Last weekend we did a quick trip to the Eastern Sierra to do some leaf peeping. Reports were coming in that the colors were peaking early, so we thought we’d check it out.
What we found was a weird year for fall colors. It seems that everything is either still bright green or already browning, without much in between. We found scattered groves of bright colors and got some nice photos, but then the storm came in.
The forecast on Saturday morning was a 20% chance of precip with snow at higher elevations, but not enough to stick. By the time we were on the east side the chance had upped to 85% and snow was falling. The forecast for Bishop was dry, however, so we planned on camping around there. Unfortunately that 0% didn’t hold and we were rained on pretty good for a few hours on Saturday night. Meanwhile, snow was falling at higher elevations.
Happy fall! Up until Saturday, I was still functioning in 100% summer mode – summer can’t quite possibly be over, right? Although I wasn’t really ready for it, on Friday we hopped in the truck and headed out to 395 to check out the colors. It was absolutely glorious and I insist that you all check it out NOW! I say NOW not because I think you don’t have anything else to do, but because the cold system that is coming in right now is bringing high winds along for the ride, and I’m afraid it may ruin the lovely show that the aspens are putting on.
So without further ado, here is a rundown of the places I got to check out. I have tons of raw photo data to process so it may be a while before most photos are posted, but these should give you an idea what you can see right now.
June Lake (update 9/26 and 9/28)
After driving out Friday night and crashing at Glass Creek campground, we started off on Saturday morning along the June Lake Loop. The aspens were still pretty much green, with occasional bursts of yellow. It was nothing too exciting, so after a few half-hearted photos in a greenish-yellow grove, we decided to fish Rush Creek instead. Today (Monday), when driving north along 395, I looked over towards the Loop and saw a blanket of orange on the hillside above Silver Lake. I don’t know if it was there on Saturday – might not be visible from the loop itself. Unfortunately, the time of day was horrible for light, so we didn’t stop to photograph the distant mountainside.
Rock Creek (update 9/26)
After the complete bust at June Lake (both colors and fish), we headed up Rock Creek. Here, the colors were much better. Still green in the lower groves, the colors started to pop as we worked our way up to Mosquito Flat. Bright yellows, oranges, and occasional blots of red lined the road and mountainsides. We parked at the trailhead and hiked through Little Lakes Valley all the way to Morgan Pass, but unfortunately the colors through here were brown and bland – if you want a pretty hike it’s great, but if you want fall colors, stick to the upper half of Rock Creek Road, between the middle campgrounds and the trailhead at Mosquito Flat.
Lake Sabrina and North Lake (Bishop Creek) (update 9/27)
They are both peaking right now. They will be done by next weekend, especially with the weather system that is currently coming through. Below the lakes (Aspendell), the trees are still fairly green, but I don’t know if they’ll have a chance to turn before being frozen/windblown. Go NOW! We spent about 6 hours Sunday morning at Sabrina – first when the colors were shaded and contrasty, and later as the sunlight made everything glow. The colors around the lakeshore and on the surrounding mountainsides made for some fantastic big-mountain photography, and also for some closer in, more intimate reflection shots. North Lake probably has the most variety – greens near the lake fade to deep reds above, making for some interesting reflection shots in the lake. It’s perfect – in case I didn’t mention it, go NOW!
(Note: I spent so much of the day up at Sabrina and North Lake, I didn’t get a chance to check out South Lake. Oh no!)
McGee Creek (update 9/28)
Although the area around Bishop Creek is absolutely beautiful in its peak right now, my favorite stop of the weekend was McGee Creek. After spying a streak of orange on the flanks of Mount Baldwin from 395, we headed up to the trailhead, grabbed our cameras, and threw on the daypacks. McGee Creek is a lovely and easy trail and as we strolled along the colors and views just got better. The aspens are in every phase up there – from bright green to deep orangey-red – and with the contrast of the unique bands of rock on Baldwin, there are breathtaking views to be had and photos to be taken. This is the canyon for the ‘big mountain’ photos – I made good use of my 18mm wide angle up here. Make sure to hit this one late morning – too early and you’ll have some annoying shadows to deal with, but too late and you’ll lose the contrast of the mountain’s colors.
It’s a great year for colors – I hope they hold on through this weather system. Go now and have a great time!
When planning this trip I kept three things in mind for the first day: it’s a long drive to the trailhead from the Bay Area, I had to pick up my permit, and we’d be high for this trip. High in the altitude sense, of course. I’ve spent a lot of time above 10,000 feet this summer (including a summit of Mt Whitney), but you never want to push it on the first day.
The original plan for this trip would take us on a lollipop loop from North Lake (outside of Bishop), over Lamarck Col, into Darwin Canyon and Evolution Basin, then loop through McGee Canyon before heading back out via Lamarck Col. This is still a great itinerary, just not what we ended up doing. But I’ll save the details for the upcoming entries. The first day’s plan, due to the above three reasons, was a short 3-mile jaunt from the trailhead to Upper Lamarck Lake. And that’s the plan we stuck to. So far, so good.
