Sierra Nevada Fall Color Season – Coming Sooner Than You Think!

Originally posted in September, 2009, and updated and slightly revised in varying degrees during successive aspen seasons — current update for fall 2015. 

California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra
California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra

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!

New this season: California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra, my book on Sierra Nevada fall color is now available from from Heyday Books. (Order from Heyday Books and from Amazon.) The book greatly expands and updates information in this article and elsewhere on my website.

Fading Autumn Color
Fading Autumn Color

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? (In 2015 this day arrived early — we felt it during the first week of the month, perhaps due to the strange California weather this year.)

Of course, sometimes it is more obvious. I was in the Sierra during the final week of August in 2009, backpacking into Yosemite’s Ten Lakes Basin for a few days. It wasn’t hard to notice that the corn lily 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. By early September 2014 I was already seeing some aspens starting to pick up autumn color in a few places.

So even when it is still summer by the calendar – and will be for nearly three more weeks – my thoughts turn 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  peak aspen color season can run from roughly the last week or so of September through as late as the third week of October.  In  my experience the core of the aspen color season is more likely the first two weeks of October, and my usual expectation — 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 wide 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 location 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 then I try to get back to the aspen hunting grounds during the following few weeks. I’ll definitely be looking for aspens during the first weekends of October.

Note for the upcoming 2015 season: This is the fourth 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. During the previous couple of years the dry conditions seemed to bring an earlier start to fall color conditions, and in locations where I would usually 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! And this year the unusually heavy monsoonal summer rains may have partially compensated for the drought conditions in some areas.)

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 – Sonora Pass is probably not on most visitors’ lists of prominent aspen locations, though there are some great examples up there. There are quite a few trees just as the climb begins from the east side, and many more trees in various spots along the higher sections as the road ascends westward toward the pass. Within the last mile or two of the ascent there are some open and unobstructed large groves that provide wonderful color.
  • 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 descending southward from Conway Summit to near Mono Lake. A road climbs west into the canyon 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 west of highway 395, at the south end of the town of Lee Vining, where highway 120 goes up the canyon to enter Yosemite at Tioga Pass. (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 southwest 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! :-)

Other Resources:

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

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. Keep in mind that natural phenomena like the changing seasonal colors can be variable and unpredictable.
  • I sometimes drive on fourth, poorly marked dirt and gravel roads. I strongly urge you to determine current conditions by consulting  local experts (such as the Forest Service and others), carry and use good maps, understand that your GPS and cell phone may not help, exercise great caution, and avoid roads that make you nervous or pose difficulties that you do not know how to handle. If in doubt, err on the side of caution.
  • 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 drop the temperatures and bring snow/rain. Fall weather can quickly take on the qualities of winter weather hereand 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.
  • 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 generally do my photography elsewhere, but if I found myself in areas where hunters were about I’d make myself plenty obvious — time to break out the international orange parka!

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer and visual opportunist. His book, “California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra” is available from Heyday Books and Amazon.
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29 thoughts on “Sierra Nevada Fall Color Season – Coming Sooner Than You Think!”

  1. Dan, I just returned from a trip to the Eastern Sierra and Yosemite (weekend Oct 4 and 5, 2014). We found the following conditions:

    Conway summit and the drive to Virginia Lakes: This area had a lot of yellow Aspens. From all the places we went to, this had the richest display of color.

    Lundy Canyon: Some yellow, but not quite as rich as the drive to Virginia Lakes.

    Lee Vining Canyon: Some really nice fall colors shortly before Ellery Lake when driving in from Lee Vining.

    June Lake Loop: Some color, but still quite a number of green Aspens.

    Mammoth Lakes Scenic Loop: Some spots with yellow Aspens, but not too many opportunities.

    I didn’t see a lot of fall color in Yosemite Valley itself, so it appears right now it’s mostly the higher elevations where the trees show color.


    1. Thanks for that report, Ronald. I haven’t been up since mid-September, but I’m hoping to make a visit soon — so the update is very helpful.

      Conway Summit is one of the more spectacular locations in the eastern Sierra, and it sounds like you timed your visit well! Often the lower and deeper canyons can come along just a bit later, so your report on Lundy and Lee Vining make sense. June Lakes loop also is often just a bit behind some of the higher elevation areas, so good to hear that the show is starting there, too. I’ve been out on the Mammoth Scenic Loop (also known as the Mammoth volcanic emergency escape route!) and have found some colorful trees, but it hasn’t impressed me as one of the more spectacular locations. I do enjoy that area, just not so much for aspens. Maybe I’ve looked in the wrong places or at the wrong times!

      Yosemite Valley color comes a bit later in the season. My target date for color photography in the Valley is right around Halloween, give or take a few days depending on conditions.



