Lake Sabrina – Nearing Peak

Lake Sabrina, Bishop Creek Canyon, Inyo County (9/25/21) Gary Young

Lake Sabrina moved rapidly from Patchy to Near Peak over the weekend.

Bishop color spotter Gary Young captured a bit of haze from So. California fires, softening the sky, but otherwise the color is vibrant, particularly on slopes to the left of the lake.

He’s hopeful that northerly winds and cooler temperatures (it’s expected to drop below freezing overnight by Tuesday), will speed color change. They upper areas of Bishop Creek Canyon are now definitely a GO NOW! situation, though lower elevations are still Just Starting to Patchy.

  • Lake Sabrina, Bishop Creek Canyon (9,150′) – Near Peak (50 – 75%) GO NOW!

Colorful Start at Descanso

Japanese Maple, Descanso Gardens, La Canada-Flintridge (9/16/21) Julie Kirby

Some varieties of Japanese maple provide brilliant crimson in autumn. So. California color spotter Julie Kirby found examples at Descanso Gardens this week in La Canada-Flintridge.

Last week’s heat wave scorched several of the garden’s maples, though it appears milder temperatures will prevail in the future.

It’s still too early for much change elsewhere in Southern California. Though, high elevations in the San Bernardino Mountains will show first.

  • Descanso Gardens, La Canada-Flintridge (1,188′) – Just Starting (0 – 10%)

Butterscotch and Pines

Aspen, Mt. Tallac Trailhead (2/26/21) Michelle Pontoni

Color is Just Starting to develop in the aspen grove near South Lake Tahoe’s Mt. Tallac trailhead, reports SLT color spotter Michelle Pontoni.

While aspen are Just Starting, a few are showing “scrub red.” Hike two-hours up the mountain and you’re likely to both be winded and surrounded by more color, she reports.

At nearby DL Bliss State Park, there’s little color, but who cares. Jeffrey Pines are emitting their butterscotch aromas, found by smelling the resin’s scent between plates in the bark.

  • Mt. Tallac Road, South Lake Tahoe (6,300′) – Just Starting (0 – 10%)

Sagehen Near Peak, GO NOW!

Sagehen Summit, Mono County (9/24/21) Bruce Wendler

Color spotter Bruce Wendler reports Sagehen Summit (CA-120E – Mono County) has now topped 50% of color, joining Virginia Lakes as GO NOW! locations.

Wendler reports Obsidian Campground on the Little Walker River as Patchy.

  • Sagehen Summit (8,139′) – Near Peak (50 – 75%), GO NOW!
  • Virginia Lakes (9,819′) – Near Peak (50 – 75%), GO NOW!
  • Dunderberg Meadows Rd. (9,600′), Near Peak (50 – 75%), GO NOW!
  • Obsidian Campground, Little Walker River, (6919′) – Patchy (10 – 50%)


Bob Harms, Upper Truckee Marsh (9/22/21) Michelle Pontoni

Lake Tahoe Historical Society volunteer Bob Harms hands out cards defining what being retired means. He gave one to South Lake Tahoe color spotter Michelle Pontoni this week. It reads:

  • Recreate
  • Educate
  • Travel
  • Innovate
  • Relax
  • Enjoy, and
  • Diversify

To a degree, that’s what spotting fall color is all about. Michelle didn’t find much of it on a hike through Upper Truckee Marsh in the Al Tahoe area. Most grasses were dry, the aspen were green and Lake Tahoe is as low as Michelle has ever seen it.

Though an end-of-summer/early-fall walk is always a joy, especially when the sailors are seen tacking and gybing offshore at a Wednesday night Beer Can race or when you run into a character like Bob Harms.

He’s often found at the Lake Tahoe Historical Museum (3058 Lake Tahoe Blvd) where the RETIRED snow plow operator will regale you with Tahoe stories or blast one of the 42 horns on his bicycle. Just don’t expect much fall color at the lake for another couple of weeks.

  • South Lake Tahoe (6,225′) – Just Starting (0-10%)

Autumn Arrives

Dunderberg Meadows Rd (9/17/21) Brinn Little | Mono County Tourism

Today is the Autumnal Equinox, which means fall has arrived officially.

In the Eastern Sierra, autumn color has been appearing for a while, but it remains, at best, Patchy (10 – 50%). It is not yet near peak, though experience teaches that change happens quickly.

All forests in Mono County are now open and welcoming fall color watchers. In the Inyo National Forest, Lee Vining, June Lake, Sagehen Summit, Mammoth Lakes, Convict Lake, McGee Creek and Rock Creek are fully open. The Humboldt-Toiyabe NF is also fully open throughout Northern Mono County with no forest restrictions around Walker, Coleville, Topaz, Bridgeport, Twin Lakes (Bridgeport), Virginia Lakes, Conway Summit, or Summers Meadow. 

