I never really understood or appreciated fall until I moved to Bishop. I was raised in a temperate climate that is mostly summer all year. There’s a hint of autumn when nothing falls – no deciduous forest where I grew up – then a few weeks of chilly winter, followed by a brief spring, and voila! Summer again. So, what did I know about four seasons? Nothing really.
Now, after living in the Eastern Sierra for almost 10 years, I understand.
When I tell folks that I love summers in Bishop, which tend to run into 100+ degrees on an average summer day, most think that perhaps the heat has addled my brain. Not so. I was conditioned to love summer, but now what I’ve learned to love even more is fall!
It begins with an almost imperceptible change and the air feels refreshingly smooth and silky on the skin. A magical light has a clarity and crispness that brings colors into brighter focus. Lethargy is replaced by energy and, although the days begin to shorten, the available active hours increase as temperatures decline.
In early fall the first foliage to change color is up toward the treeline, nearing 12,000ft ASL (above sea level).
It begins with scattered touches of yellow like an artist testing a new and vibrant color palette on a background of luscious greens. Soon large luminous yellow swaths appear with touches of bright orange and deep crimson.
Then the blush spreads across the mountainside drawing golden borders around sparkling blue mountain lakes and tracing contours down the canyons and alongside streams. The dark green of evergreen trees punctuates the bright colors and the silvery grey granite crags rise above this tumult of color.
Often large clouds gather and billow over the mountain peaks during the day. Then as evening approaches strong winds aloft lift, smooth and shape them into lenticular wave clouds and the setting sun creates a fiery display that rivals the show on the ground.
This spectacle in the sky is brief and unpredictable, but the colors on the landscape follow an established pattern in time and place that is almost as predictable as the nightfall after the sunset.
Perhaps because I live nearby, one of my favorite places is along Highway 168 up to South Lake, Sabrina & North Lake, and I know I’m not alone in my appreciation of this intensely beautiful area. No matter what time of day that I take the short 20 – 30 minute drive to one of these lovely lakes during fall, I always see avid photographers positioning themselves on the roadside, up on rocks or in amongst the trees.
To those eager to get a really rounded fall experience in the Eastern Sierra, I would suggest you begin your quest for fall color in downtown Bishop. You early risers might start at the Looney Bean and wrap your hands around a hot pumpkin pie chai, with real pumpkin and espresso whipped cream.
Perhaps pop into Great Basin Bakery and get a loaf of cranberry orange bread and a cup of joe, roasted right here in Bishop by Black Sheep Coffee Roasters. It’s a real guilty pleasure of mine to take a large, excellently roasted cup of coffee and a large loaf of artisan bread and go for a short walk in the mountains to a secluded lookout and sit on a rock to sip and chew and contemplate the view.
There are so many lovely sheltered spots that I can choose just the right one to suit my mood. Just above the parking lot at South Lake the Wildflower trail takes one to a clearing under two tall pines. I often sit here looking out at the surrounding ridges. The cool breeze ripples through the brightly colored leaves and a warm afternoon sun restores my spirit.
It’s a great place for a group outing too. There are two roughly hewn wooden picnic tables on which to spread a feast and indulge in all the delights that one’s heart (or perhaps tummy) desires. There’s no shortage of fresh, homemade, locally sourced or organic goodies from the town’s grocers, growers and merchants.
A late afternoon drive to North Lake is sublime. Turning off from Highway 168 the road crosses a narrow bridge then dips through a grove of willow and aspen that shake and shimmer like suspended gold confetti. Continuing steeply up the mountainside it rounds a bend and levels out along a gravelly traverse with an impressive view down into the canyon below that is not for the faint of heart.
Then with one more short sweeping turn you’ll find yourself enclosed under a vibrant, shining arbor of fall colored aspens. It feels quite ceremonious to drive through this glowing tree tunnel and you emerge from this short passage with your heart lightened and spirit uplifted.
Depending on the time of day, a deeply blue or sparkling silver North Lake will reflect the riotous color that appears to flow like molten lava down the ravines and washes of the jagged peaks and rocky scree above.
Dress warmly for your sojourn up to these chilly higher altitudes and, as always in the high Sierra, dress in layers.