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Autumn in the Sierra Nevada

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Fall color along Highway 395 near Bishop

United States Route 395 runs from the Cajon Pass northeast of Los Angeles to the Canadian border. In California, it’s famous for spectacular scenery as it parallels the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada (Spanish for Snow-clad Mountains) range for some 400 kilometers. It’s also one of the best routes on the West Coast for an autumn “leaf peeping” trip. Autumn color in Bishop Creek Canyon

Route 395 begins at its junction with Interstate 15 in the high-desert town of Hesperia. From there it traverses the Owens Valley. Sandwiched between the Sierras and the Inyo Mountains, the valley is flat, desolate, and very dry (Death Valley is to the east, just beyond the Inyo Mountains). Along with the low humidity, wind-whipped dust makes the air hazy and irritating to breathe, despite attempts to mitigate the dust.

It’s hard to believe that at the beginning of the 20th century the Owens Valley was lush and fertile farmland. To meet a growing need for water, the City of Los Angeles bought up most of the land in the valley and built a system of aqueducts spanning 400 kilometers, an engineering marvel of its time. The system began diverting almost all the valley’s water in 1913, allowing the semi-desert of Los Angeles to bloom with a lush covering of urban sprawl. By 1926 the Owens Valley was a dust bowl. In 2008, after decades of litigation by residents, farmers, and the Sierra Club, Los Angeles officials agreed to let water flow again in some parts of the valley. Picture of the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine

The first substantial town you’ll reach is Lone Pine. The town is the gateway to Mount Whitney, whose 4,417-meter summit is the highest point in the continental United States. The Whitney Portal Road twists and turns for 21 kilometers from Lone Pine to the 2,550-meter-high Whitney Portal trailhead. From there a 17.1 kilometer trail leads to the summit. The trail is so popular that the Forest Service requires permits for all hikers, limited to a daily quota.

A hiker in excellent physical condition who gets an early start can make the round trip to the top in one day; but most who make the complete trip camp overnight on the mountain. Many more people take a short hike that doesn’t require a permit. The lower section of the trail can have a human traffic jam even during the off season. Alabama Hills near Lone Pine

Alabama Hills near Lone Pine Alabama Hills near Lone Pine
Alabama Hills near Lone Pine

The Whitney Portal Road offers another attraction that doesn’t require any hiking at all. You may not have heard of the Alabama Hills just west of Lone Pine, but you’ve probably seen them many times. To early Hollywood moviemakers, the rocky desert setting invoked the “Old West.” The Alabama Hills have been a prominent feature of western films ever since.

More recently the hills have served as a terrestrial stand-in for alien landscapes in science-fiction films and television programs, and as the background for numerous commercials. The road through the hills is called, appropriately enough, Movie Road. It’s a dirt road, but quite passable in a car if you take your time.

Arriving during the Civil War, miners sympathetic to the Confederacy named their claims in the hills for the battleship Alabama that harassed northern shipping. The name eventually stuck to the entire area.

The low rounded Alabama Hills were originally part of the towering craggy white Sierras in the background of these pictures. Faulting separated them from the mountains; and the combination of earthquakes and weather eroded them down to rock piles. The landscape reminds me very much of Joshua Tree National Park, which also owes its jumbled and cracked rock formations to earthquakes and erosion. Although both places are high desert, the Alabama Hills are at too high an elevation and too cold for Joshua trees.
View from Glacier Lodge picnic area

One of the delights of Route 395 is exploring the many side roads into the mountains, following a creek or leading to a lake or cabins. From Big Pine, 72 kilometers north of Lone Pine, Glacier Lodge Road winds its way to the Glacier Lodge “resort” complex of cabins and campsites. At the entrance to Glacier Lodge is a trout pond and picnic area that provides a surprising view.

Picture of fall color in Bishop Creek Canyon Aspens along Bishop Creek

At the north end of the Owens Valley, Bishop (population 14,500, including surrounding “suburbs”) is the metropolis of the eastern Sierra. The Bishop area offers year-round recreational opportunities, but it’s particularly renowned among autumn “leaf peepers” for its colorful aspen displays. While Bishop lacks the stereotypical red barns, hay bales, and white churches that enhance innumerable autumn pictures of New England, the Sierras surely provide more than adequate compensation.

Pictures of fall foliage in Bishop Creek Canyon Autumn color in Bishop Creek Canyon
Aspens at Cardinal Creek Resort Fallen leaves at Cardinal Creek Resort

West Line Road (State Route 168) heads west from Bishop and rapidly gains elevation as it enters Bishop Creek Canyon. The first notable scenic point is a lake with the romantic and evocative name of Intake 2. The name is a reminder that Bishop Creek is a source of hydroelectric power for the region, and that some of the most scenic lakes are artificial or “managed.” A small campground next to the lake has prime campsites right on the creek.

