Autumn is a curious season for desert dwellers. Just as the blistering heat of summer fades and a life outdoors once again seems possible, desirable even, everyone starts thinking about getting out of town.
Because the one thing missing from the desert’s rather idyllic fall season is the colorful crescendo of changing leaves.
For many, autumn is when nature does its finest work. So if you’re a leaf peeper, it’s time to start making plans to experience it — the crisp air, a crackling fire, hearty comfort food and, of course, a dazzling display of colorful leaves.
Here are some of the best autumn road trips in Arizona.
Road trip: Here are 3 of the most scenic drives in Arizona and how to do them
Drive: Spend a couple of days in the depths of Oak Creek Canyon to experience the entire leafy palette of a New England autumn. Except this scene is set against high crimson cliffs, creating a distinctly Arizona vibe.
State Route 89A leads north from Sedona, chasing the creek and exposing dramatic panoramas at every turn. As the canyon narrows, cottonwood, velvet ash, sycamore, alder and willow trees form an arching canopy over the road, with peak colors occurring from mid-October into early November.
Numerous pullouts offer access to the clear-running creek laden with a flotilla of brightly colored leaves. Use caution when getting in and out of your car on this busy road.
Note that road construction is taking place in the north end of Oak Creek Canyon near Pumphouse Wash below the switchbacks. Expect some delays. Follow the Arizona Department of Transportation’s Twitter account or go to https://www.az511.com for updates.
Hike: The West Fork Trail threads its way for 3 miles between soaring canyon walls as it repeatedly crosses a shallow stream. The autumn chill transforms the woodlands into a tapestry of yellow, orange and red beneath a sky achingly blue.
It is stunning, which is why this trail is always crowded in autumn. Try to visit early on a weekday. The hike starts from the Call of the Canyon Trailhead in Oak Creek Canyon, 9.5 miles north of Sedona. $11 per vehicle, cash or check only.
Secret Sedona hikes:5 scenic trails you won’t have to share with crowds of people
Rent a cabin: Here’s the secret to getting an early start hiking West Fork Trail. Spend the night before in a cabin in the canyon.
The closest ones are at Don Hoel’s Cabins. Along with a market and café, the rustic cabins are scattered in the woods where guests enjoy private creek access. Many cabins have fireplaces, which add a nice sense of coziness on a cool autumn evening.
Details: www.donhoelscabins.com.
Another great option is the comfortable and stylish cabins at Orchard Canyon on Oak Creek. An autumn visit is also the perfect time to savor the bounty of their harvest. The 17 cabins nestle on 10 lush creekside acres amid organic gardens and historic orchards. A farm-to-table dinner and buffet breakfast are included with your stay.
Details: www.enjoyorchardcanyon.com.
Avoid the parking chaos:Now you can get to Sedona’s best hikes on a free shuttle
Drive: You’ll find the quintessential Arizona autumn in the high country of Flagstaff with some of the state’s most impressive aspen groves crowning the mountains.
Make a leisurely drive up Snowbowl Road, which starts from the base of the San Francisco Peaks and climbs through a blending of forest and meadows. Mingled with the ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and blue spruce are waves of quaking aspen at the higher elevations.
Peak color generally stretches from the end of September through mid-October.
Hike: Get an early enough start and you might snag a parking spot at Aspen Corner, about 5.5 miles up the mountain on Snowbowl Road. This is one of the premier fall photo ops in the state with a wall of shimmering leaves forming a backdrop. A path meanders past the golden groves and connects with a segment of the Arizona Trail continuing through pine trees and sloping green fields.
If no parking is available at Aspen Corner, continue up the road to the Arizona Snowbowl where you’ll find another hiking option. Beginning from the Humphreys Trailhead, the Aspen Loop Trail branches to the west. It rambles through aspen groves lined with ferns and open glades with long-reaching views, offering some wonderful picnic options.
Sip a craft beer: The golden hues don’t end on the mountain slopes. Flagstaff is known as Arizona’s Craft Brew City, home to a delicious collection of breweries. Many of them produce hearty seasonal varieties as a perfect complement to the crisp mountain air. Collect stamps in a passport at each of your stops and take home a commemorative pint glass.
Details: www.craftbeerflg.com.
