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Enjoying the Fall Colors on Vacation

I spent my recent vacation time with family members I have not seen in ages. (Thanks to Geoff Flynn for filling in for me.)  We did a lot of driving in California and Nevada and got to see some splendid Fall Colors.  If you are planing to take a trip you might want to check out this Statewide Summary of where to find the Fall colors!

fall-leaves

Statewide Summary

After an early drop of aspen leaves in some parts of the Sierra, fall color has been enduring, particularly in Mono County where peak color is between 7,500’ and 8,000’ in elevation. What is different this year is that some groves, such as those at Conway Summit (US 395) are a transitional mix of unchanged, lime, yellow and, in some areas, orange and red aspen leaves, while nearby stands are past peak.

The best color to be seen, presently, is found along the June Lake Loop in Mono County.  High canyon areas (above 8,000’) in the Eastern Sierra are losing their color and this is probably their last weekend for peak color.

California now enters a transitional phase between the aspen peak and approaching peak of bigleaf maple and black oaks.  That is because there are not many deciduous trees that show bright color between 7,000’ and 6,000’.

So, the Eastern Sierra has only one or two weeks more of peak (conditions permitting).  Thereafter, color will develop down into the Northern Sierra, Shasta Cascade, Western Sierra and San Bernardino Mountains.  Presently, these latter areas are mostly patchy.

Beautiful fall color will continue to descend by elevation through the end of November.

EASTERN SIERRA

Mono County

This past week has been a mix of snow, rain, sun, cloud, but with little to no wind, meaning that autumn color continues to light up Mono County. The icing on top of it all is the fresh topping of snow on Eastern Sierra peaks that is providing a stunning contrast to the golden color.

This weekend and next promise to be epic for photographers and leaf peepers on the East Side, as the short-term weather forecast is for sunny skies. Photos are posted at californiafallcolor.com and on a video posted by Mono County Tourism VLOG host, Jeff Simpson at https://youtu.be/QmzUrxXdaI0.

Peak GO NOW! (75-100%) – Rock Creek – Color has endured throughout this area, though is now moving down the canyon. Lower Rock Creek Road and the mountain bike/hiking trail have some nice spots of color but they still a week short of peak. Tom’s Place, a local hangout, has taken on the colors of its surrounding trees, as it prepares its annual Halloween costume party on Oct. 31.

Peak GO NOW! (75-100%) – McGee Creek – Aspen lining the creek, just below the road, are thick with color; those along the first mile or two on the hiking trail are also prime, or close.

Peak GO NOW! (75-100%) – Convict Canyon/Convict Lake – The entire canyon is now peaking. Colors from top to bottom are spectacular. The foliage is showing yellows, bright gold and, recently, more orange. Conditions permitting, it should remain at peak for another week. Hike of the Week is the 3-mile trail around Convict lake. Aspens that fill the campground are brilliant against the dramatic mountain backdrop.  Locals rate this as one of the prettiest places in Mono County to camp.

Peak GO NOW! (75-100%) – Mammoth Creek/Old Mammoth Road – Aspen are yellow, golden and orange with red highlights along the trail beside Mammoth Creek from where Hwy. 203 nears the exit onto US 305 (south). There appears to be enough lime green still among the aspen that the color should continue to develop through the weekend and into the following week, conditions permitting.

Near Peak (50-75%) – June Lake Loop/Hwy. 158 – The June Lake Loop is in places a boulevard flanked by peaking yellow and golden aspen.  Some areas of lime remain, though the Loop is Near Peak in many places, particularly between Silver Lake and Grant Lake. The aspen around Gull Lake and June Lake are still a week from peak color. Parker Lake and Walker Lake, off the north end of the Loop offer varying degrees of bright color and short, sweet hikes. The Heidelberg Inn in June Lake was once a favored destination of Hollywood celebrities; on Oct. 31, this glamorous old inn opens its doors for a Halloween tour and party.

