JUNE LAKE, Calif. — Love turning conventional wisdom on its ear, don't you? Here's my little ode to the eastern Sierra's amazing fall palette, an improbable leaf-peeping site devoted to it, and its Web master, who claims that the Golden State has the longest and best autumn in the nation.
I now agree.
To all you Eastern transplants who pine for the fall colors of your childhood, fly up U.S. 395 with me in my rental Ford, past the cottonwoods and aspen groves that light the hillsides like glowing campfires. There's room in my car — aren't you lucky? But bring your own camera, a blanket and maybe a camp chair so you can sit back and relax at the edges of little alpine lakes. Mercifully, your cell signal will go dead.
Bring a flask, or don't. I won't judge. But keep an open mind as I tell you that, over the years, I've traveled up and back the eastern Sierra like a guy mowing his yard, back and forth on that pipe of U.S. highway that never gets enough notice this time of year.
Yep, keep an open mind as I tell you that I have never seen the eastern Sierra more beautiful — not in 6 feet of snow or in sparkly summer splendor.
The long fall is starting to pack it in, but you may have a few more weeks of color. Factor in the fact that recent storms have sugared the mountaintops, adding to the depth, luster and texture of America's most-underrated autumn.
Unlike vaunted New Hampshire or much-publicized Colorado, California keeps its fall colors long past Halloween. Many years, they'll blast right through the holidays.
"The mythology is that there are no fall colors in California," says John Poimiroo, who runs CaliforniaFallColor.com, a website devoted to leaf-peeping. "But I know it has the longest-lasting fall color season in the U.S., and it's all because of our varied elevations.
"I will also say that we have the most spectacular colors," he says. "Now, we can't beat New England for the reds. But they don't have the mountains like we do, or the take-your-breath-away landscapes."
Sounds like the wishful thinking of a fledgling Web master, right? That's why, after studying Poimiroo's improbable postings for two months, I thought I'd give it a Charles Kuralt-style road test, stopping at some of the color hot spots along the eastern Sierra, chatting up Poimiroo's prime contributors, the quirky collection of resort owners, naturalists and leaf geeks who number more than 100 and fill the California Fall Color website with images and color reports.
Up past the little town of Independence I go, pit-stopping at creeks, country roads, pastures filled with sheep. At some points, I could rarely drive a mile without pulling over to take more photos. At others, I become so taken with capturing the scene that I step right into the creek.
Splash. Dork down.
I ventured as far as Lundy Canyon, up past Mono Lake, where a plaque notes the Lundy history was "wild, rugged and raw but her gold was rich and yellow."
Like her autumns.
Here's a roundup of my gold rush moments:
This is your warm-up drive, an easy 45-minute side trip up California 168 out of Bishop, and the place where your misconceptions about California autumns will begin to crumble.
Minutes off the 395, the aspen along Bishop Creek were so ripe that late October day that they were turning crimson — a shade of sangria blush I never knew aspen could achieve. The upper elevations here are where California's autumn usually begin, Poimiroo says, with color posting beginning in late August.
It's a perfect lesson in how altitude affects color. Lake Sabrina, says leaf spotter Jared Smith, usually goes off early with some of the eastern Sierra's first colors. By late October, fall is finished and resort workers are pulling boats from the lakes.
But at the lower levels, below 8,000 feet or so, striking aspen groves, cottonwoods and the occasional willows are now in prime time.
I'm pretty sure God keeps his still up this way. In January, the snow tastes like vodka. In June, it tastes of rum. They don't call it God's Country for nothing, you know.
And in autumn, this painterly alpine setting is a hiker and photographer's dream. Light, textures and all the California colors come into play in the series of lakes just five minutes above town — the buttermilk granites, the differing blues of water and sky, patches of snow laced across the yellows and oranges of the trees and shrubs.
Courtesy of the early snows, the road to Devil's Postpile is already closed.
But there are plenty of day hike trails to pick from. Or just set up that camp chair, pull out the camera and fill your memory card.
Another of Poimiroo's leaf spotters, Alicia Vennos, insisted I visit this road around June Lake, 20 minutes north of Mammoth and best known as a family ski alternative to hipper and more frenzied Mammoth — at least till this season, when June Mountain closed as a result of continued financial muck. The June Lake Loop takes you past four lakes, and I dare you not to stop every mile or two to take another photo of the trees against the sapphire water.
Favorite time of day: 2 to 5 p.m., when the sun flames the trees.
Favorite spot: Silver Lake, where tunnels of aspen and cottonwood line the road and deer come out of the woods at dusk to feed. Here's another transcendent spot in which to set up your camping chair or hike the shoreline of nearby Gull Lake as mallards drift the reeds.
June Lake, the centerpiece of the area's fall color, is worth the trip all by itself. But we're not done yet. Because neither is fall.
Skip the disinterested front desk at the Mammoth Lakes visitors center, where the lack of good information isn't the only problem; it's as if they're doing you some sort of favor (this based on repeated visits).
Instead, stop at the Bishop visitors center (opposite Erick Schat's Bakkery), where they will give you a fall color guide and patiently fill you in with timely news on the fall color scene. Compared with Mammoth, Bishop is the little town that could.
That's where I first heard of Lundy Canyon, which is a remote hiking and fishing spot north of Mono Lake. It peaks in mid-October, depending on the ingredients that go into a good fall — plenty of sunshine, warm days, cool nights.
"I had naturalists tell me that because of the dry year, it would be a short color season," Poimiroo says. "But it's been pretty glorious."
Stop for coffee at the little town of Lee Vining, itself aglow this time of year, then make your way 15 minutes north to Lundy.
Doesn't hurt that in late autumn, you virtually have places such as Lundy all to yourself. During a two-hour hike, 330 miles from Los Angeles, it's just you and the wildlife, the woods, the sheer granite bluffs, the clicking of the aspen leaves.
That's right, the aspen chatter at you like children, a sound you won't soon forget.
"Welcome to the woods," they say. "Last call for fall."