Fall color comes to Lake Tahoe and Eastern Sierra foliage starting toward the end of September and peaking in October, but the exact timing for 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 color show will last for several weeks, but if a sudden cold snap rolls in or snow falls early, the leaves may fall off the trees literally overnight.
If you do happen to be in the area during the peak of this bright autumnal display, there are several drives around the Lake Tahoe and the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains where you can take in the season in all its glory. Up at Lake Tahoe, aspens are the predominant trees splashing the mountains with streaks of gold and orange, and there are numerous highways crisscrossing the Sierra Nevada mountains with great views of this beautiful fall display—From South Lake Tahoe down through Yosemite National Park and all the way down to the Sequoia National Park near Bakersfield.
These quick journeys make for great day trips from San Francisco, Reno, and South Lake Tahoe, and many spots along the way offer overnight campgrounds and other attractions perfect for a stop on any road trip through the northern California and Nevada mountains.
While you can access Lake Tahoe from either the Nevada (Reno) or California (Sacremento) sides, one of the best drives in the area happens between Reno and Incline Village on the northwest side of the lake: the Mt. Rose Scenic Byway.
Along the route, you can stop at the Mt. Rose Summit to take in the entire Lake Tahoe Basin; however, since this is the highest point with highway access in the region, the trees will also lose their leaves earlier than at lower elevations nearby. Incline Village is also home to several ski resorts and lodges in the winter, but the tree-covered slopes are full of color for fall.
Spooner Lake is about 11 miles south on Highway 28 from Incline Village and a good place to stop for an easy walk through the trees on a path around the lake. For an even better view nearby—but with a little more effort involved getting there—more ambitious hikers can hike further up the mountain to Marlette Lake where they'll be treated to several miles of non-stop golden aspens. The trails around Spooner Lake are also great for mountain biking, so if you're looking for a place to practice amongst the foliage, Spooner and Marlette Lake trails are perfect for your fall biking trip.
For more fall foliage nearby, you can continue south from Spooner Lake on Highway 28 until it turns into U.S. 50. Take this road south through Zephyr Cove, Stateline, and South Lake Tahoe, where color cascades from the mountain slopes down to the shores of the lake. However, since U.S. 50 is a busy highway, be careful exiting and entering when you stop to take in the scenery.
From South Lake Tahoe, go west on U.S. 50 until you come to the Myers, where you'll take a left onto Luther Pass Road (Highway 89) and continue until you reach the mountain town of Hope Valley at the intersection of Highways 89 and 88.
Hope Valley is a special treat with one of the best collections of aspen trees in the Sierra Nevada—just look around and you'll see 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 during your trip. Drive slowly and be on the lookout for preoccupied picture takers and wandering pedestrians when navigating the road this time of year, especially if the fall foliage is in full effect.
Hope Valley to Reno
To take an alternate route back to Reno, go east on Highway 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 U.S. 395 in Minden, go north to return to Reno.
Rather than going to Minden, you can also turn on 89 at Woodfords and go to Markleeville where the Alpine County seat is surrounded by fall color. If you want to stay longer, 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.
Another fun 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.
Topaz Lake and Walker River Canyon
From Minden, you can head south on U.S. 395 to Topaz Lakes, one of the first stops as you climb up into the mountains from the desert of Nevada. The area around Topaz Lake is spectacular if you hit it at the right time of year, and things get even better if you continue southwest where you'll cross into Mono County, California as you drive along the western side of Antelope Valley to the town of Walker. Once there, you're just a short hike away from spectacular views at the Walker River Canyon, which is home to a winding display of deciduous trees arrayed along the water's edge.
On south on U.S. 395 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 in 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.