Outside Las Vegas, at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, the seasons jumbled together. Under a blueberry summer sky warming a winter-like barrenness, I stood on top of autumn. The mountain beneath my feet was as deep red as the oak leaves in New England circa October. Yet unlike the fleeting foliage, the desert’s vibrant hues resist nature’s cycle, holding fast through all four seasons.
Every year, without fail, leafy trees transform into the losing team of a paintball game. Fruity punches of red, gold, orange and yellow electrify landscapes dense with maples, elms, aspens and other deciduous trees. The colors distract us from reality: Summer is gone, winter is encroaching and the glorious leaves are a few Earth rotations from drying up and dying.
Details: Southwest fall colors
To avoid the perennial despair this invokes, I searched the country for colors that wouldn’t split on the coattails of chlorophyll. I wished to evade the changing of the seasons without sacrificing pigments. I wanted an autumnal palette January through December.
With the spirit of a pioneer, I headed west in search of gold — and red and yellow and orange and purple. I planted my boots on spots in Arizona and eastern Nevada where the colors change not by season but over many millions of years.
A canyon with personality
Not long after Labor Day, foliage experts start dragging certain buzzwords — photosynthesis, carotenoids, anthocyanins — out of the cupboard. Hotlines ring off the hook with fall color updates, and peepers clear their schedules to strike peak time. The Weather Channel turns its attention from hurricanes to fall leaves.
At Red Rock Canyon, 17 miles west of the Vegas Strip, Kathy August has no use for such terms, temporary phone numbers or peepers. In describing the desert landscape, the Bureau of Land Management ranger drops names such as sandstone, iron, manganese and oxidation. The park’s phone number is permanent; visitors come year-round. Most important, the land is always saturated in red.
“Colors do change here,” she said, “but really slowly — in geologic time rather than seasonally.”
The 197,819-acre park is a blank canvas for fog-gray limestone (ocean deposits) and fiery sandstone (windblown dune deposits), as well as the rainbow of hues that bridge the two. The canyon receives 1.3 million visitors a year, about the same number as Death Valley but nowhere near the tally of its tarty urban neighbor: more than 23 million people through July so far this year. If you’re torn between the two color zones, remember, neon makes the skin look sallow.
A 13-mile scenic drive, with a slowpoke pace and myriad scenic viewpoints, is a centerpiece of the park. The route wiggles around sculptural rock formations that shift in shape and color like a giant lava lamp. The Calico Basin nails the color-blocking trend with large swatches of persimmon red and vanilla cream. The Red Canyon wears a Breton shirt of red, mauve and gray stripes. The Lost Creek area parades the shades of an exotic garden: shiitake mushroom brown and Japanese eggplant purple.