Time Travel Tuesday | Fall Colors in the Eastern Sierras, California

Written by Julie Boyd | Photography by Julie Boyd

While Brian and I not-so-patiently wait for our trip to the Canadian Rockies later this month, we thought it would be fun to revisit some of our past trips in a new series called Time Travel Tuesday. As I was scouring my old files for  inspiration, I came across one of my favorite trips to see the fall colors in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains, circa 2009. This was my first trip to the East side of range, having visited Yosemite several times, and the splendor of the craggy, snow-capped peaks and brilliant display of golden leaves has left me aching to go back ever since.

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Fall Colors & Carson Peak

Seeing the fall colors is all about weather and timing, which makes it hard to plan a trip in advance. In the Easter Sierra, the colors usually start to turn in October, when the days are warm and the nights are cool. If it gets too cold, the leaves will turn brown and drop immediately. A quick Google search will show you that there are numerous sites that track the change every year, which is helpful when you have the flexibility to travel at the last-minute. I like California Fall Color, because of the frequent updates with photos.

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Mount Whitney

On this particular trip with my family,  we chose a weekend in mid-October and crossed our fingers for prime colors. We got hints of gold while driving up Highway 395, and I excitedly made my dad pull over to take a quick shot of Mount Whitney. Further down the road we took a detour to Convict Lake, and that’s where we got our first look at what the golden aspens looked like in higher elevations.

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Fall Colors in Convict Lake
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Convict Lake

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It was surreal to walk around the lake shore surrounded by bright, yellow leaves. I almost felt like I had been whisked away into some fairy tale land. As a Southern California native, I never really got to experience fall colors like this before. Convict Lake was not our final destination, so after a few minutes of oooing and awing over the scenery, I reluctantly hopped back into the car, and we headed north to June Lake to check-in to our hotel.

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Fall Colors reflected in Silver Lake

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June Lake is a small little town nestled in the Sierras just north of Mammoth. The town lies in a horseshoe-shaped valley that is part of the aptly named June Lake Loop, a famous scenic drive, which cuts through the valley along the shores of three alpine lakes. I highly recommend carving out a little extra time to take this drive if you are passing by on HWY 395 (Note that parts of the loop are closed in winter). Back in town, there are a few small hotels, campgrounds, and Air B&B options for lodging. Many people visit the town for trout fishing or hiking, as several trails in the area connect to the Pacific Crest Trail.

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Mono Lake

After unloading the car, and stretching our legs a bit, we decided to make the most of the day, and explore the area. We drove north to Mono Lake, which is one of the strangest places I have experienced. One of the interesting things about the Eastern Sierras, is their geography. At one moment, you can be in a beautiful forest, or alpine meadow, and then a short drive can transport you into a desert wasteland (This is all due to elevations changes and the way storms hit the mountains). Anyway, Mono Lake is just something you have to experience for yourself. It’s really hard to describe the strange beauty of this desolate, alkaline lake, and the alien-like tufta towers. Just go, bring your bug spray, and don’t wear nice shoes (It can get pretty muddy).

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Mono Lake Reflection
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From Mono Lake, we took a short drive up through the Tioga Pass to finish watching the sun set along the shores of Tioga Lake. Since there was a rare-early October storm in the area, the peaks were dusted with snow, making the scene even more breathtaking.

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Tioga Lake

The next day, we set out early to hike in the June Lake area. After looking over options, we decided on hiking up to Gem Lake. It was a pretty short hike (7 miles round trip), but the elevation gain was wicked (about 2,000 ft in three miles of switchbacks). The views at the top were spectacular though, and the cold wind that met us there was a welcome relief from our trek.

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Agnew Lake
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Gem Lake

“Time traveling” back to this trip has me thinking a million things about adventures in the Eastern Sierras. In particular, about how maybe we should consider moving to Mammoth or Bishop, so that we are closer to all of the places waiting to be explored in the area. Also, Brian, I think a spontaneous weekend trip to see the fall colors might be in our immediate future… 😉

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