For Eye-Popping Leaf Peeping, Visit These Sierra Towns
Technicolor landscapes make the Sierra an ideal spot for photographers—and all lovers of autumn.
While most people associate leaf peeping with the East Coast, the West is not to be slept on for fans of autumnal color. Varieties of native oak, maple, aspen, and alder put on a spectacle this time of year, particularly in our parklands. The natural instinct is to turn to National Parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone, but thankfully there are slightly less-touristed areas worth exploring, too, particularly in the North and Eastern regions of the Sierra.
With golden light kissing the pristine mountain landscapes and quiet, wide open spaces, it’s easy to see why photographers like Ansel Adams (and our own staff shooter, Thomas J. Story) have obsessed over the Sierra.
The seasonal shift in colors can be a bit difficult to predict, of course, but there are leaf trackers like this one to help you sort out timing. And even if you don’t quite hit peak season, the mountains are pure magic to explore. So pack your camera gear and a pumpkin spiced latte and enjoy the crisp mountain air at these incredible under-the-radar spots in the West for fall color.
Convict Lake a great spot to go hiking with your pooch or spend the day on a pontoon boat in the summer, but it’s even more magnificent in the autumn. The proliferation of quaking aspens, cottonwoods, and willows, and grasses—whose colors typically change in late September and early October—pop off the evergreens in the area, giving a marvelous contrast of colors. If you’re traveling from Southern California along Highway 395, be sure to enjoy a pit stop bang-bang at the Frosty Chalet in Lone Pine for a soft-serve, and Copper Top BBQ in Big Pine for the regional speciality, barbecued tri-tip, along the way.
In late September, the quaking aspens around June Lake really put on a show. The delicate, near-translucent leaves glimmer like stained-glass windows in the California sunshine. To see them, drive the June Lake Loop, starting on the north side to get the full effect. Pass Grant Lake, a deep blue tarn nestled in the sagebrush. Cruise around aspen-lined Silver Lake, then continue past 10,909-foot Carson Peak on your way to Gull Lake and the village of June Lake. At the end of the day, be sure to stop by June Lake Brewing Co. for an IPA while you review footage, or simply take a load off and chat with locals.
Some of the Golden State’s best fall colors are found in the historic Gold Rush towns along the Yuba-Donner Scenic Byway in the northern Sierra. Exhibit A: Nevada City. Walk down Nevada Street, dotted by Victorian homes, to see century-old maples and American sweet gums turning stoplight-red. For hiking, it’s worth checking out the Cascade Canal trail, shaded by red-hued dogwoods and rich green Douglas firs. If you can’t make it this fall, the area is also magnificent for wildflower super blooms in the spring.
Not far from Nevada City is Grass Valley. If you’re into California history, a visit to Empire Mine State Historic Park is a must. Leaf peepers will revel in the sights at Maple Lane, a long street lined with the iconic trees which turn technicolored this time of year. Be sure to book in for an overnight at the Holbrooke Hotel or the National Exchange; both historic properties have been thoughtfully restored by one of our favorite hotel groups in the West.