Hunting For Fall Colors

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Autumn has arrived, so fall color cannot be far away.

Get out and enjoy what the Rim country has to offer in this quieter, slightly slower-paced time of year.

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With the drought drying out northern Gila County, finding fall color will be a little more challenging this year.

All you need to do is take a drive around town, or up Highways 87 or 260 into the mountains to see how the season touches our part of the world.

In the older neighborhoods of Payson, where flourishing, non-native trees are planted in yards, you can see some really spectacular autumn colors. One of the neighborhoods to see is Payson Ranchos -- turn west on Airport Road, then north on McLane, any turn from Saddle Lane on will take you into the subdivision and a world of wonderful golds, yellows and reds.

A visit to the parks of Payson -- the town hall grounds, Green Valley Park and Rumsey Park -- will get you close enough to brilliant fall colors to take terrific photos.

On the road, a look up into any of the canyons coming down off the Rim will reveal another collection of colors. With the deciduous trees growing along the East Verde River and the creeks that feed it, you will find still more color, accompanied by the wonderful sound of the water dancing over the boulders and river rocks.

If getting out and about, close to nature is what you crave, we talked to local experts in hiking and birding.

Dave Engleman of the Payson Packers recommends several hikes in the area where fall colors can be found around mid-October.

Before taking off on a fall outing: dress appropriately, especially wearing good, sturdy shoes and socks that will prevent blisters; have the right maps, you will need ones for both the Tonto and Coconino National Forests and they can be purchased from the Payson Ranger Station; a compass, that you know how to use; a well-charged cell phone; pack water and food, but not so much that it will be a burden; and let someone know where you are going and when you plan to be back. While in the forests be aware, there may be snakes in rocky areas, especially the Arizona Black (timber snake), which is aggressive, Engleman said.

Engleman has been hiking the Rim country for more than a dozen years. Among the spots he recommends for fall color hikes are: Quaking Aspen Canyon, Oak Springs, the 260 Trail, Monument Trail, and the Pine Trail.

Quaking Aspen Canyon is in Coconino County, off Forest Road 300 on Forest Road 308.

Take Highway 87 north and about two miles north of the West Highway 260 turnoff. Turn on the Rim Road, or Forest Road 300, continue on this road until reaching the burn area (you will cross Potato Lake Road, which is Forest Road 147). At the east end of the burn area is Forest Road 308, park on this road just as you leave the burn area.

Start your hike going up the 308 Road. About one mile in, 308 goes to the right and an old forest road bears to the left, take the old road to a fenced area. You can cross the fence to get off the road and then follow the fence line, keeping the road to your right. You are now basically in Quaking Aspen Canyon where you can find nice fall colors. There is a deepening cross canyon that you will encounter, so go to your right and around the head of this canyon.

Continue on and you will reach a refurbished cattle trail that begins at a break in the fence and continues further down into Quaking Aspen. The canyon base is like a narrow, grassy meadow with numerous aspen trees. An old road is also at the bottom.

Walking in a northerly direction you will reach the 308 Road again. In that area, the 308 and the 147 Roads come together. However, as you near the 308 you can go up a small ridge on the left, climb over or under a fence, to an old road that parallels the 147 Road (Potato Lake Road). Follow it a half-mile or so, and cross a wash on the right to continue to the Potato Lake sign. Go on to Potato Lake for a break and enjoy the numerous aspen in the area. In mid-October, they will be in good color, as will the red maples. Potato Lake is spring-fed and just north of the lake is Potato Draw, the headwaters of East Clear Creek.

Return to the 147 Road and go south about two city blocks. Cross the wash again and pick up the old road. The wash is deeper here, so pick a good spot to cross. A short distance down the road, the road will bear to the right and on the left is an opening, or a small meadow. Go through the meadow and climb a hill and you will be in Quaking Aspen Canyon again. If you miss this spot, going left anywhere in that area, you will reach the canyon.

East of here, the road you came in on will be to the east. Follow the fence line or go to the road and follow it back to your car.

This is about a seven-mile hike and is of medium difficulty. It also is at about 7,000 feet above sea level.

Oak Springs Hike

This hike is in Gila County, south of Pine.

Take Highway 87 north from Payson to Pine, at the very south end of the community is a left turn off the highway, marked with a large number of name signs on a tree, this is Bradshaw Drive. Make the left and a short way in on the road, at the first cross street, you will make another left. This road deadends and there is space to park. Leave your car and start walking south to the trail, which should be marked "Oak Springs Trail."

As you hike, you will cross a wash, look for the trail on the other side of the wash and then follow the trail, you will soon reach a fence, behind it are a couple of summer homes (do not cross the fence). The trail will climb for a distance and it is mildly strenuous. Follow the ridge of the hill and to the south is a terrific view of Oak Springs Canyon, and in the distance, the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.

The trail then drops down and crosses another wash where color can be found in mid-October. There is a gradual climb to a signed trail directing you to the spring itself.

"For someone who is inquisitive, on the right, immediately off the trail is the remnants of a stone wall, Indian perhaps, or the remains of an early goat camp," Engleman said.

