Sycamore Canyon wilderness

It has been a strange autumn in Arizona this year with locations starting to show color early and then suffering brown outs. The Sycamore Canyon Wilderness is no exception with some trees turning color while the rest are still green, brown, or a grey (when the leaves turn grey-green and just dry up and drop).

Still, the Parsons trail on the southern end of Sycamore Canyon has some color.  Most of the rim country is now past peak and the cottonwoods and sycamore are showing in the deserts.

Sycamore Canyon pool

Red maple leaf in the West Fork of Oak Creek, Sedona, Arizona

“Floating”: A red maple leaf floats along the West Fork of Oak Creek, Sedona, Arizona

Sedona:  Hands down, the best color in the Sedona area falls in the iconic West Fork of Oak Creek canyon.  The maples are screaming with vivacious reds (best are about a half-mile stroll along the trail), and the willows, boxelders, and ash are showing golden hues.  A few windy days have blown some leaves off the trees, creating a carpet of color on the ground as well.  But arrive early!   The parking lot was full and a line of cars were waiting to get by 10 am!  In addition, spots along the creek north of the West Fork trail head offer similar photo ops along Oak Creek without the crowds.  As you drive south of the trail head on 89A, however, you’ll notice the color hasn’t quite developed to it’s peak potential yet.  We’re likely a a few days away from areas like Grasshopper Point and Red Rock Crossing peaking…some of these areas are looking a little browned out, so it’s possible we won’t see rich color in these spots this year.

Cottonwood/Camp Verde area:  The cottonwoods and sycamore trees along the Verde River from Camp Verde up to Cottonwood and Clarkdale need a little more time to develop, easily another week or two.  Though a few trees are currently recognizing it’s autumn here in Arizona and showing spotty vibrant colors, much of the river bed is still lime green or yellowy-green.

Prescott:  Surprisingly, the cottonwood trees at Watson Lake and the Watson Woods Riparian Area appear to be peaking.  Walk less than half a mile on the Peavine Trail in the morning or evening to capture golden yellows.  A visit to the Watson Lake Park in the morning will reveal showy cottonwood trees adding a splash of contrasting color to the granite jumbo rocks.  Head up to the overlook for a more aerial view or spend time at the boat launch to capture images along the shoreline.

Autumn at Watson Lake

“Autumn at Watson Lake:” Cottonwood trees add a splash of gold to the granite jumbo rocks at Watson Lake, Prescott, Arizona


Autumn on the Rim

View of the Grand Canyon near the Ken Patrick Trail, North Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Wow, what a difference a year makes! Some of you might recall last year’s report from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon:  patchy and late. (See original blog post:  wildinarizona.com/wordpress/?p=110.)

Not this year!

With the perfect mix of rain, sun, and cooler temperatures, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and surrounding Kaibab Plateau trees are showing off a brilliant palette of color and right on time.   Get your cameras out for a spectacular mix of yellow, orange, and red aspen, rusty Gambel oak, red maples, yellow New Mexican locust, red holly, and red wild geranium all peaking together!

But things are moving fast.  Like “limey-green-leaves-on-Monday-turn-a-rich-golden-yellow-by-Wednesday” and “Rich-golden-leaves-on-Monday-fall-to-the-ground-by-Wednesday” fast, thanks to below-freezing overnight temperatures in the meadows and valleys.  The show should last another week, but probably not much longer, especially if the high country sees any high winds in the days to come. (Continues below photo.)

Spotlight on aspen tree in South Canyon, Kaibab Plateau, Arizona

Spotlight on aspen tree in South Canyon, Kaibab Plateau, Arizona

You’ll start to see color as you drive along Highway 67 from Jacobs Lake to the park entrance.  A spin down any dirt road on the Kaibab Plateau will reveal seemingly endless photographic opportunities.  Early this week, we specifically explored FR610 to Saddle Mountain, which showed crazy good color along the road, particularly as we drove closer to the trail head.

Colorful leaves of autumn

Colorful leaves of autumn on FR610 on the Kaibab Plateau, Arizona

Inside the park, many of the previously burned areas have smaller aspens growing in between burned snags.  The hardest part is finding a safe pull-out (look for paved or previously used gravel spots and walk).  The “Y” turnoff for Point Imperial and Cape Royal along the North Rim Scenic Drive and numerous trails, including the Trancept, the Widforss, and Ken Patrick (towards Point Imperial), offer the best color right now.

Flagstaff – which I drove past en route to the Canyon – appears to be peaking at the higher elevations on the San Francisco Peaks.  The lower elevations were about 50% green on Monday, but made much progress before I drove through again on Wednesday (estimate ~10-20% green) so places like Lockett Meadow and the Bearjaw Trail are likely starting to peak right now.

The Verde Valley area is still green as expected for this time of year, but start looking for color around Montezuma’s Well, Beaver Creek, and even Sedona in the next two weeks or so.

