Fall color comes to Lake Tahoe and Eastern Sierra foliage starting toward the end of September and peaks through October. Exactly when the leaves change color varies somewhat from year to year. If the weather remains mild and slowly cools down as autumn transitions into winter, the fall color show will last for several weeks. If we get a sudden cold snap or an early snow, fall leaves can leave the trees literally over night.
Fall Color Around Lake Tahoe
Up at Lake Tahoe, aspens are the predominant trees splashing the mountains with streaks of gold and orange. The drive up the Mt. Rose Scenic Byway to Incline Village presents numerous opportunities to view displays of color. If you continue around Lake Tahoe on the Nevada side (south on Highway 28), you will be in almost constant contact with the shades of autumn. Spooner Lake is a good place to stop for an easy walk through the trees on the path around the lake. More ambitious hikers can head for Marlette Lake from here and will be treated to several miles of non-stop golden aspens. I've done this trek and it's worth the moderate effort.
Just past Spooner Lake, 28 turns into US 50 and continues south. From Zephyr Cove to Stateline and South Lake Tahoe, color cascades from the mountain slopes down to the shores of Lake Tahoe. This is a busy highway - be careful exiting and entering when you stop to take in the scenery.
Hope Valley, south of Lake Tahoe, is a special treat. It has one of the best aspen color fiestas I've ever seen in the Sierra Nevada. To reach Hope Valley, go west on US 50 from Stateline and South Lake Tahoe. Turn left at the South Lake Tahoe Y to stay on 50. Continue a few miles past the airport to Myers, then turn left onto Luther Pass Road (Highway 89) and follow it to Hope Valley and the intersection with Highway 88.
Just look around for gold and orange in every direction. You will see why this is a magnet for fall color aficionados and photographers, and will probably be joining bunches of them. Drive slowly and be on the lookout for preoccupied picture takers and wandering pedestrians. I've actually seen people set up tripods in the middle of the road.
To take an alternate route back to Reno, go east on 88 toward Woodfords and Minden / Gardnerville. As you leave Hope Valley, the road passes through some unusually dense, colorful, and photogenic aspens near Sorensen's Resort, then winds down out of the mountains to return you to the desert. At the intersection with US 395 in Minden, go north to return to Reno.
Rather than going to Minden, you can turn on 89 at Woodfords and go to Markleeville. The Alpine County seat is surrounded by fall color. If you want to stay a while, there is lodging in town and nearby camping with a hot spring pool at Grover Hot Springs State Park. This park is busy with fall color campers at the height of the season. Past Markleeville, continue on 89 to Monitor Pass and its expansive stands of aspen groves, then down the eastern Sierra slope to rejoin U.S. 395 south of Topaz Lake.
An alternative to the alternative is to take the Ebbetts Pass Scenic Byway (Highway 4) up into the heart of the high Sierra for even more swaths of color.
Fall Color Along the Eastern Sierra
If you continue south on US 395 from the Minden / Gardnerville area, you will encounter some increasingly colorful country. The area around Topaz Lake is spectacular if you hit it right and things get even better after you cross into Mono County, California. You'll drive along the western side of Antelope Valley to the town of Walker, then enter the Walker River Canyon for a winding display of deciduous trees arrayed along the water's edge.
On south through Bridgeport, Lee Vining, and the Mammoth Lakes area, you'll pass some of the best fall colors in the western United States - Conway Summit between Bridgeport and Lee Vining, Virginia Lakes, Lundy Canyon, the June Lake Loop, Green Creek, Rock Creek Canyon, and Convict Lake, to name a few.
If you have time and the road has not been closed for the winter, the drive from Lee Vining to Yosemite via Tioga Pass can yield views of alpine fall color in the Tuolumne Meadows area of the park.
For fall color the Bishop area, one place you want to check out for sure is Bishop Creek Canyon. Swaths of aspens line the creek and climb the rocky slopes, making for a golden mountain display that's hard to beat. There are also many other areas in Inyo County near Bishop that make worthy destinations for enjoying fall color.