Leaving the spring, you can go back the way you came, making about a six-mile hike, or you can take another route and create a loop hike.

From the spring, go straight north and pick up another trail that will take you to Hardscrabble Road. Take the roadbed to the right to where the pavement starts and then walking east on the road, any road going to your right once you get near Highway 87 will take you back to Bradshaw Drive and lead you to your car.

Monument Trail

Monument Trail is at the end of Granite Dells Road, as are two other trails. The Monument Trail is signed and goes around Monument Peak. Engleman said the peak is not very high and can be climbed.

In the peak's saddle, on the north side, are Indian ruins, and on the east is a hill with more ruins. The other two trails are to the right of the Monument Trail, one crosses a wash and continues to the right, the other just goes around a wash. However, there are impressive granite rock formations in the area.

Pine Trail

Pine Trail starts off Highway 87, near Mile Post 280, north of the 87 and West 260 intersection.

Engleman said this is a beautiful hike and takes you to Pine Creek. It also continues on for about 10 miles to the Pine Trailhead on the south side of the community of Pine, and there are pockets of colorful trees all throughout the area.

Fall bird watching

Perhaps a little less taxing than hiking for hiking's sake -- but not always, as some of the best birding sites are the same as those recommended for hiking -- and just as rewarding, are fall bird watching outings.

Dave Hallock and Carol Lease, of the Payson Birders, provided identification of many of the listed birding areas.

Some areas in town and the outlying areas for good birding are:

  • Green Valley Park and along Lake Drive to the ponds behind the golf course; American Gulch and Doll Baby Ranch Road.
  • Flowing Springs, about four miles north of Payson. Take the dirt road toward Flowing Springs and drive to the fenced Forest Service parking and camping area.
  • Shoofly Ruins, located off of the Houston Mesa Road. There is a trail and many jeep roads in the area. Nice mix of grassland, juniper and some chaparral. Generally fairly level hiking.
  • Washington Park located north of the Control Road. Various species of woodpeckers in the parking area at the end of the road, Winter Wren along the creek.
  • Oak Springs, west of Pine off Hardscrabble Road. Habitat is mostly ponderosa pine with a good shrub under story.
  • Pine Trailhead. Go north on Highway 87 to the trailhead, located just before entering Pine. Good birding in the parking area and along the trail to Dripping Springs. Habitat is mostly ponderosa pine, mixed with chaparral.
  • Fossil Creek, take Fossil Springs Road out of Strawberry for about five miles to the trailhead for Fossil Creek. The road down to Fossil Creek is not for the faint of heart and is very steep. The trail is very difficult all the way down to the creek, however for the first mile or so it is a nice hike and some great chaparral habitat.
  • Horton Creek and Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery. Take Highway 260 east about 12 miles, then turn left to go to the fish hatchery. Good birding is all along the creek and particularly good around the ponds at the hatchery.
  • Hells Gate Trailhead, located east of Payson, off Highway 260. Take Forest Road 405A just past Little Green Valley. This trail is best taken during the week as it is multiple use and motorized vehicles are allowed.
  • See Canyon Trailhead, located off Highway 260 at Christopher Creek. Take Forest Road 284 to the end. Several trails along the creek, and good riparian habitat with mixed conifer forest.
  • Woods Canyon Lake Trail located off Highway 260, 32 miles. Turn left on Rim Road 300 and go to the northwest 3.4 miles to Woods Canyon Lake Road, 105. Turn right and go east to Rocky Point Picnic Area. The 4.5-mile loop trail around the alpine lake is an easy walk on dirt and rock path through shady forest.
  • Willow Springs Lake Trail is another pleasant forest walk on a dirt and rock fisherman's trail. Go east on Highway 260, approximately 34 miles, turn left and go one mile north on Willow Springs Lake Road 149 to the parking area.
  • Deer Creek Trailhead, 17 miles south on Highway 87. There are three trails out of this area and all are beautiful, however the third trail, No. 48, consistently has some of the best birding in the area, good riparian bordered by semi-desert grassland and chaparral. Black-throated Sparrow, Lazuli Bunting, Cactus Wren, all three species of oriole and many others.

Capturing the color

Frank Mulkern of Mulkern Photography in Payson shared the following tips for shooting the best fall photos:

  • The best time to shoot is in the morning or afternoon when the sun is low and shining through the leaves rather than on them for the most intense color.

"Shoot at an angle to the sun, using a lens shade. You can get a fairly close angle at this time, but watch for lens flair, which makes the lens seem foggy," he said.

  • On an overcast day, you can shoot all day, but the colors will not be as intense.
  • Don't just shoot wide angle shots, getting all the trees in one frame. After you have the wide shot, find a pretty tree and shoot that, then focus on a single leaf and fill the frame with it.
  • Another good shot is to get up high and shoot down into a canyon, you will have the contrast of the evergreens and the colors.
  • Photos of colorful leaves on dead pine needles are another neat picture.

"Contrasts with color and contrasts with light are what catches the eye," Mulkern said.

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