At this point in the year, just about everyone is ready for summer to be over. Cool evenings and comfortable days will be a refreshing treat, and of course, a cold, wet winter is what we really need.
One of the best parts of the change in seasons is the dramatic show of fall colors that can usually be enjoyed in the Sierra, especially among the majestic aspens of the eastern slope. After three dry winters, this probably won’t be one of the better seasons of color in recent years, but even in a worst-case scenario kind of year, there still should be some beauty to be enjoyed.
This weekend, I’ll be making a trip to check out the fall colors in our part of the state, and I’ll report about it in next week’s column. Until then, there are some excellent websites to track the progress of the season in the high country. I’ve used them to plan successful fall trips and will be using them again this weekend.
Although there are aspen groves on both slopes of the Sierra, the most concentrated, accessible and brilliant are mostly on the eastern slope between the summits of the trans-Sierra highways and U.S. 395. Many side canyons west of 395 also have spectacular groves. The closest access is via highways 120 (Yosemite’s Tioga Road) and 108 (Sonora Pass). The distance is just long enough to make this a good weekend trip or a very long day trip.
For fall color information in Mono County (Sonora Pass to just north of Mammoth Lakes), try the Mono County Tourism and Film Commission’s website: www.monocounty.org/fall-colors/. For information about the Inyo County groves near Mammoth Lakes and Bishop, try the website maintained by Parcher’s Resort in the mountains near Bishop: parchersresort.net/fallcolor.htm. Photographer John Poimiroo’s www.californiafallcolor.com website features both counties and other great fall color areas throughout the Sierra.
These reports currently indicate the annual arboreal fireworks are just beginning, making the last weekend of September and first weekend of October likely bets for ideal times to see the display, though there will be good pockets of color by this weekend. The aspens at the highest and coldest elevations (they grow up to 10,000 feet above sea level and a bit higher in a few places) turn first, followed gradually by lower groves (down to 6,000 feet and a bit lower in a few places).
Aspens are different from most other Sierra trees in that new trunks sprout from roots of existing trees, and although they don’t often live more than 150 to 200 years, some groves may date back as long as 10,000 years with new sprouts perpetuating the grove as older trees die. Striking white bark contrasts with the yellows, golds, oranges and reds that their leaves turn. With a deep blue sky to complete the picture, the leaves positively glow when backlit by sunlight. It’s a sight of absolute beauty everyone should have the chance to be awed by.
One of the best resources for locating the eastern Sierra aspen groves is the excellent “California’s Eastern Sierra Fall Color Guide and Map,” available from the Mono County website listed above or at visitor centers in the county. You can also call (800) 845-7922 to get a printed copy.
Many groves are accessible by car, and others can be seen on foot. Most are gentle strolls but can be extended if you’re up for something more. Some of my favorite drive-to spots include Lee Vining Canyon (Highway 120 just outside of the eastern entrance to Yosemite), Virginia Lakes Road, Twin Lakes, The June Lake Loop (Highway 158), Rock Creek Road, Highway 168 from Bishop to Lake Sabrina and South Lake Road – all of which can be found in the guide and map described above. With 21 destinations described, you’re bound to find a stunning grove to enjoy, even if dry conditions have negatively impacted some of the areas.
If you make the trip, lodging, food, gas and basic services can be found in the towns of Bridgeport, Lee Vining, Mammoth Lakes and Bishop – all along U.S. 395 or directly adjacent to it. There are also campgrounds, but fall nights in the eastern Sierra can be very cold. If you are thinking about camping, check the weather first.
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Aspens are a star-quality attraction for photographers, and with a little experimentation, anyone can take some memorable (if not exactly magazine-level) shots with a point-and-shoot camera or smartphone. One reliable strategy to get good photos is to position yourself so the sun is behind the trees and the light is shining through the nearly translucent leaves.