Odd Beginnings

Lake Sabrina Sunrise (9/22/20) Gary Young

It’s the first day of autumn. Fall color is nearing peak in the Eastern Sierra, but until an hour ago, we’d received no reports. Odd.

Actually, not so odd when you consider that all eight national forests south of the mid-Sierra, where much of the early color appears, remain closed.

Then, I spoke with a Bishop-area local who’d been in Bishop Creek Canyon this past Saturday. He said the aspen vary from 10 to 20% of peak, with Lake Sabrina Near Peak at about 70%.

The local said visiting the canyon was a surreal experience. The Owens Valley has become a catch-basin for haze from fires elsewhere in California, but at Lake Sabrina, North Lake and South Lake, the air is much clearer, and wildlife (bear, birds) were out in force. There was so much wildlife out and about that the local became uncomfortable hearing their calls and movement so close by.

On his two trips through the canyon, motor traffic was not being stopped though he saw two anglers (fishing in Bishop Creek) being visited fairly quickly by fish and game wardens; they soon left.

Considering that Inyo National Forest is closed, those intending to see or photograph fall color are advised to wait until the forest reopens – not expected to reopen until Oct. 1 – as you may be detained or fined for entering a closed forest. Driving, hiking, camping and fishing are not allowed in closed national forests. That includes fall color viewing.

Elsewhere along US 395, north of Conway Summit, the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest is open.

Virginia Lakes Rd (9/22/20) Jeff Simpson | Mono County Tourism

Virginia Lakes is Near Peak, but unlike Lake Sabrina, it can be visited. Lower elevations in the forest (Summers Meadow, Lobdell Lake Rd.) are Just Starting.

  • Bishop Creek Canyon – Just Starting (0-10%) to Near Peak (50-75%) – INYO NF CLOSED
  • Virginia Lakes (9,819′) – Near Peak (50-75%) GO NOW!
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Fremont cottonwood and pepper berries, Davis (9/16/20) Philip Reedy

This week, Philip Reedy, Michelle Pontoni and I separately explored the noxious outdoors before the thermal inversion lifted. At the time, an oppressively dense haze from numerous California wildfires hung over California, keeping the Sun’s rays from brightening the landscape.

Instead, it draped a lackluster pall across the scene.

In Davis, Reedy found fallen Fremont cottonwood leaves resting among pepper berries and upon redwood branches, quiet beauty in an otherwise moribund atmosphere.

Pontoni found a more encouraging scene as she biked south a quarter mile on the Lake Tahoe Boulevard Bike Path from the corner of Lake Tahoe Blvd and Viking Road in South Lake Tahoe. Tiny Quaking Aspen, pushing up from the forest floor, were beginning to change color. Bikers, walkers, and strollers along the path were bombarded by Sugar Pine cones as afternoon winds picked up. She warned, “Wear a helmet!”

At Fallen Leaf lake, Pontoni reported seeing only one aspen full of yellow – all others were still “fully green.” Elsewhere, meadow brush were showing signs of change, painting the landscape with blended tones of lime-green, yellow, orange and russet.

In Tahoe City, red maple lifted their desiccated branches as if pleading for the subalpine lake’s normally clear skies to dissipate the gasses. As I passed Agate Bay, one could see only a hundred yards out into the brown-grey haze. Beyond it, there was only mystery and memories of Tahoe’s beauty.

I drove past Martis Creek’s derelict cabin on CA-267, its aspen enveloped in a foul air that both dulled and warmed their color, a mix of green, to lime, to pastel yellow, to sickly orange. Should it be photographed? Yes, but the scene was then too depressing to stop, unsaddle, gear up and take a photograph that would only leave me saddened.

This morning, I replied to a comment from travelgal485 which opined that perhaps this wasn’t the year to see California’s fall color. Having just experienced the suffocating, disheartening search for something bright and colorful, I was of a mind to agree, but recalled the lessons many years observing autumn have taught.

I answered, “Right now, it’s not the best time, but give it a day and it could be one of the most unbelievably beautiful years, ever. The reason it’s so disappointing, for the moment, are: forest closures (due to smoke and to allow USFS staff to focus on firefighting) and haze. However, both those conditions will change. Yesterday was the first clear day in a month in the Sacramento Valley, with an actual sunset seen along the Coast Range. If I’ve learned anything in more than 40 years writing about California’s fall color it’s what Heraclitus of Ephesus wrote 2,520 years ago, “the only constant is change.”

