Editor’s note: Here’s one of our favorite fall foliage hikes in Northern California, written by The Bee’s Matt Kawahara in a story first published in September 2010.
It is truly a bird’s view.
About a thousand feet above Hope Valley, Sorensen’s Cliffs protrude gray and rocky from the forests around them. In fall, they peer out over a sloping, golden valley, its sweeping aspen groves touched with warm shades of red and yellow.
The silence at that altitude is total, broken only when breezes passes through the trees with a deep roar. Sierra peaks are across from you – not above.
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Green conifers smother hillsides that slope downward into the valley. Windshields glitter in the distance, but the engines are too far away to hear. The vastness is startling.
And the hike to these cliffs – uphill and lively, but not too strenuous – takes you through fall foliage before letting you admire it from afar.
Begin at the rusty gate just to the west of Sorensen’s Resort, right off Highway 88. The trail is easy to follow, rocky at times and soft underfoot from dirt and wood shavings in most places. It once was used for logging, but the area has remained largely untouched for years.
The trail takes you through groves of quaking aspens. Light breezes make their teardrop leaves shimmer in the sunlight. By late September, some trees near the bottom of the trail will have started to turn, splashing orange and yellow against a background of green conifers.
Aside from the grove in which Sorensen’s lies, these are some of the best, most dense aspen groves in the valley. So during fall foliage you’ll be surrounded by color as the sunlight catches it streaming through the leaves. At times, the trees overhead are thick enough to hide the sky.
About two miles on, you’ll keep slightly to the right at a Y junction marked “31053” by U.S. Forest Service signs. Shortly after, you’ll veer right at another fork. Rock arrows in the ground will point you to the edge of the cliffs – also known as the Hope Valley Overlook – and the view that awaits.
Don’t lean out too far.
But when fall color is at its most brilliant, the valley below will be bursting with it.
Back at the front desk at Sorensen’s, owner John Brissenden says the route is about six miles round-trip and climbs nearly 1,000 feet.
“Not bad for somebody from Sacramento,” he says, joking, I think.
Brissenden is an amiable guy who gets a kick out of telling callers on the Sorensen’s line to sing a song when he puts them on hold, since he doesn’t have any music.
Starting in mid-September, the calls come in a lot. Sorensen’s is a year-round resort, offering rustic lodging in one of the largest alpine valleys at its altitude in the entire Sierra Nevada. During fall, Sorensen’s is an information center for people who want to see the color, Brissenden says. People call wanting to know where the colors are brightest. In the peak of fall, he gets about 100 calls a day.
Brissenden has run the resort with his wife, Patty, since 1982. He says he used to do the hike leading up to Sorensen’s Cliffs almost every morning.
“It takes you through a variety of plant species and terrain, and it’s a good workout,” he says. “And there’s not a lot of people.”
That much is true. Aside from one guy who thunders past on an ATV, I see nobody on the trail in the course of four hours. It’s perfect if you’re feeling particularly introspective.
To see color, Brissenden says, many people are content with climbing the 400 or 500 yards from the trailhead that take them to the hillside’s first rock outcropping. Those rocks give a great view of the meadow across from Sorensen’s, which is already showing reds and purples from the willow trees.
For a longer hike, you can continue on the trail – FS 053 – past Sorensen’s Cliffs to Burnside Lake Road, which you can follow back to Highway 88. As close as Brissenden can estimate it, that brings the total hike to about 12 miles.
Jerry Sprout, who wrote the guidebook “Alpine Sierra Trailblazer” with his wife, Janine, lists the hike to Sorensen’s Cliffs as one of the best in Hope Valley for fall color.
The trail “gets good western sunlight,” which illuminates the red and yellow leaves overhead, Sprout said. From the cliffs, he said, the view of the valley is “spectacular.”
For more color, the Sprouts’ book suggests hikes to Scotts Lake, Charity Valley and Willow Creek.
Brissenden mentions that, just a few hundred yards west of the Highway 88-89 junction, there’s a flatter trail conducive to mopeds and wheelchairs that takes you across the valley and through more aspen groves.
It’s the “old road to Tahoe,” Brissenden says, and by “old” he means the 1800s.
But it’s difficult to imagine a better view of Hope Valley than the one from Sorensen’s Cliffs. At the peak of fall foliage, when the colors have turned, it is the place to watch from as fall sets the valley aglow.