By Lee Foster
If enjoying natural beauty in California is on your life-enhancement list, the annual pageant of fall color in the aspen trees along Highway 395 in the eastern Sierra should be high on your to-do list.
The parade of annual fall color, as the aspen leaves turn to shades of glowing yellow and blazing red, draws many visitors with refined aesthetic sensibilities to the terrain along Highway 395 from roughly Bridgeport to Bishop.
Fall Color at Lake Sabrina west of Bishop
The tree creating fall color drama in the Eastern Sierra is the quaking aspen, populus tremuloides. To understand the apt name you need to stand under an aspen as a gentle wind blows and watch the leaves trembling.
The first week in October may be the best overall time, if you have to select a date far in advance. However, several information sources (see end of article) keep tabs on the immediately daily procession of fall color in a given year, which may occur a little earlier or later. These sites often show actual photos of the scene on a particular day, and they are updated by dedicated fall color fans. You will almost certainly find some pleasing fall color in early October.
Several factors determined what fall color will be like during your visit. Altitude is one factor. The higher elevation aspens tend to turn golden first. The lower elevations often turn later. The more northerly locations also turn a little sooner than the southerly. The north-facing cooler slopes turn before the warmer south-facing locations. Observers of fall color use the word “patchy” to suggest that turning has just started in an area. If the description says the site is “peaking,” then you’ll want to go there soon because conditions are optimal. If a winter storm has stripped the leaves off the trees, the word “sticks” is sometimes used to describe the sorry landscape. Expect some serendipity in your trip. The aspen color pageant is not always totally logical. Why some aspens turn bright red and those adjacent remain green is sometimes puzzling.
The most accessible route for many visitors to this fall color splendor is across the Yosemite high country on Highway 120.
On the first weekend of October 2014, my son Paul Foster and I did a trip that parallels what many will do in future years. We could devote Friday morning to Sunday night to the adventure. We drove from the Bay Area across Yosemite on 120 to Lee Vining, leaving the Bay Area at dawn and arriving Friday noon at Lee Vining. We planned to chase the beauty of fall color along Highway 395 through Sunday afternoon. We were prepared, as hunters of fall color, to be surprised with what we would discover.
Friday proved to be the “appetizer” course as we entered this fall color country at Lee Vining. Saturday was the “entre course” as we spent the entire day west of Bishop along Bishop Creek. Sunday was the “dessert” course as we returned to the Bay Area.
On Friday, we turned north at Lee Vining to the great viewing site along Highway 395 known as Conway Summit, which even has a road turnout. Possibly this road turnout was built with the aesthete and photographer in mind. Sad to say, Conway Summit was “patchy” during our year.
But then we turned up a side road known as Virginia Lakes and kept driving to the higher altitudes, and some good views of colorful aspens appeared. We also turned into the Lundy Lake Road and drove a few miles and found some pleasing groves.
Then we drove south on Highway 395 and took the June Lakes Loop, north of Mammoth Lakes, and saw some patchy color. It would probably be great in a week, but was mediocre during our trip. Future years may differ.
We came into Mammoth Lakes, expecting little, but found some lovely fall color right in the town of Mammoth around Twin Lakes. We stayed in Mammoth at the Sierra Nevada Lodge and nourished ourselves at their Rafters restaurant.
Our next day, Saturday, would be devoted to what reports were suggesting would be peaking fall color west of Bishop along Bishop Creek and several high altitude lakes.
We left Mammoth at 5:30 a.m., ready to greet the early morning light by 7 a.m. west of Bishop.
Three accessible lakes and the Bishop Creek drainages had impressive and highly photogenic aspens. In the first hour of light we spent our time at North Lake and enjoyed some vivid fall color with the lake reflections. Then we devoted time to the middle lake, called Lake Sabrina, and found gorgeous fall color on the slopes above the lake. From the top of the dam at Lake Sabrina, there is a stunning panorama of aspen extending thousands of feet up the slopes. Along the stream leaving Lake Sabrina, there are wonderful stops in the first quarter mile, showing golden aspens and the stream, plus aspens backlit by the late-morning sun. Finally, our most satisfying time in the trip was the drive into South Lake and a small resort, called Parchers Resort. The long creek drainage going to South Lake boasts miles of brilliant aspens, which extend in bands along the slopes of the mountains. We even happened upon a large group of “plein air” painters attempting to capture the vibrant aspen landscape with oil pigments on their canvases.
