Beautiful Places for Fall Foliage Within 5 Hours of Las Vegas

Marvel at the gorgeous changing colors of fall at these nature spots across Nevada.

Great Basin National Park
Great Basin National Park | Arlene Waller/Shutterstock
Great Basin National Park | Arlene Waller/Shutterstock

Fall has arrived, with all of the pumpkin spice-flavored items, cozy sweaters, and signature changing colors that make us eager to leave summer (and its intense heat) behind. While Northern Nevada tends to steal all the fall color thunder, with beautiful destinations like the Ruby Mountains (AKA the Swiss Alps of Nevada) and Lake Tahoe putting on the kind of spectacular displays you’d expect from high-altitude climates, it’s worth noting that there are plenty of leap-peeping opportunities in Southern and Central Nevada, too. High-altitude mountains and wilderness areas abound, as do naturally occurring springs that produce genuine desert oases filled with wetlands and lush vegetation. And these areas are full of trees, grasses, and flowering bushes that put on quite the technicolor display from late summer through late fall, all within just a few hours’ drive from Las Vegas. Here’s where to find them.

Mount Charleston
Mount Charleston | Thomas Dwyer/Flickr

Travel time from Las Vegas: 45 minutes
Mount Charleston, a wilderness area located within the Spring Mountains about 40 miles north of Las Vegas, is known as a “sky island” because of its high elevation and relative isolation from the drastically different lowland desert that surrounds it. That high elevation means that at any time of the year it’s about 20 degrees cooler on Mount Charleston than in Las Vegas, making it a welcome escape from the scorching summers. That also means that the climate is drastically different up there: instead of cacti and palm trees you get evergreens and aspen groves.

The most popular and scenic areas of Mount Charleston are located at the end of the roads that lead up to Kyle Canyon (to the south) and Lee Canyon (to the north), as well as Deer Creek Road, which links them. These areas are all high elevation, about 7,500 to 8,600 feet at the most popular trailheads, campsites, and picnic areas (though if you really want high elevation and cold, thin mountain air, the summit of Charleston Peak is just shy of 12,000 feet). There are four true seasons on Mount Charleston—it even snows enough that there’s a ski resort in Lee Canyon, and fall is really something special.

On the Kyle Canyon side, you’ll see streaks of golden yellow and vibrant orange against the dark green of the pine-covered slopes, and the display of colors that the quaking aspens along the South Loop Trail put on is spectacular—especially now that the baby aspens have gained quite a bit of height since a 2013 wildfire burned the entire area. Hike the three-mile Cathedral Rock trail (easily the most popular of all Mount Charleston hikes) through groves of aspens and enjoy the view from the summit where you’ll see more glowing groves from high above.

Also, stop and take a listen: in the fall, when the leaves are dry and about to drop, the leaves on these aspens “quake” with the slightest breeze and make a tinkling sound like windchimes. You can also skip Cathedral Rock and keep hiking along the South Loop trail towards Griffith Peak, where the dramatic slopes are covered in tinkling aspens in a blaze of hues ranging from golden to scarlet.

Over on the Lee Canyon side, smaller groves of aspens can be found around the ski resort. Park at the Upper Bristlecone Trailhead and head left (southwest) on the trail; it only takes a few minutes of hiking uphill before you start to see the aspens. You can also take a scenic chair ride overlooking the aspen groves at the ski resort, offered seven days a week from 10 am to 6 pm.

And no matter which canyon you decide to visit, both involve long drives up the mountain lined with puffy yellow rabbitbrush, which starts its mustard-yellow bloom in early September. But if you want to see the fall colors on Mount Charleston, you need to hurry: Because of the high elevation, leaves start turning as early as late August and reach peak by late September and early October. It gets cold quickly up there, and it’s not uncommon for Mount Charleston to already be covered in snow before Halloween.

Great Basin National Park
Great Basin National Park | Arlene Waller/Shutterstock

Travel time from Las Vegas: 4 hours 30 minutes
With sparkling blue-green alpine lakes surrounded by jagged, silvery-gray peaks and open fields where you’ll almost always see deer grazing in the golden hours, the Alpine Lakes Trail might sound like something straight out of a classic Disney movie. And, yeah, it is kind of magical! And equally haunting: this portion of Great Basin at the end of the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive starts at an elevation just shy of 10,000 feet, and the area is full of giant gnarled, twisted bristlecone pines that live for thousands of years in the harshest of climates.

