Sierra Nevada Fall Color Season – Coming Sooner Than You Think!
Posted on 02 September 2009
(Originally posted in September, 2009, and updated and slightly revised in varying degrees during successive aspen seasons — current update in August 2014. Check the comments for other updates. This is my eclectic and very incomplete account of how I photograph fall color – that means aspens! – in the eastern Sierra Nevada. We’re only weeks away from Aspen Time as I write this. I can’t wait!)
During the latter part of August every year there always seems to be a day in the Sierra when I become aware that summer is coming to an end and fall is just around the corner. I’ve never quite identified the source of the feeling, but it is unmistakable when it happens. Perhaps a change in the light? Possibly something about the patterns of the wind? Maybe just that more and more places dry out and shift from green to brown and golden?
Of course, sometimes it is more obvious. I was in the Sierra during the final week of August this year (2009), backpacking into Yosemite’s Ten Lakes Basin for a few days. It wasn’t hard to notice that the mule ears plants were dying and that many had taken on wild yellow/gold colors, or that some of the small meadow plants were beginning to turn red and yellow, or that some of the chaparral plants were losing a few leaves. So although it is still summer by the calendar – and will be for nearly three more weeks – my thoughts are turning to fall once again. And that means I’m looking forward to the opportunity to photograph the incredible displays of aspen color in the eastern Sierra. (There are some aspens west of the crest as well – for example in the Carson Pass area – but the stands east of the crest are larger and more accessible.)
Since I’ve been visiting and photographing the aspens for some time, here are a few ideas and recommendations and locations for photographing them in the eastern Sierra. In no particular order:
When – The aspen color season can run roughly from the last week or so of September through as late as the third week of October. However, in my experience the core of the aspen color season is more likely the first two weeks of October, and my general bet – until the season gets closer and reports start coming in – is that about one week into the month is likely to be a good time. If I only could go once, it would probably be during the first weekend of October, though I might edge towards just a few days later. While I feel that the best color can generally start at about that time, there are no guarantees. A whole range of factors can alter the timing of the best displays – these include: the overall temperature and moisture of the past season, the speed of the change in temperature as autumn starts, whether or not early storms pass through and how much snow/wind they bring, elevation, north/south placement in the range, and so on. The bad news is that I might show up at a place that was great on date X last year and find it out of condition (green or black or no leaves) the following year. The good news is that there is enough local variation in the timing of the peak color that I can probably drive a bit and find something equally good. (And if I arrive way too late… well, bare aspen trunks and branches also have a certain charm, especially if a few leaves are still lying around and extra-especially if there is some snow on the ground.)
I’ll start my aspen chase as early as the final weekend of September – though the first reconnoitering forays may simply be at the end of late season backpack trips – and try to get back to the aspen hunting grounds during the following few weeks. I’ll definitely be looking for aspens during the first weekend of October.
(Note for the upcoming 2014 season: This is the third of a series of dry years in California and the Sierra — not just any dry years, but exceptionally dry years. I’m fairly certain that the aspens, like just about every other form of Sierra life, are under a great deal of stress by now. I’m far less certain of how this may affect the upcoming fall color. Last year the dry conditions seemed to bring an earlier start to fall color conditions, and where I would typically look for color at the end of the first week of October, color was arriving perhaps a week earlier. I’m going to watch closely this year for another early change and try to be ready to be there on a moment’s notice. By the same token, the dry conditions may also affect the intensity of the color — it is hard to say how for certain, but I would not be surprised by a less than spectacular year. Warning: I’ve been fooled before!)
Where – The answer to this could be really, really long – and even then others would know of spots that I’m not familiar with. (For example, I understand that there may be some good stands in the Tahoe area – but I’ve never photographed aspens there.) Rather than thinking of what follows as the Complete Guide to Aspen Locations in the Eastern Sierra – which it most certainly isn’t! – regard it as a narrative of some spots where I’ve had success. I’ll locate a few of them in relatively specific terms but leave some of the others a bit vague so that you can have some fun finding your own aspens, just like I do.
