Finding Fall Color in the Sierra Nevada Foothills and Beyond

In the Sierra Nevada foothills and the higher mountains to the east, fall colors can be found for months. Anywhere between late September and early December, folks hankering for showy displays of red or gold leaves will find them somewhere in the region.
Fall begins in the high country, especially in the Carson Pass (below, left), Hope Valley (above) and Monitor Pass regions, accessible via state highways 88 and 89. Here, great hillsides of quaking aspen flame brilliant gold, with occasional hints of orange. The dark blue high-elevation skies, craggy snow-dusted peaks and greenish-black conifers offer pleasing contrasts. Typically in the high country, fall colors peak in early to mid October. Especially showy stands are located in and around Carson Pass, especially east of Caples Lake and the turn-off to Woods Lake. East of Carson Pass, Hope Valley offers spectacular displays of fall colors. Stop for a lunch of homemade bread, soup or sandwiches, or even spend the night at Sorenson’s Resort, with its Norwegian motifs and casual outdoor dining in an aspen forest. A mile or two north of the resort on Highway 89, visitors will find spectacular vistas and showy fall displays near the summit of Luther Pass. To the southeast, sparsely populated Alpine County features miles of aspen stands. For more information: or call (530) 694-2475.
To the south in Tuolumne County, look for stands of aspens just west of Sonora Pass on state Highway 108. Ebbetts Pass on Highway 49 also features aspen stands and some dogwoods.
Fall colors are everywhere at lower altitudes, too. The native black oak, found throughout the Sierra Nevada foothills between elevations of about 1,000 and 5,000 feet, features large leaves that turn a brilliant gold. Colors are at their best between late October and a few leaves will linger on the trees until early December. Often interspersed with dark green ponderosa pines or incense cedars, they make for great photographic subjects. The plump acorns were a staple food of the Native Americans who inhabited these hills for thousands of years before the California Gold Rush.
The deep river canyons that slice through the foothills feature huge contrasts in vegetation. South-facing slopes are often characterized by chaparrel, grassy slopes and gray pine, but the shaded north-facing slopes are lush with thick conifer forests, ferns, mosses and, yes, fall color. Here, look for red dogwood leaves and large yellow leaves of bigleaf maple. In the northern Sierra Nevadas, Plumas County in particular is proud of its showy displays of dogwoods. Particularly recommended is the drive along Deer Creek. The U.S. Forest Service Lakes Basin Campground, off Gold Lake Road, features some aspen stands. For more information: or call (800) 326-2247.
Homesick gold miners from New England and other parts of the east coast of the United States often brought their native trees with them. Today, visitors enjoy the results of those long-ago plantings with showy displays of maples and other trees in various Gold Country towns. In particular, Nevada City, with its many New England-style structures, boasts brilliant fall displays. The Nevada City Chamber of Commerce even offers a brochure pointing the way to favorite autumn colors. A special highlight is Empire Mine State Park (pictured below). For more information: or call (800) 655-6569.
Visitors traveling via Highway 50 through Placerville in El Dorado County will find fiery-red displays of pistachio trees. The colors here hit their peak in October.

Some autumn images from October 2001 plus a portfolio of more recent images.

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