I am continuing to rebuke the myth that there is no Fall in California. The itinerary below was done as two weekend trips in the middle of October. It’s needed to say that the Fall season in that year started a bit later but still on the third weekend of October, some higher elevation groves were already past the peak.
Yosemite National Park is well known as one of the top destinations for leaf picking. However, not everyone drove Tioga Pass Road towards Eastern Sierra to find some colors. But right after the Tioga Pass entrance, there is a place that could impress you.
The road to Poole Powerplant is a showstopper. There are three campgrounds along the Pool Powerplant Road; one is even named Aspen Campground (guess, what trees grow around it?). The road itself is very photogenic. However, I suggest you stop at one of the numerous pullouts and explore the area on foot. I found several footpaths along the creek; I wish we had more time to explore these trails further west, closer to the pass.
One of the jewels of Sierra Nevada has a very popular trail that leads to several waterfalls. The trail also passes aspen groves.
On the weekend we visited (October 19th), most of the trees had no leaves. However, the views were still awe-inspiring. The trail (AllTrails.com link) marked as hard though I think the first part that climbs uphill is the only sophisticated part. There is a vista after the climb; you can turn back after it. We hiked to the second falls and returned to get to the trailhead to sunset.
The road to the trailhead is rough but passable. If you are not willing to drive, explore the Lundy Lake and Mill Creek area along the road.
I’m incredibly proud of myself that I found this place. I had an overnight reservation at Bridgeport, so I searched what I could check out in the morning. And I found this lovely photo of Lower Twin Lake surrounded by yellow aspens.
Lower Lake is surrounded with cottages, Upper Lake is more secluded and has a campground and store near the trailhead. We didn’t hike that day – just explored the lakeshore — however, there several trails that start from both of the lakes. For example, Horse Creek Trail that begins from Upper Lake, or Tamarack Lake from Lower Lake.
Oh, I looked forward to visiting this place. I read about this meadow in so many photography books. We even drive through the area once on Labor Day weekend but never stopped.
What I didn’t plan that October 13th for high Sierra will be too late to see any significant foliage. What left of the colorful display were willows along the creek and Walker River. Still, it was charming. We did the meadow loop hike based on this AllTrails hike.
If you don’t have a lot of time, stop at the trailhead and explore the campground area that has a lovely grove of aspens.
If Leavitt meadow met us with bare trees, nearby Sonora Pass showed what the Fall colors display is. What we usually do, we stop at the Pacific Crest Trail and photograph the vista. You, however, can hike part of PCT in any direction. In both ways, views will be stunning. Though take into account, this part of PCT has little to no shade.
Right on another side of the pass, there are small aspen groves that were in the peak of color where we visited.
Monitor Pass is very popular among those who drive to photograph fall color in the Tahoe Area. There are several huge groves in this area. One surround s the road itself; another is just east of the peak (on the right side of the road if you drive from Hwy 4).
We found higher ground and fly our drone over the area. We drove up to the Leviathan Peak, where is an active fire lookout.
What to see if you still do not have enough
- Yosemite Valley usually has an excellent display of foliage – though nowadays, you need a reservation to get there.
- Lake Tahoe has a lot of places where you can find lovely groves. Hope Valley is a stunning place to see in Fall.
- Wine Country usually turns red later in the season. You can see the red vines at the beginning of November. See here my guide on how to spend a Fall weekend in Napa. Or this old post about Sonoma County’s Jack London State Park
- Spend a weekend exploring majestic Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
- See all my posts on what to do in Fall here.
Links and Map
- September to the beginning of October is a fire season in California. Parks and trails could be closed due to the high fire danger. Please check in advance
- I’m using this Fall prediction map. If you see that some area is past the peak, that could mean that most of the trees are bare. However, if you already booked the trip these days, it still worse to try.
- CaliforniaFallColor.com has its color tracking map. They also have weekly reports from top locations. It’s my favorite site to read during Sep-Oct.
- The basic rule that I follow to plan a fall road trip: first, you will see colors high in the mountains, then lower elevation. Closer to the south – later the color. Valleys are the last to get colors. If you’re late for mountains, check coastal ranges, or visit a local winery.
- Some locations could be closed or have limited operations because of COVID.
- Most of the locations in these posts are in Eastern Sierra Nevada. If you are not leaving there or driving from Nevada, you probably will need to drive mountain roads and passes. Check if the road is open before going. Drive carefully, and learn the route in advance. For example, very scenic CA-4 (Alpine Lake Hwy) is a one-lane road right after Alpine Lake.
- Always follow the Leave-No-Trace principle. If trailhead’s restrooms or campground are closed for the season, take your trash with you. There will be no one to clean garbage cans till the Spring. We noticed a lot of garbage below Sonora Pass. Don’t be evil; leave wilderness better than you found it. If the trail is closed – don’t hike it. It could be dangerous, inaccessible, or simply not in the right conditions.
- Plan in advance, days are short in October, and you will not want to hike back in the dark during near-freezing conditions.
- Download your maps in advance. You will probably have no cell reception.