88 is Near 50

Quaking Aspen, Wylders Hope Valley (9/26/20) Philip Reedy

Highway 88 is still Patchy but approaching 50% of peak color, as seen in Philip Reedy’s photos of color along the Carson Pass.

The route was busy with traffic this weekend because US 50 (a few miles north) was closed due to road construction. So, 88 was the only semi-direct route to South Lake Tahoe.

Reedy noted very few “leaf peepers” as little fall color has yet developed from Silver Lake to Carson Pass. “the stretch from Red Lake down to the iconic cabin is starting to show some color, but is still just beginning.  For those who love to photograph the cabin in all of its autumn glory, they should probably wait a week,” Reedy reported.

He included a couple of pictures of the cabin and, while there is a little color beginning to appear, it’s still in the 0 – 10% range.  Across the road there is still no color along Red Lake Creek, but the trees are still beautiful, and in a week or two will be glorious,” he predicts. These trees usually produce a variety of colors, from yellow to orange to crimson which can be impressive at peak.

“From Blue Lakes Road, east on 88, there is a decent amount of color for the first mile or so, probably in the 10-50% range. The pasture north of the junction of Blue Lakes Rd and CA-88 continues to increase in intensity, but it’s a scattered show with trees losing leaves, to bright yellow, to green.  All the color is in the trees near the pasture, while the groves up the mountainside are still completely green.” Reedy reports.

The best displays of fall color are seen from the intersection of state highways 88 and 89 east to the Wylder resort, especially on the south side of the highway.  The resort itself is still mainly green, he wrote. Beyond that, there’s little color to be seen all the way to Markleeville.

Phil Reedy was recently honored by the Outdoor Writers Association of California for contributing photography to an award-winning article published on this site, last year.

  • Carson Pass, CA-88E (8,652′) – Patchy (10-50%)
  • CA-88E (7,800′) – Patchy (10-50%)
  • CA-88E (7,550′ – 7,000′) – Patchy to Near Peak (10 – 75%) Go Now!
  • CA-88E (Below 7,000′) – Patchy (10-50%)

Mano á Mono

Dunderberg Meadow Rd (9/26/20) Bruce Wendler

With Inyo National Forest closed (at least until Oct. 1), the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in northern Mono County is the place to see peak fall color now through this coming week.

One of our color spotters, Bruce Wendler, visited the Virginia Lakes, but found the trees ringing Little Virginia Lake to be blown out.

Upper Summers Meadow Rd. (9/26/20) Bruce Wendler

However, when he continued along California Fall Color’s recommended Driving Tour of the Week, the color along Dunderberg Meadow Rd. was as predicted, with “nice redheads and yellows.”

At the upper terminus of Upper Summers Meadow Rd, color is at peak, though lower down, Wendler noted drought-stressed trees that need a week or two before they get there. Right now, they’re Patchy (10-50%).

Driving south of Conway Summit, Bruce passed areas of the Inyo National Forest that are closed to visitation. Bruce was able, however, to take pictures from afar.

Approaching Lundy Canyon, Bruce saw color that was just barely Patchy. That means Lundy Canyon still has a week to two to go. Hopefully, the forest will reopen this week as the Lundy Canyon Trail is one of the finest fall color hikes in California. We estimate it to be at peak in 1.5 to two weeks.

Sagehen (9/26/20) Bruce Wendler

Sagehen looks promising, as seen from a distance (the area remains closed). It appears to be at the lower end of Near Peak conditions. So, plan to head there as soon as the closure is lifted, but not before!

Wendler’s photos show clear skies, but at June Lakes, the area was being smothered by smoke from the Creek Fire (west of June Lakes and Mammoth Lakes). A check this morning has the air quality as good, and it’s even clearer in Mammoth Lakes, though it varies from unhealthy to good.

Unhealthy air quality was most likely a contributing reason why Inyo National Forest was closed. As soon as the Creek Fire is doused (now 39% contained), it’s hopeful that restrictions will be lifted, barring another fire.

Please, stay out of closed areas until the closures are lifted. No public access for hiking, biking, camping, fishing and fall color viewing is permitted during Inyo NF’s closure.

  • Virginia Lakes (9,819′) – Peak (75-100%), GO NOW!
  • Dunderberg Meadows Rd (8,845′) – Near Peak (50-75%), Go Now!
  • Summers Meadow (7,200′) – Patchy (10-50%)
  • Upper Summers Meadow Rd. (8,500′) – Near Peak (50-75%) Go Now!
  • Upper Summers Meadow Rd. (10,065′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
  • Lundy Lake (7,858′) – INYO NF CLOSED
  • Sagehen Summit (8,139′) – INYO NF CLOSED
, ,

California Poplar

Black cottonwood, Jenkinson Lake (9/25/20) John Poimiroo

California poplar, better-known as black cottonwood (Populus balsamifera spp. trichocarpa), are often confused with Frémont cottonwood (Populus fremontii spp. fremontii).

It’s easy to mistake these siblings from a distance, as their size, bark, shape and colorations are similar, but look closely at their leaves and the difference is evident.