Where to drink beer in Flagstaff:A guide to downtown craft breweries
Celebrate: On Oct. 1, the Flagstaff Oktoberfest will transform Wheeler Park into a Bavarian beer garden. There will be polka music, bratwurst, pretzels and plenty of beer. And, as in all Oktoberfest situations, the possibility of the chicken dance is all too real. Make sure your lederhosen aren’t too snug because there’s a brat-eating contest, too. Festivities go from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Details: flagstaffoktoberfest.com.
Where to eat in Flagstaff? These 10 restaurants show off the city’s best cooking
Drive: The geological drama of the Mogollon Rim plays right into autumn’s strengths. Differing elevations mix forest types and create pockets of surprising color. Drive Forest Road 300, also known as the Rim Road, between State Route 260 and State Route 87 for vivid hues and unforgettable panoramas.
You’ll enjoy big overlooks, a scattering of lakes, hiking trails and evergreen forests mingled with Emory oaks, Rocky Mountain maples and quaking aspens. The road is mostly unpaved but can be managed in a sedan.
The most vivid color usually occurs from early to late October.
Hike: Hidden away in a slender valley west of Payson, the world’s largest travertine bridge looms above a shallow stream. Tonto Natural Bridge State Park protects a riparian corridor with water spilling down the rock formations to Pine Creek. Multiple short but steep trails descend into the brightly hued forest of oak, alder, walnut and cottonwood. Admission is $7; $4 for ages 7-13.
Details: azstateparks.com.
Spend the night: Use the hamlet of Strawberry as a base camp for Rim Country adventures. Loaded with charm, the Strawberry Inn offers such a wide array of accommodations that virtually every traveler’s need is met.
It’s a boutique hotel with eight traditional rooms, a plush guesthouse, a bunkhouse, a luxury cabin, tiny cottages and some glamped-up Airstream trailers. Reservations and check-ins are done online like vacation rentals, but a property manager is nearby.
Details: www.thestrawberryinn.com.
History: The Rim Country Museum occupies an old forest ranger station and contains a wealth of artifacts and exhibits reflecting the history of the region, including the savage Pleasant Valley War. The recreated Zane Grey Cabin is next door, and both museums are perched on a hill above the lakes in Payson’s Green Valley Park.
Details: rimcountrymuseum.org.
More:Arizona’s 10 best hikes are gorgeous. Here’s where they are and how to do them
Drive: From Pinetop, State Route 260 heads east across the White Mountains, delivering a stunning combination of forests, meadows, lakes and streams. The ponderosa pines are repeatedly broken by groves of aspen trees cloaked in golden leaves through early October.
The road passes the turnoff for Greer and rambles 45 miles to the towns of Eagar and Springerville in the Round Valley bisected by the glistening curves of the Little Colorado River.
Sitting 25 miles south of Springerville and near the junction of SR 261 and SR 273, Big Lake is considered one of the best fishing lakes in the state. It’s also one of the most picturesque in the fall, surrounded by pines, spruce and stands of aspens bursting into fiery gold and crimson.
The bands of color are mirrored by the water, creating a memorable scene. At an elevation of 9,000 feet, expect the autumnal show to start early in the season.
Dig in: Historic Molly Butler Lodge and Restaurant in Greer has been dishing up hearty meals since 1910. Favorites include the award-winning prime rib, Hot Dang Chili and Molly’s Special Steak with Mormon Gravy. While there are plenty of lighter options on the menu, this is the kind of rib-sticking food we crave during the cooler months.
Details: www.mollybutlerlodge.com.
Indigenous history: An ancient pueblo from the Mogollon culture, Casa Malpais perches on a high terrace amid a field of volcanic boulders near Springerville. The site was built and occupied between 1250 and 1340 and contains an astronomical observatory, great kiva and natural stone stairway.
Tours originate from the Casa Malpais Museum in Springerville from March through November. Museum admission is free; the tour costs $12 ($5 for ages 4-12) and involves a moderate hike with some steep, rocky places. 
Details: www.springervilleaz.gov/casamalpais.
Find the reporter at www.rogernaylor.com. Or follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RogerNaylorinAZ or Twitter @AZRogerNaylor.
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