- Highway 88/Carson Pass – When approaching from the west side of the Sierra, this can be one of the quickest ways to get to substantial stands of aspens. Long before the pass I encounter some small, isolated, but very picturesque stands. After the Kirkwood ski area comes Caples Lake, and some very nice stands begin here and continue to the summit of Carson Pass. One of the nice features of this area is that it is on the west slope – so the light is quite different than what you find in the more extensive east slope groves. (By far the largest number of Sierra aspens that are accessible to photographers are on the east side of the crest.) If I continue on over the pass – and I usually do! – I come to…
- Hope Valley – There are some wonderful stands of aspens in this area east of Carson Pass and extending down to and beyond the junction with highway 89 to Lake Tahoe. There are some groves that are not easy to approach, but others are along the road or can be reached by driving some of the side roads. Between the highway 89 junction and Sorensen’s Resort there is a section where impressive trees line both sides of the road – lots of people will pull over here when the trees are at their peak.
- Monitor Pass – Continuing past Hope Valley and on to Markleeville, the drive over Monitor Pass goes past and though some huge stands of very dense aspen trees. There are not too many in the low country approaching the turnoff to the pass, but as I climb this road I’ll start to see more and more stands – and even some of the small stands can be worth a stop on the right day. But near the top of the pass the landscape flattens out and there are gigantic groves of the trees. The road passes through some right before the pass, and others are easily accessible near and after the actual pass. I like to photograph here late in the day – sometimes all the way until sunset – since the high, open terrain gets good light from the west.
- Sonora Pass – I am a bit less familiar with fall color on this pass, though I do know that I’ve driven past the turnoff to Sonora and seen a lot of color toward the pass, and I have driven up the road to the pass enough times to know that there are beautiful aspen trees in the area. This location has a lot of potential if you arrive at the right time.
- Between Sonora and Tioga Passes- This is a huge chunk of geography, and there are many places with aspens – alone, in isolated groves, and in canyons that are full of them. For a variety of reasons I won’t make any pretense of covering this completely, but here are some of the more accessible and obvioius spots that I have visited:
- Near Bridgeport a number of extensive stands of aspens are visible on the east slopes of the Sierra. (One can also stop here and buy what may well be the World’s Most Expensive Gasoline…) I have explored a few of the gravel side-roads (not all of which are suited to regular passenger vehicles) and have found some wonderful color.
- The Dunderberg Peak area and the Green Lake area of the east slope hold some interesting trees. Since I don’t mind a rough drive (I have an all-wheel drive vehicle) I often investigate a number of gravel roads in this area – but use caution since some of them can become quite rough. Some of these roads pass through some very extensive groves of aspens. These same aspens are visible from…
- Conway Summit, or just a bit north of Conway Summit proper. This area is just before highway 395 tops Conway Summit and drops south toward Lee Vining. To my mind this is one of the more accessible places to view large aspen stands. (I recall once pulling out here and setting up my tripod – and within moments something like a dozen other cars stopped with occupants spilling out to try to capture my photo! ;-) It provides more distant views of some very large and sometimes very stunning aspen groves, which extend to and beyond those up in the area of the Dunderberg gravel roads. In fact, viewing the slopes from here may give you ideas where you want to try to explore. Timing is everything here – when things work out just right there can be an astonishing carpet of aspen color ascending from just below highway 395 to well up into the mountains to the west, and you may see every possible aspen color: green, yellow, golden, orange, red. I prefer to photograph here a bit later in the day when the light starts to come from behind the trees – good shots are possible even as the sun begins to drop behind the Sierra crest.
- Virginia Lake road leaves 395 right at Conway Summit. There are some nice stands just a ways up the road, but there are larger stands even further up that seem to peak a bit earlier than I some of the others in this part of the Sierra.
- Lundy Canyon is accessible from 395 after the descent from Conway Summit to nearly Mono Lake. A road heads west past Lundy Lake and eventually becomes much narrower and steeper. (Enough narrower and steeper to perhaps make some drivers unused to such routes a bit uneasy.)
