Having lived in New England for a few years, and having experienced fall in all its glory in those states, I was not expecting to be much impressed by the aspens, willows and cottonwoods native to the Eastern Sierra. But a week spent driving down California SR395 from South Lake Tahoe to Bishop, exploring side roads and canyons off the highway at the peak of fall color, changed my mind in a hurry. Not only was I completely and totally blown away by the magnificence of the yellows, golds, oranges and reds of fall foliage, I was captived by the wild untamed essence of this land. Majestic mountains, meandering rivers, frisky little creeks, gorgeous lakes and high-walled canyons create a myriad of beautiful backdrops for the colors of fall. During our week-long road trip in the Eastern Sierra, we met fellow leaf-peepers and photographers from Japan, China, India, Australia and Europe, as well as from many other parts of the United States, all wowed by the experience of being “Outside on the Eastside.”
Here are some of our top experiences from this unforgettable trip:
Taylor Creek, Lake Tahoe
We started our trip in Lake Tahoe. In speaking with the very helpful concierge at our hotel regarding the best spots for fall color around the lake, we learned about the annual phenomenon of the running of the Kokanee salmon. Every fall, the Kokanee salmon that live in Lake Tahoe change color from silver-gray to red and migrate to Taylor Creek near South Lake Tahoe to spawn and end the cycle of life. We drove to Taylor Creek and walked the short trail to a bridge from where you can see the hundreds of fish run. It was a beautiful spectacle and I am so glad we were there to witness it!
Fall color had only just started to show in the Taylor Creek area but we saw some nice red leaves:
The Cabin at Red Lake, Hope Valley
Hope Valley is a thirty-minute drive from South Lake Tahoe via Luther Pass. It is a well-known fall destination in California, and within Hope Valley, the little cabin on California SR88 a couple miles east of Red Lake has acquired icon status among photographers. When I was researching our trip on Instagram and other web sites, I came across many beautiful photos of the cabin and its surroundings, and I was eager to see it. We were lucky in terms of timing, because on the day we visited, the aspens just behind the cabin were bright with color:
Walker River Canyon, SR395 and SR108
For a stretch of SR395 south of Walker until you hit SR108, the Walker River flows right beside the highway. This is a delightful drive, and if you stop at a turnout and get out of your vehicle, you can watch (and hear!) the water. There was not a lot of traffic when we drove this stretch of road, and with nobody else in sight, it was so therapeutic to sit for a bit in the October sun, take in the beauty of the canyon, and watch the river bubble over little boulders!
At the intersection of SR395 and SR108, the river moves over to the other side of SR395 and becomes wider. The landscape at the beginning of SR108 is gorgeous. I had just remarked to my husband that this would be the perfect spot for a picnic when we saw that a car was pulled up at the side, and a lady was making sandwiches for herself and her husband. They were kind enough to share some cheese with us, and we enjoyed the view and the cheese.
Sonora Pass Road
Sonora Pass is one of the three passes that connects the eastern part of California with the west, the other two being Monitor Pass and Tioga Pass, the latter of which passes through Yosemite National Park. We drove all three roads on our trip and I thought the scenery at the start of Sonora Pass Road (SR108), where the land is flat before it heads up into the mountains, was quite stunning. No trees to speak of, but the bushes and grasses had a lovely color to them, and the open road streaking straight ahead to the mountains is a sight to behold. It’s the stuff the best road trips are made of: you feel the exhilaration of being completely free, with nothing but wide open spaces around you, and the big blue sky above.
Further down Sonora Pass Road, we came upon some of the best color we saw on our trip, at Leavitt Meadows. Bright yellows, golds and oranges stretched out before us on either side of the road, which was lined with grove upon grove of beautiful aspen.
After Leavitt Meadows, the road abruptly gains quite a bit of elevation and as you climb you get a marvelous view of the sea of color at the bottom. Leavitt Falls makes for a pretty stop at the top. At this point we turned around and headed back to SR395. This was one of my most favorite side roads from our week in the Eastern Sierra, with a little bit of everything: mountains, meadows, rivers, aspen-lined road and awesome stands of color.
