Fall in Park City is truly something to behold. Temperatures cool, crowds dissipate, and the mountains change from a sea of green to a hodgepodge of yellows, oranges, and reds. If you’re like us, you’ve always wondered what causes the leaves to turn these vibrant and spectacular colors, but again, if you’re like us, you’ve never bothered to find out. Lucky for you, we finally did—and we’re here to give you as simple of an explanation as possible so you can get out there and enjoy the views with your newfound leaf expertise.
Some fall colors are always present in leaves, but they are covered up during the summer by green pigment from a chemical known as chlorophyll. Chlorophyll absorbs sunlight to aid in photosynthesis, which is the process of converting light energy to chemical energy (or food) for plants. The shorter days and cooler temps of fall serve as a signal for plants to stop making food, which results in the breakdown of chlorophyll. The absence of this chemical results in exposed yellow and orange pigments, and voilà—you’ve got fall leaves!
Brilliant reds, however, are a mystery. Interestingly enough, scientists aren’t exactly sure why trees create anthocyanins in autumn, which produce the red pigment we all love. Some theorize it is a form of “sunscreen” to protect leaves and allow the tree to soak up as many nutrients as possible, while others think it is a way to prevent the leaves from being eaten. Whatever the case, the sugar trapped in leaves results in the vivid colors we see.
Feel like an expert yet? Now it’s time to put your new knowledge to good use. Autumn comes and goes quickly in our mountain town, so to help you make the most of the season, we’ve compiled a few of our favorite hikes that really put on a fall show. Be sure to bring a friend along so you can share your leaf wisdom!
Mileage: 2.6 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 920 feet
Duration: 1.5 – 2 hours
If you’re looking for a quick leg-burner with spectacular views, Iron Mountain is the trail for you. This hike begins by briefly winding up through a field before ducking into the forest where you will remain until the lookout. The steady incline won’t be the only thing taking your breath away—this trail will have you enveloped by large groves of stunning yellow aspens with vibrant red maple trees peeking through the canopy. Plus, there’s no better excuse for a breather than to stop and snap a picture of the fall colors. After about 1.3 miles, you will come to a scenic lookout with a bench perfect for taking in the colorful views of Park City Mountain across the way and Old Town down below. Although the trail technically keeps going for another 1.5 miles to the actual top of Iron Mountain, we recommend you save your breath (and your legs) and head back down from here. The views from this lookout are the best you’re going to find on this trail!
Lost Prospector to Gambel Oak Loop
Mileage: 3.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 500 feet
Duration: 1.5 – 2 hours
More in the mood for a fall stroll with minimal ups and downs? We’ve got you covered. Gambel Oak Loop is a family-friendly hike with spectacular fall foliage, and we recommend doing it counter-clockwise. The trail begins on Lost Prospector, which is shrouded by red and orange Gambel oak and offers an occasional (and very rewarding) peek of Old Town through the trees. After a short ways, you will come to Mellow Mountain road, which you must walk across and down a few hundred feet to connect to Gambel Oak Loop on the other side. Follow a series of switchbacks up the mountain where you’ll be surrounded by—you guessed it—Gambel oak. Once you reach Masonic trail at the crest, catch your breath and take in the panoramic views of Deer Valley, Old Town, and Park City Mountain. Then continue on Masonic, where you’ll hike through breathtaking yellow aspens, red-orange maples, and more Gambel oak. When you reach an intersection for Lost Prospector, finish the loop by following this trail out of the trees, where you can admire the fall colors one more time above Main Street and on Park City Mountain.
Armstrong to Dawn’s Loop
Mileage: 3.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 859 feet
Duration: 1.5 – 2 hours
This loop is yet another can’t-miss trail in the fall. Armstrong trail begins near Silver Star Lift and goes all the way up to King Con lift before connecting to Dawn’s trail and looping back down. On the way up to King Con, you’ll feel like you’ve entered another world as you wind your way through massive quaking aspens turning a brilliant yellow and smaller red and orange Gambel oak and maple trees. Everywhere you look will be covered in fall colors, so get ready to take way too many photos. Once you hit King Con and continue onto Dawn’s trail, you’ll loop up and around the lift where you will emerge from the trees, cross a few ski runs, and enjoy a wide-open view of the colors changing on Park City Mountain. After, you’ll continue to descend through impossibly tall aspens before emerging onto the last portion of the trail, which is surrounded by sagebrush and meanders underneath Silver Star lift. Though not in the midst of the fall trees, this portion of the trail offers expansive views of Park City, as well as the beautiful trees you just emerged from. If biking is more your speed, you can ride up Armstrong, connect to Dawn’s, and then take Spiro all the way down for a quick, scenic ride.
Bloods Lake to Peak 10420 to Clayton Peak
Mileage: 5.8 miles round trip
Elevation Gain: 2000 feet
Duration: 2.5 – 3.5 hours
We included this hike for those looking for a more challenging fall adventure. The initial 1.4 miles to Bloods Lake are mellow but sprinkled with a few switchbacks to get your blood pumping. On your way to the lake, you will pass through groves of yellow quaking aspen trees with views of the peaks you are about to ascend. The lake itself is surrounded by pine trees and a scenic spot to rest for a moment. When you’re ready, continue past the lake for about 0.8 mile until you come to a fork in the trail. On your left will be Clayton Peak and on your right will be Peak 10420. We recommend first summiting 10420 and then heading up Clayton, but if you only want to hit one of the peaks, go with Clayton.
Both mountains require a grueling, steep trudge to the top, but Clayton offers a mild boulder scramble to keep things entertaining. Once you’ve gained the summit, you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views showcasing a plethora of reds and yellows. From Peak 10420, you’ll see Bonanza Flat directly below you coated in yellow, and beyond this, you can spot the Uinta mountains. If you turn around, you’ll be looking at the yellow-spotted Big Cottonwood Canyon dotted with lakes and Brighton Resort ski lifts. Clayton Peak offers this same view, plus the added bonus of Wasatch Mountain State Park covered in fiery red maple trees and views all the way to Mount Timpanogos! While the two peaks do provide similar vantage points, it’s way more fun to say you climbed two mountains instead of one (plus, Peak 10420 only adds about a half mile to the hike).
Each of these trails offer a unique way to experience all fall has to offer in Park City, and whichever hike you choose, you won’t be disappointed. If you check out one of these trails or find one we left out, share your adventure with us by tagging @jans_experts on social media!
By: Erin McNeely, Content Writer