Where to See the Best Fall Colors In California
Fall Colors in California !? When one typically thinks of fall colors images of the Northeast or The Rockies come to mind. Deep oranges and burning yellow aspens dotted with red maples — the quintessential fall treat!
What if I told you, YES YOU Californian, that you didn’t have to venture all that far to experience a fall wonderland of epic proportions.
I’ll share less of my photos in this guide and GUESS WHAT!? I’ll just tell you where to go when FALL 2019 rolls around.
This is part 1 of a two part series.
Fall in the Eastern Sierras
I was just as confused by this prospect years ago when I saw an image of a jagged mountain scape dotted with yellow aspens. For years I told myself I’d venture out and look for these scenes but never got around to it. This year I made the trip and below I’ll outline some tips, preparation guides and extremely valuable resources you’ll need before planning your trip.
Remember! Time is of the essence — and no season is the same as another. Timing, temperature and snowfall play a big roll in how the colors look in the Fall. It’s important to realize no two shots will look the same. Below are some basic terms to understand.
0-10% – Just Starting
10-50% – Patchy
50-75% – Near Peak (Go Now!)
75-100% – Peaking (GO NOW!)
Past Peak – (You Missed It)
The percentage segments above are what Mono County uses to share the different stages of coloration. It’s pretty self explanatory and can be found on their website along with many other websites. These percentiles are shared across many different locations along the 395 Corridor the hugs the California/Nevada Border. Below are some locations that traditionally experience coloration.
- Virginia Lakes
- Lee Vining
- Saghen Summit
- June Lake Loop
- Mammoth Lakes
- Convict Lake/McGee Creek
- Rock Creek Lake
- McGee Creek
- June Lake Loop
- Bishop Creek Canyon (Sabrina Lake/North/South Lake)
While not exhaustive the list above outlines some of the most popular spots and those that traditionally see color.
I’ll share more spots including great spots in Yosemite in part two of this series.
What Causes Fall Color
Before we get started on how to time, photograph and plan a visit to the Eastern Sierras for Fall Colors in California lets discuss some basics. Namely, What causes the colors to change in Fall?
I wont get too deep into the science of fall coloration — because quite frankly… IM NO EXPERT.
What I do know is the pigments in leaves are what causes color changes in the Fall. Key elements that dictate the timing and intensity of coloration are:
- Soil Moisture
Chlorophyll – Beta Carotene – Anthocyanins – Flavanols
The role of chlorophyll in the production of vibrant fall colors can’t be understated. First off, what is Chlorophyll ?! In essence it’s a substance that traps energy from the sun and then uses that energy to combine carbon dioxide and water into sugars — basically nom noms for plants and the reason for their leafy green pigments.
Chlorophyll traps wavelengths of light—primarily blue and red through this process and is continually being produced during growing seasons. When the intensity of sunlight diminishes and the abundance of chlorophyll diminishes color change occurs often as a defense and to prepare for winter. Carotenoids are the leaf pigments responsible for yellow and orange colors you see during this transformation. There are also Anthocyanins & Flavonols — Honestly…. Just look at the image below haha — it will do a better job of explaining coloration:
The abundance or lack of water during a growing season plays a major role in when fall foliage forms. In a particularly dry year with very low soil, moist leaves begin the process early as an early defense to the bitter cold temperatures of winter.
Where does Fall Color Happen?
Now that you now how Fall colors occur it’s important to know WHERE they occur. I live in Southern California and for the longest time I thought I was shit out of luck — Until I went to the Sierras this Fall for the best Fall Colors in California.
This map doesn’t really do justice to the intensity of Fall Colors that occur in the locations I outlined above. I’d revise it to include spots of deep red and orange for the region of California that hugs the Nevada border. Aside from that error in omission this map is pretty DARN accurate.
