In a typical year the peak of the Sierra Nevada aspen color generally occurs around the first two to three weeks of October, so I would not usually head up there to photograph the fall color in September. But this is not a typical year. After four years of historic drought conditions in the Sierra, the normal seasonal cycles seem to have been disrupted. With that in mind I felt it might be worthwhile to go a bit early this year, and my visit was rewarded with some excellent early color.
Every season brings reports that “the color is coming early this year!” Eventually I figured out that this is quite often a matter of folks becoming overly exuberant when they see the first early signs of the color change, and that things tend to play out on roughly the same schedule almost every year. There are variations, but they are most often rather small.
This year I’m prepared to go (a little ways) out on a limb and say that things do seem to be different this time, though I’m a bit cautious about overdoing the extent of the difference. The photograph at the beginning of this article embodies features of the pattern that I believe I am seeing. Notice some trees without any leaves at all, some trees that already have intense color, and some trees that are still quite green.
Here is my sense of what is going on. Note that this is essentially personal speculation and guesswork based on what I see, and that I can’t guarantee that I’m right or that things will play out as I imagine they might. That said, I’m planning my own eastern Sierra aspen hunting around these assumptions until I see evidence to the contrary. Continue reading Sierra Fall Color — Late September 2015→
It is still summer here in the San Francisco Bay Area — but something changed this past week, and it is clear that summer is on the decline now. Autumn, my favorite season, arrives in a matter of a few more weeks.
We have had some very hot weather here in the West, but this week things were different. Although the smoke of western wildfires is still adding haze to our air, the edge is off of the heat here. One morning the furnace actually kicked on for a few minutes before I woke up and shut it off. About a week ago sunset was earlier than 8:00 PM for the first time in months and the rate at which daylight hours shortens continues to accelerate. Over the weekend we walked to a nearby store to get ice cream in the evening, and we wished we had brought jackets. (As a long time California resident, I’m not completely fooled though. Even though the signs of change are here, I know we still have more hot spells ahead of us.)
Right on schedule, photographers’ thoughts turn to fall colors. In the last week I’ve seen a substantial increase in the number of shared photographs from previous autumns, featuring those beautiful colors that we hope to see again this year. People are starting to post questions — where is the best color? what is the best time to go? what will happen this year? Reports of “the earliest color ever!” have started to appear — as they do ever year at about this time! Continue reading Autumn Color is Right Around the Corner→
For those of us who chase aspen color in the Sierra Nevada every fall, speculating about the potential of the upcoming aspen season is an annual obsession. Will the season start early or late? Will the colors be spectacular or less so? How will the past season’s weather affect it? What are the early signs telling us? When will the peak arrive and when will the show be over?
I’ve been playing this game — with enthusiasm! — for some years now. A few years back I think I finally figured out that I cannot really tell what will happen until it actually happens. As often as not, my “predictions” turn out to be less than perfect and/or immediate conditions (arrival of an early storm, wind, rain, etc.) throw me a curve. The real game is in being flexible and quick to respond to evolving conditions, and to have enough experience with the subject that you have some intuitions about what to do when you encounter the conditions on the scene.
For various reasons — projects I’m working on, clear signs of the changing seasons, photographs I’ve recently seen — I have been getting into that autumn frame of mind that comes at about this time every year. With that in mind, today’s “morning musings” post is about finding and photographing fall color in the Sierra Nevada. Rather than re-writing the whole thing, I’ll start by pointing you to an extensive guide that I wrote a few years ago and have updated every year since that time — if you are thinking of chasing aspen color this fall you may want to take a look: “Sierra Nevada Fall Color — Coming Sooner Than You Think”
If things evolve on a relatively typical schedule, eastern Sierra aspen color is perhaps about six weeks away. I have been photographing this subject for a while now, and it is one of my favorites. I intend to be out there again this fall.
One popular game at this time of year is to predict/guess when the colors will arrive and how good they will be. I’m fully aware that I’ve been wrong quite a few times, and my increasing knowledge of this subject has perhaps only made me more aware of how unpredictable this can be. However, this year I have to wonder about the effects on the trees from our three-year California drought, which has reached an extreme level all across the state this year. I don’t know what the results will be, but I’m considering some possibilities:
During the last two years it seemed to me that I was seeing the onset of color move a bit earlier in the season. I have to wonder if we may see stressed trees go into fall mode a bit on the early side this year.
Some people say that they are seeing a few aspen groves turning brownish-yellow already and looking like they are drying out.
Also during the last few dry years we have seen some anomalous early season storms, and I wonder if that pattern will continue. This can affect the season in various ways if it happens. On the negative side, leaves can blow down early. On the positive side, snow and aspens can make a beautiful pair.
As always, to the extent possible, I like to remain flexible about when and where I’ll photograph the aspens, and I watch the evolving conditions to see what this season may bring. How about you? What are your fall color plans?