  2. Wayne, I hear you!

    Early storms can mean boom or bust for aspen photography. On the plus side, last year I spent almost an entire day in snowfall as we drove down the east side from Monitor Pass to Bishop, going slowly and taking lots of side trips up canyons. Aspens during snow can make a beautiful and compelling subject and they certainly don’t look like “the usual” aspen photographs. I ended up with several beautiful, subtle images of muted aspen color seen through the falling snow.

    On the other hand, as you allude, snow is not always as beneficial for aspen photography. And, yes, I have a story about that, too! Some years back I was in the Bishop area, hoping to shoot some ideal color at North Lake. I scouted it in the afternoon and things looked good, so I was up very early the next morning, arriving at the lake before dawn to find, in the still dim light, that the particular trees I had in mind to photograph were in prime condition. It looked like a morning of potentially interesting light, too, as there were some clouds floating around. However, within minutes — and still before good light — clouds came in from the west, the wind picked up, and it began to snow as an abrupt little squall swept through. I took shelter in my car for the next half hour or a bit more as snow fell and the wind blew. Finally, the squall passed and I got back out to do some photography… only to discover that this brief wind event had taken down at least half of the leaves that had been there when I arrived!

    The encouraging news is that while places like upper Bishop Creek often bring the first good color, the change there isn’t the end of the show. Rather, as the color there peaks and then declines there is still a lot to photograph! Sometimes I even prefer the effect of partially bare trees, with the beautiful trunks of the aspens more visible. And as the color fades at the highest elevations, it continues to peak elsewhere as the color gradually works its way down to lower elevations over the next two weeks.

    Happy aspen hunting!


  3. Hi Dan,

    Really bummed about the early snowstorm which is predicted to hit Sat above 8k feet. I wanted to go before this but i think wed was the only good day this week when it was not windy and the trees were finally peaking at upper Bishop Creek canyon. Hoping the storm does not strip all the leaves up there or turn brown from the snow. Will probably head up there early next week and will see what color is still there.
    My favorite spots are in those high altitude locations.
    Last year I was able to photograph North Lake before that early season snowstorm which you made some nice images in. Keep our fingers crossed for a good rest of the fall color season!

  4. Wow, Dan. What a wealth of information! I’m trying to plan a trip down there (from Seattle) in a couple of days and have been scouring the net for info. Your blog is easily the most comprehensive source I’ve found. Thank you for taking the time to share your wealth of knowledge.

    While I’ve done a lot of hiking in the Bishop and Lone Pine area during the summer months, this will be my first fall visit. I’m looking forward to it.

    1. Thanks, Don. I hope you enjoy your visit and that the colors are great for you! The Bishop area is a great place to start — just head to the west on the road to Sabrina, North, and South Lakes. You can’t miss the intersection. It is the same one where you’ll find the Galen Rowell Mountain Light Gallery.

      My first visit of the season is likely to not be until the second half of next week — really the first week of October. In a typical year that would be a good target time for first good color, though there are reports that some places are coming along earlier than usual this year. It is always a bit difficult to tease apart the reports that actually recognize a widespread change in color and those that are responding enthusiastically (or over-enthusiastically?) to a few small and early examples of impressive color. We’ll see!


  5. An early update for the 2012 Eastern Sierra Aspen Season: In mid-September I was in the Sierra for five days, the first to in the Tuolumne Meadows area and the last three backpacking up McGee Creek on the “east side.” While I didn’t see (nor did I expect to) any aspen color inside Yosemite, I saw a surprising amount of color for this early date in McGee Canyon. See the post about this trip for more details:

    You can never be sure what the aspens will do, but if I were a betting man I’d bet on a slightly earlier aspen color season in the eastern Sierra this year. I think there could be some interesting color – enough to warrant the drive – by the end of September. No guarantees, but worth keeping your eye on this if you plan to photograph the trees this fall.


  6. This is a lot of really good information, Dan. I just went up the Carson Pass to Round Mtn. trail a couple of weeks ago and it was still very springlike! I do intend on checking it out for the fall.

    1. Thanks, Jean. That sounds about right for late August, especially during this wetter than average year with a summer that got off to a late start. When I was in the Upper Kern in early August there were lots of wildflowers, meadows were still green and lush… and the mosquitoes were thriving!


  7. Thanks, Julie and Russ. I’m looking forward to my aspen-chasing adventures this season. I’ll likely be in the Sierra next week, and in addition to backpacking I’ll be watching to see if I can pick up any signs of how the color change will evolve this season.


  8. I love your posts, Dan! They’re easy to read and packed full of information, but not so much that it’s overwhelming. I especially appreciated your comment about sharing too much information. Soon I’ll be posting on fb a close-up image of an albino redwood tree (a.k.a. ghost tree) that I took a few weeks ago. I first discovered it in 1975 when sloughing school one day. Until last month, I’ve only showed the place to two others, who have never been back there since. The last time I was there I finally showed it to my daughter and her young family. Though the path to the little albino tree was a bit wider than the last time I was there, the tree itself was none the worse for wear. It was respected. For that, I was grateful.

    Keep up the great work!