Black cottonwood have a darker, spear-pointed leaf, while Frémont cottonwood have a lighter-green, heart-shaped leaf, similar to aspen but with a toothy edge. Black cottonwood are the only poplar with willow-like leaves, though unlike willow, which are not aromatic, California poplar emit a strong odor from their buds in springtime.

The young specimen (pictured above) stands in a parking lot near Jenkinson Lake in Sly Park (Sierra Nevada, El Dorado County – US 50). It was planted there, though black cottonwood grow naturally near water. They thrive beside rushing streams “where water, rich in oxygen,” Jim Paruk writes in Sierra Nevada Tree Identifier, “speeds their growth.”

Native to both the east and west slope of the Sierra Nevada, black cottonwood are more often found on the west slope, growing up to 6,000 feet. However, the finest example of California poplar is found along Pine Creek, north of Bishop (Inyo County), where dense groves line the creek, as they have for millennia.

Cottonwood will peak after aspen do, because California poplar grow – on average – well below the 10,000′ upper limit for aspen. Cottonwood also lack the varied red, pink, orange, yellow and lime that appear in peaking aspen. They are uniformly gold at peak and thus aren’t photographed as often, though they have poignant sculptural beauty and are more widely dispersed.

Unlike aspen (which are limited to the Eastern Sierra, San Bernardino mountains and Cascades at elevations from 6,000′ to tree line), cottonwood are found throughout California, typically below 7,000′.

Within the two varieties, black cottonwood grow to the highest elevations (some as high as 9,000′), while Frémont cottonwood aren’t usually seen above 5,000′. Elevation is a good way to tell if the cottonwood is black or Frémont, at least until you can get close enough to see its leaf.

Presently, both California poplar and Frémont cottonwood are Just Starting (0-10%), but look for them to peak beginning in two weeks and continuing into December in Southern California drainages (i.e., Big Tujunga Canyon).

  • Jenkinson Lake (3,400′) – Just Starting (0-10%)


A bouquet of rabbitbrush near peaking aspen (9/25/20) Gabriel Leete

In the aftermath of the Hog Fire, which straddled State Route 44 northeast of Lassen Volcanic National Park, there is both life and death.

Shasta Cascade color spotter Gabriel Leete traveled the route on his way to a baby shower for his daughter and noted that though the smoke was nearly absent in the morning, the fire smell was still strong and areas appeared to be smoldering.

Leete noted the contrast of an ashen forest not far from groves of brightly colored, peaking aspen.

  • Lassen National Forest – Patchy (10-50%)

Lovely Lobdell

Lobdell Lakes Rd., Mono County (9/25/20) Clayton Peoples

Though he’d had his heart set on visiting Bishop Creek Canyon, with Inyo National Forest closed, Reno color spotter Clayton Peoples took our advice instead and drove south on US 395 to Lobdell Lakes in northern Mono County. He was not disappointed.

We have learned that some of the most spectacular fall color is seen when the forest isn’t fully at peak but when it is dressed in layers of color. Presently, Lobdell Lakes Road is lined with beautiful green, lime-green, yellow, orange and red quaking aspen.

Clayton wrote that while the groves are Patchy (10-50%) overall, many along the road are Near Peak (50-75%). He described the route as “lovely” with “great stands of aspen on both sides of the road, and the colors range from green to yellow to orange and red (although green and yellow dominate right now).”

The best photography develops for those who wait. Peoples said the best of his photos (seen at top), “benefited from dust being kicked up from a passing car, causing sunbeams to be visible through the aspen, via the dust.” 

  • Lobell Lake Rd. (8,600′) – Patchy (10-50%) – Areas of the road are Near Peak – GO NOW!

Backyard Beauty

Pomegranate, Long Beach (9/25/20) Steve Shinn

Quarantined by the Covid-19 pandemic and noxious wildfire smoke, Steve Shinn found beauty in his Long Beach backyard.

Autumn is the season of harvest and often overlooked are fruiting trees, like persimmon, apples and pomegranates which brighten farm trails and urban gardens.

Northern Mockingbird and Hachiya persimmon (9/25/20) Steve Shinn

Many of the fruit trees attract birds, which adds to the autumn show.

Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) are beginning to color up, across the state. I was at Jenkinson Lake at Sly Park (US 50) yesterday and found them splashed with hints of ruby, vermillion and gold. They are a long-lasting show, particularly when their leaves fall upon wet concrete. As Steve notes, “they make a memorable image.”

  • Long Beach (52′) – Just Starting (0-10%)

Hope Arrives

Quaking Aspen, Hope Valley (9/23/20) Philip Reedy

There are moments when an image arrives that changes perspective. One of those moments occurred Wednesday, when Philip Reedy sent this picture of an aspen leaf from the Hope Valley.

The leaf embodies the transition from summer to fall in an unexpected way.

Aspen leaves are not just yellow. California’s are yellow, gamboge, lurid, limey, orange, pink, crimson and, well, then there’s this leaf with all of them put together.