But before you get to the lakes and the deer and the twisted Snow White pines and the dramatic peaks, you’ll pass through a grove of fiery aspens. In fact, once you pass the Upper Lehman Creek Campground you’ll start to see the blazing colors of the aspens along the 12-mile Scenic Drive. But take note: due to the high elevation, fall colors start very early in the season, around mid-September, and the Scenic Drive closes for the season once it starts to snow.

But even if you missed the color display in the higher reaches of the park, the lower elevations have plenty to show off. At the much lower elevation of around 5,300 feet along Snake Creek Road, you can enjoy a beautiful display of colors in relative isolation: Snake Creek is about 13 miles of unpaved road that accesses Snake Creek Canyon and multiple primitive campgrounds surrounded by poplars, aspen groves, and limestone cliffs. Another option is the 5.5-mile Baker Creek Road, a well-maintained gravel road that provides access to the Grey Cliffs and Baker Creek Campgrounds as well as the trail to Johnson Lake.

The hike to Johnson Lake meanders through groves of tall, reedy aspens interspersed in sunny meadows and thicker groves of wind-bent aspens along steep slopes, all ablaze with color in the fall. Since this is at a much lower elevation, you can catch the colors here well into October. And be sure to try some of the nuts from the Pinyon Pines, which are also ready for picking in the fall.

Travel time from Las Vegas: 4 hours
This whole area of Eastern Nevada (including Great Basin) has prominent aspen groves, but arguably one of the best places to see them in all their fall glory is at Cave Lake State Park, just 20 minutes outside of the fast-growing small town of Ely.

Cave Lake is a 32-acre reservoir surrounded by pine-covered slopes. While shoreline access is currently closed due to construction, you can still enjoy the extensive network of hiking and mountain biking paths that run through the park and all throughout Ely, wandering through forests of glowing gold aspens. You can also still enjoy the view of the lake from the Cave Lake Overlook Loop trail and the Lakeview Campground, where you’ll catch shocks of brilliant gold from the stands of aspen along the shore, as well as amber-hued marsh grass and the puffy yellow flowers of the fall-blooming rabbitbrush.

You can also take in the fall colors throughout the greater Ely area along the Schell Creek Range by driving along the 38-mile Success Loop Scenic Drive, which is full of scenic views and travels right past Cave Lake. A portion of the road is well-graded gravel, but stick it out: it’s along this section where aspens line the quiet road for an explosion of gold, bronze, and scarlet. Catch the colors here late September and early October.

Kershaw-Ryan State Park, Caliente, Nevada
Kershaw-Ryan State Park, Caliente, Nevada

Travel time from Las Vegas: 2 hours 20 minutes (to Caliente)
This area of Southeastern Nevada is home to the largest collection of Nevada State Parks, a dense cluster of state treasures all within easy driving distance of each other. Two of those parks offer unique settings to enjoy some fall colors and are located on either side of the 21-mile Rainbow Canyon Scenic Drive, which follows the mainline of the Union Pacific Railroad (stop by the Spanish Mission-style railroad depot built in 1905 before leaving Caliente).

Starting in the historic city of Caliente at the northern end of Rainbow Canyon, drive south to your first stop: Kershaw-Ryan State Park. Kershaw-Ryan is a verdant oasis, thanks to the flow of water from natural springs and weeping rocks in the surrounding canyon walls up to 700 feet tall. The manicured vegetation includes white oaks, willows, cottonwoods, locust trees, fruit trees, wild grapevines, and Virginia red creepers, which create a display of vibrant emerald green, cheerful pale yellow, glowing gold, glints of tawny and bronze, and streaks of deep blood red in the fall.

From Kershaw-Ryan you’ll continue driving south, passing by colorful red rock, limestone, and towering walls of basalt, as well as dense groves of cottonwood trees that line the full length of the Meadow Valley Wash in shades of bright yellow, orange, and gold in the fall.

On the other end of the Scenic Drive is the ghost town of Elgin, home to the Elgin Schoolhouse State Historic Park. This one-room schoolhouse was the place where several generations of children were taught over 40 years in this former railroad town. If you’re lucky you might catch a spot of color here, too.

The best time to catch fall colors in Rainbow Canyon is mid-October to mid-November.

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge | USFWS Pacific Southwest Region/Flickr

Travel time from Las Vegas: 1 hour 30 minutes
Although it’s a lesser-known area located on the eastern edge of Death Valley right on the California border, Ash Meadows is an internationally recognized wetland of huge significance, with nearly 30 species of plants and animals that don’t exist anywhere else in the world. The Devils Hole is located in this part of the Amargosa Valley, home to an ancient, endangered species of pupfish, which have been isolated in this location for 10,000-20,000 years. The Devils Hole cavern is over 500 feet deep and remains largely a mystery: the bottom has never been mapped.