The biggest cause for any delay in color change has been warm overnight temperatures. However, in the past week, temperatures have begun to dip into the mid-30s up high with the most significant and widespread color now being seen near Virginia Lakes (9,819′). Nearby, drive the Dunderberg Meadows dirt road (AWD or 4WD recommended) to Green Creek, then back out to US 395 for more groves of turning aspen.

Sagehen Summit (AWD/4WD recommended) off 120 East had sections of orange leaves near the summit with mostly green leaves along the road. Jeff Simpson of Mono County Tourism reports Sagehen should be great this weekend and should be a “GO NOW!” momentarily.

Rock Creek Road is just starting to turn at the highest elevations near Rock Creek Lake including trails leading to the Little Lakes Valley.

The AWD/4WD road to Lobdell Lake has a few nice groves along the road after the first creek crossing but it’s still mostly green close to Lobdell Lake.

Tioga Pass (Hwy 120 W), Sonora Pass (HWY 108) and Monitor Pass (HWY 89) are still Just Starting with a few yellow groves at the highest elevations.

A GO NOW! alert is forecast for all Mono County locations now rated Patchy, next week.

  • Monitor Pass (8,314′) – 0-10% Just Starting – Just starting near the summit sign at the top of Monitor Pass.
  • Sonora Pass (9,623′) – 0-10% Just Starting – Mostly lime green colors at the top of the pass with some yellow groves near Leavitt Meadows Campground.
  • Virginia Lakes (9,819’) – 10-50% Patchy – The best colors this weekend will be at Virginia Lakes and along Dunderberg Meadows Road to Green Creek. (AWD & 4WD recommended for Dunderberg Meadows Road).
  • Sagehen Summit (8,139’) – 10-50% Patchy – Lots of orange near the summit with colors cascading to green near the road. This area looks to be primed for great color next week. 
  • Rock Creek Road (9,600’) – 0-10% Just Starting – Small changes happening right now around Rock Creek Lake and all hiking trails that lead to higher elevations. 

Not Much Yet Up Bishop’s Creek

Weir Pond, S Fork Bishop Creek (9/18/21) Gary Young

Bishop color spotter Gary Young drove up Bishop Creek Canyon on Saturday morning to find he’d gotten there before the haze had cleared and too early to see much color as far up the South Fork as Weir Pond (9600′). He remarked that even some lower elevations had more color.

That happens because aspen groves are composed of different families of trees, whose color is triggered on their own schedule, as influenced by light, temperature and hydration.

Bishop Creek Lodge, S Fork Bishop Creek (9/18/21) Gary Young

The big grove across from Bishop Creek Lodge was still very green, as temperatures have not yet dropped. Nighttime temperatures are still hovering near 50° F in Bishop which is delaying the change. More color has been reported at Sabrina Lake, which has the highest elevations in the canyon.

  • S. Fork Bishop Creek (7,800 – 10,000′) – Just Starting to Patchy (0 – 50%)

Nothing But Blue Skies Do I See

Dawn, Virginia Lakes (9/19/21) Clayton Peoples

Seeing nothing but blue skies following a month of smoke and haze, Eastern Sierra color spotter Clayton Peoples headed south on US 395 to explore the Virginia Lakes, Sagehen Summit, Rock Creek, and the Bishop Creek drainage. He reports:

  • Virginia Lakes (10-50% Patchy). It was blustery when Clayton began the day at Virginia Lakes, though the sunrise was great with fast-moving cumulus clouds turning orange with the first rays of sun. Aspen are at the lower end of “Patchy,” closer to 10% than 50%, but color is emerging, as advertised.
  • Sagehen Summit (10-50% Patchy). By 8 a.m. at Sagehen Summit, though windy, it was clear and is now on the low end of Patchy (15%). Should be great in a week.
  • Upper Rock Creek (10-50% Patchy). Rock Creek is one of Clayton’s favorite Eastern Sierra locations. Most of the aspen along Rock Creek Rd are Just Starting,. Rock Creek Lake and its surrounding trails warrant a low end of Patchy rating (10-15%). In fact, this is where I got the most beautiful views of the day (see attached photo)–a patch of aspens turning orange in the foreground with Bear Creek Spire and its companions towering in the distance. 
Lake Sabrina, M. Fork Bishop Creek (9/19/21) Clayton Peoples
  • Bishop Creek (10-50% Patchy). In Bishop Creek Canyon, lower elevations are Just Starting and higher up it’s just barely Patchy with some 10% starting to pop. The famous view above Cardinal Village Resort is still lime green, but along the road a little higher up the aspens are starting to turn. Same story at Lake Sabrina, where some stands of aspen are turning orange. 

