Carson Pass and Hope Valley

Red Lake Vista, CA-88 (10/7/18) John Poimiroo

Today’s Sunday drive took us across Carson Pass and into the Hope Valley to scout fall color.

Meadow, Kirkwood Inn (10/7/18) John Poimiroo

Caples Lake, CA-88 (10/7/18) John Poimiroo

Log barn, CA-88 (10/7/18) John Poimiroo

CA-88 (10/7/18) John Poimiroo

Hope Valley (10/7/18) John Poimiroo

Sorensen’s Resort, CA-88 (10/7/18) John Poimiroo

Red Lake Creek Cabin, CA-88 (10/7/18) John Poimiroo

Red Lake Creek Cabin, CA-88 (10/7/18) John Poimiroo

Willows, Woods Lake (10/7/18) John Poimiroo

As Joan and I neared the Kirkwood Lake turnoff, we were disappointed to see that winds had stripped the west slope of Carson Pass. Only the deep red and orange of meadow shrubs east of the Kirkwood Inn were still beautiful.

So, we approached Caples Lake hesitantly, finding the deeply textured vermillion aspen that Phillip Reedy had captured on 9/28 to be faded and Past Peak.

We then pulled off to explore Woods Lake, passing a few bright spots of yellow along the road to the picnic area. Woods is a picturesque subalpine lake, devoid of aspen, though chartreuse willows line its far shore. By noon, temperatures had only risen to the high 30s. So, we were glad to have brought along warm jackets, knit hats and fleece gloves, and promised ourselves to return in warmer months to kayak the lake.

Only when we reached Red Lake Vista near Carson Pass (8,652′) could full peak color be seen hundreds of feet below near the lake and extending south across the forest.

Continuing east into the heart of Hope Valley, aspen were front-lit and unexciting, but when you turned west, the backlit trees radiated vibrant yellow, while those to the north were orange, yellow and lime.

A stop at Sorensen’s found the resort bustling as usual for an autumn weekend. The waiting line for lunch was over an hour long. Visit midweek and you can get a table pretty quickly.

On both sides of the highway approaching and across from Sorensen’s, stands of aspen were irridescent yellow, as good as I’ve seen them there.

Now returning westbound through Hope Valley, the groves virtually caught fire, backlit with ten thousand points of intense yellow and orange.

Cars would stop at turnouts and unload occupants who would either hike out to the groves or stand by their cars taking cell phone pictures and selfies.

After taking a final shot at Red Lake Creek Cabin, I ran into an old friend who noticed that I seemed “to be on a mission” compared to others who were lingering to enjoy the color. He mentioned he’d missed peak in prior years, but was determined this autumn to spend the day with his wife celebrating her birthday and enjoying the Hope Valley at Peak.

He was not alone. CA-88 was bustling with leaf peepers. Annoyed motorists leaned on their horns to express frustration when they were forced to slow to avoid cars that were pulling in or out of crowded turnouts along the highway.

It made me think, was I becoming like the impatient motorists? I wasn’t honking, but I certainly wasn’t appreciating the moment.

Or was I? 

  • Kirkwood (7,690′) – Past Peak – YOU MISSED IT!
  • Caples Lake (7,800′) – Past Peak – YOU MISSED IT!
  • Woods Lake (8,200′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
  • Red Lake Vista (8,400′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
  • Red Lake (7,861′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
  • Red Lake Creek Cabin – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
  • Hope Valley (7,300′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
  • Sorensen’s Resort (7,000′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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Road Trip: The Big Loop

Dunderberg Meadow, Mono County (9/30/18) Phillip Reedy

Dunderberg Meadow, Mono County (9/30/18) Phillip Reedy

Dunderberg Meadow, Mono County (9/30/18) Phillip Reedy

Fall color junkies will go to any length to satisfy their craving for color, even if it means driving for three days straight.

Phillip Reedy proved that this past weekend when he took a road trip that we’ll call “The Big Loop.”

He began by crossing Carson Pass (CA-88), then Monitor Pass (CA-89), before heading down US 395 as far south as Bishop Creek Canyon (with numerous stops along the route).

Phil reports, “Carson Pass to Red Lake Creek is bursting with colors right now, but it ranges from all green to nearly past peak. The meadow by Red lake is just starting to turn, but heading down 88 from there to Red Lake Creek and the cabin the colors are brilliant yellow and oranges. In another week those trees will likely be losing their leaves.”

