Finding Fall Foliage on the Eastern Slope of California’s Sierra Nevada

Fall splashes the “backside” of the Sierra Nevada in brilliant color. (Photo: John Poimiroo)

Those in love with wide-open spaces and scenic vistas are mightily pleased when they cross over to the backside of California’s Sierra Nevada. True at any time of the year, this becomes overwhelmingly so when autumn adds a riot of color to the high-desert landscape of  sapphire lakes, alpine meadows, gushing waterfalls and snow-frosted 12,000-foot-high mountain peaks.

Aspens turning yellow, orange and pink; golden willows; and crimson cottonwoods splash across the landscape in shows of brilliance mid-September through October. Higher elevations receive nature’s paintbrush first, moving down as fall progresses resulting in a long, fall-foliage season. All this can be seen in Mono County along Highway 395, a designated scenic highway.

In Your Bucket Because …

  • You enjoy discovering untouched, wild-open spaces.
  • You’re a photographer in love with glorious landscapes.
  • You thought fall foliage belonged to east coast leaf-peepers and now you know differently.

A number of spectacular passes, including Yosemite’s Tioga Pass, make the Sierra crossover. I arrived traveling west to east following Highway 50 to the junction of Highway 89 south of Lake Tahoe. South of Markleeville, I embarked on the dramatic twists and turns of Monitor Pass. Feeling as if I’d been shot out of a centrifuge, suddenly I was down. Here I pulled out my “Eastern High Sierra Fall Color Guide.” The brochure, along with a map, lists 20 not-to-be missed sites.

Of them, here are three that caused my fall-foliage heart to quicken:

Follow the 115-mile June Lake Loop past four lakes, including the one named June pictured here. (Photo: Alicia Vennos)

June Lake Loop: A 15-mile scenic detour off Highway 395 takes in a series of three lakes in addition to the one named, June – Gull, Silver and Grant. Magnificent colors are present at all three putting the blue of the lakes a-shimmer with surreal, yet natural, reflections. As a backdrop to the lakes, color begins on the surrounding mountains granite faces with massive 10,900-foot-high Carson Peak looming over all.

Convict Lake:  Set like an ink well in a circle of rugged mountain peaks and located just off Highway 395 south of the town of Mammoth Lakes, the lake is named for a 19th century shoot- out between a sheriff’s posse and escaped convicts. Come fall, aspens gift the lake with a golden ring. A three–mile path around the lake allows you rustle your feet through fallen gold. Note to fishermen: fishing here is fabulous.

Bishop Creek Canyon: Follow Highway 168 West into the canyon where splashes of lime, yellow, pink and flaming red are mirrored in rushing waterways and a string of lakes — South Lake, Lake Sabrina, and North Lake. Add to that a surrounding backdrop of  towering, glacier-scoured mountains.

Splashes of brilliant color brighten the canyon. (Photo: Jim Kellett)

Getting there, you’ll experience a 6,800 feet gain, as Lake Sabrina lies at 9,800 feet.

Bowers of aspen in every shade of yellow create a bower en-route to North Lake. (Photo: John Poimiroo)

Missed the fall show? Think summer, when rafts of wildflowers brighten alpine meadows, rugged canyons, and rushing streams – offering another reason to visit the wide-open spaces on the other side of the mountains.




  • Highway 395 stretches for 557 incredibly varied miles. Dramatic fall color is found in Mono County between Highway 89’s entrance to 395 and Mammoth Lake to the south. Autumn color begins in mid-September in the highest elevations, moving lower as the season progresses, resulting in a long fall-foliage season. To keep track of where and when color is in full splendor, or waning, check in with California Fall Color.
Along the way, don’t miss:

  • Bodie State Historic Park, the West’s largest unrestored ghost town.
  • Mono Lake, one of the oldest lakes in the western hemisphere, with an unusual saltwater ecosystem.
  • The natural hot springs for soaking, with seven located between Hot Creek and Benton Crossing Road.
  • The inventively prepared food at the deli at the Mobil gas station, intersection of Tioga Pass and Highway 395.

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