It was 150 years ago today on June 30, 1864 that President Abraham Lincoln signed a congressional act that established the “Yosemite Grant” in the Sierra Nevada — the first instance of the US government setting aside land specifically for preservation and public use. (Technically, Yellowstone became the first “national park,” when it was established in 1872.) Between that first act of preservation and protection, the park passed through several intermediate stages including management by the state and by the military before it became a national park on October 1, 1890. (Little known fact: Beautiful Mount Conness, on the northeastern park boundary and visible from many areas between Olmsted Point that peaks near Tioga Pass, was named after senator John Conness, who was instrumental in getting the 1864 act through congress. Some have suggested that Lincoln was distracted by “other events” at about this time, and may have let this slip by without much attention. I’m fine with that.)
My family moved from Minnesota to California when I was four years old — and trust me, that was not recently! I’m sure that to Midwesterners the wonders of California must have seemed quite unbelievable, and my family travelled to many interesting places around the state. I don’t now recall for certain when I first visited Yosemite, though I think it was perhaps before this photograph was made. That’s me on the right and my brother Richard on the left. (Richard is also a photographer who does beautiful work in the Pacific Northwest.) My first clear recollection of the park is actually from just outside the park where, before the current mega hotels were constructed, there used to be a bunch of much smaller places to stay right along the Merced River. My memory is of sitting on metal chairs and watching the wild Merced River pass by. Continue reading Happy 150th Birthday Yosemite→
Gilia buds opening on a rainy day, Death Valley National Park
This is going to be a sort of hybrid post, covering two subjects and out of phase with my normal daily photograph posts. Think of it as a bonus post—a photograph and an informal report on Death Valley National Park wildflowers. The description of this photograph follows the report on Death Valley wildflower conditions.
By now it is no longer news that California and other parts of the west are in the throes of a very serious drought. The situation is especially serious in California, which is now experiencing the worst in a series of three below-normal precipitation years. Many parts of the state are experiencing what have been described as historic drought conditions. The situation remains critical—and many of us are worried about the upcoming wildfire season—though recent March and early April rains brought a bit of relief.
All spring I have been hearing that the drought would make this a poor year for desert wildflowers in Death Valley. However, I knew that Death Valley had experienced some rain events in the past few months and that desert plants are quite opportunistic, often quickly blooming in response to moisture. I know Death Valley fairly well, though I’m no expert on wildflowers. However, I had a hunch that we might be surprised by how the wildflower season would play out.
We visited the park for several days right around the beginning of April. Even before we arrived, we saw a decent number of wildflowers as we drove across other desert areas on the way to the park. It seemed like plants were acting in the opportunistic manner I describe above and quickly sprouting up and blooming in response to recent rains. As we entered the park and crossed Towne Pass we (especially my wife, who is passionate about photographing the “small things”) began to notice a lot of wildflowers in many places, including whole beds of colorful flowers in many places along this drive. While we did not see the tremendous blooms on the Valley floor that can occasionally occur, once we got up into higher country we saw flowers everywhere, at least when we slowed down and looked. There was more rain and snow during our visit, and the additional moisture is bound to encourage other plants and flowers to grow.
I just saw a report at the Desert USA website (which names the flowers in ways that I cannot hope to do) confirming what we saw—that there is actually a substantial bloom of desert wildflowers in many places. If you have the opportunity to head out that way soon, do so!
About the Photograph
Believe it or not, it was snowing lightly when I made this photograph! We began our day by driving on gravel roads before sunrise to reach a high location in the Panamint Range from which we planned to photograph at sunrise. The sunrise photography turned out to be a challenge, as it was cloudy at first light and the clouds only increased as the sunrise progressed. Soon we began to notice snow falling on nearby peaks, though it did not fall where we were until after we moved on. Later, in a less exposed location but with temperatures in the low thirties, we encountered our first very light snowfall, and we could see that it was snowing more heavily on the peaks and ridges around us.
We moved on, heading up into Wildrose Canyon. My original plan had been to drive to the end of the road, but by the time we reached the Charcoal Kilns it was snowing hard enough that this no longer seemed like a great idea. In fact, other drivers with two-wheel drive vehicles were having problems ascending the last section of the road to the kilns. We photographed the snowy conditions here and back in Wildrose Canyon, and then as the snow abated a bit we drove on, heading back in the direction of Emigrant Pass. Not far from the pass we found a hillside covered with a spectacular display of flowers. At first it was some cacti that caught our attention, but as we got out and looked around we saw many, many flowers all around. These gilia buds had not yet opened into their more showy display.
I originally wrote this article four years ago, in response to a lot of questions about this seasonal change, and I have updated it regularly since then. The short story is that the aspens begin to change near the end of September in a typical year, and if you know where to look you can find aspen color for the next three weeks or perhaps just a bit longer. The change starts in the highest groves of trees and then works its way down to lower elevations as the transformation progresses, with later potential down along the base of the range and in some of the east side canyons.
I have not (yet) been up to photograph the trees this season – though I plan to rectify that situation very soon! – but everything I’m hearing right now suggests that the change came earlier than usual this year. In a more typical year I would expect to see the best color perhaps starting right about now and continuing for another week or longer – but this year there are a lot of reports of high elevation trees already dropping leaves and of lower elevation areas already in peak form. If you are going this year, I would make it sooner rather than later!