Although the weather is still warm in many parts of California, you may have noticed our seasonal coffees and just about everything they sell at Trader Joe’s putting on their “pumpkin spice” outfits (for sheer audacity, we’re BIG fans of the Pumpkin Spice Pumpkin Seeds over here at Modern Hiker HQ). And that means we’re heading into fall — and California fall foliage, too!
If you’re a visitor or newcomer to the West Coast from other parts of the country, you might be surprised to discover that we also have a really lovely fall foliage season here — and like our spring wildflower blooms, they tend to last for weeks or months. You just need to know where to look and the best time to visit.
In terms of planning, for years we have heartily recommended the fine folks at California Fall Color. Better than anyone else, they stay on top of the current conditions based on user reports and do a great job of forecasting when areas are likely to hit their peak color, too.
Here’s their regularly-updated conditions map, which is a must-check before you head out looking for some color:
Fall color does usually appear all over the state, but some of the most stunning places to get your fall on are in one of the most reliably stunning areas of the state — the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Here are some of our favorites:
The just-under four mile out-and-back to Parker Lake is a beautiful hike even without the fall color. You’ll rise in view of the shores of Mono Lake, then drop down into a densely wooded canyon where creeks dance along your feet. And then, the forest clears at the shores of Parker Lake, which almost perfectly reflects the Sierra Nevada in front of you. It’s an unforgettable view, and it won’t take up your entire day or be too tough on your legs, either.
OK, so beautiful fall foliage and the backdrop of some of the most stunning mountains in the United States aren’t enough for you. Fine. How about adding some waterfalls to the mix? Lundy Canyon has it all — you’re deep in aspen forest for almost the entire 4.2 mile round trip, you’ll get some lake views, and then you’ll end up at a series of three cascading waterfalls that tie everything together.
If you’re up near Mammoth Lakes this fall and want a local foliage hike that’s a bit tougher and less crowded than the (admittedly lovely) walk around the lakes to the southwest of town, head just east to Sherwin Creek and follow the trail up to the twin Sherwin Lakes. This 5.2 mile hike has a bit of a climb to it, but that just means you’re more likely to have the aspen-ringed lakes all to yourself when you arrive.
If you’re on a fall foliage tour of the Eastern Sierra and you skip Convict Lake, you’re kind of doing it wrong. This is a reliably great place to picnic or fish, and an easy, mostly-flat 3 mile loop trail, providing spectacular views of towering Mount Morrison and the lake itself. When you’re not being stunned by the expanse, you’re being enveloped by dense aspen groves on peaceful boardwalk trails.
Real talk: McGee Creek Canyon is one of the most beautiful places I have ever hiked. It also helped that it was in peak foliage season with good company and crisp fall weather, but even without those things, this place is a real stunner. To the north, McGee Mountain. To the south, the looming mastiff of Mount Morgan and Nevhabe Point. And straight ahead? A beautiful trail that parallels (and hops) a babbling creek running through thick forest and dense aspen groves. You can backpack into the John Muir Wilderness on this one if you want, or just do a solid day hike as far as your legs will take you. Either way, it’s good.
Rock Creek Lake
Rock Creek Lake has a lot of infrastructure for visitors — campgrounds, lodges, piers for fisherman. That means there can be a lot of people around here, but that shouldn’t put you off from hiking the relatively easy unofficial loop trail around the lake shore. This route stitches together some access roads, trails, and user-trails anglers use to access the shoreline and is only 1.6 miles in total … which means plenty of time to soak in the scenery or dip your feet in the water.
North Lake Road
It’s true — one of the best places for fall foliage is a little dirt road leading to a trailhead that will take you deeper into the Sierra toward Piute Lake or the Lamarck Lakes. If just taking a short walk along North Lake Road here doesn’t put you into Full Autumn Mode, I don’t know what will. Also a perfect spot for all your “road not taken” photo caption needs.
Most of the fall color you see on this hike will be down near the trailhead at Lake Sabrina, but that doesn’t mean this hike isn’t worth doing. This 7.2 mile trek takes you past the mirror-perfect Blue Lake to the series of smaller Emerald Lakes, and the scenery is absolutely gobsmacking the entire way. You can head deeper into the John Muir Wilderness here and even camp (with the proper wilderness permit), but even as a day trip this is one you’ll remember for a long, long time.
Just on the other side of Table Mountain from Lake Sabrina, South Lake offers up a picturesque trailhead with tons of phenomenal fall foliage options. You can trek all the way up to (and over) Bishop Pass if the fall air has you extra feisty, but the 5.5 mile out-and-back to Long Lake should scratch that autumnal itch pretty nicely for you. It’s high elevation, but not too tough for most hikers to enjoy!
Big Pine Lakes
If you’re looking for lakes, this is a good trail for you. There are seven lakes here (numbered First through Seventh for your convenience) as well as Summit Lake and Black Lake. And the hike to them is no slouch, either. You’ll hike alongside some glacier-fed waterfalls, through beautiful and dense forests, and even past a log cabin that used to belong to Lon Chaney, the ‘man of a thousand faces.’ You can camp in an established campground near the trailhead to Big Pine Lakes, or backpack deeper on the trail with a wilderness permit. In the fall, most of the mosquitoes should be gone, too — so win, win!
What are your favorite fall foliage trails?