Conway Summit, SR395
Conway Summit is one of the best and easiest places to catch the fall colors in the Eastern Sierra. A mountain pass traversed by SR395, Conway Summit is about 8,000 feet high. There are ample turnouts on the side of the road to view and photograph whole hillsides draped in yellows, oranges and reds. A little further is the Mono Lake lookout, well worth the stop.
June Lake Loop
In a region full of stunning scenic drives, the June Lake Loop is arguably the most scenic. If you have the time to do only one detour as you drive SR395, this should be the one! It’s about fifteen miles long, and starts and ends on the highway. The loop includes four sparkling blue lakes that can be viewed from the road: June Lake, Gull Lake, Silver Lake and Grant Lake, as well as a fifth that you can hike to, Parker Lake. If you drive from south to north, June Lake is the first lake you see. With a backdrop of craggy peaks and fringed with gold in fall, the sapphire blue lake is a stunning sight on a sunny day.
Gull Lake is a much smaller lake but it was fringed with gorgeous color when we visited, with the colors reflecting in the water. This is a great lake to take out a boat, and there is a marina where you can rent anything from a kayak to a pontoon. While you can get beautiful views of June Lake from turnouts on the Loop Road, Gull Lake is best viewed from the shore. Turn at Gull Lake Road and it will take you down to the lake.
The drive from Gull Lake to Silver Lake includes several very showy stands of aspen along the road. We saw a family of deer just near the lake, the only wildlife we saw during our entire trip.
Grant Lake is the largest of the four lakes, and, although we saw lots of color on the road leading up to the lake, the lake itself is not as photogenic because it is not fringed with aspen and willow. Nevertheless, the scenery was spectacular, as it is everywhere in the Eastern Sierra.
Just a ten-minute drive from Mammoth Lakes is Convict Lake, a small, incredibly gorgeous lake with a backdrop of snow-tinged mountains and fringed with gorgeous colors in the fall. This lake is a draw for sunrise photos, and on the morning we decided to catch the glow of the sun on the mountain peaks above the lake, we thought we were well in time, but arrived to find every inch of prime photo-taking area covered with tripods. There must have been at least fifty photographers lined up in 26-degree weather, waiting patiently for the sun to rise. One photographer I chatted with told me she had arrived more than an hour before we did. It must have been pitch dark at that time. Talk about passion for photography!
The Lakes of the Bishop Region
The Bishop area is home to three stunning lakes that are popular fall destinations: South Lake, North Lake and Sabrina Lake. The approach roads to South Lake and Sabrina Lake were full of color when we visited, but North and South Lakes were past peak. The brightest color we saw was at Aspendell, a tiny residential community on the way to Sabrina Lake, where the aspen trees were the largest and tallest I have ever seen anywhere. Healthy and lush, they looked a curtain of gold.
Some recommendations if you decide to visit the Eastern Sierra in the fall (and I highly recommend it!)
A high clearance vehicle can make exploring some of the more remote color locations easier. Many areas with gorgeous color can be accessed only via dirt roads, and we had to turn back at Summer Meadows because our little Civic would not have been able to take the rough road much longer.
I recommend driving from the south (the Bishop area) to the north (Lake Tahoe area), as colors peak earlier in the south. We drove from north to south, and while we saw many areas at peak, we missed some beautiful spots in the Bishop area because they were past peak by the time we visited.
Base yourself in a couple of places to cover side roads more easily. We spent four nights in South Lake Tahoe and four in Mammoth Lakes. Both towns have a range of accommodations and decent dining options. If you love camping, you will be captivated by the campgrounds in the Eastern Sierra: some of the prettiest colors we saw were in campgrounds across the region. It would be heaven to wake up to that view every morning!
I found the following online resources incredibly helpful when researching and planning our trip:
http://www.californiafallcolor.com, John Poimiroo’s website for very current reports on where the best fall colors in California are to be found at any given time, and the Eastern Sierra Fall Color Guide & Map, published by the counties that form the Eastern Sierra. The roads on this map were enough to keep us more than occupied for a week. If you have longer, you walk or hike for other leaf-peeping opportunities.
What is your favorite destination for leaf-peeping? Comment below with recommendations!
Like this article? Pin it!