Outside on the Eastside
Fall is long in the Eastern Sierra. The topography of the region provides a slow shift into winter that starts first at the higher elevations and descends slowly over the open plains of the Owens Valley below. The cooling begins in September as daytime temperatures decrease significantly up high, while summer still seems ever-present in the valley.
The color change begins high too. Over the course of many weeks, often well into November, the color tumbles down the mountain and out across the plain like spilled buckets of paint.
Drops of yellow splatter the stands of aspen that grow near the tree line, around 12,000ft ASL (above sea level). Soon it spills into the groves and luminous yellow swaths appear with dribbles of bright orange and deep crimson. A blush spreads across the mountainside spreading a golden trim along the shores of sparkling blue mountain lakes, alongside streams, and tracing contours down the canyons. The dark green of evergreen trees mixes with the bright colors and the silvery grey granite crags rise above the surge of color.
Often large clouds gather and billow over the mountain peaks during the day. Then as evening approaches strong winds aloft lift, smooth and shape them into lenticular wave clouds and the setting sun creates a fiery display that rivals the show on the ground.
This spectacle in the sky is brief and unpredictable, but the colors on the landscape follow an established pattern in time and place that is almost as predictable as the nightfall after the sunset.
Where and When
Bishop Creek Canyon – early September to early October
Bishop Creek Canyon is one of the most spectacular places for fall colors in California – if not the country. It is a large area of about 30 square miles where the North, Middle, and South Forks of Bishop Creek drain down toward the Owens Valley. At the head of each fork is a large lake, North Lake, Lake Sabrina at middle, and South Lake. Numerous other smaller lakes lie along the creeks.
A short journey of no more than 20 miles west of Bishop on US Highway 168 will take you well into the rugged high country. This is the place to start your fall color spotting. From a few days to a week or more before the autumnal equinox, which occurs every year on September 22nd or 23rd and occasionally on either the 21st or 24th, the color change can begin.
Witness the spread of color that begins high above the lakes in the upper reaches of the canyon. The views at each lake basin are mesmerizing for the sheer magnitude of the surrounding crags and the swaths of brilliant color that appear to flow out of the rock toward the deep blue water like lava.
Visit each of the lakes in early to mid-September and as the days shorten spend time in the groves that line the roads to these lakes and on the paths into the adjacent wilderness. Exploration on foot from any of the turnouts and trailheads will take you deep into the explosion of color.
A late afternoon drive to North Lake is sublime. Turning off from Highway 168 the road crosses a narrow bridge then dips through a grove of willow and aspen that shake and shimmer like suspended gold confetti. Continuing steeply up the mountainside it rounds a bend and levels out along a gravelly traverse with an impressive view down into the canyon below that is not for the faint of heart.
Then with one more short sweeping turn you’ll find yourself enclosed under a shining arbor of fall colored aspens. It feels quite ceremonious to drive through this glowing tree tunnel and emerge from this short passage with your heart lightened and spirit uplifted.
Toward the end of September and into early October the spill of yellow, orange and crimson descends further down the canyon. The large groves of aspen surrounding Cardinal Village Resort and the tiny settlement of Aspendell seem to herald the holiday season. Every view and image is picture postcard perfect.
Lower Rock Creek Canyon – mid September to mid October
Fall color spills abundantly down all the canyons of the Eastern Sierra. Lower Rock Creek canyon north of Bishop is the place to go for a more adventurous view of the changing of the season. This is the gold standard for mountain biking in the Eastern Sierra. It earns gold for its superior ride and also because fall is the golden season in this beautiful narrow canyon.
Only 25 minutes drive north of Bishop, this incomparable trail has a little bit of everything – fast, sweeping turns, rocks and roots to negotiate, overhanging tree arbors, steep-sided canyon walls, a talus field, and a swift stream with low, wooden bridge crossings. Begin a bike ride from the junction of Old Sherwin Grade at Highway 395 near Tom’s Place, or take a gentle hike up the trail from the lower trailhead at Paradise. Whether you attempt the mountain bike challenge or just go for an easy walk, Lower Rock Creek will leave you breathless for its beauty.
Round Valley and town of Bishop – early to late October
Lower down, where the canyon opens up to the broad valley below, the trees are sparse, but the color creeps relentlessly through the ubiquitous high desert scrub. It seeps into the large cottonwood trees that dot the emerald green grounds of the Bishop Country Club and line the creeks of the valley floor.