Happy shooting!
~Colleen

Orange-tipped aspen in South Canyon, Kaibab Plateau, Arizona

Orange-tipped aspen in South Canyon, Kaibab Plateau, Arizona

If you love color in Arizona, you’ll love the entire month of September in the Grand Canyon State!  The ninth month of the year serves as a transition period where the summer heat finally gives into the cooler, refreshing breezes of autumn and the wildflowers dancing in picturesque meadows begin to disappear, paving the way for the on-looking trees to put on their own colorful display.

Thanks to our mild climate – save for summer in the desert – Arizona sees an extended growing season for not only wildflowers, but fall colors across the state.  As the weather changes, leaves on the deciduous trees and bushes begin their multicolored transformation in late September in the higher elevations and last into early January along the riparian areas in the far south.  Yes, early January!

Though we’re sad to see the 2012 wildflower come to an end,  we’re gearing up already for an exciting autumn season ahead!  And we hope you are too!  As we prepare for the new season’s arrival, Paul and I wanted to share our favorite locations to photograph the changing palette of color in Arizona each month.  So mark your calendars and get ready for Mother Nature’s next act!

September

Near Snowbowl Ski Area

Aspen groves and views of the San Francisco Peaks near the Snowbowl Ski Area

  • Paul (P):  The Kaibab Plateau en route to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon starting in late September. The drive from Jacob Lake on Highway 67 to De Motte Park has some of Arizona’s best groves of aspen. A short drive on any forest road in this area will get you deep into the golden forests.
  • Colleen (C):  Near the Snowbowl Ski Area in Flagstaff the last week of September.  A quick and easy stroll from the parking lot leads to abundant aspens, changing seemingly all hues of yellow and orange.  A visit here is a great way to kick off your fall photography season!  (www.arizonasnowbowl.com)

October

Canyon de Chelly

Cottonwood trees in Canyon de Chelly National Monument

  • P:  Upper Christopher Creek area with a short one mile hike into See Canyon in mid-October. See fiery maples without the crowds of Oak Creek Canyon (near Sedona, which also a worthwhile location to visit around this time, so long as you don’t mind a little more company).
  • C: Canyon de Chelly in late October.  An already magical, photogenic canyon gets a splash of color, thanks to the cottonwood trees lining the wash change from summer green to vibrant yellow. (nps.gov/cach)

November

  • P:  Garden Canyon on the Huachuca Army Base out side of Sierra Vista in early November.  A long, bumpy ride along a dirt road pays off with a canyon full of eclectic deciduous trees showing their vivacious fall coats along a small, idyllic flowing creek.
  • C: Pumphouse Wash in early November.  Everyone flocks to the nearby West Fork of Oak Creek – and for good reason!  It’s spectacular! – but when you want to photograph the season’s color in solitude, turn to this quiet canyon to record maples, Oregon grape, and sycamores against the beige Coconino sandstone cliffs.

December

San Pedro River

San Pedro River

  • P:  San Pedro River all month and into January:  The autumnal season in Arizona goes out on a high note here as a ribbon of cottonwoods and sycamore sing the final song of fall along sections of stream from Charleston Road outside of Sierra Vista to Hereford.
  • C:  Hassyampa River Nature Preserve in early December.  While many people in northern latitudes are shoveling snow, the cottonwood trees in this little-known gem are still saying it’s fall in Arizona.

As we’ve done with the wildflowers this year, we’ll post periodic Field Reports here on our blog throughout the season with up-to-date information about color conditions in the various locations we visit and photograph.  Be sure to keep us posted with your findings along the way as well!

In the meantime, if you’re looking to start polishing your photography skills, be sure to join Colleen at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum on Sunday, September 16 for the “Get Ready for Fall” Photo Workshop (more information at arboretum.ag.arizona.edu/photoclass.html, registration required, limited to 12 students).

Happy fall color shooting!
Paul and Colleen

Aravaipa Canyon mist

Aravaipa Canyon is now past peak on the East entrance. Some rust sycamore and frozen green cottonwoods left but for the most part this remote area’s color is now frozen off.

Aravaipa Canyon waterway

Reflections in Palm Lake

Cottonwood leaf

Cottonwood leaf

For many people in northern latitudes, the month of December often rings of snow storms, shopping, and celebrations.  While the latest storm left parts of Arizona covered in that unfamiliar white stuff and the day-time high temperatures have dropped to a <sarcasm> frigid </sarcasm> 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the deciduous trees in southern Arizona are still saying it’s fall in this part of the country.

A day-long visit to the Hassyampa River Preserve outside of Wickenburg revealed a painterly palette of golds along the Hassyampa River Bed.  Peak color likely occurred a mere couple days ago, but with the recent storm leaving traces of snow behind on the high desert, the browning leaves will quickly find their way to the ground within a week or so.