How to Photograph Fall Colors in California
Photographing the fall colors in California can be a challenging process. What I have found particularly challenging is timing the colors perfectly. Ideally you want to photograph the colors as they are near peak or peaking. This requires timing and the use of the resources I outlined above — Two definitive resources are Mono County’s website & Fall Color Report — I’ll link to them again because they are clutch and deserve tons of praise for their hard work collecting fall foliage data
Without further Ado, I’ll get into HOW I planned for my trip and the equipment I brought along.
Getting from Southern California to the Mammoth Lakes area is about a 5 hour journey on highway 395. You won’t encounter many obstacles along the road and there are tons of towns and gas stations along the way — so don’t worry about getting stranded. DO plan for weather though — snow storms and adverse weather can occur at any time along the highway at certain altitudes. Here’s a quick map to help you visualize the journey:
From the perspective of photographing fall colors there wasn’t much preparation involved. I’ll list out the main things I brought along on my journey and then dive into specific locations and my photographic approach as dictated by the time of day:
Things You’ll Need:
- A Camera — haha duh
- Polarizer of ND Filters: The best time to photograph fall colors IN MY OPINION is midday with the sun to your back. I’ve found the most vibrant yellows and oranges with this approach. There is a caveat though! Having an ND Filter or Polarizer is clutch — it will allow you to avoid harsh light washing out the colors in your shot. I use a Haida Filter and Polarizer to do the trick.
- Tripod: If you’re shooting early morning or sunset shots you may find a tripod handy. My buddy Bay Photography takes some amazing starry sky fall shots and the use of a tripod was essential. You should check out his feed!
- Water: I made the mistake of chasing colors up a trail without water… 8 miles later I was parched and exhausted. Chasing color and getting caught in the moment can make you forget the essentials. Don’t be that person who forgets to drink water. DON’T BE ME
- Hiking shoes: If you’re chasing color the right way you’ll find yourself trudging through some brush and bushwhacking your way around trails. Ditch the Nikes and go with the Tims.
- Bear Spray: While I don’t carry about bear spray it’s advisable in some areas — especially late into Fall when Bears get a bit more aggressive due to pre-hibernation hunger.
Here’s a brief breakdown of the modes I like to keep my camera in when I photograph fall colors in California. This approach may differ from others — and some people may scoff that I often find myself shooting in Auto — to them I say ” why U MAD BRO?!”
- AV Mode: If you’re shooting a timelapse from day to night or night to day I advise hopping into AV mode and setting your Aperture at f 8.0 and ISO range from 800 — 1000
- Manual: This is the mode I find myself shooting in more often that not during the day time. I try to get as much range as possible and often underexpose to get more contrast and sharpness in my shots. I’ll share some photos and the settings below when I go into specific locations
- Auto: Photo snobs often scoff at the mention of AUTO mode — I however take a different approach. With the proliferation of AMAZING camera technology and cameras that boast 100s of auto focus points I find myself using AUTO mode more often. The proof is in the shot, who cares if your camera is smarter and more intuitive than you!? I sure don’t 🙂
The Best Locations for Fall Colors in California
These locations are where I shot the fall foliage in 2018. I’ll do my best to update this post yearly and often to give all you leaf Peepers an up to date guide on fall colors in California
ROCK CREEK LAKE FALL COLORS
Rock Creek Lake in the Sierra Nevada is often the first place to experience fall coloration. Because of it’s high altitude (the base starts at 10,000 feet) the colors change rapidly and vividly earlier in the season. I visited this area during the last week of September and was pleasantly surprised with the range of color along the route. I made the mistake of climbing to one of the higher summits — NOTE: most of the coloration occurs at the base of the creek. The campground is the perfect spot for those looking to snap shots from their car.
If you’re like me and want to venture further up the trail there are some goodies that line the dozens of lakes that lead to Gem Lakes at the top of the creek. I found that the middle of the trail had the most vibrant colors. Long Lake, which is about 2 miles up the trail, had the most stunning colors and epic vistas of the towering jagged snow speckled peaks.
