Anytime of year is a great time to visit the eastern Sierra, but
a fall trip has bucket list credentials. The enormous reach of the
Mono Basin and the Owens Valley beneath a crystal blue sky is
Anytime of year is a great time to visit the eastern Sierra, but a fall trip has bucket list credentials. The enormous reach of the Mono Basin and the Owens Valley beneath a crystal blue sky is always breathtaking. The steep granite walls rising abruptly from the high desert floor are ever the headliners in this awesome show. And the rivers crash down into lovely lakes long after our seasonal streams have dried.
Adorn this landscape with the luminous yellow of aspen and cottonwood groves, and the east side becomes a bright bejeweled wonderland.
Listing all the places to see fall color there is futile, but let me make a couple suggestions of places I have visited that have enchanted me. If you are new to the eastern Sierra, you must pick up a copy of AAA’s “Guide to the Eastern Sierra.” It is in the form of a folded map, with four smaller detailed maps that indicate all the side roads along Highway 395, the highway that traces the Sierra escarpment.
When I first set foot in Buckeye Canyon east of Bridgeport, it was a true revelation. Virtually every side road or trail into the eastern Sierra climbs quickly through a fairly narrow crease in the massive rock wall. Buckeye Canyon is an emphatic exception. After a level walk of a couple miles through a Jeffrey pine forest, you emerge into a vast level valley bounded by amazing peaks on both sides. The jagged peaks are an amazing contrast to the wide and peaceful valley below, a setting that keeps beckoning you on. Go at least as far as the very large aspen grove to see 100-year-old carvings in the aspen trunks left by long-gone shepherds.
More true to form is Lundy Canyon just north of Lee Vining. The last mile of the road past Lundy Lake is a little tricky, but keep going to the end. A short distance up the trail, you will see Lundy Falls drop through an opening in the changing aspens. Venture further for beaver ponds and an abandoned miner’s cabin.
A few miles south of Lee Vining, take the June Lake Loop, a scenic side trip that will take you past great aspen color that you can see from the car window. Once the loop rejoins Highway 395, continue south past Mammoth Lakes to McGee Canyon, a much less visited trail. At peak color, this valley is spectacular and earns inclusion in all the scenic calendars. The reddish metamorphic rock of the jagged peaks beyond adds to the great color palette here.
Continuing south on Highway 395, we have already passed Convict Lake and now we will pass Rock Creek Road above Tom’s Place, both worthy fall color side trips if you have the time. The highway here drops 3,000 feet down Sherwin Grade to Bishop. If you have timed things right, your view overlooking Bishop as you descend will be studded with yellow cottonwoods that prefer the lower elevation of the Owens Valley.
In downtown Bishop, turn right on Highway 168 and go, go, go. This is a wide and fast 20-mile road that climbs back into the mountains reaching 9,000 feet at its end. Beginning at Aspendell, the fall color and the backdrop of 13,000-foot peaks will cause you to pullover and stop at every turn.
Those are my favorites. The best time is usually the first couple weeks in October, but conditions vary. For more information, visit www.monocounty.org and search “fall colors” for a guide to these and other locations. Whatever you are imagining there, it’s far better.