- Lee Vining Canyon is east of highway 395 just past the town of Lee Vining. Highway 120 over Tioga Pass and into Yosemite goes up this canyon. (Note that this road is subject to closure for even minor early-fall snow dustings, and that it closes completely every winter once the first significant snow falls – it is not an all-year route.) Lee Vining Canyon is, in places, full of aspen trees. I find that their peak color may tend to come a bit later than in some of the high, exposed areas, and this is a place I often visit a bit later in the aspen color season. In addition, there are several forest service campgrounds in Lee Vining Canyon that are within decent driving distance of a lot of interesting subjects, and I often camp in this area.
- Various little roads lead into the eastern slopes of the Sierra as you continue south. I have a few favorites but I won’t describe them here… that would spoil your fun and prevent you from having the same pleasure I have had in exploring these areas and discovering more about them. A map, a capable vehicle, scanning the slopes here, and a few hunches may help you find some interesting color.
- The June Lakes Loop road touches highway 395 a bit south of Lee Vining and again a bit closer to Mammoth at June Lakes Junction. This road can be a good place to find aspen color as it works its way a bit lower into the Valley to the east of the crest. There are a number of groves – too many for me to list them all separately – including some in somewhat urbanized areas near the town of June Lake. When the area is in good form it can be spectacular and accessible, the latter due to a loop road into the June Lake resort area.
- Mammoth Lakes is the very popular destination of many southern California skiers and Sierra travelers and I’ve been there many, many times… just not during aspen season. Sorry, I can’t offer much information about the possibilities here other than to note that, yes, I’ve seen aspens in the general area. I have even photographed a few odd groves here and there, but I think I’ll let you look for these on your own.
- South of Mammoth there are, again, a number of small roads that head up into various eastern Sierra Valleys. I don’t have any particular strong favorites in a general sense, but… I do keep a close eye on them as I drive by since I can often spot a few good stands in some of them when I’m on the prowl, especially later in the aspen season. Convict Lake is a popular spot – there are aspens, but not my favorites. I’ve also had some good luck in the McGee Creek drainage – though you’ll have to drive some gravel road. (Update 2012: In mid-September 2012 I did a short backpack trip up McGee Canyon to spend a couple of nights at a 10,000+’ lake. The trail passes through some extensive aspen groves that are not visible unless you hike a mile or two up the trail.) The Rock Creek drainage holds a lot of interesting sights, including quite a few aspen trees.
- Continuing south, highway 395 passes through Round Valley following the descent from Sherwin Summit and before the big descent into Bishop. Round Valley itself is not really a place to photograph aspens, but I like to photograph there in the fall for some of the other low elevation trees such as cottonwoods, the extensive pasture lands and the backdrop of a very steep section of the eastern Sierra escarpment. Of course, if you are in Round Valley, there are aspens not far away and in more than one place – that’s all I’ll say.
- From Bishop there is access to popular aspen hunting grounds in the area of Bishop Creek up highway 168 heading east from town toward North, Sabrina, and South Lakes. (There are a number of lodging possibilities in Bishop, and there are some good campgrounds up on 168, though some of them begin to close for the season in early October.) There is so much to shoot in this drainage and it has become so crowded with photographers that I’ll mostly describe it generally. North Lake may be the source of some of the best known eastern Sierra autumn photographs, though timing is important and the road is gravel, though it is usually in decent shape and is well-traveled. (it is perhaps a bit too well-traveled. At times it is heavily populated with photographers. On one weekend morning I headed up there planning to photograph the lake, only to come around the bend and find a workshop with a few dozen photographers in the exact spot I had in mind!) I try not to wait too late to visit here since this area (and the rest of the upper part of this basin) is high enough that the tree color can peak early. There are a lot of interesting trees close to the road near and below Sabrina Lake. The situation at South Lake is somewhat similar, though there are many more aspen groves on the way to this lake. Even much lower on highway 168 there can be impressive aspen color – the town of Aspendell didn’t get its name for nothing! In fact, one strategy is to shoot this drainage over a longer period of time, starting high early in the aspen season and gradually working your way down as the season continues.
