The Mountains are Calling| Chasing the Last Fall Colors in the Eastern Sierras

Written by Julie Boyd | Photography by Julie Boyd

“The mountains are calling, and I must go.” – John Muir

I was exhausted. I had just finished teaching a workshop on essay writing, shot my last wedding of the year, and I made it through mourning the loss of my grandfather. I finally had a chance to breathe, but I still felt suffocated. More than ever, I needed to get away. I needed to recharge. More than ever John Muir’s famous quote, “The mountains are calling, and I must go,” rang true for me.

I knew the Fall colors were past peak, but something inside me was aching to go to the Eastern Sierra anyway. I just had to be there. Luckily, I have a adventure buddy in Brian and he is always willing to support my crazy ideas. So, at 8:00 p.m. on a Friday night, we packed up our car, and made the five-and-a-half hour journey up to Mammoth Lakes.

Our drive was filled with a hazy mix of regret (What are we thinking? We could be in bed right now?), diet coke, and 90’s pop music (Boy bands really were the best back then). When we arrived in town, we were greeted by a giant sign with Muir’s quote on it, and I knew instantly that we made the right decision.

june-lake-loop-reflection-aspensThe next morning, we headed out to the June Lake Loop in search of Fall colors. While most of the aspens had dropped their leaves, there were still a few golden groves left. After stopping to take a  few pictures, we decided to stretch our legs on a hike up to Parker Lake.

eastern-sierras-fall-colors-mountainsjune-lake-loop-aspens-mountainsquaking-aspen-leaf-sierras-3eastern-sierras-fall-colors-aspensjune-lake-loop-aspens-goldeastern-sierras-fall-colors-june-lakefall-colors-golden-aspen-leavesThe hike was about 4 miles round trip, and although the climb at the beginning is a bit steep, it flattens out and passes through groves of aspen trees near the lake. Unfortunately, all the leaves had dropped along the trail, but the trek was still worth it, as Parker Lake is gorgeous any time of the year. This is definitely a must-visit spot for when we return during the peak turning! After having my fill of picture taking, we sat on the shore of the lake, ate a few sandwiches, and took it all in.

parker-lake-trail-june-lake-loopparker-lake-hike-mountainparker-lake-reflection-mountainparker-lake-reflection-treesparker-lake-adventure-brianSince Golden Hour was soon approaching, we decided to drive through the June Lake Loop one more time to see the leaves in different lighting conditions. This was definitely a good decision because the afternoon light revealed more shadows and texture in the groves.

eastern-sierras-fall-colors-june-lake-loopeastern-sierras-fall-colors-aspens-detaileastern-sierras-fall-colors-aspens-detailseastern-sierras-fall-colors-june-lake-lightingbrian-june-lake-sunset-fall-colorsOnce the sun went behind the mountains, we headed back to Mammoth via the scenic drive route. While neither of us found it to be especially scenic, it was nice to take a road less traveled and explore something new. After weighing ideas for sunset locations, we decided to head down to Twin Lakes and Lake Mary to see how the light looked. Lake Mary was astonishingly cold as icy wind whipped across the water, so we decided on Twin Lakes instead. We explored a few spots along the shore, and managed to capture a little bit of sunset colors before dark.

mammoth-twin-lakes-sunsetmammoth-twin-lakes-sunset-watermammoth-twin-lakes-sunset-skyThe next morning we arose early for sunrise photos, hoping to catch some alpenglow over Laurel Mountain. One thing I love about the shorter days this time of year is earlier sunsets and later sunrises. We packed up the car, grabbed some coffee and bagels, and arrived at Convict Lake around 5:30 a.m. As dawn approached, a line of photographers gathered on a bridge, all taking the classic shot with the jetty rocks in the foreground of the lake. I took one shot, and decided immediately that I wanted a different perspective and some solitude, so Brian and I headed just to the left of the bridge.

convict-lake-fall-colors-sunrise-3convict-lake-fall-colors-sunrise-1Again, it was very cold and windy here, so I was a little sad that I couldn’t get any reflection shots. However, I made the best of it and used a Neutral Density filter to do some longer exposures and get the glassy effect on the water.

convict-lake-fall-colors-sunrise-5convict-lake-fall-colors-sunrise-4convict-lake-fall-colors-sunrise-2quaking-aspen-leaf-sierras-1I could have easily spent all day roaming the shores of Convict Lake, however, Brian and I wanted to see Bishop Canyon while there was still morning light illuminating the mountains. I have driven through Bishop many times on my way to explore other parts of the Sierras, but had never made the trip up Highway 168. Man, have I been missing out! I am really glad that we made this detour, as it was fun to spend a few hours exploring and plotting out a longer, return trip. 🙂

aspendell-fall-colorsquaking-aspen-leaf-sierras-2We decided to start our tour at the top of the canyon at Lake Sabrina, and work our way back down. Lake Sabrina looked gorgeous, but it was so windy we could hardly tolerate standing outside for photos. I love the cold, but after I took one shot, my fingers started going numb, and my eyes were watering from the wind. We ran back to the car seeking the heater and seat warmers, and decided to try our luck at a different location.

lake-sabrina-fall-colorsNorth Lake was our next stop, and after a windy, narrow, dirt road we arrived at our destination. We were happy that it was a bit less windy and much warmer than Lake Sabrina. North Lake is a popular spot for sunrise photos, and we were amazed that people take the road before dawn because of the road conditions. Since we arrived later in the morning, we realized it might be better for sunrise photos: there were tons of fishermen along the banks, and it was hard to avoid them and still capture some of the angles I wanted. Lesson learned for next time! 🙂

north-lake-fallnorth-lake-mountainsnorth-lake-bishopAs we headed back down the mountain, we noticed a waterfall alongside the road, and decided to stop and capture the scene.

bishop-creek-waterfall-fall-colorsOur final stop of the day was South Lake. It was a bit more of a drive, but when we arrived at our destination, and were welcomed by beautiful snowy peaks, we knew it was a worthwhile side trip. Again, it was cold and windy (the theme of the trip!), so after taking a quick shot (ugh, lens flare!) we sat in the car and enjoyed the sights while we ate sandwiches. Photo Tip: The Lake faces south, so it is probably best photographed at sunrise. We were here in the late morning, but the sun was already directly in my shots.

south-lakeAfter stocking up on a few treats from Erik Schatts in town, we headed home, and back to reality. Even though it was a short trip, and most of the golden leaves were gone, it was a great adventure. We had fun exploring new places, hiking, seeing a bear, and recharging our spirits with the spectacular mountain views. The Sierras hold a very special place in my heart, and I cannot wait until they call to me again!

parker-lake-fall-colors-bound-to-explore

 

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