It’s one of the leaves Phil found in the Hope Valley on his travels along Hwy 88 on Wednesday. (Click to enlarge photographs)

Heading east on Hwy 88, at the Caples Lake Resort, Phil stopped to check on the status of the aspen grove, two miles past Silver Lake, that is often dazzling in its display of deep reds and oranges. He noted that “the grove usually turns later, and this year is no exception, as it is completely green.”

Similar greenness continued along 88 over Carson Pass and down to Red Lake, as was the stretch of aspen from Red Lake to Red Lake Creek Cabin. “Ditto for the aspen around the cabin and across the road along the creek,” Phil described though he “detected a bit of lime color around the cabin, so I imagine in a week it will begin coloring up.” This area usually peaks during the first full week of October, and it appears to be on track to do so this year. 

From the cabin, down Hwy 88 to Blue Lakes Road, Reedy reports “little color.”  However, the pasture north of the highway has many lush, healthy aspen loaded with Near Peak color.

The scene is a mix of fully turned to completely green trees. If photographing this area, most of the land is public, though there are some private (fenced) areas. The hike to the best of the trees is easy and flat. Reedy took a series looking back through the trees at the pasture.

Reedy then continued east on Hwy-88/89 to the recently renamed and remodeled Wylder Hope Valley (formerly Sorensen’s) Resort where he was surprised to see a lot of color. Many of the trees surrounding the resort have fully turned, though there’s still a week of peak color to be enjoyed.

Because of its extreme range of elevations, California is one of the few fall color destinations in North America where wildflowers appear concurrently with fall color. Reedy’s photographs show that contradiction blooming near the Wylder resort.

Although it is in the Patchy range (Phil rates as 10 – 25%), the area surrounding the Wylder Resort as Near Peak and “should be even better in another week.” By then, he says, “perhaps the cabins will have some color around it, as well.”

  • Caples Lake (7,800′) – Just Starting (0-10%)
  • Carson Pass (8,652′) – Just Starting (0-10%)
  • Red Lake (7,861′)- Just Starting (0-10%)
  • Red Lake Creek Cabin (7,550′) – Just Starting (0-10%)
  • Blue Lakes Rd (7,550′) – Just Starting (0-10%)
  • Hope Valley (7,300′) – Just Starting (0-10%)
  • Wylder Hope Valley Resort (7,000′) – Patchy (10-50%) – Groves near the resort vary from Near Peak to Just Starting.

Willows and Woodpeckers

Early fall is the time to combine woodpecker watching with fall color spotting in San Diego County, Mark Hanning-Lee reports.

Near the Paso Picacho Campground this week, Acorn Woodpeckers were busy hammering storage holes for their winter store of acorns, while county byways were blushing with rosy shrubs and lighting up with yellow willows.

  • San Diego County – Just Starting (0-10%)

Martis Mystery

There’s a mystery occurring along Martis Creek (CA-267) between Kings Beach and Truckee.

Aspen that populate the meadow, near the remnants of an old cabin, are deceivingly orange. From a distance, they appear to be peaking, but they’re not. They’re diseased.

This meadow is visited often, mostly because of the cabin. It’s a popular place for portraiture (weddings, graduations) due to the distressed character of the cabin. The turnout is so popular that its once-small parking lot has been expanded to park several motor vehicles.

In autumn, particularly on early October weekends, the lot is filled with cars; a parade of people stroll out to the cabin or one of the groves to stand amidst the aspen as they rustle in the breeze.

Reno color spotter Clayton Peoples was there yesterday and drew the same conclusion I had a couple of weeks earlier when I visited. Martis Creek Meadow is Just Starting, but its leaves are frosted a dull orange by the leaf rust called Melampsora medusae.

Mystery Solved: Melampsora russ afflicts aspen, poplar, cottonwood, willow and several specie of pine. Orange, powdery pistules on the backside of the leaf cause the coloration which is an infection resulting from continuous moisture being on the leaf for a period of from two to 24 hours, the US Forest Service explains. Sadly, considering its popularity, this grove has been tormented by afflictions.

Despite the Halloween-colored contagion, Clayton remains optimistic and adds, “not all is lost: many leaves look quite healthy and are likely to turn in the next week or two.”

He estimates peak is still two weeks off at this location, but considering the pandemic and national forest closures occurring south of Sonora Pass, this location does offer the promise of color at North Lake Tahoe and a reason, he writes, to “get out on a crisp clear morning and walk among the trees,” reminding us all that despite our troubles, “many things are proceeding in their normal course despite the things going on in the world around us.”

  • Martis Creek Meadow (CA-267) – Just Starting (0-10%)

Plumas Preview

Some years back, Plumas County had a great ambassador, Suzi Brakken, who made sure her county wasn’t forgotten when it came to fall color.

Suzi would struggle, however, with the fact that CaliforniaFallColor.com would be reporting peak color on radio and TV in late September when Plumas’ Peak was still weeks away.

Today, Mark Atkinson demonstrated that if you are observant, brilliant spots of color can be found even well ahead of the main show.

Mark admits it’s “Just Starting” in Plumas County, but then this northern Sierra destination is full of surprises, including this preview of Plumas color.

  • Plumas County (3,342′) – Just Starting (0-10%)