He continued, “At the Carson bridge 1/2 mile west of the 88/89 intersection the grove right above the river is looking great with green, yellow and deep reds. But just across the valley to the north, the trees are nearly all green. From the 88/89/ intersection to Sorensen’s Resort there are great colors but some groves near Sorensen’ are losing leaves fast. In another week this area will be getting bare.

West Carson River (10/2/18) Phillip Reedy

West Carson River (10/2/18) Phillip Reedy

Reedy continues that Monitor Pass has some nice yellow areas but still-green trees seem reluctant to change and estimates that in a week “this area will be looking nice.”

Mono County has been getting rave reviews so far this autumn, with Dunderberg Meadow southwest of Bridgeport “in full glory right now. Beautiful yellow, oranges and reds. Don’t wait for this one.”

North Lake, Bishop Creek Canyon (10/2/18) Phillip Reedy

North Lake, Bishop Creek Canyon (10/2/18) Phillip Reedy

North Lake, Bishop Creek Canyon (10/2/18) Phillip Reedy

Reedy was impressed by Bishop Creek Canyon, particularly South Lake, Lake Sabrina, and North Lakes as all looking great, as were the creeks near the lakes. North Lake is amazing right now. There are still some greens, but I would definitely go in the next week. Just downslope Aspendell is completely green so it will be a week or two before the colors look good there.”

Lake Sabrina (9/30/18) Mike Caffrey

North Lake (9/30/18) Mike Caffrey

Surveyor’s Meadow 10/1/18) Mike Caffrey

S. Fork Bishop Creek (10/1/18) Mike Caffrey

Mike Caffey also traveled a similar route this weekend, commenting that South Lake, Weir Pond and Parcher’s are nearly Past Peak. While there’s still color to be seen, it’ll be gone, soon. He was similarly pessimistic about how long peak would remain at North Lake and Lake Sabrina, though through the weekend it was “spectacular.”

I write this every autumn, but it never ceases to flabbergast me as to why people ask what they’ll see at North Lake in two weeks, when I’m reporting GO NOW! So, I answer, “bare branches.”

Remember, peak color lasts about two weeks. So, when you first see GO NOW! on a Near Peak destination, pack your bags. If you see it on a Peak destination, the car should be running and you should be heading out the door. If you don’t, YOU MISSED IT.

Red Lake Creek Cabin, Hope Valley (9/30/18) Mike Caffrey

Note that just because it’s Past Peak at one elevation, you haven’t missed it everywhere. If you’re truly in search of beauty, go to a lower elevation. For example, plan now to visit June Lake from Oct. 11 – 18. It should be gorgeous, then.  I can make no promises, however, how good June Lake will be on Oct. 20. 

  • Hope Valley (7,300′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW! – It’ll be great for maybe another week.
  • Monitor Pass (8,314′) – Near Peak (50-75%) GO NOW!
  • Dunderberg Meadows (8,609′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW! – This is a wow destination right now.
  • June Lake Loop (7,654′) – Just Starting to Patchy (0 – 50%) – Plan now to visit in mid October.
  • South Lake, Bishop Creek Canyon (9,768′) – Peak to Past Peak (75-100%) GO NOW or YOU MISSED IT! – There will still be great color down the canyon, but it’s almost past peak at the highest elevations.
  • Lake Sabrina, Bishop Creek Canyon (9,150′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW! – Are your bags packed?
  • North Lake, Bishop Creek Canyon (9,000′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW! – Is your motor running?

Red Lake Creek Cabin, Hope Valley (10/2/18) Phillip Reedy



Hope Has Arrived

Above Caples Lake, CA-88 (9/28/18) Phillip Reedy

Woods Lake Road, CA-88 (9/28/18) Phillip Reedy

Red Lake, Hope Valley (9/28/18) Phillip Reedy

Red Lake Creek Cabin, Hope Valley (9/28/18) Phillip Reedy

Red Lake Creek Cabin, Hope Valley (9/28/18) Phillip Reedy

Pasture East of Blue Lakes Rd., Hope Valley (9/28/18) Phillip Reedy

The Hope Valley (CA-88) has arrived, with autumn color painting its aspen in lovely tones of vermillion, rose, orange, saffron, yellow and lime.

