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If you've lived your entire Phoenix life without knowing the fall wonderland that lies 2 hours to the north, then you've been missing one of the greatest highlights of Arizona. The trees of Northern Arizona create some of the most beautiful fall colors I've ever seen.
Aspen groves create their own Instagram filter
Locket Meadow and the Inner Basin trail are the premiere leafing destination in Northern Arizona. After a harrowing drive up a forest road you are greeted with a beautiful meadow ringed by unbroken groves of aspen trees. The scenery is nearly unrivaled, making the panoramic vista all the more spectacular. The Inner Basin trail allows the active leafer an opportunity to venture deep into the aspen groves to be sandwiched between golden leaves and golden leaf litter. It's an 8-mile out-and-back starting at 9,000' and ending at over 10,000'...the leaves aren't the only thing that will take your breath away!
A tale of two seasons
The downside of being one of the most known and photographed fall destinations in Arizona are the crowds. In years past there was a free-for-all to get up the mountain and park, resulting often in driving the parking loop many times in hopes that someone left. Last year the forest service started controlling traffic with a one-down, one-up policy. The positive part of this is a guaranteed parking spot upon arrival; the negative was waiting in line for 30+ minutes at the bottom of the mountain. Even with the new organization the traffic jam is enough to get your trip off to an unpleasant start.
But there's another option!
The leaves and ferns of Kachina Trail
A shockingly under-visited destination that has comparable fall color is Kachina Trail on the opposite side of the Peaks. Kachina Trail lacks the sprawling view of the aspen grove that Locket Meadow has, but what you lose there you gain in a beautiful, aspen-lined drive up Snowbowl Road with a pull-off at Aspen Corner for easy access to an aspen grove. Once at the trailhead you will find significantly more parking because it leaves from a parking lot at Snowbowl. And overall the trail is far less trafficked and much less taxing.
On the trail the trees are not as dense, but still beautifully abundant. Kachina Trail gets more precipitation, so rather than a leaf-litter floor, the aspens are contrasted by a carpet of red ferns. It has essentially all the positives of Locket Meadow, with far greater ease of access.