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There’s Still Hope

Cabin, Hope Valley (10/10/15)  Elliot McGucken

Cabin, Hope Valley (10/10/15) Elliot McGucken

Even when you think the color has peaked, when most of the trees have lost their color, a photographer like Elliot McGucken sends an image that teaches you, again, that there’s still hope.

Such is the case with this image of a cabin in the Hope Valley, near Sorensen’s Resort (Hwy 88). Though it does not have the spectacular splash of yellow many fall color photographers would want for their ultimate image of autumn in the High Sierra, it is layered with emotion and texture.

This photograph is near perfection, even though the forest was far from it.

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Still Hope, Though Mostly Past Peak

Sorensen's Resort (10/4/15) John Poimiroo

Sorensen’s Resort (10/4/15) John Poimiroo

Last year, to the day, I drove the western Sierra foothills to Placerville, up Newtown Rd and Mormon Emigrant Rd. to CA-88, crossing Carson Pass and descending into the Hope Valley where it was peaking beautifully. I then returned over Luther Pass to South Lake Tahoe, then back over Echo Summit on US50. Today, I repeated the drive.

Last year, the Hope Valley was peaking.  This year, it’s beyond hope.

Carson Pass and the Hope Valley are now mostly Past Peak, though amid groves and groves of bare aspen, others are still fully green and Just Starting, while others are Patchy, and still others are Near Peak.

Caples Lake (10/4/15) John Poimiroo

Caples Lake (10/4/15) John Poimiroo

Last year, I stopped at the Caples Lake Resort to photograph a hillside of colorful aspen reflected in the lake.  This year, only the crowns of those trees carry any color.

It’s interesting that the willows that normally turn first, are now peaking while the aspen have lost their color.

Beyond Carson Pass, among landmark-sized Jeffrey pine, the ground between granite boulders is full of deep-orange ground cover.

Black Leaf Spot, Forestdale Creek Rd. (10/4/15) John Poimiroo

Black Leaf Spot, Forestdale Creek Rd. (10/4/15) John Poimiroo

Forestdale Creek Rd. (10/4/15) John Poimiroo

Forestdale Creek Rd. (10/4/15) John Poimiroo

The effect of black leaf spot fungus is evident along Forestdale Creek Road, an off-road trail near Red Lake, where many aspen still carry spotted leaves.

One of the few nice aspects of the color this year is that many of the aspen are topped with golden crowns, though they’ve lost the color below and all that remains are their buff and white colored lower branches and trunks.

The forest’s remaining color is nice to look at, though photographers will be disappointed.

At 7,400′ in elevation on the east side of Carson Pass, there are several healthy stands of green aspen that should be Near Peak in two weeks. Patchy sections in the forest will turn sooner.  Healthy, lush groves are found near streams, but not far from denuded stands of bare aspen, their stemy branches raised to heaven as if imploring the skies to let them embrace the first snowfall.

Next weekend’s best hope to see full peak in the Hope Valley will be at Sorensen’s Resort.  There, the most promising grove along Hwys 88 and 89 is a brilliant, yellow-orange stretch of Near Peak aspen (seen above) directly across the highway from the Sorensen’s Resort.

I stopped to chat briefly with resort owner John Brissenden who said several of his cabins are still available this coming weekend for those who would like to see the best fall color the Hope Valley will provide this year.  He also admitted that, though disappointing, 2015 isn’t the earliest peak that Carson Pass has experienced.  Some years ago, it went Past Peak in mid September.

As for the rest of the route:

  • The black oak and bigleaf maple along Newtown Road (Placerville) are Just Starting.
  • Vineyards in El Dorado County’s Pleasant Valley are now showing yellow highlights, though they’ve a way to go.
  • There is little to no color along Mormon Emigrant Road, though a few dogwood are showing soft pastel-orange and rose leaves.
  • South Lake Tahoe is Patchy with yellow and lime just emerging among its mostly green aspen.
  • Grasses, willows, ferns and brush provide the most color along the entire route with maroon, yellow, buff, gold, crimson and orange decorating meadows and forest floors.
Aspen, Kirkwood Lake Rd (10/5/14) John Poimiroo

Aspen, Kirkwood Lake Rd (10/5/14) John Poimiroo

Aspen, Kirkwood Lake Rd. (10/4/15) John Poimiroo

Aspen, Kirkwood Lake Rd. (10/4/15) John Poimiroo

Past Peak YOU MISSED IT! – Carson Pass.  Nearly all the aspen at the highest reaches of the pass have lost their leaves. The most profound example of the change (seen at left) is the comparison of a stand of aspen shot last year off CA-88 at the trailhead to Kirkwood Lake and the same stand shot today.

Near Peak (50-75%) GO NOW! – Hope Valley – The best stand is found directly across Hwys 88 and 89 from Sorensen’s Resort.  Room at the inn is available next weekend, if you want to see it at its best.  Unfortunately, all the aspen at and surrounding the resort have dropped their color.

Patchy (10-50%) – Lake Tahoe

Just Starting (0-10%) – US 50 – All elevations

Just Starting (0-10%) – Newtown Rd, Placerville (Gold Country)

Just Starting (0-10%) – Pleasant Valley Vineyards (Gold Country)

Fields of Gold in the Hope Valley

Sorenson’s Resort in the Hope Valley posted this video recently.  It shows the intense color to be seen in weeks to come in the Sierra.  With the snow behind us, scenes like this will be playing out this weekend in the Eastern Sierra along U.S. 395.