The leaf-changing season in much of the Eastern Sierra usually starts in late September at the higher elevations and creeps down to the lower reaches well into October. For photographers, it is a seasonal nirvana — mostly. Nature photographer George Lepp calls the season temperamental. "Wind and weather can cut the color short," he says. Check with the U.S. Forest Service offices along the route.
The winding road a couple of miles up Big Pine Canyon is an outstanding place to begin the search for fall gold. The old Glacier Lodge at the 8,000-foot level burned some years ago, but good places to park remain. Just a few yards away a pond reflects the mountains and dramatic fall color, one of the better views in the Sierra. Some people stop here, but my partner, Gloria, and I took a short walk to the main trailhead and a favorite spot where we found four happy women enjoying lunch while surrounded by aspens and pines. The trail itself is arched over with leaves set aglow by the afternoon sun.
About a dozen miles farther up 395 is Bishop, our base of operations, the largest of the Eastern Sierra communities, home to a major U.S. Forest Service office and gateway to some of the best fall color in the region. Head out on West Line Street toward the mountains and pick any of several canyons. All of the side canyons share the name of the major one — Bishop Canyon. There are even a few places to stay with snug cabins. Bishop Creek Lodge also serves tasty breakfasts and dinners, and its front porch is a good perch from which to see good fall color.
Nearby, a year-round waterfall surrounded by colorful aspens often draws a crowd of viewers. If you want to sleep closer to the ground, good Forest Service campgrounds abound. We are partial to the well-maintained Sabrina Campground, with the north fork of Bishop Creek bubbling nearby.
Back on U.S. 395, we climbed over Sherwin Summit and turned left at Tom's Place, a small, rustic resort with a cluster of aspens and a good spot for lunch. This is the entrance to Rock Creek Canyon, where fall color stretches for miles.
Seekers of the Sierra's leafy gold can spend an entire day prowling this canyon and the busy creek that carved it. Rock Creek Canyon is unusual in this area because it faces north and south rather than east and west. As a result, it tends to have a different weather pattern that seems to bolster the trees' fall colors.
As we head farther north on 395, Crowley Lake — well known for its fishing — appeared on the right. But our eyes were drawn to Hilton Creek, which spilled out of the mountains on our left. Crossing over the highway, we headed toward the sunlit aspens along the back roads just beyond a small community at the base of the Sierra. Nearby is McGee Canyon, one of the best spots in the Eastern Sierra for intense fall color, and its own cheerful creek.
Although most of the aspens are yellow or golden in the fall, some turn a vibrant red. This, Forest Service experts say, is a genetic feature of certain aspen groves, not related to weather or a magical snap of cold weather. When the red leaves do appear, the scene can be jaw-dropping. The first time I saw them, I thought I had wandered into a movie set.
Returning to 395, we paused at Convict Lake, where the surrounding jagged peaks are framed by aspens. From the parking lot, a trail winds around the lake to the far end where leaves carpeted the ground and clung to the trees. The setting was spellbinding. And we were far from done.
The June Lake loop north of Mammoth is a leaf peeper's delight. There are lakes, creeks, waterfalls and an abundance of aspens, along with cabins and horses for rent. Lee Vining Canyon — the eastern entry to Yosemite — had its share of glowing aspens in its lower reaches. It also has the Mobil gas station and its now-famous Whoa Nellie Deli, which can be packed at lunchtime. Just up the road in Lee Vining is Murphey's Motel, popular with photographers.
North of town, brilliant red-leafed aspens can be found at Lundy Canyon. Their colors were so intense that they looked like flames flickering among the forest of pine trees. Although the entire canyon is gorgeous, the best part is near the end of the canyon's dirt road. There, generations of beavers have built their dams, creating a series of ponds surrounded by aspens.
Heading north again, we left the Inyo National Forest and crossed into the Toiyabe National Forest. Virginia Lakes — popular with summer visitors — has its own stand of aspen, and the turnoff from the highway is clearly marked. Just a little farther north at Green Creek, a road took us to a trailhead leading into the Hoover Wilderness. Aspens are everywhere. Next up: the town of Bridgeport and the road to Twin Lakes. Several campgrounds at Twin Lakes are a good place to catch some shut-eye before one last day of collecting autumn gold.
With Bridgeport in the rearview mirror, we headed north again on 395 to the junction with California Highway 108, where we turned to the west toward the Sonora Pass, at more than 9,600 feet.
Sonora Pass has red, yellow and gold in almost every direction. On the western side of the pass, a year-round waterfall tumbles over boulders and beneath golden aspens right to the road. "People think of New England for fall color," says Lindsay Pulliam, a Forest Service ranger in the area for more than 20 years, "but many places like this in the Sierra can equal New England, and they are right here in our backyard."
Pulliam also has some serious advice for leaf peepers: "Be prepared. Remember you are coming from a lower elevation. Allow yourself to acclimate a bit, and bring an extra jacket or sweater because the weather can change in a hurry."
If you are lucky, seeing the gold of the aspens against the pristine white of newly fallen snow makes you feel as though you have struck it rich.