Phillip Reedy visited yesterday to find the area peaking overall, “especially along Red Lake Creek and near Sorensen’s Resort.  There are still groves above the West Carson and along 89 to Tahoe that are completely green.”

He estimates peak color will last through next weekend, though beyond that, no promises. Hope Valley color spotter Debbie Waldear agreed, stating that next weekend (Oct. 6-7) is a likely peak for the Hope Valley.

Though, our experience has been that the Hope Valley – due to its range of elevations – has two weeks of peak color with it lingering around Sorensen’s Resort and in Woodford’s Canyon, well after it has peaked at Red Lake Creek.

Debbie reported that the Alpine Aspen Festival will not occur this year, with local hopes that it returns next year. Despite disappointing news about the festival, she was upbeat about this being the prime week to cross Carson Pass and visit Hope Valley.

A possible mediating factor will be weather. Hurricane Rosa is on track to reach Baja California on Tuesday as a tropical depression, bringing rain to Southern California. Some of that will reach the High Sierra though is not expected to be severe.

The best days to visit Hope Valley in the coming week appear to be Sunday (tomorrow), Monday, Friday and Saturday (Oct. 6), with rain and snow Tues. through Thurs.

Should snow dust the High Sierra, photographs of the Hope Valley and Eastern Sierra could be mind-bogglingly beautiful. 

Hope Valley (7,300′) – Near Peak (50-75%) GO NOW!


Hope Valley Continues to Improve, Still Patchy

Hope Valley (9/22/18) Phillip Reedy

This image by Phillip Reedy about says it all for the Hope Valley. Patchy, though a lot more color than was reported a week ago. 

Here’s some of what he saw on this weekend’s scouting trip:

Red Lake, Hope Valley (9/22/18) Phillip Reedy

Red Lake, Hope Valley (9/22/18) Phillip Reedy

Hope Valley (9/22/18) Phillip Reedy

Red Lake, Hope Valley (9/22/18) Phillip Reedy

Hooker Ranch, Hope Valley (9/22/18) Phillip Reedy

Sorensen’s Resort, Hope Valley (9/22/18) Phillip Reedy

Sorensen’s Resort, Hope Valley (9/22/18) Phillip Reedy



Hope Valley (7,300′) – Patchy (10-50%)



Past Peak Can Still Be Beautiful

Sorensens Cabin, Hope Valley (10/14/17) Brian Patterson



































Past Peak color can still be beautiful, as seen in Brian Patterson’s photograph of Sorensens Cabin.

Hope Valley – Past Peak – You Missed It.


Losing Hope? Not Quite Yet

Norway House, Sorensens Resort (10/12/17) John Poimiroo

The Hope Valley still has lots and lots of peak color, though it’s all below 7,400′.

A scouting trip through the Hope Valley (CA-88, Carson Pass) found peak color at Sorensen’s Resort at the top of Woodford’s Canyon and in the Hope Valley below Red Creek Cabin.

Comparison photos of Red Creek Cabin (admittedly shot at different times of day at different locations and with different framing) shows what’s happened there in the past ten days. They also show the affect of smoke in the air.

Red Creek Cabin, Hope Valley (10/12/17) John Poimiroo

Red Creek Cabin, Hope Valley (10/2/17) John Poimiroo

Aspen high on the ridge behind the cabin have moved from Just Starting to Patchy.

Those directly behind the cabin, that were peaking previously, are now Past Peak and those that were Patchy to Near Peak are peaking.

The most vivid peak probably occurred between the time I took the first and second photograph.

Hope Valley (10/12/17) John Poimiroo

Hope Valley (10/9/17) Dan Varvais

Above the cabin, Red Lake and Caples Lake have peaked. Only spotty color remains. Similarly, at Sorensen’s, stands at the resort are at full, glorious peak, while those across the road and along the West Fork of the Carson River are Past Peak.

Nevertheless, you haven’t missed it. This weekend will still be spectacular in the Hope Valley with great color to be seen along CA-88 between Red Creek Cabin and Woodford’s Canyon (Sorensens). Haze from Northern California wildfires softened the scene, slightly, but as seen in these photos, could be corrected.

