If you want to see fall foliage in California, you might think Yosemite is the place to go. But the truth is that nearly every tree in the famous national park is a ponderosa pine, incense-cedar, giant sequoia, or white fir—none of which change color in the fall.
To find gorgeous fall colors, you need to keep going east to the other side of the mountains, along the eastern slope of the Sierras along U.S. Highway 395 between Bridgeport and Bishop. When you get there, don't expect to find the variety of color you might see in New England. Instead, go looking for gold—not the kind prospectors go looking for, but the golden leaves of the aspen trees.
The aspen tree's heart-shaped leaves flutter in even the smallest breeze, sometimes looking like thousands of yellow butterflies flapping their wings. It's no wonder that the tree is called a quaking aspen.
The uniform color of the aspens is one of the most eye-catching things about the trees in a big group, and Mother Nature has a reason for it—aspens can spread their roots and sprout new trees along them. Every tree in the group is identical genetically. They have the same bark texture and the same autumn leaf color. It's hard to predict when fall color will peak, but October is your best bet.
The eastern slope of the Sierras provides the perfect conditions for the trees to grow. They don't tolerate shade and thrive best in plentiful sunshine, which they get under the open skies of Eastern California.
Here are some of the top places in the region to see fall color. (For other options, also check out Lobdell Lake, Green Creek, and Summers Meadow off Green Creek Road, Lundy Canyon, Parker Lake, Rock Creek, and Lee Vining Canyon.)
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June Lake Loop: Gull Lake
The town of June Lake and the June Lake Loop drive are the perfect locations to start your leaf peeping. Along a 15-mile loop drive that passes through the town, you'll pass four lakes that provide the perfect mirror for the colorful foliage. Many of the photos in this guide were taken along that loop.
The town of June Lake is the perfect place to use as a base for exploring the fall color. June Lake is on the June Lake Loop (California Highway 158), which you can reach from U.S. Highway 395 a few miles south of the town of Lee Vining.
Gull Lake is the smallest lake on the June Lake Loop and is the closest lake to town. Large stands of aspen cascade down the hillsides around it, sprawling splashes of color that sometimes look like they were created by a gigantic paintbrush.
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June Lake Loop: Silver Lake
Silver Lake is on the east side of June Lake Loop, and this view is one of the area's most-photographed.
To get a view (or a photo) like this, you need to be standing on the lake's western shore moments after the morning sun strikes the trees. Besides this gorgeous view, you'll find some picturesque small boats docked on the lake shore, and you can get a cup of coffee across the street to warm up those fingers and toes that nearly froze while you were waiting for that perfect shot.
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The view of Convict Lake is set against dramatic, rocky mountains and the fall aspen color spills down the slopes.
To get there, use Convict Lake Road, which begins just across the highway from the south end of the Mammoth Airport. When you reach the lake, you can take a walk on the trail that goes around it, or rent a boat and get out in the middle of it.
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Drive to McGee Creek
On a particularly glorious fall day, the drive from US Highway 395 to McGee Creek, could easily be the most beautiful three miles in California.
The drive starts south of Highway 395 near Crowley Lake, about five miles south of Mammoth Lakes. A short drive east from the main highway will take you to the creek, but what you see along the way will have you stopping so often that it might take an hour to drive just three scenic miles to get there.
When you reach the end of the road to McGee Creek, you'll find aspens growing along a mountain stream, its banks covered with so many golden leaves that you can barely see the ground.