  9. Goeff, that is a good question. I do a lot of backpacking, and I often see some aspens in the back-country… but I rarely ever file the locations away in my mental recesses as places to shoot in the fall. This last summer I backpacked out of Sabrina Lake and passed through some large stand near the upper end of the lake. I know that I’ve crossed through some on the way to Cathedral Lakes. I’m pretty certain I remember seeing some around Ten Lakes Basin last month.

    It is my impression that the aspens are mostly found perhaps up to and a bit higher than 10,000′ and that the higher you go the smaller the trees – so the best trees are probably mostly in the lower areas. However, I’d welcome any reports of good aspens at likely backpacking destinations.

    I love to backpack during the last half of September and first half of October. Not only are there far, far fewer people, but the light is wonderful up high – and I like all of the autumn colors, not just the aspens. You do need to keep a closer eye on the weather though.


  10. To avoid the major crowds I’ve been reading about, I’m curious about what can be found in areas that must be packed-in a bit to be reached. Not trying to sound ‘elitist’, but I would guess that 98% of those photogs coming up are not willing to put a pack on for some decent backcountry travel for a photo destination. Problem is, I’m wondering if most groves of deciduous trees are at lower altitudes that would be reached by roads and easy walk-ins anyway.

  11. Geoff, a “couple of weeks” should put you right in the heart of the aspen season. I generally think of the prime as being last week of September through first week of October, though things spill a bit either side of that depending upon conditions and where you go.

    There are quite a few good aspen opportunities in the Mammoth Lakes area – and even more, no doubt, than those that I’m familiar with. You won’t be far from the June Lakes loop and there are lots of trees there. A bit south you can often find trees at Convict Lake (though not necessarily my favorite aspen spot), McGee Creek and Rock Creek. Although I’ve been over to the Devil’s Postpile many times in the summer to start pack trips, I can’t tell you from personal experience what you might find that way – perhaps someone else will chime in on this?


  12. Excellent post, thanks Dan.

    I’m actually heading up to Mammoth in a couple weeks to photograph a ‘cabin’ (small home) some clients of ours built last year. Hoping that it won’t be too early to catch some Aspens; sounds like I might have some luck.

  13. This is way too early to be a “real” aspen report, but…

    … I was driving back from a pack trip in the Tuolumne area today and I saw a few yellow leaves on a couple of the aspen trees along Tioga Pass road near where it crosses Yosemite Creek. I also saw a few dogwood trees starting to show a bit of red along highway 120 between the junction with Tioga Pass road and the northwest park entrance.


  14. Just spent a few days on HY 88. Still green as can be, except when you hike up to the peaks. I say still 3-4 weeks away from the good stuff…

  15. As painful as the price of gas in Bridgeport can be, it’s nowhere near as bad as the station at Panamint Springs, en route to Death Valley via Lone Pine. I thought I was used to high gas prices in out of the way places as part of the costs of photography and adventuring when I was appalled to see them over eight dollars a gallon last time I was through that way…

    On the plus side for Bridgeport, there’s a little drive-in on the north side of 395, the east side of town, that has killer breakfast burritos. Sorry I can’t remember the name, but there’s no indoor seating, so they might be closed by the time fall color arrives. Lots of locals every time I’m there, though, so maybe not.

    More seriously, I’ve been lurking a long time. My compliments on your work, Dan, and this is a nice introduction to the area. I used to live down near Palm Springs, and made an annual pilgrimage up to the Bishop area. I’m fortunate to live in Arizona now, with their maples, but still feel nostalgic for the East Side Aspens.

    1. Mark, thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. I’ve been to Panamint Springs – actually I have an interesting story that involves the place – but I’ve never bought gas there. From what you tell me, don’t think I will! (Some years ago I had spent a week in DV with a group of high school and middle school kids – and that would be another great story to tell… some other time. We were leaving DV and descending toward the road junction in Panamint Valley when the buses engine went kablooey. We ended up towing the bus to Panamint Springs, where we spent the next 18 hours or so while it was determined that the bus could not be fixed and a replacement came over from Las Vegas to pick up the kids.)

      Speaking of DV gas prices – if I can work a side trip to Rhyolite and Beatty into my visits there I find that the gas in Beatty is often about a dollar per gallon less there than at Furnace Creek, another spot notorious for high gas prices.

      I think the place you are thinking of in Bridgeport is the Hayes Street or Avenue or something restaurant. It is at the east end as you take 395 south, right about where the road bends to the right. I’ve eaten there once and it was very good. If I’m not mistaken, they have somewhat limited hours, only serving breakfast – but what a breakfast! There is another nice restaurant in town, too. It is further to the west in an old white building (on the right as you go “north” on 395 through town) and its name is a date – like 1859 or something.

      Thanks again for posting and for your nice comments on the blog and the photography.


  16. Excellent, Doug. Let me know what you see when you are up there. I’m pretty sure it will be too early for aspens, but sometimes you can start to get a sense of how things may develop even at this early date.


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