- South of Bishop there are undoubtedly many more aspens… but I have not photographed there in the fall very much as of yet.
What about some of the more popular locations in the Sierra such as Yosemite? There are some impressive aspens here and there in Yosemite, but the accessible stands are – at least in my experience – few and far between… and small. There are some larger areas that are accessible by trail, but I’ll leave it at that. If my goal is primarily aspen color I head right on over Tioga Pass through the park to the east side. That said, Yosemite does hold one wonderful fall color surprise. Right around Halloween there are some spectacular displays of fall color in The Valley itself. I go nearly every year – no aspens, but lots of other wonderful stuff to shoot.
How – With no illusions about providing a remotely comprehensive coverage of how to photograph aspens – of course! – here are a few ideas:
- Think beyond the “wow, that grove is colorful” point and shoot school of aspen photography. Yes it is beautiful, but how to make it work as a photograph is the question. (But do feel free to give in a bit to the temptation to just shoot the beautiful trees.)
- Think a lot about light. Groves that can look washed out or even green at midday can turn luminous and golden in early morning or late afternoon/evening light. Front-lit aspens can be pretty boring, but if you turn around and get a bit of back-light things may light up spectacularly.
- Try shooting in shade, light overcast, or before sunrise and after sunset. You’ll likely want to correct for the bluish coloration of the light, but the soft and diffused light is very friendly to shadow areas and can intensify the colors. (I almost never shoot aspens in harsh, midday light. However, if the right sort of clouds are around, I may shoot almost straight through from pre-dawn until post-sunset.)
- Watch out for overexposure of the red channel if you shoot digital. Use the histogram display to check your exposure and if your camera can display separate histograms for each color take a look at this. The intense yellows, oranges, and reds of fall can blow out the red channel even if you think you have the right exposure – you may have to underexpose a bit to get this right. (This is a common problem I see in quite a few aspen tree photographs and in photographs of fall foliage in general. Not only fall color photography, actually but also in flower photography and sunset photography and… ;-)
- Move in close. Instead of just shooting whole groves and whole trees, try to find compositions from individual leaves, a small group, or perhaps a branch or two.
- Look beyond the leaves. Paper thin and near-white aspen trunks and branches have their own charm either with or without the accompanying leaves.
- Photograph leaves that have fallen to the ground. Often there is something compelling about these very colorful leaves littering the ground beneath the trees.
- Shoot the whole scene. The experience of these trees is made up of more than the trees themselves. The flowing water of creeks, the granite boulders, other surrounding trees, nearby meadows (often golden at this time of year), towering peaks, and more can be part of the scene.
- If you get a bit of snow, count yourself very lucky! Aspens and snow – as long as it isn’t so much snow that you can’t safely get to the trees - can combine well, setting off the colors of the leaves and even allowing you to suggest a certain poignancy in the last leaves as winter comes on.
- If it is windy, use the wind. While you might try to stop the leaves by waiting for a lull in the wind and/or using a fast shutter speed, try using a slower shutter speed and incorporating the motion of waving branches and flying leaves as part of your composition.
- Rather than trying to rush from grove to grove – though sometimes you do need to move around a bit – consider “working” one grove more thoroughly. For example, start in the morning in the diffused pre-dawn light. Continue shooting as the sun comes up and lights the sky but leaves the trees in shadow. Work quickly as the edge of the shadow cast by nearby ridges moves across the grove – this is a wonderful moment of beautiful light. Then see what new subjects are revealed in the direct early morning light.
