Each year when California’s endless summer finally passes into autumn, Mother Nature cloaks herself in breathtaking colors of fire. In the Sierra, among the rows of towering pines, grow black oaks, cottonwoods and aspens, willows and the occasional elm, their reds, yellows and oranges blazing among the evergreens as winter nears.
The transformation starts subtly in mid-September, as the first hues of gold appear in green canopies turned dark by the long heat of summer. By October and November, the metamorphosis is reaching its peak, inviting all who would see to come for the show.
The fall color of the Eastern Sierra in the Owens Valley and Mono Lake areas is unrivaled in its ostentation. Though the two areas are linked by Highway 395, they offer sharp contrast. In the dry area around Owens Valley, the parched landscape of scrub and sage gives way to stretches of slender trees as visitors leave the main road to climb west into the Sierra National Forest. In the wetter area north near Mono Lake, groves of gold and red stand framed by the rising granite mountains and march around the alpine lakes.
Exploring Owens Valley
Travelers taking the southern approach will reach the city of Big Pine first, where Glacier Lodge Road climbs from the valley floor up the Big Pine Canyon. As the road moves from 4,000 feet at the valley floor to 8,000 feet at its end, the colorful autumn display reveals itself in fits and starts. Stands of willow and aspen line the banks of Big Pine Creek and climb the canyon walls. Those who take to the trails at road’s end will find views of Palisade Glacier, the southernmost glacier in North America.
A few miles north of Big Pine sits Bishop, the largest town in the Owens Valley and the gateway to Bishop Creek. A 20-minute drive up Highway 168 leads visitors to a hidden lake area surrounded by sheer mountains climbing to over 13,000 feet. Along the way is the aptly named Aspendell, a low area lined with color and surrounded by hills. At the end of the road are a trio of lakes, the largest of which is Lake Sabrina. Hikers who take the trail around Lake Sabrina will find themselves walking among fields of golden trees that extend into the rough high country surrounding them.
Five lakes in the area, as well as Bishop Creek, offer plenty of opportunities for the fisherman, and rock climbers are also drawn to the nearby Buttermilk Country, where the fall foliage stands among huge boulders and rock formations, streams and hiking trails.
North of Round Valley, the character of the land changes as Highway 395 turns northwest and heads into the Mammoth Lakes area. Here is one of the more popular spots for fall color seekers, Rock Creek Canyon in southern Mono County.
A nine-mile drive along Rock Creek Road takes visitors to Rock Creek Lake and the Little Lakes Valley by way of a tree-lined canyon carved from the surrounding mountains by a long disappeared glacier. The spot is a particular favorite with hikers, who can move from lake to lake along the Little Lakes Valley Trail.
Farther up the road a bit, south of Lake Crowley, is McGee Creek Canyon. McGee Creek Road is lined with groves of aspen, and it ends at the trailhead for the hike to Beaver Pond, a trek that follows the winding creek through the trees.
Head north again to find Convict Lake Road, which follows Convict Creek to the lake. The easy drive is popular with families, and the trail around the lake offers easy hiking.
The Mono Lakes region, while connected by Highway 395 to Owens Valley in the south, is perhaps best reached by sightseers by taking Highway 120 through Yosemite Valley, though that road is closed after the first snowfall each season. Visitors coming in along that route will find their first view of the autumn colors as they enter Lee Vining Canyon at the eastern end of the Tioga Pass, the autumn show lining the highway and wandering the surrounding hillsides.
Fall displays are plentiful both north and south of the junction between 120 and 395. At the northern end of Mono Lake is Highway 167, and a turn to the west leads to a quick drive to Lundy Lake, one of the area’s most popular fall destinations. Amid the aspen groves is a trailhead that leads above nearby Mill Creek through a series of lakes to picturesque Lundy Falls. At the end of the 2-mile trail is a series of cascading falls, surrounded by aspens that walk down from the hills to the water’s edge.
Turning north again on Highway 395, visitors will find Conway Summit. While the mountain itself is covered in changing foliage, the roadside pull-out offers a spectacular overview of Mono Lake to the south. In the same area is the westward winding Virginia Lakes Road, which follows tree-lined Virginia Creek to the Virginia Lakes Basic. There, hikers can visit eight lakes in just over two miles of walking through trees and beneath the striking surrounding mountain vistas. The trails here also connect to Green Creek to the north, another area known for its fall colors.
Making the Loops
To the south of Mono Lake are perhaps the two best areas for seeing fall foliage in all its glory. Just a few miles south of Lee Vining is the June Lake Loop. Entered from the north, Highway 158 carries motorists past Grant Lake, Silver Lake, Gull Lake before coming to the community of June Lake and the body of water for which it’s named. The drive is spectacular at any time of the year, but is a must-see during the fall. The area offers hiking for all ability ranges, with easy hiking on the Gull Lake Trail, a moderate walk on the Rush Creek Trail or the more strenuous trek to nearby Parker Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness.
Further south is the Mammoth Lakes area, which overflows with color each autumn. The town of Mammoth Lakes is surrounded, as the name implies, by a series of alpine lakes known for their fishing and hiking. To get there, take the Highway 203 (Main Street) west just a couple of miles to the secluded ski resort area.
Following Main to Lake Mary Road will carry you to the Mammoth Lakes Basin, where a series of five lakes surrounded by quick climbing mountains will seem afire with fall colors. The area offers great fishing and is riddled with trails for the day-hiker that rise into the surrounding Sierra. Alternatively, take 203 north to reach the Mammoth Scenic Loop, a drive through pine forests dotted with occasional fall color and views of the Sierra.
For more information about Owens Valley, contact the Bishop Chamber of Commerce at (760) 873-8405. For information on Mammoth and the Mono Lake area, contact the Mono County Tourism and Film Commission at (800) 845-7922.