Shutterbug heaven in the eastern Sierra in autumn

The Bishop Creek Area, off Highway 168 about 20 miles west of Bishop, is one of Northern California’s most dependable spots to see fall colors, from now until the middle or even end of October.
The Bishop Creek Area, off Highway 168 about 20 miles west of Bishop, is one of Northern California’s most dependable spots to see fall colors, from now until the middle or even end of October. California Fall Color

Clouds quilted the sky, swaddling the sun and leaving the jutting mountainsides of the Inyo National Forest above Bishop with a forbidding, slate-gray backdrop.

The tourists who at this time of year return here en masse like geese to the Pacific Flyway nonetheless set up their tripods and obsessively fiddled with shutter speeds up and down South Lake Road. They weren’t fretting about their chances of capturing their fall colors snapshots for posterity – and their Facebook updates. Not yet, at least. They dealt with the rain, which turned to hail and, up the road at near 9,000 feet, a dusting of snow, with grim determination. Ansel Adams, after all, never complained about the weather when trying to get a shot.

Bishop, because of its high altitude and patches of aspen that fit into the otherwise brown slopes like jigsaw puzzle pieces, is considered one of California’s premier spots for leaf peeping, that autumnal activity that Easterners haughtily believe is their domain entirely. Sure, a sun-splashed palette in the eastern Sierra would’ve made the yellow, burnt orange and rare russet leaves have that certain pop, that vibrancy, missing on this day.

After all, even the most common, most pale aspen can look all luminous in the sparkling fall sunshine – it’s all about the lighting; ask any actress – but to stand out amid the gloom of an early fall storm is perhaps an even more impressive achievement. And the aspen leaves were working mightily to keep their piquant pigment, while the weekend photographers plugged along, snapping with impunity, knowing that the seasonal turning of the leaves can be ephemeral and elusive. It’s all about timing and being in the right place when, say, a shaft of light breaks through and illuminates an aspen copse that suddenly takes on the hues of a Crayola 64 pack.

Such an occurrence, sunlight shimmering off a Bishop Creek waterfall and turning the aspens to fire, prompted Co Nguyen and Ilana Olguin to steer their car to a small dirt pullout on South Lake Road, and whip out their cameras. No time for the tripod. Point-and-click time.

“We had not had very cooperative weather today,” lamented Olguin, who made the trip from Tustin in Orange County with her friend. “We weren’t able to get a lot of good pictures. That’s why we stopped on the roadside for one last chance.”

Not far away, back on Highway 168, a BMW had pulled off the road. A tripod was set up, and attached to it was a camera with a lens the length and girth of an artificial log. Curiously, it was pointed right into the heart of a storm cell developing down in the valley. David Dennis of Redlands is a self-described “storm chaser” whose ardent avocation is capturing images of lightning in action. But, yes, he also came for the weekend to shoot the fall colors.

“Overcast is the best time,” he said, “The light is better, gives you some contrast. See, the thing is, on a sunny day, when the sun hits those yellow leaves in the aspen, it tends to glisten. It’s pretty and all, but, it can blur the colors in your shot. It’s not as vivid.”

But there’s really no such thing as a bad shot when Bishop’s famous aspens are in full blush. Same can be said for any number of colorful, high-altitude spots up and down the state each October, from the meadows of Lake Tahoe to the foothills of the Gold Country down through Yosemite, even as far south as Mount Laguna near San Diego.

“Anywhere you have elevation and (non-evergreen) trees, that’s where you get the best color,” said John Poimiroo, curator of “The nice thing about California is, (the leaf turning) descends by 500 to 1,000 feet starting in late September and continues to descend all the way to early December in some southern parts of the state. That’s unlike New England, where it descends by latitude, not altitude. … I was speaking recently to people from the East Coast, and they said, ‘Yeah, I went to watch the fall colors, and it was gone when I got there.’ Here, we’re way more predictable. You always know that Bishop is going to be one of the first places where the leaves turn.”

Bishop’s economy depends on this seasonal predictability. Much of its tourist revenue comes from September-October leaf peepers. Not surprisingly, many of the town’s events – festivals, car shows – revolve around the fall colors theme.

Do not, however, dismiss Bishop as a once-a-year stopover. This small town along Highway 395, sandwiched between the erstwhile cowboy Western movie town of Lone Pine to the south and skiing destination Mammoth Lakes to the north, is considered perhaps the world’s top location for bouldering. Summer is peak fly fishing season and, with the John Muir Wilderness and Inyo National Forest less than 20 minutes to the west, backpackers come year round, trading boots for snowshoes in winter.

