As a New Englander, I’m spoiled for foliage. I have always smugly believed in the superiority of our country roads lined in red maples. Then I saw mile after mile of Utah mountainsides painted in bright yellow aspens; it broadened my view.
And it gave me an entirely new perspective on the same mountains I’d skied the previous winter. The chairlifts I’d shivered on in January now carried me to lofty views over a golden landscape and to hikes that unfolded layer after layer of sunbathed aspens.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Utah’s Wasatch Mountains are clad in aspens, whose leaves turn bright yellow in the fall, and other hardwoods that turn shades of orange.
- Park City is a good base for hiking, mountain climbing or viewing foliage from high above on lifts at its ski areas.
- Good for travelers who love the out-of-doors, but like to choose a base with fine dining and other activities.
I didn’t start out on the chairlifts. I expected to when local friends suggested a hike at Deer Valley Resort, whose carefully groomed ski trails I know well. We started at the ski lodge at the base of the mountain, and followed our friend Art up the broad slope toward the chair lift. And past it, banishing any thought that this would be a ride-up-walk-down hike. I should have noticed that the lift wasn’t moving – although open in the summer, Deer Valley lifts close for September and October.
Climbing Deer Crest Trail
We were headed for the Deer Crest Trail, following Art along a gravel path that rose diagonally behind the base lodge. Almost immediately the views opened up, as the trail widened and made a switch-back. We followed a grassy ski trail that I remembered from winter, before plunging back into the woods. Already I was noticing that our starting point was at a higher altitude than the tallest of my own White Mountains, at well over 5000 feet. My lungs reminded me clearly that they were used to sea level.
I stopped to admire the woods we were walking through, a world of aspens whose slender gray trunks rose to a dancing cloud of yellow leaves that stirred and whispered above me at the slightest hint of a breeze. Mixed with the shimmering yellow, occasional western conifers made a dark counterpoint that made the golds seem even brighter.
A stop off at the highpoint of Deer Crest provides a spectacular view of the huge tree-rimmed Jordanelle Reservoir, far below. Art and Danielle tell us that as colorful as the trees are in the fall, the mountainsides are just as bright in the spring and early summer, when dozens of varieties of wildflowers carpet the open trails and high meadows.
While a few steeper sections of the Deer Crest Trail called for breaks, much of it rises along more gently rising terrain, crossing grassy fields and through tree-shaded forest. Our upward hike ended at the top of the Silver Lake Express chairlift, where I met the day’s only disappointment. Royal Street Café, where I had kicked my ski boots off under the table and tucked into some memorable mid-mountain lunches, closes in early September, not to reopen until ski season.
While gold-medal hopefuls can practice their ski turns and jumps at Park City’s Olympic Park all year round, I’ll save my skiing for winter’s famed champagne powder and enjoy the mountains for their golden foliage in the fall. I can still get back home before the last maple leaves have fallen.
Park City, only a short drive from Salt Lake City’s airport, is a mountain-surrounded base for some of Utah’s most scenic autumn drives. The Cottonwood canyons, Guardsmans Pass and the Alpine Loop through Uinta National Forest are all breathtaking in the fall. Park City Mountain and Canyons Resort both offer aerial mountain rides for 360-degree panoramas.
To reach Guardsmans Pass and the Tri-County Peak Trail, follow Route 224 out of Deer Valley via Ontario Canyon Road and Marsac Avenue. This becomes the Guardsman Pass Road to Brighton and Big Cottonwood Canyon. The route winds up through the mountains, with jaw-dropping views. At the top of the pass, where the road makes a V opposite Guardsman Peak, you can park at a meeting point of two trailheads. The one to the left leads across a meadow and down to Blood Lake and the right option climbs upward to the Tri-County Peaks. The Peaks Trail is a short hike of about a mile, but it’s a a steep mile, climbing steadily over loose gravel and splintered shale. In the fall, when the ground is especially dry, the earth around the rocks becomes the consistency of baby powder, making for a slippery ascent. But the view from the top is worth the slipping and sliding: From this open rounded summit, a 360-degree view over the valley of Brighton and Solitude opens, with mountain tops whichever way you turn. Below stretches a sea of yellow and orange, outlined here and there by dark stands of pine.
If scrambling over crumbly rock doesn’t appeal to you, there is another — lazier — way: The chairlift at Park City Mountain is open. Take the lift in the late afternoon as a reward for hiking all day, and you’ll see the shadows lengthen across the yellow mountainsides and the shades of yellow deepen into gold and ochre. No, it’s not the reds and oranges of my New England autumns — but the golden spectacle is worth a place on anyone’s fall foliage to-do list.