Another natural oasis in the desert are the hot springs of Ash Meadows that feed the lush wetlands, but take note: this is a wildlife refuge and these hot springs are not for bathing. Still, visitors can enjoy the crystal-clear turquoise waters of the springs and the glowing gold and orange of the ash trees for which this area was named, starting in mid-October and running into early November, which is also the perfect time of year to visit Death Valley when the temperatures have cooled off significantly.

Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge
Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge | Ryan McGurl/Shutterstock

Travel time from Las Vegas: 1 hour 20 minutes
Yet another lesser-known desert oasis less than 90 minutes from the city, Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge is an essential stopover for migratory birds, with lush, spring-fed wetlands that include lakes, marshes, and wet meadows, as well as tall cottonwood and poplar trees along the shorelines that glow golden and orange in the fall. Tall marsh grasses also turn gold and amber, and if you happen to catch it in the right light, the whole place looks ablaze in a glowing red. Catch the colors late October and early November.

Floyd Lamb Park
Floyd Lamb Park | Kit Leong/Shutterstock

Travel time from Las Vegas: 25-minute drive from Downtown
Floyd Lamb Park is located at Tule Springs, a wellspring in the desert with several small lakes and lush vegetation, teeming with waterfowl as well as brilliant, jewel-toned peacocks known to strut around the parking lot and throughout the park.

This 680-acre city park is home to the Las Vegas State Tree Nursery, which produces more than 100,000 plants from 100 species annually, as well as Tule Springs Ranch, which is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

This park features stands of oak and cottonwood trees that grow along the shores of the four lakes, which turn deep, vibrant shades of yellow and orange in the fall. Because this is Las Vegas (where the elevation is low and the temperatures are high), these colors come late in the season, usually late October and early November.

Red Rock National Conservation Area
Red Rock National Conservation Area | Rusya007/Shutterstock

Travel time from Las Vegas: 20 minutes
Red Rock Canyon, the world-famous climbing destination known for its otherworldly sandstone formations and towering walls, is maybe not the first place you would think that would have fall colors, but there are indeed some trees in Red Rock that do change color with the seasons. Ash trees and oaks turn deep shades of gold and orange, and while these aren’t dense groves of fiery foliage, the occasional blaze of gold against the rust-colored backdrop of Red Rock will still catch your breath and have you grabbing for your phone.

There are a few areas within Red Rock where you can catch some brilliant colors hidden by the imposing canyon walls, but Pine Creek and Oak Creek canyons will offer the most payoff for your hiking efforts. And there will most certainly be some effort—the approach to both canyons through open desert is just the start. Seeing the good stuff in these canyons requires some technical scrambling and boulder-hopping of varying difficulty without an obvious trail to follow (and it can get really technical, and really gnarly, really quickly if you’re not careful—just remember what goes up must come down).

The Calico Basin on the other side of Red Rock also offers some errant splashes of fall colors amid the dramatic red Aztec sandstone. If you plan to go leaf-peeping in Red Rock, you’ll have your best chances mid-to-late October, possibly into early November.

Downtown Las Vegas

Distance from Las Vegas: None! You’re already here!
If you play your cards right, you can enjoy fall colors in and around Las Vegas from late August all the way into December. This may come as a huge shock to some, but the City of Las Vegas actually has a sizable urban forest, much bigger than you might think. If you tour some of the older neighborhoods downtown, you’ll find an impressive canopy of mature trees—a variety of ash trees, bottle trees, cottonwoods, magnolia, palo verde, fig, and pomegranate, in addition to the many kinds of palm trees. Some have leaves that change colors noticeably in the fall, while others are a little more subtle or just drop their leaves without the display.

The city has been making a lot of efforts to increase the tree canopy over the last several years, with plans to plant 60,000 trees over the next 30 years to combat the “heat island” effect (a phenomenon experienced in urban environments with a lot of concrete and asphalt), as well as beautification projects that have seen trees added to the streetscapes of downtown.

Which brings us to DTLV in December, where Chinese Pistache trees have been planted along Main Street and Las Vegas Boulevard that turn a beautiful ruby red in the fall. Their bold streaks of color pop against the concrete-laden urban surroundings and give us desert-dwellers a nice fall fix late into the season. Chinese Pistache is known as a late color-bloomer to begin with, and in Las Vegas, where the heat is intense all through September and “fall” gets a much later start, these trees don’t don their fall fashion until it’s very nearly winter.

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Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer covering food, travel, arts, culture, and what-have-you. She winters in Las Vegas and summers in Detroit, as does anybody who's anybody. Her favorite activities include drinking beer and quoting Fight Club.