  • Davis – Just Starting (0 – 10%)
  • South Lake Tahoe / Fallen Leaf Lake – Just Starting (0 – 10%)
  • Tahoe City / Agate Bay / Martis Creek / Truckee – Just Starting (0 – 10%)
Flowering Pear and ornamental debris, Davis (9/16/20) Philip Reedy

Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days

Spanish Creek, Meadow Valley, Plumas County (9/13/20) Michael Beatley

When Nat King Cole sang about “Those lazy-crazy-hazy-days of summer” in 1963, he never had in mind what California has been experiencing this summer.

“Fall is trying to peek through the smoke in the Quincy/Meadow Valley area with the cottonwoods, as usual, showing off first,” Michael Beatley reported today.

Beatley continued, “The smoke index in Meadow Valley is at 682, very hazardous and off the chart. The visibility is often less than 1/2 mile.”

Of course, air quality is just a wisp of the problem that Plumas County is facing. “The Plumas National Forest is closed to camping, vehicles and hiking, and the Bucks Lake area has been evacuated and Meadow Valley is on warning status,” Beatley wrote.

“Those evacuated from East Quincy have now returned home, however La Porte Rd. is closed and the town of La Porte and Little Grass Valley Reservoir have been evacuated, too,” he added.

“Hwy 70, along the Feather River from Butte County to Quincy is also closed as the Bear has met up with the footprint of the Camp fire 2 years ago.

“Winds are expected to start again today, but this time from the southwest, which will drive the fire directly towards Meadow Valley and Quincy,” Beatley predicted.

Spanish Creek, Meadow Valley, Plumas County (9/13/20) Michael Beatley

Michael is packed and ready to flee. His camera will be riding with him, though he first braved the poisonous air this morning, to snap these images of Meadow Valley and Spanish Creek in the haze.

  • Meadow Valley, Spanish Creek – Just Starting (0-10%)

How to Submit Photos and Reports

Bigleaf Maple, Spanish Creek (10/14/17) Michael Beatley

Over 75 volunteer “color spotters” (our term for contributors) submit photographs and reports to CaliforniaFallColor.com in a typical autumn.

To be one of them is easy. Email photos within a few days of when taken* to editor@californiafallcolor.com. Always include the photographer’s name, date the photo was taken and the location where the photo was taken.

Each Thursday, I send comprehensive reports of fall color and a collection of the Best of the Week photographs to over 500 media across California. To assure that your submissions are eligible to be included in these reports, I need your photographs and reports not later than Wednesday night.

Photos should be high resolution**, particularly if you’d like them considered as one of CaliforniaFallColor.com’s Best of the Week. Each week from the first day of autumn until the Thursday preceding Thanksgiving Day, the week’s best photos are (with photographer’s permission) sent to major broadcast and print media; they won’t accept any photo less than 300 dpi in size.

Please note: We are unable to compensate photographers for use of their images, but always credit the photographer for his/her work. Publication of photographs on CaliforniaFallColor.com has benefitted many contributors who have had their photographs republished, leading to broader recognition/exposure, enhanced resumes/reputation, paid compensation from others and/or retail sales, not to mention bragging rights.

Reports should include: % of color change for the location being reported (e.g., North Lake, Bishop Creek Canyon) – not for a specific tree or shrub (expressed as: Just Starting, 0-10%; Patchy, 10-50%; Near Peak, 50-75%; Peak, 75-100%;  or Past Peak), the name of the location, roads (e.g., take Rock Creek Rd. east from US 395), date visited and any helpful information (e.g., “The trail is steep for the first 500′. but then levels out for the two mile hike to the lake. A grove of peaking aspen is found at the western side the lake trail.”).

If you know the foliage seen in the photo (particularly if it is unusual or wouldn’t be evident to us), please describe it (e.g., aspen, bigleaf maple, black oak, silver willow, etc.).

We will make every effort to publish your report, particularly if it is from an unusual or lightly reported destination. When multiple photographs are received from heavily visited locations, we are able only to publish the first received, the best or the most unusual.

Occasionally, we will post a portfolio of historic photos*, but often only on Friday or when fresh images have not been received. Photos may be cropped or adjusted for best presentation.

CaliforniaFallColor.com’s style is vivid and photojournalistic. Images that tell a story or that show human activity in relation to autumn are best.

Reports and photos can also be posted on CaliforniaFallColor’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. Though, emailing photos and reports to editor@californiafallcolor.com is the best way to get them on this site, and the only way to get them considered as one of the Best of the Week.

Thank you and happy wandering!

* The sooner a photograph and report are sent to us, the more likely it will be published, because it shows what is likely to be seen now at the location. Photographs taken more than a week ago aren’t really useful and cannot be included in Best of the Week collections sent to media. Historic photos, like Michael Beatley’s shot of Spanish Creek (seen above), are published – on occasion – days or even years after they were taken, but only to illustrate an article that is not time-sensitive.

