As the days get shorter and cooler, the photo opportunities in the Yosemite area get hotter. It’s time to take a look at what to expect during the next few months.
You won’t find much autumn color in Yosemite before October, but the indian rhubarb in Bridalveil and Leidig Meadows can add an early splash of yellow, as in this photo from the west end of Leidig. Near the fall equinox on September 22nd, and for a couple of weeks afterward, the sun sets at a good angle for Tunnel View, lighting both El Capitan on the left and Cathedral Rocks on the right. The two or three weeks before the spring equinox are even better, as there’s usually water in Bridalveil Fall, but fall can be great in the right weather conditions, like last year when I saw the rainbow at the top of this post.
On the east side of the Sierra Nevada the high-elevation aspens usually start turning yellow in late September. The Bishop Creek area, west of Bishop, and Convict Lake, just south of Mammoth Lakes, are two of the early season hot spots. The road to Virginia Lakes, north of Lee Vining, can also have early fall color.
In a typical year, the aspen color show progresses down the mountainsides on the east side of the range and reaches the lowest elevations near the third week of October. There’s no real peak, because the timing of the best color depends on the location. I prefer photographing the larger trees at lower elevations, so the third week is often my favorite time, but there’s usually plenty to photograph earlier in the month as well. Some of my favorite spots are Lundy Canyon, Lee Vining Canyon (right), and the June Lake Loop.
The maples, dogwoods, cottonwoods, and oaks in Yosemite Valley usually turn a bit later. The peak color typically arrives around the end of October or beginning of November. Dogwoods can can often be found turning gold or even red by mid-October at higher elevations along Highway 41, Highway 120 west of Crane Flat, and in the Tuolumne Grove.
Blueberry bushes lining the shores of Siesta Lake along the Tioga Pass Road also turn red and orange near the middle of the month (below). From Taft Point, a one-mile hike from the Glacier Point Road, the late-afternoon sun strikes El Capitan at a great angle.
This might be my favorite month in Yosemite Valley. The peak autumn color frequently arrives at the beginning of the month and yellow and gold leaves often linger for weeks afterward. Frost and ice begin forming in the meadows and along the creeks and rivers, and sometimes an early snowfall spices up the landscape. Sunlight has already reached winter angles, raking across the face of Half Dome in the late afternoon and turning El Capitan gold at sunset.
For more detailed information, including directions to most of the locations mentioned here, pick up a copy of my book The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite.
Addendum, September 2011: Now The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite is available as an iPhone app!
Very informative article Michael. As I am a about to visit your shores for the fall color show this year, the article could not come at a better time. I can not wait to hit those areas in just a few short weeks time ….
Thanks Neal. Let's hope for a great fall!
Hi Michael, I'm planning to catch the peak colors in Yosemite this year, do you think it'll be better to go next week (24th,25th), or the week after? (31st, 1st Nov)
Thanks, and I love your informative guide!
That's a good question. Can you go in between? 🙂 At this point next weekend (24th, 25th) looks good – I think the big-leaf maples will be prime, and the cottonwoods close. The dogwoods and oaks in Yosemite Valley still have a way to go and may be better the following weekend. So both would probably work. I think next weekend is a safer bet if I have to pick now. The following weekend may turn out to be better, but it's too far away to tell, and a lot could happen between now and then.
Unfortunately, I can't go during the weekdays, cause I'll be at work.. Thanks for the great info! I'll be going to Yosemite next weekend 🙂
I'm looking forward to seeing more spectacular photos from you! 🙂
Thanks for the comments Lawrence – I appreciate the kind words.
Every year I say I’m going to check out fall foliage here in our beautiful state and I haven’t made it yet, BUT, this year I really want to change that! Based on our weather, not that mine in So. Cal counts, do you have a recommendation for 3/4 day weekend trip? (except for 10/27 weekend..dtr getting married!)
Your photography is FABULOUS! I want to be like you when I grow up! 😉
Rita, thanks very much – you’re too kind. Our weather so far this year is not predictive of when the fall color will happen, so it’s really too early to give any guess about the timing this particular year. I outline the typical times and places for most years in this post, and that’s as good as I can do right now. 🙂
Michael. I subscribe and enjoy your articles. Living in Tahoe I get much the same colors of autum. I”ll be visiting Lee Vining the third week of October for the metor showers. I’m looking for that special spot for night photography for some timelaspe shots. Startrails with one setup and general 15 to 30 sec exposures with the other. I’m wanting to find a very old juniper as my main subject. Again you inspire. Don
Thanks very much Don. Olmsted Point is a great spot for junipers, and you might also want to think about using the tufa towers at Mono Lake for a foreground. Have fun!
Yes the tufa towers is a given. I’ll be spending several hours after midnight stairing up at the sky at mono. We have junipers here in tahoe but always looking for that next special place. Thanks for the reply.
Michael, first and foremost, THANK YOU so much for sharing. I have downloaded your “Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite”. Your images are gorgeous and are an inspiration to us all. I will at last make my first visit to Yosemite on 28 – 30 October and your guide and blogs are most helpful. I hope this is the first of many visits, but living on the East Coast makes it a long “hike” to get to. Richard
Thanks very much Richard – I’m glad you find the blog and app helpful. Hope you have a great visit to Yosemite! I’ll be teaching a workshop in the park around then so you might run into me.
That would be my pleasure!
We are planning to go to Yosemite tomorrow. I believe the fall colors have not yet started and the waterfalls are also dry. What would be good places for photography?
VP – sorry I didn’t reply earlier, but I’ve been teaching a workshop. Hope you found some fall colors – there should be some now. I hope you also picked up a copy of my book or iPhone app The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite.
I think next week would be good for fall colors. Though we did see a couple of places on the way to Mono lake. Yes I did download your app and it was very useful.
Hi Michael! Your work is beautiful, thanks for sharing. I am going to be in San Jose next week and am considering driving Thursday (nov 7th) from San Jose to Yosemite, staying the night and driving back Friday morning. Do you think the fall colors will be at there peak and do you think the long drive will be worth it for the short period of time?
Thanks Carrie. Since different trees usually peak at different times in Yosemite Valley, it’s hard to say when the peak is. There is lots of nice color now, and there should still be this weekend. By Nov. 7th there may be less color, but it’s hard to say.
I plan to go Yosemite 8/Nov this year. Will I be able to see fall colors?
Tan, it depends. In an average year Nov. 8 would be too late for fall color in Yosemite Valley, but in some years that could be the peak time.
I’m planting a trip to Yosemite for fall colors how is it there do u know?on 10 26 2016
I haven’t been in Yosemite for awhile, as I’m over on the eastern side of the Sierra.