The trail goes for miles so be prepared if you aim to head all the way to the top. I made the mistake of forgetting my water bottle and ended up doing an 8 mile roundtrip with a peak elevation of 11,500 feet. If you’re prone to elevation sickness make sure you acclimate a day or so prior — this trail while not extremely difficult is at high altitude.
VIRGINIA LAKES FALL COLORS
Virginia Lakes is about an hour north of Mammoth Lakes but well worth the drive. What you’ll find when you get to Virginia Lakes is an expansive canyon that is speckled with deep yellow aspens and and a deep blue lake. I wish I had visited Virginia Lakes earlier in the day or around sundown — there were some amazing compositions but I had to really crank down the exposure to capture the scene without washing it out.
I think what I enjoyed most about this area were the aspen groves off the side of the road. They provided some epic perspectives and shielded the midday sunlight perfectly. Here’s a shot I captured in Manual. WIth the use of my 16-35mm f2.8 lens I was able to capture a sun flare peaking through the tops of the golden trees.
Overall Virginia Lakes was a beauty. I found it less photogenic than I hoped but that’s okay. Sometimes the best scenes are impossible to photograph. They are best left to the eye’s enjoyment 🙂
SAGEHEN SUMMIT FALL COLORS
In my opinion Sagehen Summit’s Fall Colors are the cream of the crop. Like literally! Imagine a pumpkin spice cream latte and swirl it around a few times until it forms a volcanic mound of goodness then sprinkle some cinnamon and orange coloration on it then cover it in lemon merengue and THATS HOW IT LOOKS!
I gush about this place because I was fortunate enough to capture the colors at their peak and witness one of the most dazzling displays in years.
Getting here is a small trek and while the road doesn’t require an AWD vehicle it’s recommended. There are some spots that are washed out and sandy — so be careful and don’t be an idiot!
This is the most geologically impressive location I have even seen fall colors bloom. Sagehen summit is east of the Mono Craters (massive volcanic mounds that formed when the area was volcanically active thousands of years ago) and about 20 miles from June Lake. What I found most breathtaking about the view was the cascade of different scenes you could capture in one photo. For instance, in the photo below, you can see green pines, fall colors, the jagged peaks of the Sierras and the volcanic mounds that helped form the entire geologic region.
I shot a mix of photos here. I mostly kept everything in manual but switched over to AUTO where I found appropriate
I was super lucky to have a bit of cloud cover — it made the colors contrast even more
If you’re looking for a more up close and personal view of the fall colors in California then McGee Creek is your best bet. A stream flows through this forest of Aspens and if you catch the light at the right time of day you can capture some amazing shots.
In my opinion this watery landscape is the most impressive if you capture the right lighting. I went in the late afternoon and was fortunate enough to capture some long exposures shots.
I shot a mix of photos here as well. I found the macro shots with leaves in the foreground looked best. The best part about this location is that it’s literally 50 feet from the parking lot — meaning you don’t have to rough it to get the best shot.
I was really iffy shooting this location because of the lack of cloud cover. However, the low fog that often tiptoes across the lake during sunrise decided to show up and created some stunning reflections and colors. If you’re up for an early morning wake up call this is probably one of the best spots to visit In Mammoth.
BEWARE: this is a popular spot so you’ll have to get here early to get a parking spot and nab a spot along the edge of Silver Lake which is located on the backside of June Lake Loop.
Once you’re done roaming around the lake and catching sunrise make sure you check out the rows of aspen that dot the loop. The colors will astound you!
Sabrina & North/South Lakes
All three of these locations are just outside of Bishop (which is a 45 minute car drive from Mammoth. The view from the valley had the most majestic mountain peaks buttressing a landscape of aspens and granite rocks.
I wish I spent more time in this area. Fortunately I was able to squeeze off a few shots at the base of the peaks right as the sun was setting. It created a golden glow on the Aspens and was easily my favorite shot this season.
I wish I had more to say but I’ll leave that for next year when I update this post with new locations. Namely, sunrise at North Lake and the golden glow of Yosemite Valley in the Fall. Stay tuned!