Past Peak YOU MISSED IT! – Tioga Pass

Patchy (10-50%) – Lower Lee Vining Canyon – The lower part of Tioga Pass Road, near US 395, has some photogenic aspen groves, though Poole Plant Road continues to hang on to its green wardrobe. Log Cabin Road is almost past peak at the cabin level with one serene stretch still golden and photogenic. (This area is not gated but it is private property and has long been an animal and bird sanctuary; please tread softly).

Peak GO NOW! (75-100%) – Lundy Canyon – Don’t give up.  While aspen along the first part of the Lundy Canyon trail are past peak, at the first waterfall are found an iconic gold-rust-yellow-orange blend of color. There is so much lime in the lower forest along Lundy Canyon Road, that it should last another week to two.

BRIDGEPORT / CONWAY SUMMIT

Peak GO NOW! (75-100%) – Conway Summit – What is remarkable is that while large groves of aspen have peaked, there are so many layers of color here, this year, that Conway Summit continues to look incredible. Some big stands are still a patchy mix of yellow and lime.  

Past Peak YOU MISSED IT! – Virginia Lakes.

Peak GO NOW! (75-100%) – Green Creek/Summers Meadow – Summers Meadow has lost a lot of its color, though, like Conway Summit, layering and depth of color still keep the Green Creek/Summers Meadow area worth visiting.

WALKER / COLEVILLE / TOPAZ

Past Peak YOU MISSED IT! – Monitor Pass/Sonora Pass – It’s gone at the highest elevations.

Peak GO NOW! (75-100%) – Leavitt Meadows – Still golden.

Patchy (10-50%) – Walker Canyon/West Walker River/Towns of Walker & Coleville – This is one of the last areas of Mono County to change.  For anglers, the West Walker River is flowing nicely as a result of recent rain, though leaf peepers and photographers won’t find much fall color for another two weeks.

Inyo County

Bishop Creek Canyon is now officially past peak, though some lower areas are still showing color. Parchers Resort has now closed for winter.

Past Peak YOU MISSED IT! – Mist Falls and the groves above Bishop Creek Lodge (8350ft)

Past Peak YOU MISSED IT! – Aspendell (8400ft

Peak GO NOW! (50-75%%) – Four Jeffreys (8000ft) – Four Jeffreys is showing the last of its color.

Peak GO NOW! (75-100%) – Intake II (8000ft) – Very few groves near the dam and along the shoreline have peak color.

Near Peak GO NOW! (50-75%) – Big Trees Campground (7800ft) –Nice color remains in this past to peak area of the canyon.

Near Peak (50-75%) – Bishop – The upper Owens Valley has developed beautifully and has such a mix of patchy to peaking trees, that we’re calling it Near Peak and issuing an alert to go now.  Beautiful gold can be found along Pacific St. in Bishop, while some areas in the Owens Valley are still early.  Ornamental pear and other deciduous exotic landscaped trees in Bishop and other Owens Valley towns are coloring up, depending on their specie.

Patchy (10-50%) – Lower Owens Valley – Independence and Lone Pine are developing color along streams and up into lower Eastern Sierra Canyons.

NORTHERN SIERRA

Pockets of color can still be found at Lake Tahoe and its surrounding lakes, though Hwys 4, 88 and 89 are mostly Past Peak.

Past Peak YOU MISSED IT! – Lake Tahoe

WESTERN SIERRA

Yosemite National Park

Patchy (10-50%) – Yosemite Valley – Now that Yosemite Valley’s famous exotic eastern sugar maple has dropped its leaves, the Valley drops back from peak to patchy, as it awaits the bigleaf maple and black oak to peak.  Maple leaves are to be found in Fern Spring, so even though not at peak, it’s always worth visiting Yosemite in autumn.

SHASTA CASCADE

Trinity County

Dogwood have turned hot pink near the Trinity River.

Coffee Creek off Hwy 3 in Trinity County is percolating with rosy Pacific Dogwood peaking, bigleaf maple turning from lime to yellow and black oaks still to dress in their Halloween orange and black, reports Ruth Hartman of the Coffee Creek Ranch. The brew of fall colors will mature over the next two weeks with a rolling Near Peak continuing until the black oak blush.

