Fall Colors Will Leaf you Happy

Eastern Sierra Fall Color MapMost visitors who drive up and down US 395 through Inyo County are impressed by the striking landscapes on both sides of the road. On one side is the dramatic upshot of granite peaks that make up the Sierra. Opposite the Sierra, subtle colors mix on the more rounded slopes of the White and Inyo mountains.

What many people aren’t able to see from the valley floor are impressive displays of fall colors when crisp autumn temperatures turn the leaves of cottonwood trees, aspens, willows and oaks into a vibrant explosion of shades of yellows, reds and green. That’s because those colorful sights hide a bit, in mountain valleys and lakes, from the casual observer.

That is one of several differences between the Eastern Sierra’s fall color season and the more well-known fall color hotspots, such as New England or the Rocky Mountains. Those regions’ entire mountain landscapes turns into sweeping, colorful sights. The wooded hills and mountains are covered completely with color.

In the Eastern Sierra, on the other hand, the leafy trees do not typically cover entire mountains. Instead, there are little stands and groves of trees at a certain range of elevation off the valley floor. Those higher-altitude trees turn colors first. Then, later in the fall, the big cottonwoods and other trees on the valley floor take their turn as colorful characters. That means Inyo County’s fall color season has a nice long run.

Another unique aspect to the fall color season is that for the most part the striking scenery can be viewed by simply driving up well-known local roads that reach into the high country. The key is to time the drive to match the colors.

For years, locals and late-season anglers and hikers pretty much had the colorful display of fall foliage to themselves.

But that little secret turned out to be hard to keep.

Transplants to California from more forested states who were tired of beach scenes and huge, green pine trees, tried to duplicate the leaf-peeping scenes they left behind. The Sierra, with its four season and mountains was an obvious place to look.

Once the word was out, all it took to transform a local tradition into a state-wide “must see” was a little promotion, a few years’ worth of Travel Section media coverage, and especially the proliferation of web pages, blogs and social media that made it easy for everyone to post dozens of stunning color photos. (The leading web page for fall color updates in the Sierra and throughout the state is still the first website devoted solely to fall color spotting, reporting and enjoying: www.californiafallcolor.com, with its catchy slogan, “Dude, autumn happens here, too.”)

Now, fall color is a “season” that occurs right after summer. Once the cooler weather arrives, so do eager leaf-peepers. Coming in cars or trucks, singly in or in groups, people start cruising the roads leading into the Sierra, from Cottonwood Pass to Bishop Creek. Some people are content to simply drive up and down the road and view the colorful sights from the comfort of their vehicle. Others get out and work their camera to capture the autumn scene before them.

The key to a successful search is to go slow and really look. While there are some places where large swaths of trees cover a large area, the smaller, more intimate stands of trees are just as compelling. A single stand of aspens in the middle of field of granite offers quite a sight. As does a stretch of willows alongside a stream. A cluster of color set off by a background of green pines offers an interesting contrast. The soft reflection of color in a small pond or lake can be a unique photo.

Another unique aspect to the fall color season is that it’s usually fairly easy to see Nature at work. Trees at higher elevations turn color first, then as time passes the wave of color literally moves down mountainsides and though valleys. So it’s not uncommon to start out seeing summer-green trees, then trees that have partly turned and finally get to trees in full color. It’s almost like you’re hot on the trail of fall color.

Where to Go

In general, you can find fall colors in about any Eastern Sierra high country location in Inyo County. Well-known roads that lead to the backcountry typically move through the band of aspens, cottonwoods and willows that make up the best fall color viewing.

That means routes such as Cottonwood Pass and the Whitney Portal Road in the Lone Pine area will deliver you to fall color viewing. Likewise with Onion Valley Road out of Independence, and Glacier Lodge Road out of Big Pine.

Later in the fall, just the drive on US 395 will yield colorful sights as the trees along the valley floor put on a colorful show. Keep an eye out for tall, sprawling cottonwoods that stand by themselves in fields. When these individual trees turn, they are quite a sight.  Trees in each town also turn later in the season, so go ahead and take a few minutes to drive through town toward the Sierra. In most cases, you will be able to see big, mature trees turning color with big Sierra peaks as a backdrop.

The Bishop Creek Drainage offers numerous fall color sights in a fairly compact area.

In early fall, North Lake is a landmark sight, and well worth the drive, since the road itself is flanked by tall, colorful aspens. The appropriately named community of Aspendell is a color oasis, as is the Cardinal Village, which you can see from the road above the tree-packed little canyon. Lake Sabrina has a couple of spots that are favorites, from the creek to the slow moving water and bridge just below the lake. The lake itself reflects Sierra peaks and blasts of color leading to those peaks.

The road to South Lake offers one of the longer, uninterrupted stretches of colorful trees decorating hillsides, ponds, an outstanding waterfall, and the meandering creek before reaching the lake itself.

Check www.californiafallcolor.com for the latest reports and fall color information.

California Eastern Sierra Fall Colors. Our natural landscape in the Eastern Sierra, where rugged granite canyons are carved by rushing streams and framed by an azure sky, offers a spellbinding contrast of colors during autumn golden, crimson and orange aspen and cottonwoods as far as the eye can see. The best time to see this spectacular array is generally mid-September to mid-October. EVER SEEN FALL COLORS THAT TAKE YOUR BREATH AWAY?


The Eastern Sierra’s varied elevations from approximately 5,000 to 10,000 feet (1,512 to 3,048 m) mean the trees peak in color at different times. Bishop, Inyo County and southern Mono County usually turn color first, with Mammoth Lakes, June Lake, Bridgeport and northern Mono County peaking by mid-October.


Trees that change color in the Eastern Sierra include aspen, cottonwood and willow.


Ever wonder how Eastern Sierra leaves know to go from bright green to gold, orange, and russet as soon as the calendar hits mid-September? Their cue is actually from the change in air temperature and decreased daylight.


The reason we see fall colors is part of an annual cycle that begins in spring and summer, when green chlorophyll pigments are active in cells that make food for the tree to grow. It’s during this time that leaves also contain lesser amounts of yellow, orange and red pigments that are masked by the chlorophyll. The occurrence of fall colors is actually the disappearance of green chlorophyll!


Intensity of leaf color is determined by the air’s temperature and moisture. Warm, dry days and cool nights (under 45F or 7C ) mean brilliant colors; rainy days and warm nights result in less intense coloration.


If you’ve ever wondered why some leaves turn deep crimson red, while others become so gold they seem to be lit from within like a lamp, here’s your answer: They have pigments called xantho – phylls (yellows), carotenoids (yellows, oranges and reds), and anthocyanin (red). Anthocyanin is the result of trapped plant sugar, produced by the leaf when days are sunny and nights are cold.


In addition to the Eastern Sierra, fall colors dazzle throughout the Golden State. The go-to source is CaliforniaFallColor.com

  1. Round Valley (cottonwood – gold)
  2. Bishop (cottonwood – gold)
  3. Buttermilk Country (aspen – yellow, pink, orange, gold red)
  4. Bishop Creek (aspen – yellow, pink, orange, gold, red)
  5. Big Pine Canyon (aspen,cottonwood, willows – yellow, pink, orange, gold, red, auburn)