There even is a popular hot spring, Keough Springs, which rivals any burbling, sulfuric pond you’ll find in greater number down the road in Mammoth.

In early October, however, most of the action was taking place up Highway 168, about 4,000 feet in elevation higher than Bishop proper (4,150 feet, altitude). If you didn’t know any better, you’d think a spate of cars was breaking down along the highway.

“It’s funny,” said Seth Blackamore, who works at Parchers Resort along South Lake Road. “The locals have a saying this time of year: ‘We don’t have to watch for deer on the roads; we watch for the photographers.’ They’re everywhere. But we get a lot of cool people from different backgrounds who come here to shoot pictures. Last week, we even had professional photog shooting models next to the trees. That was a trip.”

From Northern California, it is quite a trip just getting to Bishop this time of year. Depending on the fickle fall weather, the Sonora Pass (Highway 108) can close with hardly an hour’s warning, as can the alternate route, the Tioga Pass (Highway 120). But even if you have to drive clear to Bakersfield and swing around and approach Highway 395 from the Mojave Desert, it’s worth the trip.

Eric and Christina Holenda, who made the trek from Nipomo in San Luis Obispo County, sat in their car as the rain lightly fell, munched Trader Joe’s crackers and just took in the scene. For Christina, it was a bit of a sentimental journey. She grew up in Greensboro, N.C., and in Georgia, where the fall leaves turn a fiery red. She missed that, living on the Central Coast. So, the couple came to the mountains to get a glimpse of a color other than ocean blue.

“I was thinking there’d be reds,” she said. “I didn’t expect this. When they said color, I took it to include reds and burnt shades. But, you know, this is beautiful. I mean, my gosh, it’s gorgeous. That’s why we’re sitting here in the rain.”

California, as you may know, is not a red state. When it comes to leaves, it has to do with the type of trees endemic to the area. Aspens tend to turn yellow, orange at most, and they dominate much of the area.

“It’s the way the chemicals form in the leaves and the way it’s exposed,” Poimiroo said. “We actually do have some exotic trees in California. “There’s a famous sugar maple in Yosemite Valley planted by New Englanders. It glows bright red in the fall. There’s nothing here that prevents red from occurring; it’s just the type of tree. Some aspen do go red, but (it’s) mostly yellow.”

Leaf peeping really is a study in chemistry, photosynthesis made visible. Chlorophyll does its magic by converting sunlight to glucose (life blood for the tree) and carbon dioxide (life blood for, well, us) and also makes the leaves a hearty green. But with dwindling light and temperature, a pigment in the leaves called porphyrin breaks down and loses the green hue, revealing colors underneath as the stored glucose unveils different pigments, your reds and yellows. (This will be on the test, by the way.)

But to imply that the pigment of Bishop’s trees pale compared to others is fighting words to locals, who cherish them as civic treasures – not to mention an economic boon.

Just ask Janice Kabala, a plein air painter who parks her Jeep at different spots in the eastern Sierra and captures on canvas the subtleties of the landscape’s shade and shadow. The morning after the storm, with the sun shining once more but snow from the night before hanging heavy on the branches, she parked along the winding dirt path known as North Ake Road, set up her easel, unfurled a giant umbrella for shade and punched up some music on her boombox.

Kabala calls how the light hits natural objects in the eastern Sierra a “sensual seductiveness.” Those that fail to understand that, perhaps, just don’t have the eye.

“It’s the surprise; you never know where you’re going to find something (sublime),” she said. “It’s so fleeting, you know. So you drive around and try to catch it. I look for that real bright orange-red. It just kind of glows. This hasn’t been our best year for color. But we’ve got reds here, if you find it.”

It is, indeed, something of a game of seek and shoot for the amateur photographers. They haunt Bishop’s civic Visitors Authority each morning, asking for the colorful spots. Most times, they have to head up. The Bishop Creek area, North and South Lake roads, are reliable, but many leaf peepers venture farther afield – north to Round Valley and Lower Rock Creek closer to Crowley Lake and the town of Tom’s Place; or south to Big Pine Canyon in the town of the same name.

Yet, by the end of October, the tripods are gone, because the leaves have turned brown and fallen, becoming mulch in earth’s diurnal cycle.

“Some of the leaves are already falling,” said Sandy Loper, of Big Pine, who comes with husband Mark each weekend during the season. “But I’m not complaining. This is gorgeous, right here. People should stick around a while, even when it’s not in peak. You see so many stores in town closed, and this helps the economy.”