Patchy (10-50%) – Trinity County – Pacific Dogwood have turned Paris-Hilton hot.

Near Peak GO NOW! (50-75%) – Coffee Creek, Trinity County

Siskiyou County

Scott Valley, not to be confused with the better-known Santa Cruz Mountain town of Scotts Valley, is located in western Siskiyou County in the northern Shasta Cascade Region.

Like many Shasta Cascade communities, Scott Valley is lightly populated and wild country. The Marble Mountains provide the valley’s backdrop. The sleepy ranch towns of Ft. Jones (once a frontier Army post), Etna and Greenview are found here, along with their white steepled churches and spots of bright fall color. Ruth Hartman of the Coffee Creek Ranch says the color is almost past peak.

Peak GO NOW! (75-100%) – Scott Valley – The color is just about past peak.

Plumas County

The Thompson Valley, located southeast of Quincy, is ranch country with black oaks edging the pastures. Mike Nellor reports that the black oak are Near Peak, showing crest of orange.  They should be at full peak by Halloween.

Near Peak GO NOW! (50-75%) – Thompson Valley, Plumas County

Shasta County

Color spotter Philip Reedy traveled north of Dunsmuir on I-5 to find color along the Upper Sacramento River. Indian Rhubarb has sprinkled a confetti of its red, orange, yellow and green fan-shaped leaves along the river’s edge, while alder, cottonwood and aspen brighten the forest with gold and yellow.

Sims Flat is coming into its own, though short of peaking.

Near Peak GO NOW! (50-75%) – Upper Sacramento River – Get down to the river above Dunsmuir for peaking Indian Rhubarb at river’s edge and trees going golden.

Patchy (10-50%) – Sims Flat – Upper Sacramento River – Lots of color now, more to come.

Patchy (10-50%) – Lower Sacramento River – Willows, cottonwood and oaks along the Sacramento River, from Redding south to Red Bluff are beginning to show bright color.

CENTRAL VALLEY

Sacramento County

Cottonwood have begun being topped with crests of gold within Central Valley wetland areas.  Soon, these wetlands and surrounding farmed rice fields will become banquet tables for wild geese, ducks and swans.

Walnut orchards west of Davis along I-80, near corn mazes, farm stands and pumpkin patches, are starting to show color.  Drive north on Hwys 70 and 99 to Oroville and Chico to pass more orchards full of walnut trees in two weeks to see them peak.

The urban forests of the Central Valley (Sacramento, Stockton, Modesto and Fresno) are just starting to show their color.  Towering London Plane trees arch over Sacramento’s Fabulous Forties (avenues numbered 40 – 49) in mid-town, the sun lighting their leaves to chartreuse brilliance.

In the next two to three weeks, browned leaves will fall and the sound of rakes and leaf blowers will reveal where they are being gathered into piles, which residents of the City of Sacramento may now leave in the streets to be picked up by the City. There are so many trees in Sacramento and such a big drop of leaves, that this service continues into January.

Within just this week, Sacramento – particularly its wetlands and riparian areas has moved from Just Starting to Patchy.

Just Starting (0-10%) – Sacramento’s, Stockton’s and Modesto’s Urban Forests

Patchy (10-50%) – Sacramento River and Wetland areas

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

San Bernardino Mountains

Peak GO NOW! (75-100%) – Green Valley Lake – Aspen and maple are nearing past peak, while the area’s few black oak will not near peak for two weeks.

Near Peak GO NOW! (50-75%) Big Bear Lake – Color is seen around the lake and in town.

Past Peak YOU MISSED IT! – Aspen Grove – A USDA Forest Service forester reports that Aspen Grove – incinerated in this past summer’s wildfire – has begun to recover. Because surrounding pines have been destroyed, the aspen – whose underground root system is still living, will recover within two years and dominate the area for the next 50 years.

Patchy (10-50%) – Lake Arrowhead and Lake Gregory – Still on the low end of the scale, these mountain lakes will near peak within two weeks.

