Reader Question: Yosemite in October

“Tom” recently sent me a question about visiting Yosemite in October, and I thought I would reply here where others can see the information, too.

I will be in CA in October and was planning on going up to Yosemite for a few days. Any advice you’d care to share would be greatly appreciated. :)

California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the SierraBefore I answer your question below, you might be interested in my book, California’s Fall Color: A Photographer’s Guide to Autumn in the Sierra, available from Heyday Books and from Amazon. It shares a lot of what I have learned about locating and photographing Sierra Nevada fall color, along with a large collection of my autumn photography in locations from the eastern Sierra to Yosemite Valley.

October may be my favorite time of the year to be in the Sierra in general and in Yosemite in particular. While some things that draw people to Yosemite (waterfalls, for example) are not likely to be at their best, there are many other wonderful attractions at this time of year. October is a transition month in the Sierra, with early October often having the character of late summer and late October often feeling more like early winter. Conditions can change quickly, and warm and sunny days may be followed by a day of rain or snow.

Autumn Light, Yosemite High Country

Autumn Light, Yosemite High Country

I have divided the following description geographically to separately describe Yosemite Valley, the Yosemite high country, and the east side of the Sierra Nevada range.

Yosemite Valley – The busy summer tourism season winds down in September after the Labor Day weekend, and by October the Valley is no longer quite the crowded, urbanized, noisy zoo that it can be on the worst days during the summer. (I generally steer clear of the Valley in June, July, August, and early September.) The meadows will have turned golden brown already, and real autumn colors begin to appear later in the month. While some are subtle, such as the transition of the oak tree leaves, others are quite striking, including brilliant fall colors of maples and dogwood trees. I make a habit of shooting autumn colors in The Valley every fall right around the end of October or beginning of November. (You’ll often find me there on Halloween!)

Besides the crowds, what else will you not find at this time of year? The wild waterfall show of late spring and early summer will be over, and waterfalls will be gone or reduced to a trickle. (Some people who visit at this time of year in a dry year are disappointed to find that iconic Yosemite Falls can completely dry up by this time of year.) The waterfalls fed by the Merced will still be flowing, but at a reduced rate. Meadows are no longer lush and green, but now they tend toward rich golden brown colors.

From my perspective there are some weather-related attractions at this time of year, too. It is generally still warm during the day, and the light can take on a warm and mellow quality that I find very different from that of summer or winter. Because this is a transitional period, the seemingly unending succession of (photographically boring) blue-sky days begins to be interrupted by passing Pacific weather systems. The result range from a few beautiful clouds to a full-on early winter storm, though snow in the Valley is unlikely. For those of us who think wilder weather is photographically more interesting, this is a great time. If you are lucky, it can even rain enough to temporarily bring the waterfalls back to life!

The High Country – As much as I like what happens in the Valley in October, I’m even more fond of what happens in the high country along Tioga Pass Road and Glacier Point Road. By late September, the disappearance of summer crowds (which can be overwhelming along Tioga Pass Road between late July and Labor Day) is striking. High country campgrounds begin to shut down in late September and early October so you may have to camp or find lodging outside the park boundaries. An alternative is to backpack the nearly deserted high country trails. The latter alternative is tremendously attractive to me: solitude is the norm, mosquitos are gone (!), hiking weather is cooler, there can be a dusting of snow on the peaks, and the high country light becomes especially beautiful.

While the main rivers and streams still flow, many smaller tributaries may be dry. Most of the plant life has finished its short summer growth season and meadows go dry and turn brown. Aspens start changing to fall colors. (Keep reading though: If aspen color is what you are looking for, you probably want to visit the “east side.”) The lush corn lily plants turn brown and yellow, and bilberry plants can turn the high country ground red in the right light. Squirrels and marmots busily sock away their stores of winter food. While sunny days are pleasantly comfortable, night temperatures regularly drop below freezing, and the days become noticeably shorter. (Bring a book to read during the long late-season nights!)

As nice as a sunny fall day in the high country can be, keep in mind that this being a transitional period. These beautiful days of benign weather can be interrupted by early winter storms. It is not uncommon for a storm to bring a day or two of very cold conditions and perhaps a few inches of snow. This can close roads in the park’s high country, though they usually reopen within a day or two… until a really big storm arrives and closes everything for the season. This season-ending storm can occur as early as late October, which probably explains why the park service allows no overnight parking along Tioga Pass road after the middle of the month.

The East Side – For me, it is impossible to think about autumn in the Sierra and not include the east side of the range, mostly accessible from roads leading into the mountains from highway 395, the north-south route on the “other side” of the range. For photographers, October is aspen season, and the best displays are on the east side. (You can find some good aspen color within the boundaries of Yosemite, but the opportunities are much, much greater on the east side.)

Since I have written extensively about this previously, I’ll keep this description somewhat short. Right around the first of October, and perhaps a bit earlier if you know where to look, the aspen leaves begin to change to their fall colors all across the eastern portion of the range. This begins at the highest elevations and works down to the lowlands as October continues, and there are local and north/south variations in the onset of the color as well. The short story is that you can generally find impressive to downright spectacular aspen color somewhere along the eastern slope of the Sierra during the first three weeks of October, with the first half of the month generally being your best bet.

There are a few practical matters to consider. First, photographers are most certainly not the only people attracted to the Sierra at this time of year. There are many fishermen (and fisherwomen) in the range in October, and you may be surprised to find crowded campgrounds, a situation intensified as the seasonal campground closures begin. It is also hunting season, so be careful and very visible if you photograph in areas where hunters are at work. In addition, there is the weather. I earlier mentioned the increasing possibility of high-country snow, so you need to watch the weather and be prepared for winter conditions. The onset of winter snow eventually closes some high country roads for the season. These include some smaller roads up into the higher reaches of the range and several of the trans-Sierra passes. If you drive over from the Central Valley and the passes close, your alternative return routes can involve a very long drive, potentially in poor conditions.

Finally, with all of these options, what do I do at this time of year? I’m flexible, but the general outline of my approach tends to go something like this:

  • Late September is my time to be in the Yosemite high country whenever I can. In particular, I like to head to some of the beautiful places that I might avoid in mid-summer when crowds are a bit too much – including some of the High Sierra Camp locations.
  • In early October I may try to squeeze in one last trip to the Yosemite high country, though my attention now turns to the “aspen show” on the east side of the range. I plan to be over there as much as I can during at least the first two weeks of October.
  • Near the end of October I plan a trip to Yosemite Valley, typically targeting Halloween as about the ideal time to photograph the fall colors in the Valley.

Articles in the “reader questions” series:

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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  1. Pingback: Today’s Shared Links for July 31, 2011 – Chuqui 3.0

    • Thanks, Tom. Glad you saw the post, and I hope that you were able to follow the link within it to more extensive information about photographing the fall colors on the east side of the range.