Scenic Drives for Autumn Enthusiasts in Utah

Scenic Drives for Autumn Enthusiasts in Utah

Local Lexi

By Local Lexi \ September 18 2020

Sit back, relax, and enjoy the colorful show…

From piles of red rock to soaring granite fins and majestic mountains, the diversity of Utah’s landscapes offer autumn leaf peepers a unique advantage. Here you can experience all the color that fall has to offer across some of nature’s most dramatic canvases. We’ve got a few scenic drive ideas to help explorers cultivate gratitude for the fleeting fall color that graces our state before the arrival of The Greatest Snow on Earth®.

 
If you’re keen on making a weekend out of things, do check our recent lodging guide for great places to stay in Utah with safety protocols in place—Lodging Guide.



Our first order of business is to set you up for leaf peeping success. What conditions make for the best fall foliage viewing? Here is a bit of helpful information to inform your ramblings.

 

FALL FOLIAGE VIEWING TIPS

  • Calm days prolong the opportunity to admire leaves
  • Summer rainstorms and a dry autumn with warm sunny days and cool nights create the most colorful leaf displays
  • It’s ideal if overnight temperatures do not drop below freezing
  • Temperature and moisture levels determine the intensity of fall colors 
  • A late spring or intense summer drought can delay the show by several weeks
  • A period of warmth in fall can reduce the vibrancy of leaves
  • Rise early because the mist, dew, fog, and haze in the early hours creates a far more dramatic scene than what you’ll view midday or in the afternoon
  • Oaks typically show red, brown, and russet tones
  • Aspens and Cottonwoods exhibit yellow colors

Lastly check out the Fall Foliage Map, an annual forecast put together by Smoky Mountains National Park. This interactive map helps provide some indication of when leaves will be peaking regionally.

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With eight nationally designated scenic byways and 18 state scenic byways, Utah has a multitude of attractive options for road trippers. There is no shortage of worthy scenery to witness the changing of the season. Pick a trip below or scroll to the bottom for some quick classics. 

Fish Lake Loop
Visit Pando, a world-renowned aspen grove and enjoy sage flats and towering forests

This drive links up Highways 25 and 72 along the Fish Lake Scenic Byway with the option to continue on to Loa, Utah, in Capitol Reef country. Explore Fish Lake, Utah’s largest natural mountain lake, perched at a lofty elevation nearly 9,000 feet above sea level. Fishing here is superb but the real leaf-peeping attraction is Pando the aspen tree. This special stand of aspens is composed entirely of clones and the grove is believed to be the largest living organism on earth—at least 13 million pounds and over 40,000 aspen clones! In favorable conditions, the yellows and golds of Pando in autumn are incredible. 
 

This zone also provides excellent wildlife viewing opportunities so keep your eyes peeled for hawks, raptors, deer, porcupine, eagles, elk, bobcat, cougar, bear, and beaver. There are primitive and established campgrounds in the area. It’s also an easy cruise down to Torrey, which serves as a great basecamp for exploring Capitol Reef— Utah’s least visited National Park. The brilliant yellow cottonwoods in the lower elevations of Capitol Reef will provide a startling juxtaposition against the vermilion rocks. 


 

Alpine Loop
Link up American Fork Canyon and Provo Canyon with a stop at Sundance and its jaw-dropping Timpanogos views
 
This 20-mile drive passes through the Uinta National Forest, wending through rugged alpine canyons with jaw-dropping views of Mount Timpanogos. Follow Highway 92 up American Fork Canyon which passes through countless aspen groves before depositing travelers on the doorstep of Sundance. Snow does close this roadway, though it typically remains open through late October. At Sundance Mountain Resort, visitors can enjoy a scenic chairlift ride or sample the amazing cuisine and atmosphere of this beautiful natural retreat. My best friend got married at Sundance on October 10th and I’ll never forget the glorious scene of a snow-capped Mt. Timp framed by vermilion, gold, and orange hues.




When you finish soaking up the splendor of Sundance, don’t miss Bridal Veil Falls, which is a short trip west down Provo Canyon. Should you care to take the scenic route back to Salt Lake or Park City, don’t miss heading east up Highway 189 to pass Deer Creek Reservoir and the charming town of Midway. You may opt to continue the show at Wasatch Mountain State Park near Midway. 
 

 


Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway - State Route 128
Red rock, classic Western scenery and electric yellow cottonwoods — an artist's dream

State Route 128 is dubbed the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway and includes over 48 miles of highway stretching northeast of Moab. This stretch of pavement parallels the Colorado River through a narrow canyon of sheer sandstone walls. Stop for a hike in Grandstaff Canyon to view Glory Arch with a bit of pleasant green and yellow leaf-peeping along the way. 

 

Back down along Route 128, the gorge gradually opens up to display breathtaking views of Castle Valley, the site of many famous movie scenes. Fisher Towers is another worthy place to stop and hike. Paddle enthusiasts will definitely want to set up a shuttle to float a section or two of the relatively flat water in the canyon. The road terminates at I-17 near the ghost town of Cisco with views of the Book Cliffs. Keep an eye out for flaming yellow cottonwoods and the occasional peep of the snow-capped La Sal mountains. This byway serves as a connector for travelers exploring Arches and heading southwest to Canyonlands National Park. 

 


Consider planning a weekend getaway to the Red Cliffs Lodge, a luxury resort with a winery along the byway. This stunning retreat in red rock country offers guests the opportunity to relax and escape with private entrances, outdoor patios, and lovely scenery. There are also a couple of established campgrounds on the river's edge for folks who like to rough it.  



Historic Highway 89 
Enjoy the slow road on this historic bit of highway where sightseeing and recreation opportunities abound

For the bulk of its nearly 2,000 miles, stretching from Canada to Mexico, Highway 89 is a two-lane road. Skip the sterile interstate and opt for a real road trip through some of the west’s best vistas in Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. Route 89 is the longest road in Utah, stretching for over 502 miles from the Arizona border to Bear Lake in the northeast corner of the state.



For a day trip, we recommend the northern portion from the Wasatch Front to Bear Lake. This route takes advantage of Wasatch Front views, Cache Valley, Logan, and a long climb up the beautiful Logan Canyon Scenic Byway, passing Beaver Mountain—don't forget your mountain bike! Top out at Bear Lake Summit, the highest point of Route 89 in Utah and enjoy views of the lake, fondly called “The Caribbean of the Rockies” for its ethereal turquoise hues. 

Stop for a hike, picnic alongside a river, visit historical sites, and enjoy the charm of downtown Logan. If you’d like to plan a weekend getaway, consider settling into Garden City on Bear Lake’s glittering shores. We recommend Water's Edge Resort at Bear Lake and the Bear Lake Motor Lodge.
 


 

We didn’t go into detail on the following options, because any respectable Utah leaf peeping list will also contain these gems: 
  • Scenic Byways 190 and 210 up Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons
  • Guardsman’s Pass connecting Park City and Big Cottonwood
  • The Mirror Lake Scenic Byway in the Uinta Mountain Range
  • Highway 12 through Escalante — A Journey Through Time Scenic Byway
  • Millcreek Canyon 
  • Mount Nebo Scenic Byway (Nebo Loop)
  • Ogden River Scenic Byway


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