Patchy (10-50%) – Rim of the World – Still developing.

 

Why Do Autumn Leaves Change Their Color?

Some consider it to be the most incredible time of the year. Gorgeous colors vibrantly encoring the end of summer as the trees put themselves to bed for the long sleep of winter. The Great Smoky Mountains floods with thousands upon thousands of annual visitors all hoping to acheive a breath taking view of the beautiful renaissance of nature.

Family playing in fall leaves - SmokyMountains.com

The Science Of It All

It all starts with photosynthesis. Leaves typically produce their vivid hues of green from spring through summer into early fall through the constant creation of Chlorophyll. As we all learned in 5th grade science, Chlorophyll is the key component in a plants ability to turn sunlight into glucose, which in turn feeds the trees. Many millions of these Chlorophyll cells saturate the leaves, ultimately making them appear green to the eye.

Diagram of Chlorophyll - SmokyMountains.com
Did you know?Without the presence of Chlorophyll in the leaf, the bright golds, reds, yellows, and browns would be the natural colors seen year round.

The Changing Colors

Chlorophyll is not the only player in the fall leaf color game. Present in other leaves and trees are the compounds known as Carotenoids and Anthocyanins. As the Fall days begin to get shorter and shorter, the production of Chlorophyll slows to a hault, eventually giving way to the ‘true’ color of the leaf.

Oranges

Leaf color pigments diagram, Beta-Carotene - SmokyMountains.com
Beta-CaroteneBeta-Carotene is one of the most common carontenoids present in most leaves. Strongly absorbing blue and green light, it reflects yellow and red light from the sun, giving leaves their orange hue.

Reds

Leaf color pigments diagram, Anthocyanins - SmokyMountains.com
AnthocyaninsUnlike the carotenoids, anthocyanin production increases dramatically with autumn. This protects the leaf, prolonging it’s life on the tree through the Autumn season, and also provides the beautiful red color to the leaf.

Yellows

Flavonol color pigments diagram - SmokyMountains.com
FlavonolFlavonol, a part of the flavonoid protein family, is always present in leaves, and also contributes to the yellow color of egg yolks. While always present in leaves, it’s not seen until the production of Chlrophyll begins to slow.

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.– ALBERT CAMUS

Young woman enjoying the fall leaves in the Smoky Mountains.

Why do leaves fall?

The beauty of nature is sometimes found in the profound ‘intelligence’ it exudes. Perennials, which includes trees, must protect itself in order to get through the harsh, freezing temperatures of winter. If trees did not shed their leaves, their soft vegetation would certainly freeze during winter time, damaging and no doubt killing the tree.

In order to cope with the gruling winter temperatures, trees slowly close off the veins that carry water and nutrients to and from the leaves with a layer of new cells that form at the base of the leaf stem, protecting the limbs and body of the tree. Once the process of new cell creation is complete, water and nutrients no longer flow to and fro from the leaf – this enable the leaf to die and weaken at the stem, eventually falling gracefully to the ground.

I trust in nature for the stable laws of beauty and utility. Spring shall plant and autumn garner to the end of time.– ROBERT BROWNING

What happens to the fallen leaves?

Earth, among other things, is fantastic at recycling. Whether through the water cycle, or the slow process of decomposing plants and trees back in to rich soil, the Earth wastes very little.

When leaves fall to the ground, they begin to break down and eventually create a rich humus on the forest floor that absorbs dew and rainfall. This nutrient rich ‘sponge’ acts as a continual source of nutrients and water for trees and plants, helping to promote life and plant health in the next spring season.

It is not difficult to conclude that while the falling of the leaves protects the trees through winter, it’s likely that trees would not survive as well without the rich layer of dead leaves through the warm spring and summer months. In this way, trees natural cycle provides health and sustainability for itself year after year.

The following fall color report was compiled from observations made by photographers, leaf peepers, nature lovers, public lands and local tourism officials throughout California and is subject to changing conditions.  High resolution photographs and interviews are available by request.

 

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