Life and Eternity

Morning fog and mist, Carson Pass (9/19/21) Philip Reedy

In Taoist culture, the color vermilion represents life and eternity.

Perhaps what Philip Reedy and I call Vermilion Grove, a special stand of aspen near Caples Lake along CA-88, conveyed life and eternity to the aspen of the Carson Pass and Hope Valley, as on hearing that CA-88 had reopened, Philip Reedy scouted the route and found Vermilion Grove and aspen along Hwy 88 to be untouched by the Caldor Fire which had otherwise carbonized much of the forest.

At Carson Spur, Philip saw a spot fire below Caples Lake. A bystander had called it in to CalFire, though Phil opined that the morning mist may have helped keep it in check. As he drove toward Hope Valley, he held his breath, worrying that Vermilion Grove might be destroyed and wrote, “Just 90 degrees to the left below the earthen dam on Caples Lake, trees had burned up to the road.”

Vermilion Grove, East Shore, Caples Lake (9/19/21) Philip Reedy

However, that point was the eastern boundary of the fire along CA-88. Beyond it, the forest is unchanged. Vermilion Grove stood untouched and lit as usual in the morning light. Blackened forest behind it added to the moment’s drama. Vermilion Grove had survived, is Patchy and will likely peak in the coming week and a half. One of California’s most beautifully poetic scenes survived. Credit its name.

Beyond Vermilion Grove, there was little fall color to see. The aspen are still Just Starting, though the willows are flushed with a lovely tone of orange. The same occurs in Hope Valley where Phil found the forest to mostly green with some color developing, but noted that it’s still a week to two weeks from peak. Of note, Hope Valley’s aspen are devoid of blight and healthy, which means closeup photographs will provide attractive representations of them, this autumn.

Reedy noted that he’s learned, from early trips he’s made to the Hope Valley, that aspen just west of the Blue Lakes turnoff and along the Old California Trail are among the first to change. He found this to be true again with lots of yellow trees. Another spot to find them is in the grove overlooking the West Carson River where it crosses the highway. Orange and red leaves appear along with yellow at these locations and while the groves are not yet, of themselves to be sufficiently impressive, fallen aspen leaves provide colorful still life images.

  • Vermilion Grove (7,800′) – Patchy (10 – 50%)
  • Hope Valley (7,300′) – Just Starting (0-10%)


Just Starting

Conway Summit (9/13/21) Jeff Simpson | Mono County Tourism

With a week to go before the first official day of autumn, the Eastern Sierra is just starting to get gilded.

Spots of yellow are brightest at Virginia Lakes (US 395, south of Bridgeport), which is exhibiting patchy color. One can assume that other areas at similarly elevated altitudes (Rock Creek, Little Lakes Valley, Lake Sabrina) are also turning color.

This seems to be about on schedule, compared to past autumns. Though in drought years (this is one), autumn color often appears early and is short lived. So, we recommend heading to must-see areas soon after we report Patchy to Near Peak color, as change is likely to accelerate during a drought.

The big news in the Eastern Sierra is that Inyo National Forest is now fully openThis includes areas in Lee Vining, June Lake, Sagehen Summit, Mammoth Lakes, Convict Lake, McGee Creek, and Rock Creek. 

The Humboldt-Toiyabe NF was already open with few restrictions such as no dispersed camping and no overnight backpacking allowed. Areas of this national forest in northern Mono County – that are part of the Bridgeport Ranger District – are open, including areas around Walker, Coleville, Topaz, Bridgeport, Twin Lakes (Bridgeport), Virginia Lakes, Conway Summit, and Summers Meadow. The Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest will fully open on September 18. To aid trip planning, Mono County Tourism offers a free Eastern Sierra Fall Color Map and other information-rich visitor guides.

In the past week, there’s been little change. Mono County color spotter Jeff Simpson reports Virginia Lakes as being the best bet for fall color this weekend with most of it appearing near the Virginia Lakes Resort.

If you own an AWD or 4-wheel drive vehicle, drive the Dunderberg Meadows dirt road off Virginia Lakes Road to Sinnamon Meadow and Green Creek. Upper Rock Creek and Sagehen Summit are the only other locations that are just starting and worth the drive now. 

  • Virginia Lakes (9,819’) – 10-50% Patchy – Go here if you want to get the first taste of fall color for the 2021 season! Full yellow trees along the road at the summit near Virginia Lakes Resort. 
  • Sagehen Summit (8,139’) – 0-10% Just Starting – Traditionally this is the first location in California to reach peak color. Look for major development changes here starting next week! 
  • Rock Creek Road (9,600’) – 0-10% Just Starting. Small changes happening right now around Rock Creek Lake and all hiking trails that lead to higher elevations. 
Sonora Pass (9/14/21) Jeff Simpson | Mono County Tourism