Route 168 continues along Bishop Creek, past the hamlet of Aspendell. Secluded amid aspen stands at an elevation of 2590 meters, Aspendell really lives up to its name (although I suspect it’s somewhat less attractive in February).

Past Aspendell near the end of the road is Cardinal Village, one of a number of “resorts” in the Sierras that rent cabins for fishermen and hikers. I saw a tranquil pond there that was covered with floating fallen leaves.

Fall foliage in Bishop Creek Canyon Autumn color in Bishop Creek Canyon

24 kilometers west of Bishop, South Lake Road branches off Route 168 to follow the south fork of Bishop Creek. Bishop Creek Canyon offers a particularly striking display of fall color. Picture of South Lake on Bishop Creek

At the end of South Lake Road is, not surprisingly, South Lake. Viewed from the side away from the dam, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the lake is artificial. Besides providing a source of hydroelectric power, the lake is popular for boating and fishing. It’s also a trailhead for hikes to remote, completely natural lakes that don’t generate any electricity.

A fall foliage trip is necessarily a gamble. It’s easy enough to make plans based on historical information about when the trees usually change color. But as with weather, forecasting fall color based on historical data doesn’t always work out. The “peak of color” in Bishop Creek Canyon is usually at the end of September. Soon after that, the trees shed their autumn leaves as cold weather and the first snowfall arrive. I couldn’t get there until mid-October, but I had good luck because unusually warm weather had delayed the color change.

Millpond County Park Millpond County Park

Millpond County Park is 11 kilometers north of Bishop, off Route 395. It’s best known as the site of a music festival held every September. Early on an autumn morning it’s a tranquil place for reflection (in all senses of the word).

Continuing north on Route 395, the Owens Valley gives way to Long Valley, the caldera (crater) of a volcano that last erupted about 200 years ago. Long Valley contains some very popular ski areas, including the upscale resort town of Mammoth Lakes. The volcano is starting to show signs of renewed activity, including some rather ominous earthquakes caused by lava moving underground. But that doesn’t seem to be deterring development. Picture of the Devils Postpile The Devils Postpile

Devil's Postpile Devil's Postpile
Picture of Sotcher Lake

You can see evidence of a long history of volcanism at the Devil’s Postpile, part of the Devils Postpile National Monument (it’s officially spelled without the apostrophe). Lava flowing from an eruption some 100,000 years ago formed hexagonal “pillars” of basaltic rock as it cooled and shrank. 80,000 years later, advancing and retreating glaciers exposed, bent, and broke up the pillars of “columnar basalt.”

The Devil’s Postpile is one of the most impressive columnar basalt formations in North America. Another impressive example is the Sheepeater Cliffs in Yellowstone National Park.

Visiting the Devil’s Postpile formation involves an easy 650 meter hike on a pleasant trail from the parking lot (or shuttle bus stop) at the ranger station. The formation is 18 meters high and faces west; so the best time to visit is in the afternoon.

The Devil’s Postpile formation is actually just a small part of the 324-hectare National Monument. Along with the adjacent Reds Meadow, part of Inyo National Forest, it’s a popular destination for hiking, camping, and fishing.

During the crowded summer months, only people who are using the Monument’s small campground or who are handicapped can drive on California Route 203 past the Mammoth Mountain ski area. Everyone else must park at the ski area and ride a shuttle bus. By the middle of September the crowds dissipate, the shuttle bus stops running, and visitors can drive the narrow, twisting road into the Monument.

Picture of June Lake Silver Lake in autumn
June Lake at dusk Fall foliage at Silver Lake
A shack near Lee Vining

Sotcher Lake is in the Reds Meadow area of Inyo National Forest, east of the National Monument. It’s a good place to relax and enjoy a picnic.

The town of June Lake is 32 kilometers north of Mammoth Lakes on Route 395. It’s a ski resort like Mammoth Lakes, but a prettier and less pretentious one. June Lake is a very pleasant base for exploring the area from Mammoth to Mono Lake. The town and its namesake lake are at the southern end of State Route 158, a 25-kilometer byway known as the June Lake Loop.

The southern half of the loop has a number of beautifully scenic spots, including June Lake, Gull Lake, and Silver Lake. But trees inexplicably disappear when you get to the northern half of the loop around Grant Lake, before it rejoins Route 395. The barren landscape clearly reveals the region’s volcanic history.

Lee Vining is 15 kilometers north of June Lake on Route 395. It’s the nearest town to Mono Lake and Bodie. Beyond Lee Vining, Route 395 continues another 105 kilometers to the Nevada border.

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