There were plenty of tripod-wielding fall color photographers in the entire area west of Bishop. It’s surprising how many foreigners as well as Americans appreciate this spectacular Northern California fall color. Bishop Creek was the essential part of our trip not to miss.
How fall color occurs in a leaf is a question of science that you may have read about earlier, but refreshment of the basics can be helpful. Leaves of some tree species have green, yellow, and red pigments in them. In the aspens, as the days grow shorter, photosynthesis, which produces the green pigments, diminishes. The pigments other than green become more visible. Cool nights, starting at the higher altitudes, prevent the movement of sugar from the leaves, forming a red pigment called anthocyanin. Enjoying fall color in the aspen leaves a little like listening to a visual orchestra. Your main responsibility is to kick back to enjoy and appreciate the aesthetic experience. Understanding the musical score of the chemical science behind fall color may be helpful, but it is not crucial or primary.
We stayed on Saturday night in Bishop, which has plenty of chain lodging and dining options. We lodged at a La Quinta there. Our dining spot was the bowling alley next to La Quinta, named Back Alley Bowl, where the rib-eye steak was a good choice.
On our drive back to the Bay Area on Sunday, before crossing Yosemite on Highway 120 again, we paused and explored the Rock Creek drainage north of Bishop for colorful aspen. We found some terrific color there, and enjoyed how remote the area was, with minimal other human presence, compared to the crowded terrain west of Bishop. Rock Creek and the entire Eastern Sierra region has ample and attractive forest service campsites.
Our drive up Lee Vining Canyon on Highway 120 to the Tioga Pass and the eastern edge of Yosemite National Park made us aware of another major aspect of the fall color hunt. When we drove east along Lee Vining Canyon two days earlier, we were looking east and were not so impressed with the fall color there. However, on our return trip we were driving west, looking up the canyon, and saw ravishing fall color on both sides of the road and along the creek running down the canyon. Also, two more days had passed to make the autumn colors here more intense.
The hunt for fall color is especially pleasing because the prey, the yellow and red aspen leaves, is not depleted. The leaves are there to be enjoyed, if you can locate them. It is likely you will want to capture them on some kind of camera, which might range from casual images taken on your cell phone to a heavy-duty DSLR camera mounted on a tripod. Whether you choose to photograph or not, enjoying the stunning beauty of nature in aspen fall color along 395 is a major life-enhancing experience.
Aspen Leaf Fall Color along Highway 395: If You Go
Several entities have websites useful to the fall color traveler.
A small resort west of Bishop, known as Parchers Resort, actively presents local Bishop Creek fall color information for this choice area. See proprietor Jared Smith’s detailed comments at http://parchersresort.net/fallcolor.htm.
Journalist John Poimiroo maintains a website that celebrates Fall Color all over Northern California. See http://www.californiafallcolor.com.
The northern region in this area is Mono County. Their website is at http://www.monocounty.org and their fall color is at http://www.monocounty.org/fall-colors. Download the handy brochure with maps, titled California’s Fall Color Eastern Sierra Guide and Map.
Mammoth Lakes Tourism is a main lodging/dining support town in this northern area. See their website at http://www.visitmammoth.com and their fall color report at http://www.visitmammoth.com/fall-colors-report.
Inyo County covers the southern part of this territory, including Bishop. Their website is at http://theothersideofcalifornia.com.
Bishop is the primary city in sparsely-populated Inyo County. Their website is at http://www.bishopvisitor.com.
(This article will appear in one of Lee Foster’s new books for Spring 2016, which will be The 100 Top San Francisco/Bay Area Travel Experiences and The 100 Top Northern California Travel Experiences (Beyond the San Francisco/Bay Area). These projects will appear as printed books, ebooks, websites, articles, photos, and videos.)