Wednesday, November 9, 2011

In Search of Color

The desert has a powerful, fulfilling beauty, spiritual and deep.  But what it does not have is the glory of autumn leaves in the throes of their annual ritual of changing color. For those of us who have lived in parts of the country dominated by deciduous trees, where 'going to see the color' was a rite of fall, where even the drive to work took one's breath away with the stunning brilliance of the colors, there's just something missing when the days shorten and turn cool, pumpkins appear on doorsteps, Halloween arrives, and yet there are no 'colors'.

To fill this small void, I prodded my husband to drive up the Catalina Highway to Mt. Lemmon, in search of oaks, maples, aspens, sumacs in their fall colors.  It is a particularly fascinating ascent, biologically, passing through a number of life zones from saguaros and palo verdes to oaks and junipers, thence to pines, aspens, firs and spruce, from 2500' elevation to over 9000'.  The biological equivalent, they say, of driving from Mexico to Canada, in just 27 miles.

The Halloween day began prophetically with a colorful sunrise,

and a new bloom.

After a stop for breakfast, we made our way through Monday traffic across town, finally to the Catalina Highway, rising quickly above the congested valley, past the mega-houses carved into the granite hillside, and into the saguaro-studded foothills.  Before long, the vegetation became denser, the cactus giving way to yuccas, pines, oaks and grasses.  Massive rock formations and stunning views of Tucson and its surrounding mountain ranges greet the traveler at every turn.  A popular stop is Windy Vista where tourists snap photos and rock climbers test themselves on the granite outcroppings.

Crazy hoodoos look like people (well, kinda)

and I'm glad I'm not driving so I can enjoy this marvelous scenery.  Though I've seen it many times before, it never fails to inspire and entertain.  As we reached the higher elevations, a lookout offered a stark view of the mountaintop community of Summerhaven and its surrounding forests devastated by the Aspen Fire of 2003.

But color?  No there wasn't much yet. Here and there, a tantalizing touch of shining gold or yellow.

But, mainly it seemed we were a week or more too late for any big show.  Summerhaven is slowly rebuilding, and where once stood decades-old family cabins, now enormous new dwellings sit among a blackened forest of ghost trees.  Through the village we passed and on to the Marshall Gulch picnic area.  Several trails lead from this canyon area filled with deciduous hardwoods and dense lower vegetation along a small ephemeral stream.  Finally, here I was in a cathedral of color and silence.  

A carpet of maple leaves crunched under foot as I made my way along the trail.  The hammering of a woodpecker high in the canopy had me searching for the source.  Finally the movement drew my eye to a downy woodpecker, and then I could hear several of them.  Standing still, small bird sounds became louder and soon I saw movement all around.  Juncos, brown creepers and nuthatches were all busily preparing for winter.  

Shafts of sunlight made their way deep into the recesses of the canyon, lighting up the leaves, setting the colors aglow.  Small pools of water remained in the streambed, covered with a palette of orange, yellow, red leaves.

Bear with me if you see more striking colors every day out your window. I was in a momentary heaven and my camera felt the same, it just kept clicking and clicking.  The blue, blue sky above providing a magnificent backdrop to the forest.

The trail led on and I had to force myself to turn around as the light was fading and the mountain chill setting in.  

A handsome Abert's squirrel, with his pointed ears and bushy tail ran up a nearby tree to watch the passerby, carefully eyeing the black object being pointed at him.

Back on the road to Summerhaven, a white-tailed doe and buck strolled out of our way, not too concerned with the car.

At the Cookie Cabin's patio in the village, we gorged on freshly-homemade berry cobbler topped with ice cream, the biggest peanut butter cookie you've ever seen and a delicious cup of coffee.

Then it was back down the mountain.

Here's to days of beauty, peace, nature, and glorious color!


  1. What a great trip from desert to forest and back. I'm so glad I get the golden aspen fall at the North Rim before returning to the brown oak fall in Yarnell. I have to agree that as much as I love the desert I'd miss the changes of fall.

  2. What a delightful account of your day trip up the mountain! You are certainly gifted with words and your camera loves you!! I was quite taken by that squirrel - those ears! OMG! I've never seen anything quite like that before. ~karen

  3. Wow, what a cool post! Being a desert native, I don't know what I'm missing when it comes to fall color. I need to get up there soon. Great photos!

  4. BTW I added your blog to my blog roll.

  5. What a wonderful series of shots. I'm jealous I didn't think of something like this first. Seriously, these are beautiful. I especially like the leaves on the water.

  6. Beautiful photos! We love Arizona and can't wait to get back again. Such a beautiful place to live.

  7. You found beautiful fall foliage. I love the pictures of the colorful leaves in the creek and the adorable squirrel!


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