Fall Colors in the Eastern Sierras

I can’t quite let go of the colors of Fall and the smell of Autumn woodsmoke, even though Winter has clearly set in, and Christmas is here.   What better time to go back a few weeks and bring up some of the results of my October trip to the Eastern Sierra.

No, the western states don’t have the same reds and purples, at least in terms of intensity, that New England and the Mid-Atlantic have.  Yet, the yellow brilliance of seas of Aspens mixed with the lingering green and silver of their trunks, contrasted against California’s snow-covered High Sierra mountain range, is a breathtaking site (and a playground for landscape photographers).  Talk about target-rich environments!  The Eastern Sierra,  although less heralded in most circles than its Colorado, Utah and other cousins, is a wonderful and relative easy place to find many colorful and interesting places to set up your tripods.

Start your planning for this location for about the third week of October.  Remember that Fall starts usually later at this latitude vs. the better known northern venues.  I picked October 21st this year, and I hit it absolutely perfectly.

The  first (and usual) overnight stop on the way from my Oregon home was the small town of Bridgeport, about 3 hours south of Reno.  It’s not a very scenic town, but it is conveniently located within a few miles of the turnoff to the Bodie ghost town and a good place to start the southbound version of this trip.  I the first half day in Bodie on the way to the Sierras, but I’ll cover that part in a later post.

From Bridgeport south along US395, you can find many places to catch the fall colors including Twin Lakes, Virginia Lakes, the June Lake Loop, the Mammoth Lakes Scenic Loop, and the Bishop Creek canyon.  Along the way, you can also catch Mono Lake, but that is a stop of a few days all by itself, so will also be covered in a later post.





Eastern Sierra Aspens Panorama

The 90-mile drive between Bridgeport and Bishop, generally within a radius of 40 or so miles around Mammoth Lakes, will bring you through or near numerous creeks and canyons filled and flanked by both small pockets and huge stands of Aspens and others.  Even along the US395 roadside, I was  among a number of others leaf-peepers who couldn’t resist the opportunity to simply pull out (carefully, of course) onto the shoulder and set up for the spread of aspens below the Toiyabe National Forest, Mt. Matterhorn and the eastern Sierra flank just outside the boundaries of Yosemite National Park (N38-05.776 W119-10.702, and others).  A minimum of three days should be planned to cover even the basic roadway–accessible spots for shooting.  I’ll only cover a few here.

I bypassed the first tour northeast out of Bridgeport to Twin Lakes this time in favor of saving more time for other areas that were reporting more plentiful colors to the south.  But the 10-mile Twin Lakes dead-end route can be reached via the from Twin Lakes Rd. at the north end of Bridgeport.

The first tour after Bodie was to along the Virginia Lakes Road.  Take the Virginia Lakes Road exit from US395 (N38-05.255 W119-10.931) west and plan to stop at any of the numerous stops along the 6.5 mile dead end road.  There are several unpaved roads along foot of the mountain, but many cross private lands, so I suggest checking to avoid the risk of trespassing.

The Virginia Lakes Resort, adjacent to the Trumbull Lake Campground is a good place to stock up and head out onto the trails to four or five lakes within hiking distance.  The Resort and campground are not open year-round, so be sure to check before planning to stay.

A short hour’s drive south takes you past Mono Lake and the small town of Lee Vining which is the best place to find food, fuel and provisions until reaching June Lake or Mammoth Lakes.

About 6 miles south of Lee Vining is the northern junction of the June Lake Loop (N37.892466 W119.092655).  This 16 mile loop will take you along the edge of Silver Lake, June Lake and several other smaller lakes and ponds, with aspens flanking most of the entire drive back to the southern junction (N37-48.763 W119-03.209) with US395 about 6 miles south of the northern junction.

The 7-mile Mammoth Lakes Scenic loop road was closed for maintenance, so that will have to be done on the next trip.  It begins about 10 miles south of the June Lake Loop and ends just outside the Mammoth Lakes town on the road to the Mammoth Ski Resort and Devil’s Postpile National Monument.

The overnight stay in Mammoth Lakes enabled a second day of exploring and a trek into Devil’s Postpile.  Lateness of the day and difficult lighting conditions made the Postpile trip more one of scouting than photography, but it will certainly be on the itinerary for the next trip.  Some time at Devil’s Postpile will be on the agenda for the next Eastern Sierra trip.

From Mammoth, it was on to Bishop and the Bishop Creek Recreation Area which is accessed by driving west from the intersection of US395 and Line Road (which turns into Hwy 168).  The 20-mile road that snakes along the Bishop Creek and ends at Sabrina Lake.  Along the way is Aspendell (notice the name) and many, many spots for roadside or nearby off-road setups for stands of trees, water reflections and creekside settings, many  framed against rock outcroppings and forested areas.

While in Bishop, DO NOT miss the Mountain Light Gallery (, home of the works of the late Galen Rowel.  Galen was a world-recognized and widely published landscape photographer who pioneered his own brand of color and composition.  He and his wife, Barbara, were tragically killed in a plane crash in 2002 while returning home to Bishop.  The Rowel collection is well worth seeing, with prints and books available for purchase, but Mountain Light also hosts the work of other photographers and artists.

Oh, and also while in Bishop, stop into the town’s long-time and legendary fixture, Erick Schat’s Bakery at the north edge of town.  Way, way more than a bakery, it is an experience all unto itself, and the best place in the region, by far, to get your sandwiches, bread and other eats for the picnic lunch.  If you miss the original bakery in Bishop, you can also visit the newer one in Mammoth Lakes, but the original is really a must-stop.

Fall Colors in the Eastern Sierra will be one of the group trips that I’ll be organizing in 2011, so check the website’s Workshops & Classes ( ) link to keep updated on the schedule and other details.  And, of course, I hope you’ll send me a note or post a reply if you want to be put on the email list for updates.  If you’d rather make the trip on your own, send me a note and I’ll be happy to give you some more details on routes, places to stay, coordinates and a few other tips.

Stay Tuned!

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