Last weekend my wife Claudia and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Millpond Music Festival in Bishop, over on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. We had a wonderful time, as usual; this is either the 14th or 15th consecutive year we’ve attended this event, so clearly we love it.
On the drive over we could see some color changes starting to appear in the highest aspen groves, like where Warren Canyon meets Lee Vining Canyon along Highway 120 east of Tioga Pass, and on the higher reaches of the Parker Bench, above the northern end of the June Lake Loop just southeast of Parker Lake.
Saturday evening it sprinkled in Bishop, and further north several inches of snow fell on Tioga Pass and Sonora Pass, temporarily closing both routes. I knew that the nearby upper reaches of Bishop Creek Canyon would likely have a dusting of snow in the morning, and I’d heard that the colors were already changing up there, so I rose early Sunday and drove up to North Lake before sunrise.
North Lake has become an extremely popular photo location in recent years; on an early-October morning several years ago I found at least 30 photographers lined up along the eastern shore. But on Sunday there were only a few photographers there, no doubt because the peak color hadn’t arrived yet. The lack of crowding allowed me to roam around and explore all the different viewpoints, and I made a number of different compositions. I did a version of the classic sunrise scene, with the setting moon overhead (shown here), but also worked with tighter views focused on reflections in the lake or along the outlet creek, with the dusting of snow adding a nice accent to some scenes.
After the sun reached the water and killed the reflections I drove up to Lake Sabrina, and found some nice color on the slopes above the far shore of the lake. But the water level was very low. Sabrina is really a reservoir; the entire eastern half of the lake near the dam was completely dry, and it was not an appealing scene.
I found a few patches of good color in the area, notably near the outlet to North Lake, and along the road below Lake Sabrina, but most of the aspens were still green or lime green. It will be another week or so before these groves reach their peak color—if the cold snap from this past weekend didn’t affect the leaves. Sometimes a hard frost will make already-turned leaves fall off, and cause the leaves that are in the process of changing to turn brown. The dark-green leaves are usually not affected.
Overall I’d say the eastern-Sierra color is a little early at the higher elevations. As I noted, the upper part of Parker Bench was yellow when we passed it on Friday. Frequently this area is green when we go to Millpond, but on the other hand I’ve seen the whole bench turning yellow at this time of year. The folks at Parcher’s Resort say it’s the earliest anyone can remember seeing color on some of the canyon walls, but I said, the color around North Lake and Lake Sabrina will probably peak in about a week (if the leaves weren’t adversely affected by the cold), putting the peak right around the end of September, which isn’t really early at all for this area.
Meanwhile, the aspens at middle and lower elevations are still dark green, as they should be in September. Perhaps they’ll start turning early as well, but what happens with the higher-elevation aspens is not necessarily a predictor of what will happen with the lower-elevation trees. If you have your heart set on photographing the color around North Lake or Lake Sabrina then you should definitely go soon, like this weekend, or maybe the next, but the eastern-Sierra aspen show will last for another month as the colors move down the slopes. In areas like the June Lake Loop and Lee Vining Canyon the peak color doesn’t usually arrive until the third or fourth week of October.
In Yosemite Valley, the fall color is usually even later, like around the end of October or beginning of November. An article I wrote several years ago outlines the timing and locations for the typical fall color progression in the central Sierra. My Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite book and iPhone app give more detail about the best locations to photograph colorful leaves in and around Yosemite.
I’ll let you know what I see and hear during the coming weeks, but here are some other resources to help you keep up with the latest fall-color developments:
- Natural History Wanderings, Sandy Steinman’s blog.
- Calphoto, a Yahoo discussion group with reports from photographers around California.
- California Fall Color—with the caveat that when they say “Go Now!” they’re usually jumping the gun, and you should probably wait a week. Check the accompanying photos (which often show lots of green trees even when they say “Go Now!”).
- Parcher’s Resort gives good information about the Bishop Creek area.
- NaturePhotographers.net; the thread linked to here is for California Fall Color reports.
