkway with a guard rail that is worth a stop. From this area, you can see the entire city of Santa Fe in the valley below. And when the aspens have completely turned, it’s a great place to oversee the golden hills.
Narrow-Gauge Train Excursion in Fall
Anyone in search of the rich and vibrant colors of autumn should hop aboard the historic Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad running from New Mexico to Colorado for the best viewing of the fall foliage in the Rocky Mountains. The colors are bursting during peak foliage season and you can see it all from an open or closed car, making this ideal for checking out the fall colors in the Southwest.
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is jointly owned and operated by New Mexico and Colorado and is designated as a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service. It is the highest and longest steam-powered, authentic, narrow-gauge railroad in the United States. The passenger railroad travels over its historic road grade from Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado. Depending on the schedule, you can catch the train from either station.
From Chama, the train chugs up the Cumbres Pass at 10,015 feet, winds through tunnels and over trestles, and snakes along the 800 feet deep Toltec Gorge, mountain forests, and alpine meadows.
Northern New Mexico’s Cottonwoods
After the aspens have dropped their leaves, you can still enjoy the brilliance of the cottonwoods as you drive the High Road to Taos. Along the High Road to Taos, you’ll encounter majestic cottonwood trees decked out in their golden halos of light. Fall is the time when the riverbeds are easy to spot. Just follow the gold.
Traditionally, in September, you can take in the High Road Art Tour which gives you an opportunity to visit galleries and artists’ studios in the area. This year, because of Covid-19, you can enjoy a virtual art tour. But check with the individual artists and galleries because they may be open to the public on a more limited basis. You’ll find everything from fine oil landscapes, to traditional Hispanic weavers.
Plein-air paintings like those of Sally Delap-John often depict the little High Road villages surrounded by the brilliant colors of autumn. What better way to enjoy the fall colors in the Southwest all year long than by taking home one of these beautiful artist creations?
Sedona’s Oak Creek Canyon for Hiking and Jeep Trips
A getaway to Sedona is a must during fall. It’s cooler in the Red Rocks than in Phoenix, to the south, and the fall colors can be amazing. Late September through mid-October is the best time to see the fall leaves. You can hike any number of trails, but those in Oak Creek Canyon are bound to be colorful.
You can book a jeep trip or take a casual drive through scenic Oak Creek Canyon via Highway 89A north. It leads to Flagstaff, where there are many more opportunities to view the changing colors. This is one of my favorite spots for seeing fall colors in the Southwest.
On my last visit, I enjoyed the Red Rock views at the lovely Amara Resort and Spa. I highly recommend sitting on their patio sipping a Margarita and gazing out at “Snoopy Rock,” and the surrounding golden trees.
Southern Colorado Steam Train Excursion
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is a must-do when in Colorado, even when the excursion is modified due to Covid-19. This coal-fired, narrow-gauge railroad is popular in every season but I’d recommend you do a little leaf-peeping from the open-air or dome window cars.
The Fall I went, the rivers were full and rushing over rocky beds in easy view of the train as it chugged up mountains, crossed high wooden trestles, and slowed going by rocky cliffs and through short tunnels.
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad provides a moving window where you can look out and see the tall evergreens, fall colors, stunning scenery, and if you are lucky, the wildlife of the area. The trip is narrated and refreshments are available.
Verde Canyon Railroad in Arizona
There is nothing like a scenic train ride to relax you and take you into territory you might not experience in any other way. Some people who seek out these train excursions are long-time train hobbyists and some just want to sit back and let someone else do the driving.
The Verde Canyon Railroad, operating out of Cottonwood and not far from Sedona, is one of those relaxing trips. You’ll see deep canyons and cliffside Native American dwellings. Often, you’ll encounter an eagle or an eagle’s nest on the way.
In the Fall, enjoy the turning of the leaves along the Verde River. You can check out the amazing fall colors in the Southwest while soaking up the Canyon's beautiful autumn weather. Verde Canyon Railroad also offers a selection of specialized fall excursions, including Ales on Rails, which features Arizona craft beers.
How to See the Best Fall Colors in the Southwest
Many areas are such popular fall leaf-peeping destinations that they offer hotlines and special updated websites. These are the websites in the Southwest where you can check out the timing for the most vibrant fall foliage displays.
These are such great places to see fall colors in the Southwest, but the area offers so many amazing things to do. For more ideas on touring the Southwest, see these articles by Wander writers. If you can't make the Southwest this year, we also have other great suggestions for Fall Getaways.