Best Places to See Fall Colors in California

Aspen Trees and the Sierras, California
©2006 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

To find gorgeous fall colors in California, you need to go to the eastern side of the state, along the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Take the route 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 it' s covered with thousands of yellow butterflies flapping their wings. It's no wonder that the tree is sometimes called quaking aspen.

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.

The uniform color of the aspens is one of the most eye-catching things about the trees in a big group. Mother Nature has a reason for that: Aspens 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. 

Even with all that natural coordination, it's hard to predict when fall color will peak, but October is your best bet. 

In case you might be thinking that Yosemite is the place to go for fall color, think again. The truth is that nearly every tree in the famous national park is evergreen. They include ponderosa pine, incense-cedar, giant sequoia, or white fir—none of which change color in the fall.

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June Lake Loop: Gull Lake

Aspen Trees on the Road to McGee Creek

© Betsy Malloy Photography

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. What it lacks in size it makes up for in looks. Large stands of aspen cascade down the hillsides around it, making streaks of hillside color that sometimes look like an oversized paintbrush created them. When those colors reflect in the mirror-smooth water, it doubles the beauty.

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June Lake Loop: Silver Lake

Sunrise at Silver Lake

© Betsy Malloy Photography

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 lakeshore, 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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Convict Lake

Fall Color at Convict Lake
Albert deBruijn/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

About 25 miles south of June Lake, You'll find Convict Lake. The name might sound a little scary, but the escaped convicts it's named for are long gone, leaving you safe to see dramatic, rocky mountains with the fall aspen color spilling down the slopes. You can take a walk on the trail that goes around it, or rent a boat and get out in the middle of it.

If you want to linger, use the Convict Lake getaway guide to plan your trip.

To get there, use Convict Lake Road, which begins just across the highway from the south end of the Mammoth Airport.

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Drive to McGee Creek

Aspen Leaves at McGee Creek

© Betsy Malloy Photography

On a perfect, glorious fall day, the drive from US Highway 395 to McGee Creek could easily be the most beautiful three miles in California.

Start your drive a few south of Convict Lake, or about five miles south of Mammoth Lakes. Exit Highway 395 near Crowley Lake. The short drive east from the main highway will take you to the creek in a few minutes. But what you see along the way will have you stopping so often that it might take an hour or more 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, and its banks covered with so many golden leaves that you can barely see the ground.

These are the top places in the region to see fall color. If you're looking for more, try the Mono County fall foliage guide or 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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