If you are attentive, a few dirt and gravel US Forest Service roads lead from points along the north side of CA-88 to the color. They are marked with USFS tags. Do not, however, drive on any private roads, which usually are marked “No Trespassing.”

Also, parking at Sorensens is limited to resort guests and diners, so if you want to take pictures there, please buy something. They have a very excellent book/gift shop with tantalizing items, including the Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling – another fun way to capture fall color.

Hope Valley (10-/12/17) John Poimiroo

During my visit to the Hope Valley, I spoke with John Brisenden, owner of Sorensens Resort who said 29 mph gusts had passed through on Wed. night, but there was little sign that many of the leaves had been carried away.

Instead, at Sorensen’s and in the lower Hope Valley, there continue to be large groves of aspen with peak color that will likely hold for another week or more.

So, don’t lose Hope. GO NOW and be dazzled by it.

Hope Valley (7,300′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!

Luther Pass (7,740′) – Peak to Past Peak (75-100%) GO NOW as you almost missed it! – Big Meadow on the north side of Luther Pass is the only area along this section of CA-89 that has any color.  Large aspen on the east side of the meadow are peaking and add romance to a hike along the meadow trail. Though, the color is an added benefit to the hike, not a reason in itself to visit the meadow.

Monitor Pass (8,314′) – Past Peak – You Missed It. – Steve Greer reports he just crossed Monitor Pass and 80% of the trees up there are stripped. It’s so exposed up there, that the wind John Brisenden mentioned may turned the aspen into sticks last Wed. night.





You Gotta Have Hope

Red Creek Cabin, Hope Valley (10/2/17) John Poimiroo

(Hope Valley – 10/2/17) The Hope Valley (CA-88, Carson Pass) is typical of the dilemma facing color spotters this autumn… the show is all cattywampus.

In some places like at the Red Creek Cabin (seen above), it’s Near Peak to Peak color, while in others the aspen look like they’re Just Starting.

So, you gotta have hope when we say, although the Hope Valley is Patchy overall GO NOW!, as there is enough peak color to make it worth the trip.

Here’s a rundown from top to bottom:

Castle Point Trailhead, CA-88 (10/2/17) John Poimiroo

Castle Point Trailhead – Peak to Past Peak (We All Missed It) – The Aspen look terrible, few leaves and light color. This stand used to be glorious.

Caples Lake – Patchy to Near Peak – One stand of at Peak aspen on northeast shore showing orange and yellow, though many others in Patchy condition.

Red Lake Area -Patchy (10-50%)

Red Creek Cabin – Peak (75-100%) – GO NOW!

Hope Valley -Patchy (10-50%)

Sorensen’s Resort, Hope Valley (10/2/17) John Poimiroo

Sorensen’s – Near Peak  – GO NOW!

Woodford’s Canyon – Patchy (10-50%)

Overall Hope Valley (7,300′) – Patchy, though there’s plenty of Near Peak and Peak Color to make it worth seeing. GO NOW!

Alpine Aspen Festival – Oct. 7 & 8, Hope Valley


Memory Lane: Sorensen’s Resort

Sorensen's Resort (10/23/16) Danny Hu

Sorensen’s Resort (10/23/16) Danny Hu

Sorensen's Resort (10/23/16) Danny Hu

Sorensen’s Resort (10/23/16) Danny Hu

Hwy 88, Sorensen's Resort (10/23/16) Danny Hu

Hwy 88, Sorensen’s Resort (10/23/16) Danny Hu

It’s feeling like the holidays at Sorensen’s Resort in the Hope Valley, were fall color has peaked and most branches are bare and ready to carry loads of snow.

Monitor Pass (10/23/16) Wendy Zhou

Monitor Pass (10/23/16) Tracy Zhou

Tracy Zhou followed a similar route across Monitor Pass and through the Hope Valley to Lake Tahoe, providing these views.

Monitor Pass (10/23/16) Wendy Zhou

Monitor Pass (10/23/16) Tracy Zhou

Monitor Pass (10/23/16) Wendy Zhou

Monitor Pass (10/23/16) Tracy Zhou

Monitor Pass (10/23/16) Wendy Zhou

Monitor Pass (10/23/16) Tracy Zhou

Monitor Pass (10/23/16) Wendy Zhou

Monitor Pass (10/23/16) Tracy Zhou


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.


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)