The city’s reputation as a bouldering mecca helps prop up the economy once the leaf peepers scatter like so many … well, you know. Go any time, sun or rain, gleam or gloom, and you can spot boulderers lugging their bulky crash pads on their backs or staring with craned necks at a vertical wall with lines too forbidding for novices to even consider.

The aptly named Happy Boulders off Highway 6 north of town offer volcanic “problems” for climbers to solve (i.e., scale). What the Happy Boulders lack in aesthetics – they are jagged and crumbly, compared to smoothed, rounded granite of the Buttermilks off Highway 168 west of town – they make up for in accessibility. There are ample enough finger pockets for less-skilled climbers to dig in and hold on, and boulderers say the landings are flat, too.

Across town, the Buttermilks live up to their reputation. If you log on to any bouldering website, you won’t have to search long before seeing photos of climbers dangling like Spider-Man from the side of a building. Some of the problems here have names as colorful as the aspens in fall. There’s Evilution, High Plains Drifter, The Mandala and Ironman.

It was at this last boulder that first-time climbers Donald Roppolo of Rancho Cucamonga and Josen Corpuz of Walnut left sore, somewhat defeated but happy in the effort.

“It’s amazing, almost addicting,” Corpuz said.

Roppolo: “This was our first time outdoors. We’re indoor climbers. Let’s just say the grading was a lot harder on Ironman.”

At Ironman, a boulder at least 20 feet high that looks as if it’s been sliced in half, there’s a horizontal crack all the way across, called a rail, that shows climbers the most popular way to traverse it. A thin line of permanent chalk dust ingrained in the rock attests to its popularity.

“The easiest way,” said climber Auzie Gwinn of Chatanooga, Tenn., “starts here and goes right and then up and over the wall. What I’m trying is starting in the middle and then jump and try to grab that hold … that one way up there.”

That leap of limb and faith was not so easy. Gwinn paced and studied the rock with intense concentration. He had done little else all day but make attempts at the problem.

No need to ask him if he’s noticed the fall colors all around him. Gwinn’s attention was fixated on the beige stone wall in front of him, a boulder that won’t change color, no matter the season or weather conditions. He was rooted to the permanence in an otherwise changing landscape.

That’s the thing about Bishop. You can come to Bishop and appreciate both the fleeting, flickering snatches of yellows and oranges, and the stolidity of geologic wonders that takes epochs to transform. All you have to do is look.

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis at (916) 321-1145.


The season: Usually the last weekend of September to the middle or end of October.

How to get there: From Sacramento, you can cut through the Gold Country and take Highway 108 (the Sonora Pass) to Highway 395, and head west passed Mono Lake and Mammoth to Bishop. Or you can go through Yosemite on Highway 120 (and pay a park fee) and go over the Tioga Pass. (Note: Both passes are often closed due to quickly changing weather.) You also can go through the Lake Tahoe area to reach Highway 395. Or take Highway 99 to Bakersfield and take Highway 58 west to Highway 14, which turns into Highway 395.

Top three leaf-peeping spots: (1) Bishop Creek Area, which includes the South and North Lakes and Lake Sabrina, all off of Highway 168 west, 20 miles from Bishop; (2) Rock Creek Canyon and Lower Rock Creek, north of Bishop and south of Crowley Lake off of Highway 395; (3) Off Highway 395 in the town of Big Pine, south of Bishop, follow Glacier Lodge Road west up 4,000 feet in elevation gain to where the aspens flourish. More leaf peeping information:;

Bouldering sites: For Buttermilks, take Highway 168 west from Bishop for 8 miles. Turn right on Buttermilk Road, a dirt path. Follow for 3.5 miles. A small parking area is on the right next to the series of boulders. For Happy Boulders, take Highway 6 north from Bishop toward Benton. Turn left on Five Bridges Road and take a left on Chalf Bluff Road. Go 2.3 miles and park on the left.

Hikes: North Lake to Piute Pass: 9.6 miles, out and back, 2,500 feet of elevation change. To get to the trailhead, take Highway 168 west for 17 miles, turn right on North Lake Road. Drive 1.7 miles to a “Day Use” parking area on the left. Walk up North Lake Road for one mile to the pack station, and follow signs to Piute Pass Trail. Trail starts to the right of the bathrooms and climbs switchbacks through aspen copses and pine trees above the tree line and through granite slabs and scree until you reach Piute Lake. Continue on another mile to Piute Pass, then turn around and descend the same way.

Lodging in Bishop:

▪  Bishop Creek Lodge, 2100 S. Lake Road,

▪  Parchers Resort: 5001 S. Lake Road,

▪  Keough Hot Springs: 800 Keough Hot Springs Road,