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The Best Scenic Drives for Fall Colors in the Southwest

Most people picture arid plains when they think of the Southwest, but you can find plenty of colorful fall leaves in the region.  

The best part is you don’t have to leave the car to enjoy them. These scenic drives are full of classic autumn imagery. 

Today we’ll help you find the best places for leaf peeping without heading north. 

Let’s drive!

A stream with fall leaf colors of red and gold around it, possibly in the Southwest USA
Arizona’s Oak Creek Canyon is an excellent place to enjoy autumn colors

Find Stunning Fall Foliage in the Southwest

When you think of autumn festivals, you probably imagine an idyllic New England town. But the Southwest has plenty of beautiful fall foliage for the curious traveler. Plus, the region’s impressive rock formations and stunning mountain scenery will paint the perfect contrast for your pictures. 

Because the climate varies so much at different elevations, the viewing window is much longer than in northern destinations.

Leaf peeping starts in mid-September and can continue through November at lower altitudes. 

You can explore several national forests in the region and find some of the oldest trees in the country. And unlike some traditional fall destinations, you can enjoy warm weather in quite a few spots while soaking up the color change.  

Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona

Oak Creek Canyon is on Highway 89A between Sedona and Flagstaff. It’s a 12-mile gorge cut by a tributary of the Verde River. It also happens to be in the part of the Coconino National Forest with the most deciduous trees. These are the ones that give you gorgeous autumn colors. 

We recommend the popular route just west of the main highway, starting at Dry Creek Road. You’ll hit Boyton Canyon Road and take it to Red Rock Loop. 

It’s a 14-mile trek that takes you along the canyon. Due to all the switchbacks and narrow roads, it’s a slow drive, allowing you more time to take in the natural beauty. 

To enjoy the view, check out Oak Creek Vista for pictures of the best fall leaves in the Southwest. You’ll also enjoy colorful rock formations and awe-inspiring sights of the Grand Canyon’s little cousin. 

Where to Stay

Rancho Sedona is an idyllic RV park located on Oak Creek. Hiking trails are a short trek from your campsite, and the campgrounds are quiet and well-maintained. But the best part is you’re also a quick walk from downtown Sedona’s shopping and restaurants. 

It’s the perfect combination of nature and convenience. Plus, you’ll get a sneak preview of some of the fall leaves in the canyon. 

If you plan to hang out a bit longer, here are Places to Find Snow in the Southwest.

Fall Color Loop, Utah

Utah’s Fall Color Loop combines three scenic byways for jaw-dropping leaf peeping and iconic Southwest landscapes. You’ll explore Utah’s Patchwork Parkway on S.R. 143, Markagunt High Plateau down S.R. 14, and Cedar Breaks on S.R. 148.

Picture-perfect views include bold reds, eye-catching oranges, and peaceful yellows courtesy of trees like canyon maples and aspens. But the best part is the ever-changing landscape. 

From a natural “painted rock” amphitheater to the glittery pink cliffs of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, the stark landscape is impressive and pairs perfectly with the autumn foliage. It’s a two-hour trek that can easily transform into something longer if you want to plan hikes into your journey. 

Where to Stay

Cedar Canyon RV Park is a great option for this area. It’s five minutes outside Cedar City and 20 miles from Cedar Break National Monument. But unlike other city-adjacent stays, this place offers a ton of natural beauty and a remote feel. 

They have everything you need to make your visit comfortable, including electric and water hookups and access to Starlink satellite internet. However, cell service isn’t great for most carriers. 

Planning to do some free camping while you’re there? Check out The 11 Best Free Campsites in the Southwest.

Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway, New Mexico

This 66-mile loop is for the more ambitious leaf peepers. It runs through Santa Fe National Forest and the Valles Caldera National Preserve, where you can see the remains of ancient volcanic eruptions. 

You’ll also have a chance to soak in the Spence Hot Springs. The loop continues through Los Alamos and Chaco Culture National Historical Park, where you can see 13th-century Indigenous dwellings. Additionally, the drive has abundant wildlife and natural spaces, including steep canyons, mesas, and volcanic cliffs. 

This byway is a treasure of the Southwest any time of year, but the fall colors make it especially gorgeous.  

Where to Stay

The Juniper Family Campground is right off Highway 4 outside Los Alamos. They offer affordable tent and RV dry camping on a first-come, first-served basis. 

While you won’t have electric or water hookups, they do have restrooms and drinking water available. After a long day of checking out the fall colors, this is a perfect stop.

Scenic view with peak fall leaves in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah USA.
Scenic drives in the Southwest offer incredible views of autumn colors

San Juan Skyway, Colorado

The San Juan Skyway is arguably the most beautiful drive in the nation. However, the bold hues of the alpine trees only make it more breathtaking in the fall. You’ll pass cute little villages and crystal-clear lakes reflecting the jagged peaks and autumn colors along the way.

The 236-mile route also goes through Telluride and Durango, so you’ll have plenty of delicious local eateries to choose from when it’s time for a break. The crown jewel of the trip is the stretch of US Route 550, known as “The Million Dollar Highway.” 

You’ll get up-close views of the area’s winding mountains, valleys, and gorges. Despite the name, it’s a cheap thrill that may have you clinging to the edge of your seat. 

This is also where you’ll find the peak viewing of Southwest fall foliage. Red Mountain Pass puts you at 11,000 feet elevation for a bird’s eye view of the gorgeous trees and landscapes below. 

Where to Stay

The majestic views on this scenic drive are worth devoting some extra time to. Alpen Rose RV Park is outside Durango and makes a perfect home base for leaf peeping. Plus, you’ll also have mountain vistas right outside your window.

You’ll be in a great spot to head to downtown Durango or visit Mesa Verde National Park. Full hookups are available, and you’ll also have access to a swimming pool, free WiFi, and laundry facilities. 

Plan your Southwest trip with Fodor’s Essential Southwest: The Best of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah.

The Southwest is Popping With Fall Colors

New England isn’t the only place to enjoy traditional autumn festivities. The Southwest offers jaw-dropping views any time of the year, and fall leaves only make them more impressive. You’ll find inspiration from some of the most unique geological formations in the nation.

So grab a warm cider or a pumpkin spice latte and start planning your trip!

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