**A high resolution photo is one that is 300 dpi (dots per inch). A photograph of 1 megabyte or larger is usually large enough to be considered to be high resolution. Please don’t hesitate sending a photograph just because it isn’t 300 dpi. Pictures taken with mobile devices often get included in our reports, when the device has been set to shoot a large picture. 72 dpi images (set for websites and devices) are too small for reproduction in print media.

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Onion Valley Was A Peeling

Quaking Aspen, Onion Valley Campground (9/7/20) Mohammad Delwar

Onion Valley in Inyo National Forest was appealing over the Labor Day Weekend when Mohammad Delwar visited.

Though, smoke from the Creek Fire – as seen in his photographs – was then beginning to suffocate the Eastern Sierra. The Inyo National Forest is now closed to public use. That limits public access throughout the Eastern Sierra.

Mammoth Lakes reports the following activities are now prohibited:

  • Camping in all public and private campgrounds as well as dispersed camping areas
  • Water activities (fishing, boating, kayaking, etc.)
  • Hiking and backpacking
  • Biking, including Mammoth Mountain Bike Park
  • Use of developed day-use areas, including picnic areas and beaches
  • Use of off-highway vehicles
  • Use of any ignition source (campfires, fire pits, stoves, etc.)

These closures are in effect until further notice in order to prioritize the safety of visitors, locals and fire personnel. Updates on reopening the forest will be posted when available. Here’s what the U.S. Forest Service is reporting.

Elsewhere, Cathy Kennedy found aspen just beginning to change at Packer Lake near Sierra City in the Northern Sierra (CA-49).

  • Onion Valley, Inyo National Forest – Just Starting (10%)
  • Packer Lake, Sierra City – Just Starting (10%)

What!? Berkeley Already?

Wasatch Maple/Acer grandidentatum, Tilden Park, Berkeley (9/8/20) Sandy Steinman

East Bay color spotter Sandy Steinman scores Autumn’s first fall color with these photographs taken at the Regional Parks Botanic Garden in Berkeley’s Tilden Park.

Sandy notes that the garden features California native plants and its maple were showing early signs of color.

Vine Maple/Acer circinatum, Tilden Park, Berkeley (9/8/20) Sandy Steinman
  • Tilden Park, Berkeley – Just Starting (10%)
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Early Signs

Chinese pistache, El Dorado Hills (8/15/20) John Poimiroo

Some trees are showing early signs of color change. This is normal.

Sycamore, Chinese pistache, Liquidambar have all exhibited tonal change in summer. In the Sierra foothills, Chinese pistache and sycamore are evolving from green to yellow-green foliage, as seen above.

However, many native oak – responding to record-high, late-summer temperatures, dryness and particulate dust from wildfire smoke are turning brown much earlier than in previous years.

Reports of healthy stands of quaking aspen seen in the Hope Valley and at Lake Tahoe encouraged a suvey of North Lake Tahoe and Truckee this weekend. I found the aspen at Lake Tahoe to be in general good health, though stands surrounding the derelict cabin beside Upper Martis Creek (CA-267) are in trouble.

The aspen at Upper Martis Creek cabin (a favorite spot for wedding photos, portraits and easily accessed fall color) have not been healthy for some years.

I found the small grove surrounding the cabin full of yellow-green leaves, not from early change, but from a lack of nutrients.

Other trees in the grove vary from healthy to deathlike. In some instances holes in leaves indicate that the aspen appear were attacked by insects, while paper-dry brown leaves suggest a lack of water is killing off the aspen. In support of that, the meadow surrounding the cabin is bone dry and crunches when stepped upon, not a good sign for a meadow which should be moist.

That’s unfortunate, as while this is just one small location, it is a popular one for North Tahoe visitors in search of fall color.

0-10% – Just Starting – Sierra Foothills

0-10% – Just Starting – North Lake Tahoe

0-10% – Just Starting – Upper Martis Creek Meadow

0-10% – Just Starting – Blue Oak, Sierra Foothills

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500 Years of Beauty

Makoto Fujimoto shares these pictures of a massive Gingko biloba tree standing near Koukokuji Temple in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo.

Mike reports that the tree is 500 years old, yet its early December color still shines brightly.

  • Tokyo (131′) – Past Peak, YOU MISSED IT.

Christmas Ornaments

Virginia Creeper, La Canada-Flintridge (12/25/19) Julie Kirby

Ornamented with blue berries, this Virginia Creeper provides Christmas cheer to the Southern California community of La Cañada-Flintridge.

  • La Cañada-Flintridge (1,188′) – Past Peak, You Missed it!

See You Next Autumn, Dude

  • California – Past Peak, YOU MISSED IT.