A short hike up the steep Lyke’s Lookout trail showcases a more aerial view of the curvy waterway.  A stroll along the easy Palm Lake Loop and Willow Walkway provide excellent photographic opportunities to capture reflecting trees and leaves in the small man-made, but now spring-fed, pond.

View of the cotton-wood and willow-lined Hassyampa River bed

During the winter, the preserve is open Wednesday through Sunday from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm (trails close at 4:30).  An entrance fee is required.  For more information, visit the Hassyampa River Preserve.

Golden cottonwood trees reflect in Palm Lake

Color is showing well now on the lower Verde River from Needle Rock to the Salt River. Box Bar Area is Peak now.

Verde River sunset

Need a Tonto Pass. http://www.fs.usda.gov/main/tonto/passes-permits

W. Clear Creek fall cascade

The Verde Valley is showing fall color now.

WEST CLEAR CREEK at Bull Pen is at peak now and should be good for the next week. FR618 to FR 215, high clearance is a good idea.

Beaver Creek

WET BEAVER CREEK on the Bell Trail is still a week away from good color but the lower picnic area across from the campground is showing some color. Paved 179 east off of I17

Montezuma Well sycamore

MONTEZUMA WELL & CASTLE are near peak and should be good for at least 1 more week.

Montezuma Castle

DEAD HORSE STATE PARK is not looking good lots of brown on the ground with green cottonwood/sycamore, only about 1/3 color last week could get better?

 

Dead Horse S.P. lake

 

There are few places in Arizona where aspen and maples grow together, the Pinal Mountains just southwest of Globe is one of them. Probably the closest aspens to Phoenix, it’s the long winding dirt FR 651 that makes it seem farther. There are two great locations on top of the mountain, the photographs here were taken on Nov. 2nd unfortunately a large wind/snow storm hit the area on Friday night and I can’t promise any of this is left. ICEHOUSE TRAIL  A steep drop into aspen and maples that run for about a mile is the first trail, this area has the best aspen and parking is just south of the trailhead. SIXSHOOTER TRAIL drive towards the peak and turn left at the Ferndale split then drop down to the trailhead parking area. This is a great location with 4 trailheads all are great for aspen, maple, walnut, oak and other ground color.

Arizona Autumn 2011
By Paul Gill

View looking northwest at sunset from the point at Tsegi Overlook, Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Looking for something to do this weekend?

I honestly can’t think of a bad time to visit, experience, and photograph Canyon de Chelly National Monument, but in late October and early November, this culturally and geologically rich place gets even more beautiful when a splash of autumnal color outlines the canyon floor below soaring Navajo sandstone cliffs.  Fall has come a little late to this area – as it has across much of Arizona this year – so this weekend would be the perfect time to see the finale of fall colors here!

Throughout the entire canyon, the cottonwoods are peaking as we speak, so no matter which overlook you stop at, you’re bound to bring home the beauty of this park on your memory cards.   My favorite place to shoot sunrise is from Junction Overlook, looking into the sun as it rises above Canyon de Chelly.  Great places to put your tripod at sunset are Tsegi Overlook and Spider Rock Overlook looking west at sunset.

Photographing Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto from the south or north rim respectively can make capturing a “correct” exposure difficult, even at sunrise and sunset.  Direct light skimming across the canyon on clear days tends to cast odd-shaped shadows on the walls and floor, resulting in a sharp contrast between highlights and shadows.  With such dramatic difference in the tones, U-shaped histograms are common…even in low light…

Pre-dawn light at Junction Overlook

If a blue sky is overhead, pull out your telephoto lens to isolate patterns and lines of trees at the bottom of the canyon.  Look for compositions that fall entirely within a deep shadow to capture more even lighting across the scene.  Cloudy days or during civil twilight (the 30 minutes before a sunrise and after a sunset) provide the best opportunity to record saturated colors.  Both types of light enable beautiful directional, but more even illumination across the canyon…making exposures much easier to manage!

If you have the time, hire a Navajo guide to take you inside the canyon for a magical experience during the day.  Depending on your tour, you’ll see the photogenic Antelope House Ruin, White House Ruin, and Spider Rock up close and personal.  Look for ways to include the yellow leaves of the changing cottonwood trees as a framing device to help create the illusion of depth in your photograph.

The Day Use area at the entrance to the Cottonwood Campground near the Thunderbird Lodge offers an unlikely, but outstanding place to photograph within a massive grove of colorful cottonwood trees.  Emphasize the height of a single tree or a group of them by getting close to the tree trunk(s) and pointing your widest angle lens upwards.

For more information about this national monument, visit www.nps.gov/cach.  Before you visit, consider also checking the Photographer’s Ephemeris tool (available at photoephemeris.com, where you can get a free computer download, $8.99 for the iPhone app, and/or $4.99 for the Android app).  This software program allows you to pre-visualize the light’s direction at a location using Google maps, which helps save you time when you arrive on-site.

Happy shooting,

-Colleen

Fremont cottonwood grove at the Day Use area near the Cottonwood Campground

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