Etiquette and Respect
In the past few years – partly, I’m afraid, due to the easy availability of information on the internet at sites like this one – I have seen the number of photographers “chasing aspen color” in the eastern Sierra increase tremendously. Each of us has a responsibility to exercise care and respect for this environment that we love so much. I’ve never been able to understand those folks (and, sadly, some photographers are among them) who will go to great lengths to visit such astounding places… and then trash the very places that attracted them. And by “trash,” I don’t just mean litter – I mean more generally acting in ways that degrade the very landscape we photograph. What follows is a list of a few things that I think about in this regard.
- Don’t destroy the thing that draws you to the Sierra. If you cannot access an aspen grove without damaging the grove or the approach, let it go – there are other trees to photograph.
- It should go without saying, but don’t litter. If you can carry it in, surely you can carry it out empty!
- Respect the peace in these quiet mountain places. Like your mother probably told you, “Use your indoor voice” and please turn off that auto stereo system and join the rest of us in enjoying the precious silence broken by the subtle sounds of wind, rattling dry leaves and grasses, and flowing water.
- Use common sense when it comes to where you park and where you drive, especially if you have a four wheel drive vehicle. This is important in terms of avoiding damage to roads and pull-outs and parking areas, avoiding damage to natural areas near roads and parking areas, and to protect your own safety and that of others on the roads.
- Respect road and trail closures and property.
- Think carefully about how much information you share with others and with whom you share it. This has become an important issue for me recently, since a friend pointed out that sharing too much information about fragile places on the Internet can endanger those places. “Back in the day,” we didn’t think twice about sharing detailed location information with our friends and fellow photographers, but we often did so in face-to-face conversation or perhaps in a letter (or email) or a printed newsletter. The information traveled more slowly, it wasn’t accessible to as many people, and we had some control over who we shared it with. Today (for example, when I share an article like this one…) information posted on the web is instantly accessible and searchable by anyone, and “anyone” unfortunately includes some people who may not share your deep love and concern for these places. Do share information, but attenuate it depending upon such things as the fragility of the place and so forth. (On this topic, I’ve thought long and hard about how much to share here. In general, I have offered a bit more detail when the location is one that is easily accessible, popular, and relatively robust. I have offered much less when the area is difficult to access, fragile, or still relatively unknown and quiet. There are other places that I will not mentioned at all.)
- Another reason to be a bit conservative about how much information you share – as I’ve tried to be in this article – is that you will help others enjoy the same experience you had when you discovered your own special places, often over a period of many years and many visits to the Sierra. I could describe “where to put the tripod” for certain impressive and well-known shots – but I don’t think that is a very good idea for a bunch or reasons. For one thing, I know for sure that I have a much greater appreciation for places that I’ve found on my own and which I’ve gotten to know over time. Don’t defeat that process for others by trying to tell them “everything they need to know to photograph an aspen.”
- Be considerate of other photographers. At times it is almost impossible to avoid ending up in another photographer’s shot, and at times someone may end up in yours. Most often a bit of consideration goes a long way. If you see someone shooting nearby, call out and ask if you are in their shot – and if you are, conceal yourself behind a tree, rock, or bush, or try to finish up and move on. If someone walks into your shot, start with the assumption that this was unintentional. Ask if they would mind backing up for a moment so you can complete your shot or ask if they will be there long. If you encounter a huge crowd of photographers – and it can happen, especially in the best known places and double-especially if a workshop or two show up – it may be best to just move on to another subject. (Earlier in this post I wrote about going to a place where I intended to shoot, only to find a couple dozen workshop students set up there. The good news is that after I moved on to a different spot… I found one of my favorite photographs of aspen leaves in a place I might not otherwise have photographed!)
- Special questions arise when a “workshop” or “class” is photographing in an area where you are also working. In general, these folks are there for the same reasons you are, and you have a lot in common. Be friendly, but keep in mind that they are paying participants and you are not. It is not good form to hang around trying to pick up pointers from the instructor. It is horrible form to wade into the group and start making suggestions or to make snide comments about the participants. On the other hand, there are reports of some workshop leaders and participants acting as if they have a greater right to access and photograph certain areas than those who are not part of a workshop. They don’t. In fact, as I understand it, they can jeopardize their right to bring workshops into these areas if they interfere with others. However, making that point too strenuously to the rare group that is out of line may not get you any where – it may be better to try a firm but polite approach, and then move on and focus on doing your photography. If you encounter a particularly badly behaved group, consider reporting them to the Forest Service or other authorities.
