By Lee Foster
If you enjoy natural beauty in California, seeing the pageant of fall color in the aspen trees along Highway 395 in the eastern Sierra in early October should be high on your to-do list.
When is the best time to go? The first couple of weeks in October are generally the best. Each year is somewhat different.
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.
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 tremble.
Several information sources (see end of article) keep tabs on the immediate daily procession of fall color in a given year, which may occur a little earlier or later each year. These sites, especially the one managed by John Poimiroo, often show actual photos of the scene on a particular recent day, projecting forward, and they are updated by dedicated fall color fans. Poimiroo also follows the annual celebration throughout Northern California from the Sierras to lowland vineyards in the Napa/Sonoma Valleys. You will almost certainly find some pleasing fall color in early October.
Several factors determine what fall color will be like during your visit. Altitude is one variable. The higher elevation aspens tend to turn golden first. The lower elevations usually turn later. The more northerly locations also turn a little sooner than the southerly. The north-facing cooler slopes turn later than 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 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 presentation 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 a recent October, my son Paul and I did a trip that parallels what many visitors do each year. 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 the foliage 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 for fall color viewing. Possibly this turnout was built with the aesthete and photographer in mind. Sad to say, Conway Summit was “patchy” during our visit.
But then we turned up a side road known as Virginia Lakes and kept driving to the higher altitudes, where 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.
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 at 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 proceeded 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 were 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 on this trip was the drive into South Lake and a small resort, called Parchers Resort. The long creek drainage going to South Lake boasted miles of brilliant aspens, which extended 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 foliage 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 and why aspen leaves change color is a beguiling question of science. Leaves of some tree species, including aspen, have green, yellow, and red pigments in them.
In the aspens, as the days grow shorter, photosynthesis, which produces the green pigments, diminishes. That’s when the pigments other than green become more visible.
Also, 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 is 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 the 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 on Sunday 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 west 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 rapid progression of 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 by its capture in your imagination or camera.
The leaves are there to be enjoyed, if you can locate them. It is likely you will want to record 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 California’s Highway 395 is a major life-enhancing experience.
Aspen Leaf Fall Color Along California’s Eastern Sierra Highway 395: If You Go
Several entities have websites useful to the fall color traveler.
Journalist John Poimiroo maintains a website that celebrates fall color all over California. See http://www.californiafallcolor.com. Beyond the Eastern Sierra, John and his myriad followers and fans keep track on the annual pageant from the mountains to the ocean.
A small resort west of Bishop, known as Parcher’s 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.
The northern region in this area is Mono County. Their website is at http://www.monocounty.org.
Mammoth Lakes Tourism is a main lodging/dining support town in this Eastern Sierra area. See their website at http://www.visitmammoth.com.
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.