The most scenic fall road trip in California, Highway 395 through the Eastern Sierra puts on a brilliant display of colors each fall.
Having experienced fall in all its glory in New England, 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 Highway 395 from South Lake Tahoe to Bishop in the fall changed my mind in a hurry.
Read on to discover why you must travel to see the fall colors in the Eastern Sierra!
You will not just be totally blown away by the magnificence of the yellows, golds, oranges and reds of the fall colors in the Eastern Sierra. You will be completely captivated by the wild untamed essence of this land. It’s just perfect for a road trip!
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Majestic mountains, meandering rivers, gorgeous lakes and high-walled canyons create a myriad of beautiful backdrops for fall colors in the Eastern Sierra.
During our road trip to see fall colors in the Eastern Sierra, we met leaf-peepers from all over the world. Every person we spoke with was wowed by the experience of being “Outside on the Eastside” in the fall!
FALL COLORS IN THE EASTERN SIERRA
Here are some top experiences you can expect if you are looking for fall colors in the Eastern Sierra:
#1 Taylor Creek, Lake Tahoe
We started our trip in beautiful Lake Tahoe. I asked the very helpful concierge at our hotel regarding the best spots for fall color around the lake.
And that’s when we learned about the annual phenomenon of the running of the Kokanee salmon. This is a sight you must not miss if you visit the area in the fall!
Each fall, the Kokanee salmon that live in Lake Tahoe change color from silver-gray to red. Then they migrate to Taylor Creek near South Lake Tahoe to spawn and end the cycle of life.
You can drive to Taylor Creek and walk the short trail to a bridge. From the bridge, look down into the creek and see the hundreds of fish run. It is such a beautiful spectacle! I am so glad we were able to witness it.
Fall color had only just started to show in the Taylor Creek area but we saw some nice red leaves:
#2 The Cabin at Red Lake, Hope Valley
Your next stop is Hope Valley, a thirty-minute drive from South Lake Tahoe via Luther Pass. Hope Valley is a well-known fall destination in California, attracting thousands of visitors each year.
Within Hope Valley, don’t miss the little cabin on California SR88, a couple miles east of Red Lake. This cabin 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 so 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.
At the cabin, there is a wide turnoff where you can park and safely take your photos.
While you are in the village, stop at Sorensen’s Resort. The aspens on the property are tall and mature and are a wonderful sight at peak. Plus, you can get a bite to eat and a drink at the cafe here.
#3 Walker River Canyon, Highway 395 and SR108
For a stretch of Highway 395 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 here for a bit in the October sun. You can take in the beauty of the canyon, and watch the river bubble over little boulders.
At the intersection of Highway 395 and SR108, the river moves over to the other side of Highway 395 and becomes wider. The landscape at the beginning of SR108 is gorgeous.
I was just thinking that this would be the perfect spot for a picnic, when I saw that a car was pulled up at the side, and a lady was making sandwiches for herself and her companion! They were kind enough to share some cheese with us, and we enjoyed the view and the cheese.
#4 Sonora Pass Road
Driving on south, you will come to Sonora Pass Road. Sonora Pass is one of the three passes that connects the eastern part of California with the west.
The other two passes are Monitor Pass and Tioga Pass. Tioga Pass goes through Yosemite National Park. We drove all three roads on our trip and found lovely patches of color on each road.
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. The road is 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 looking for fall colors in the Eastern Sierra, with a little bit of everything: mountains, meadows, rivers, aspen-lined road and awesome stands of color.
Between Sonora Pass and Mono Lake, you might want to make a detour to visit the ghost town of Bodie, a gold mining town where time has stood still. It is a fascinating destination, and one you should not miss if you aren’t planning to return to drive Highway 395 another time.
#5 Conway Summit, Highway 395
Conway Summit is one of the best and easiest places to catch the fall colors in the Eastern Sierra.
A mountain pass traversed by Highway 395, 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. It’s a spectacular sight at peak color time!
A little further is the Mono Lake lookout, well worth the stop.
#6 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 Highway 395, 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. They are some of the prettiest lakes in the Eastern Sierra.
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.
#7 Convict Lake
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.
One 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!
#8 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 in this area was at Aspendell, a tiny residential community on the way to Sabrina Lake. Here 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. 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:
California Fall Color, John Poimiroo’s website for very current reports on where the best fall colors in California are to be found at any given time.
The Eastern Sierra Fall Color Guide & Map, published by the California 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.
Where to stay in South Lake Tahoe
We stayed at two places during our South Lake Tahoe stay and thought both places were excellent.
Grand Residences by Marriott has a great location in Heavenly Village, close to restaurants and shopping. We were upgraded to a one bedroom suite with fireplace and it was very spacious and comfortable! Check prices and availability!
The Landing Resort and Spa is right on the lake! The spa and on-site restaurant are both wonderful. Beds are plush and bathrooms modern. There were bookcases on either side of the fireplace in our room, and I found a couple of books to read on our terrace outside. Check prices and availability!
Where to stay in Mammoth Lakes
We stayed at the Westin Monache Resort. It’s located near The Village, with easy access to shops, cafes, and restaurants, and just a short ride into town. Our bed was super comfortable and we enjoyed the fireplace! Check prices and availability!
Have you seen the fall colors in the Eastern Sierra? What is your favorite destination for leaf-peeping? Comment below with recommendations!
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