Can you keep a secret? We can’t either; one of the best ways to get up close and personal with fall colors is from the back of a horse and that season is coming up fast. Hints of change are already starting to appear up high, and although the aspen peak won’t arrive until late September or October you can’t go wrong with the vivid blue skies of late summer coupled with the early yellow / golds of the willows and other shrubs. One of the most asked questions in the Bishop Visitors Center is when to plan a fall color trip and one of our biggest challenges is getting it just right.
Leaves begin to change color when they stop producing chlorophyll in preparation for winter. The process for doing this is triggered by shorter days, longer nights and cooler weather – so we know that it’ll be happening in autumn, but it is still up to Mother Nature to decide when day length and temperatures are just right – so we can’t predict it to the day or even the week.
Where to go:
Luckily, we have the California Fall Color website with weekly, daily, and regional updates. And if you look back into the archives, you can begin to see where the color hot spots are month by month. This can be a huge help when planning a fall color trip. We’ll call research the first step – when and where do you want to go?
The next step is finding the right pack outfit to get you there. Most of the big color canyons in the Sierra have a pack station right there; beginning way up north at Sonora Pass and continuing all the way down to Whitney Portal. We keep a list of nearby pack stations on our website; right here: https://www.bishopvisitor.com/activities/horseback/
We always recommend calling the pack station you are interested in to find specific information on when and how long the rides are, where they go, what they cost, and what to bring. Listed below is some general information that will get you started in the right direction (listed north to south).
Convict Canyon and Convict Lake are an iconic fall color must-see destination, and you can take it all in from the back of a horse! Rides go to the back of the lake and include time off the horse for lunch / snacks. Convict Lake is at 7850′, the mountains around it rise dramatically, and color starts in Convict Canyon in late September; usually peaking by mid-October. Be sure to call ahead for times and availability.
Rising up above Long Valley, you can spot the color along McGee Creek from U.S. 395; but you really haven’t seen anything until you drive up the road and either hike or ride into McGee Canyon. McGee Creek Pack Station offers rides from one hour to all day – we suggest at least half a day to really soak in the color and beauty of this canyon. Call for details: 760.935.4324
Take a morning 2 hour ride around the lake, or an afternoon ride towards Mono Pass. Better yet, book a longer ride, see more and perhaps even get some fishing in! Rock Creek Pack Station also operates also operate as Cottonwood Pack Station and Virginia Lakes Pack Outfit; visit their websites to book a ride farther north or south!
Right in Bishop’s back yard is the spectacular Bishop Creek Canyon. Rainbow Pack Outfitters is located in South Fork canyon behind Parchers Resort. Offering rides as short as 30 minutes and as long as all day – they’ll help with just the right option for you and your family. Make a day of it with dinner at Bishop Creek Lodge, breakfast at Parcher’s Resort, or catch pizza night at Cardinal Village Resort.
There are pack stations and fall color further north, and further south than we’ve listed here – check our listing for horseback riding and the Eastern Sierra Packers Association for a full listing and links, phone numbers, locations.
What to take:
Finally, a few tips for making your day horseback as comfortable as possible.
- Dress in layers. Days can start out chilly, warm up quickly, then turn cool again with the afternoon breeze. Carry a lightweight wind shell (you can tie it around your waist when you don’t need it) and check the weather before setting out. Jeans are what wranglers wear, and you’ll appreciate the sun and scratch protection if you wear them as well.
- Wear sturdy footwear – no flip flops on a horse! Smooth soles are the best, but hiking and running shoes will do double duty on and off the horse.
- Bring sunscreen & lip balm and use it liberally. We’re close to the sun in the eastern Sierra and you’ll be riding in even higher elevations. Because it is cooler, it is easy to forget to reapply, but your skin will thank you.
- Wear a broad-brimmed hat with a string that goes around your chin (known in the horse world as a stampede string) or, better yet, a helmet with a brim. At the very least, wear a ball cap.
- Bring water and a snack. Most places provide you with small horn bags that you can put a few things into, or you can carry a small daypack. Check ahead with longer rides to find out if you’ll be lunching in the saddle or if you’ll have a break for eating.
- Take a small camera. Leave the tripod and heavier equipment behind; try some ‘through the ears’ photos and enjoy the vantage point of being at least several feet taller! If you are using your cell phone as a camera, put it on airplane mode: since there probably won’t be any cell service anyway your battery will last a lot longer.
- Love your horse or mule. These animals work hard all summer and appreciate a kind word, a soft pat, and (if permitted) a carrot or apple treat after the ride. Be an active rider; try not to slouch or tug on the reins if you aren’t turning or stopping. Listen to the wranglers and respect the animal carrying you many miles.
- Tip your wrangler. They also work hard all season and appreciate your thoughts, thanks, and tips.
See you on the trails!