Sierra Color Quest

Photography, Sierra

As you climb off the valley floor, you realize that it’s Fall up here.

The trees know it too.

Growing up in the eastern US, finding fall colors for the camera was always a pretty easy task. Soon after school started back, it would cool down and suddenly there was color everywhere.

Not so in California. I moved here to the land of oaks and evergreens about ten years ago and except for the occasional front-yard Poplar (and the evil color-tease of poison oak) great fall colors were about a day-trip away in the Sierra.

So a day-trip it was.

With some guidance from the Mono County Tourism and other tips, we navigated our way over the Sonoma Pass to Mammoth, then returned through Yosemite to the ranch in Carmel Valley.

We stopped the first night in Murphys, California (delightful…more on that next week) then headed through the Stanislaus National Forest on CA 108 to the top of the Sonoma pass at around 10,000 feet. The Honda Element was having to work a bit harder in the thinner air near the top, as in, you would press the gas and nothing would happen.

Once you start to climb off the floor of the Central Valley, the trees understand that it’s already fall up here and behave accordingly.

The simple rule is the higher you go, the more color you get.

Another rule: Travel on midweek and, like us, you’ll have the whole place (almost) to yourself. I wanted to get a picture with a car on the road and had to wait about 4 minutes for one to go by.

The climb is exhilarating… with each mile on the road you get higher and higher, and the views and vistas get better and better.

The colors come in smaller pockets and not the sweeping vistas you find in the Appalachians. But the groves that you do find are beautiful and almost always enhanced by some serious granite nearby.

Any trip to the Eastern Sierra along US 395 around Mono Lake is pretty glorious just about anytime, as the highway puts the powerful Eastern Sierra over your shoulder for miles as you roll along the foothills, passing hot springs and collapsed lava domes on your other shoulder.

Stayed the next night in Mammoth (busy, commercial ski town) (no more on that later) then made the choice to drive all the way back to the ranch in one 8-hour stretch. Not a great choice.

That took us through Yosemite, which was manageable with mid-week, mid-October traffic. There was some road consturuction waits; I’m thinking they’ve got a small window between the Summer throngs and the first real snowfall to get things done. Had to resist the urge to stop and get pictures every 10 minutes, as we needed to get back. 🙁

A few notes: This type of driving in the mountains isn’t for the faint of heart… Leave the sightseeing to the passengers, like we recommend when driving down HWY 1 in Big Sur. There are plenty of places to pull over and admire the views when you’re not behind the wheel.

ALSO…. as you drive, look at what’s behind you as much as the road ahead. The only other people on the road are usually locals, probably working and as they are very familiar with this type of road, they take it at a pretty good clip… take the next safe turn out and let them pass. On many roads in California, you’re required to pull over if there are more than 4 or 5 cars behind you.

Camera notes: Nikon Z6ii + FTZ2 adapter form some Nikkor AF lenses: 18mm, 20mm (used a lot more than I thought I would) 28mm, 85mm, 300mm; Nikon F6 with same lenses and E100 and a GoPro 8. Have to send the E100 off to Richard Photo Lab in Burbank when I finsh the roll.

Fitness Factor: Not a lot of challenges here; mostly parking the car and walking a bit.

Kid Factor: No kids along and we spent a lot of time in the car. Probably not a great kid trip the way we traveled on this one, unless you build in some legit kid activities like short hikes, etc.