Got cabin fever from months of pandemic restrictions and wildfires? Want some quality time outdoors before winter arrives? Then now’s the time to go enjoy autumn in the Sierra Nevada, as fall colors peak gloriously in the next few weeks.
Yosemite’s maples, oaks and dogwoods glow red, orange and yellow in fall, starting in high country destinations like Tioga Pass and descending to Tuolumne Meadows. Eventually the color reaches Yosemite Valley and contrasts beautifully with the green pines and granite walls. If you’ve only experienced Yosemite in summer, you’ll find autumn days cool and pleasantly less crowded. Easy hikes include Lower Yosemite Fall Trail, Cook’s Meadow Loop and Mirror Lake Loop.
East of the Sierra crest stands Inyo National Forest which boasts multiple meccas for viewing fall color. Check out Lee Vining Canyon, between Yosemite and the town of Lee Vining below. The canyon offers waterfalls, trails, forest roads, picnic tables and camping areas, in addition to legions of colorful cottonwoods and willows beside Lee Vining Creek. Just driving through the canyon will afford good viewing, but take at least one short hike like the easy half-mile Nunatak Tioga Tarns Trail, just east of Tioga Lake.
Heading south, Mono County’s June Lake features aspens with leaves that turn golden in October. Driving the June Lake Loop will show you plenty, but you should really get out of the car and walk around to appreciate them fully. Silver Lake, Agnew Lake and Fern Lake offer short and medium-length outings beneath the rugged Carson Peak. For the best moderate day trip, trek atop Reversed Peak, a six-mile journey that will show not only fall color but peaks and valleys of adjacent Ansel Adams Wilderness.
Further south, Convict Lake offers not just fall colors but the impressive Mount Morrison as a backdrop, a wild west shootout as a historic backstory and a gateway to John Muir Wilderness. An easy two-mile loop circles the lake.
Aspens line Rock Creek Lake just within Inyo County, and an easy walk around it totals less than two miles. From Toms Place on Highway 395, drive southwest on Rock Creek Road for about 10 miles to a parking area and trailhead. Multiple other scenic hikes begin at Mosquito Flat trailhead in Little Lakes Valley. Many Eastern Sierra visitors speed up and down Highway 395 without ever turning onto side roads like this one. If you’re one of them, come take a look, you won’t regret it.
Turning north, Highway 395 takes us to Conway Summit at the border of Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest. This vista shows not just shimmering fall color but a breathtaking view of Mono Lake to the south. From here it’s just a short drive to Virginia Lakes with more sights and hiking opportunities.
If you’re driving from the Bay Area, you could head north to take in the colors at Twin Lakes and Sonora Pass, making a loop of fall foliage highlights without even having to backtrack.
Yosemite has restricted visitation much of the year but lifts its day-use reservation requirement on Nov. 1. Inyo National Forest has limited access during the wildfire season but now allows hiking up to the wilderness boundaries. Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest is currently open without restrictions.
Fall colors peak in October and fade in November, so act fast to catch it this season.
Matt Johanson authored “Yosemite Adventures: 50 Spectacular Hikes, Climbs and Winter Treks” and “Sierra Summits: A Guide to 50 Peak Experiences in California’s Range of Light.”