June Lake

Aspen against June Lake, visible from the June Lake Loop, which is worth the trip all by itself. (Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

JUNE LAKE, Calif. — Love turning conventional wisdom on its ear, don't you? Here's my little ode to the Eastern Sierra's amazing fall palette, an improbable leaf-peeping site devoted to it, and its Web master, who claims that the Golden State has the longest and best autumn in the nation.

I now agree.

To all you Eastern transplants who pine for the fall colors of your childhood, fly up U.S. 395 with me in my rental Ford, past the cottonwoods and aspen groves that light the hillsides like glowing campfires. There's room in my car — aren't you lucky? — but bring your own camera, a blanket and maybe a camp chair so you can sit back and relax at the edges of little alpine lakes. Mercifully, your cell signal will go dead.

Bring a flask, or don't. I won't judge. But keep an open mind as I tell you that, over the years, I've traveled up and back the Eastern Sierra like a guy mowing his yard, back and forth on that pipe of U.S. highway that never gets enough notice this time of year.

PHOTOS: Eastern Sierra's amazing autumnal palette

Yep, keep an open mind as I tell you that I have never seen the Eastern Sierra more beautiful — not in 6 feet of snow or in sparkly summer splendor.

The long fall is starting to pack it in, but you have a few more weeks of peak color. Factor in the fact that recent storms have sugared the mountaintops, adding to the depth, luster and texture of America's most-underrated autumn.

Unlike vaunted New Hampshire or much-publicized Colorado, California keeps its fall colors past Halloween. Many years, they'll blast right through the holidays.

"The mythology is that there are no fall colors in California," says John Poimiroo, who runs CaliforniaFallColor.com, a website devoted to leaf-peeping. "But I know it has the longest-lasting fall color season in the U.S. … and it's all because of our varied elevations.

"I will also say that we have the most spectacular colors," he says. "Now, we can't beat New England for the reds. But they don't have the mountains like we do, or the take-your-breath-away landscapes."

Sounds like the wishful thinking of a fledgling Web master, right? That's why, after studying Poimiroo's improbable postings for two months, I thought I'd give it a Charles Kuralt-style road test, stopping at some of the color hot spots along the Eastern Sierra, chatting up Poimiroo's prime contributors, the quirky collection of resort owners, naturalists and leaf geeks who number more than 100 and fill the California Fall Color website with images and color reports.

Up past the little town of Independence I go, pit-stopping at creeks, country roads, pastures filled with sheep. At some points, I could rarely drive a mile without pulling over to take more photos. At others, I become so taken with capturing the scene that I step right into the creek.

Splash. Dork down.

I ventured as far as Lundy Canyon, up past Mono Lake, where a plaque notes the Lundy history was "wild, rugged and raw but her gold was rich and yellow."

Like her autumns.

Here's a roundup of my gold rush moments:

Bishop Creek

This is your warm-up drive, an easy 45-minute side trip up California 168 out of Bishop, and the place where your misconceptions about California autumns will begin to crumble.

Minutes off the 395, the aspen along Bishop Creek were so ripe that late October day that they were turning crimson — a shade of sangria blush I never knew aspen could achieve. The upper elevations here are where California's autumn usually begin, Poimiroo says, with color posting beginning in late August.

It's a perfect lesson in how altitude affects color. Lake Sabrina, says leaf spotter Jared Smith, usually goes off early with some of the Eastern Sierra's first colors. By late October, fall is finished and resort workers are pulling boats from the lakes.