What a great time of year, and it’s just beginning!
— Michael Frye
Related Posts: Autumn Begins!; Eastern Sierra Fall Color Workshop
Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.
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Great work, per usual…! So looking forward to the January workshop. Noticed that the Riders of the Purple Sage were on the performers list at Millpond. I guess they aren’t “New” anymore… =:o)
Thanks Jerry, and I’m looking forward to January too. I think the Riders and New Riders are different bands; you can check out this Wikipedia page, and there’s a separate entry for New Riders of the Purple Sage:
For me the musical highlights of the weekend were David Myles and Hot Buttered Rum.
A great festival, no doubt…! I wasn’t aware of the different incarnations, only know the “New” guys music. I’ll have to check out Myles. I think I’ve seen Rum before (in a different life).
Great shot! I was there on Sunday morning too and I recalled there were probably 3 or 4 people there when I left. Were you the one standing on the rock? I already got my shot on Saturday but was up there again on Sunday because of the snow too. I took my shot and left even before the sunrise, when the reflection was gone.
Thanks Tim! I don’t remember standing on a rock; I was mostly on the far side of the creek from the road.
I was also there on Sunday morning. I saw somebody over the other side, but I did not realize it was you Michael.
I was the one standing on the rock btw 🙂
Ah, it’s a small world, especially since the internet came along. And North Lake is a popular spot. 🙂
LOL, yeah I saw someone on the other side.
Chris, I was the one moving in next to you on the right side. Took a few shot and move further away and then head off. I should have said hi 🙂
BTW, for those of you who were at North Lake on Sunday, I think it would be fun for everyone to see some of the images you made, so please feel free to post a link to them here.
I just posted my shot from Sunday on my FB page https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=736887869670904
Thanks for the update Michael, especially for the parker bench area, haven’t been that way for awhile. Your thoughts on the bishop creek canyon area echo mine. The upper elevations above 8600′ definitely turned faster this year but everything else seems to be on schedule below that. Seeing more orange and reds this year. Assuming the weather holds it it’ll be another week or two for these to color. Should get our first snow storm the first or sec week of oct.; pretty windy today and cold tomorrow, high of 61 in bishop.
The cottonwoods in bishop are slowly yellowing and should be turned about mid to late oct.
i just purchased your ebook Landscapes in LR5 and it has already helped me refine a few things, very helpful and easy to follow along!
Happy fall color prospecting! 😉
Cory, thanks for sharing your local’s perspective, and I’m glad you like the ebook! Fall is starting, here we go…
Thursday Sept 26
I drove over Tioga Pass yesterday. I visited Rock Creek. There is a wide variety of color. Many trees peaking, many green, many in between. This morning I went to North Lake for sunrise. It was socked in with low clouds, so I explored the meadow area west of the lake and waited for the clouds to burn off. The orange patch on the hillside above the lake is close to peaking, as are some of the trees on the west end of the lake. The trees along the middle of the lake are still green, but as you get to the east end (where everybody stands on the weekend) the trees are yellow and orange again. It should be good for another week or so. The color above Aspendell is great. On the south fork, the trees are close to peaking above the falls. Should be great for at least another week. At the top, close to South Lake (what is left of it) some of the trees have dropped their leaves and a few have brown spots. It did snow a little today as far down as Aspendell, so I can’t say what effect this will have on the leaves. You can see photos of Thursday’s conditions:
Update Friday Sept 2
I visited the south fork of Bishop Creek this morning. I noticed a moderate number of yellow and orange leaves with brown spots on them. I’m not sure if it’s because of the snow yesterday (there wasn’t much), seeing them in different light, or just because I’m a deluded type of person. So conditions are not good for close ups, but still great for distance shots.
Friday Sept 27
Tony, thanks very much for that detailed report — it’s good to hear what’s happening around Bishop. A lot of people don’t like the brown spots on the leaves, but I don’t mind them, as they can often make interesting patterns.