Things didn’t start off smoothly due to the Big Meadow fire in Yosemite. 120 was closed so we weren’t able to make it to 395 that way. Instead we took 108. I actually prefer 108 in many ways, but it does add some time. Once we made it to the East side of the Sierra, had lunch, picked up our permits, bought my new pack, made it to the trailhead, and repacked all of my gear into the new pack, it was about 3:30. Oh, did I just say I bought a new pack? I committed a backpacking sin – I bought untested, brand new gear right before hitting the trail for a six day trip. Worse, it was the pack itself – a very important part of the kit! I know, you’re all shaking your heads and saying, “I thought she knew what she was doing…”
So this was a purchase I’ve been mulling over for some time, and the opportunity presented itself at Wilson’s East Side Sports in Bishop. They had the Osprey Exos 58 in my size, and after trying it on and confirming that it fit exactly like my other Osprey pack, I decided to pull the trigger. It’s bigger than my old Osprey Ariel, has a suspension system that fits and carries just as comfortably, and weighs under two pounds for the size small (half the weight of my Ariel). Best of all, my Bearikade actually fits in it with room to spare. Finding a lightweight pack that can carry a full bear canister comfortably is a difficult task – sure, they’ll fit in many packs, but they won’t feel good. I’ll gush more about this pack in a future blog entry, but to spare the suspense, it was a truly wonderful pack on the trail and I was very, very pleased with it.
Anyways, back to the trail. (I had to fill up this entry with something since we only hiked three miles this day). We started off under forming storms, but it was difficult to distinguish the difference between the smoke from the Yosemite and Southern California fires and the clouds. Climbing out of North lake was a pleasant and easy hike, and I decided I really liked this trail when it gave us early peeks into the high country. We also spotted some yellow in the aspens – fall will be here very soon. It wasn’t too long before we were at the Lower Lamarck Lake. Here we caught up with another hiker who was looking for a campsite. We crossed the outlet and continued to the Upper Lamarck Lake.
Apparently somewhere in here there is an equestrian trail that splits off to avoid the gnarly terrain, but we never found it and ended up hopping the boulders along the drainage in between the two lakes. It wasn’t a big deal, and before too long we found ourselves at Upper Lamarck Lake. I had some bad information about campsite locations, so we wandered aimlessly before coming back to the outlet creek to camp. After finding a delightful campsite we set up and fished the creek and lake for a while. On my first cast I pulled out a beautiful brook trout.
Back at camp, it started sprinkling just in time for dinner. We endured a small squall, and eventually retired to our tents, exausted from the long day of driving, purchasing gear, and hiking. We knew we had a big day in front of us the next day, but I tried not to think about it as I dozed off to the sound of rain on the tent.
I awoke to the smell of smoke. The distant smoke from the previous night that had given me such a stunning sunset had blown into Humprey’s Basin overnight. I had no idea where the smoke was coming from, so I was glad that today I would be getting off the trail. This day’s plan was to hike out to the North Lake trailhead over Piute Pass and catch a ride into Bishop, where I had reservations at the Ramada. Dave would be driving out from the Bay Area that evening and would meet me there.
The smell of smoke was a bit overwhelming – I’m sure the air was just terrific for me to be breathing in while hiking. Some of the peaks that had been so beautiful the night before were now completely obscured by the smoke. But, as I climbed the short 2 miles and 400 or so feet up to Piute Pass, I quickly got out of the smoke. It had settled in the Basin, so at the Pass I was just above it. I ran into a couple at the Pass who told me that they had heard the smoke wasn’t a fire in the Sierra at all – it was actually smoke blowing in from the Zaca fire in Santa Barbara.
It wasn’t our typical outdoor weekend, but the fall colors in the Eastern Sierra only show up once a year and it shouldn’t be missed. We threw some generic car camping gear into the truck, grabbed our cameras, and hit the road. Friday night we drove over Tioga Pass, and since it was dark we had no idea if the colors were even worth the long drive through annoying traffic. After a few hours of sleep at Glass Creek, we awoke to a brisk morning chill and immediately headed for a hot spring.
As we drove south along 395 toward the spings, we could see that the aspens were indeed putting on a good show, and we weren’t dissapointed. That afternoon we were able to head up Bishop Creek, first to South Lake, then to North Lake and Lake Sabrina, and snap some nice and colorful shots while we watched the clouds build. As evening approached we found ourselves a campsite at Horton Creek (great BLM campground outside of bishop – really basic (outhouses and no water), but fantastic views and close to everything. Shhh – don’t tell anyone).
Saturday evening we were given a spectacular sunset show by Mother Nature, helped significantly by the clouds we kept expecting to dump rain on us. The temps were nice and warm in the valley as well – it never got below 60 degrees. No rain fell, but the gusts went nuts in the middle of the night. Sunday morning we awoke to the same conditions we had gone to sleep in, and we left early and headed north to check out Hot Creek, Mono Lake, and some other aspen-ey valleys.
We watched the storms build over the mountains all day and made it back over Sonora Pass before all hell broke loose. It looked like it was trying really hard to snow around the pass, but it wasn’t quite cold enough. I wonder if it ever got going…