Take a lazy afternoon drive around Round Valley and visit the Millpond Recreation Area. Experience a magical blend of autumnal color with other aspects of this rural community. There are lovely stands of large cottonwoods in picturesque spots and the yellow rabbit brush in full bloom at this time of year complements the trees beautifully. There are counterpoints such as bulrushes along the creeks, an apple tree here and there, a few farm animals dotted about, and some old structures with exquisite patina. The huge Sierra Nevada fills the background like a staged setting for an epic drama.
Large individual trees in yards and fields in and around the town of Bishop become an iridescent yellow. Trees full of color poke out from above rooftops and gather in front yards, like neighbors catching up on the latest gossip.
A slow drive, easy bike ride, or leisurely walk along West Line St. (the route that takes you up to Bishop Creek Canyon) will show off an assortment of fall color. Izaak Walton Park is lovely any time of day and the ‘mini’ forest on the corner at Reata Road has a wonderful radiance in the early morning and late afternoon.
Owens River – late October to early November
By mid October the color has permeated the town and swept over the plain to the river. There are large and small cottonwood trees dotted all across the northern Owens Valley floor. Some are loners, others in groves. By late October they will show the telltale signs of winter approaching ranging from fully yellow with burnished orange tips to an overall bronzed orange. Thick creeping vines curl around gnarled old wood of fence posts and dead trees turn a deep fiery red.
A high point along Eastside Rd. that runs along the base of the White Mountains provides a panoramic view of the Owens River valley and the Sierra Nevada beyond. Early morning and sunset are magnificent out here. The creek, marshes and ponds along Buckley Ponds Rd. have abundant birdlife and the reeds are a shimmering copper color.
What and Why
The principal players in this spectacular display of color are aspen, willow, and cottonwood trees. The mountain alder, a shrub belonging to the birch family, participates too and, in a very few stands where it occurs, the California black oak adds a deep, rich color to the palette.
The green of summer is due to the green pigment, chlorophyll, concentrated in the leaves. This is the time when the leaves produce food for the plant, in the form of sugars, through the process of photosynthesis in the presence of chlorophyll. In autumn, when the daylight hours begin to decrease so does the concentration of chlorophyll, and thus the other colors will emerge, beginning with yellow. Eventually, when the chlorophyll is completely gone, the darker, richer colors will appear. Plants produce far more food than they need to survive and the excess of sugars in the leaf will affect the color change. A good growing season in summer and the right balance and of light and temperature during autumn will result in the reds emerging with greater intensity.
“In California, fall color descends by elevation at a rate of 500 to 1,000′ a week, continuing to December. In most of the rest of North America, fall color descends by latitude, starting in Canada and descending through the northeast and Midwest. California has the longest and most varied seasonal change of fall color in North America.” John Poimaroo, californiafallcolor.com.
California Fall Color is one of the most comprehensive and up to date websites for tracking fall color in California. It is a seasonal blog, from September to Thanksgiving, compiled and edited John Poimaroo. “Reports and photographs are provided by volunteer color spotters, public lands agencies and destination marketing organizations (DMOs).”
The Eastern Sierra is one of the most photographed areas in California and it’s not surprising that there are many excellent photographers who live and work here. Good fall photography is a skill that can be taught and honed and what better way to improve yours than to attend a workshop with a photographer whose skill is equaled by their knowledge of the area.
Visit Mountain Light Gallery, the home of the late Galen Rowell’s incredible images, and look into participating in their fall workshop. Another wonderful local photographer is Jeff Sullivan whose fall workshops cover a big area of expertise and experience. In addition to these and other fine photographers there are numerous resources online to help you get your best shot. One such is blog post is on the Nikon website and it opens by saying, “Location. It’s everything.” We couldn’t agree more!
We’re pretty sure, and a great many people would agree with us, that the Eastern Sierra is quite likely the very best location for fall color spotting and photography in California, if not the whole country.
Take a look at this at this excellent fall color guide and map, download it, print it, take it with you and enjoy the fall colors of the Eastern Sierra.
Actually, the very best place to start your Eastern Sierra fall color spotting is at the Bishop Visitor Center at 690 N. Main St. in Bishop. We’ll give you just the maps you need! Come in and chat with our friendly, knowledgeable staff, or call ahead on (760) 873-8405 and let us help you plan your fall fantasy.
Get Outside on the Eastside!