- Do share information with other photographers on the scene, especially by speaking to them in person. I’ve found that an informal information network springs up during aspen season. Most photographers you’ll meet have shot in a few other spots, and they may also have spoken with additional photographers. Aspen conditions can evolve quickly, and the up-to-date reports you can get from other photographers are invaluable. To be honest, I enjoy this casual conversation with other photographers on the scene more than I do sitting back in town in a coffee shop trying to find stuff on the net. (And sometimes I even end up sharing dinner with some of these people.)
- When you do talk to other photographers, try to avoid the tendency to start talking about gear – especially if you run into me! :-) Most serious and passionate photographers are not in the mountains to discuss the relative merits of Brand X and Brand Y or whether a tilt-shift lens is necessary for landscape work or whether it is more morally uplifting to shoot with zooms or with primes or whether lens A or lens B is better for photographing aspens! I’d much rather talk about… aspens… or your photography… or your adventures in the mountains… or getting together for dinner in Bishop or at the Whoa Nellie Deli in the evening! :-)
You can, of course, find out about the progress of aspen conditions in many places on the internet, notwithstanding my warnings above. Most folks who follow the aspen color are aware that the conditions evolve quickly and many will share what they know. As the current season progresses I may post some reports at this blog and on my Google+, Facebook and Twitter accounts – though don’t expect me to tell you exactly which grove to shoot in! You can also find information in many landscape photography forums and at some web sites that are devoted to fall color reports. (I may update this page with links to some of them later.)
A few other articles at this blog
- Photographing the Eastern Sierra Aspens: A Few More Thoughts
- Searching for Aspen Color in the Eastern Sierra – the Show Starts Soon!
- Sierra Nevada Aspen Hunting and the Weather
- Aspen Update – 10/17/11
Community and discussion
If you have questions, want to share your own experience and knowledge, or want to comment on this article… please do leave a comment below at the end of this article.
A few disclaimers:
This post is just an account of experiences I’ve had. Yours are bound to be different, and I cannot guarantee the accuracy of my account. I sure as heck cannot guarantee what the aspens will look like when you get there! Before investing a lot of time and money in a visit I recommend that you consult travel guides, review maps, and otherwise become familiar with the area – and keep in mind that natural phenomena like the changing seasonal colors can be variable and unpredictable.
In my search for aspen color I sometimes drive on dirt and gravel roads, and some of these are rough and may be poorly marked or not marked at all. Before you attempt these roads, I strongly urge you to determine current conditions by consulting local experts (such as the Forest Service and others), to carry and use good maps, to understand that your GPS and cell phone may not help here, to exercise great caution, and to avoid any roads that make you overly nervous or which pose difficulties that you do not know how to handle. Since drivers have different levels of experience and comfort with this sort of driving, only you can determine whether or not these types of roads are appropriate for you. If in doubt, err on the side of caution.
Be aware that fall is a transitional season in the Sierra Nevada region. While it is possible to have beautiful, benign weather it is also possible that early winter storms will pass through dropping the temperatures and (sometimes quite a bit of) snow. Fall weather can quickly take on the qualities of winter weather in the eastern Sierra and should be taken serioiusly. If you are not experienced with such conditions, go someplace safe and come back when the conditions improve. Even if you are experienced – or, in some cases, especially if you are experienced – you may well decide, as I often do, to get out of the weather and retreat to lower and drier terrain — or at least to photograph it from places a bit closer to civilization.
Finally, fall is the hunting season in the Sierra. If you are in areas where hunting is permitted don’t look like a game animal! I’m no hunting expert, but I’d generally do my photography elsewhere, and if I found myself in areas where hunters were about I’d make myself plenty obvious — time to wear the international orange parka!
G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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