Dan's Outside

I go, I see, I do, I walk, I think, I like…

Where to Find Aspens and Stay Warm?

“Karen” – who apparently shares my interest in Sierra autumn aspen colors – wrote to ask:

“Do you have any advice for where to go to both see Fall colors and where it is not so cold? We would like to head out for one last backpacking trip next weekend . We were in Yosemite two weeks ago at elevations of about 10K and it got really cold (19 degrees) at night! We’d like to go someplace, probably at a lower elevation, where it will be warmer.”

Not only does it get cold this time of year, but the darn sun sets way too early! :-)

Sierra weather this time of year can be unpredictable and “interesting.” It is not uncommon to get nighttime temperatures in the low 20 degree range at the elevations you mentioned – or even a bit colder – but it isn’t always that cold. I think you may have hit one of the colder nights. (See the Tuolumne Meadows link in the Weather section in the sidebar to get an idea of current temperatures.)

I think the best places to see fall colors are generally east of the Sierra crest, especially if you are looking for aspens. I have to admit that I have never combined a pack trip with my aspen searches, so I don’t think I can suggest a specific pack trip that will take you to colorful aspens. I suspect that a number of the trips that start at east side trailheads would include aspen colors, but it may be a bit late above 9,000′ or so.

However, I can say some things about timing and your prospects for this year. In fact, I posted a lengthy report earlier this week at G Dan Mitchell | Photography describing last weekend’s “aspen adventure.”

As I went higher and farther south on the east side last weekend, I found that the aspen colors were peaking (or, in a few cases, past their prime) at around 9,000′ – particularly in the Bishop Creek area where I spent most of my time. They also appeared to be near peak in the Carson Pass/Hope Valley area, though not as close to being done as in Bishop Creek.

One of my favorite aspen views is at Conway Summit on Hiway 395 just north of Mono Lake. Here there were impressive colors last week, but there were also still quite a few green trees, some of which were just beginning to show color. This area should be looking good this weekend – and, in fact, I’m hoping to be there to take photos late in the afternoon on Sunday.

Lee Vining Canyon (along the road to Tioga Pass from Lee Vining) is filled with aspens – but they were pretty green last weekend, suggesting that you might see some better color there this weekend or perhaps (but only perhaps) the following week.

It is my impression that the middle of October (as in the weekend after the upcoming weekend) is getting pretty late for reliable Sierra aspen displays. You can probably find some, but many of the stands will have peaked and dropped a lot of their leaves by then.

Besides aspens, there are a lot of other plants changing colors this time of year in the Sierra. I’m afraid that I’m not particularly a Namer of Plants – I tend to remember plants very specifically in terms of appearance and location, but not recall their names – but there are wonderful red, brown, and yellow plants of all types up high this time of year, even above timberline.

Regarding cold… I’m afraid that cold tends to go hand in hand with autumn aspen color. So if you backpack this time of year – and I think it may be the most beautiful backpacking season – you need to be ready for the possibility of cold. It can be warm and sunny, but it can also be cold and sunny, cold and cloudy, or even snowy.

It might be a good time for a slightly lower pack trip, perhaps further north in the Sierra. I backpacked in the Tahoe region a few weeks back – which I normally don’t do in the summer – and we had beautiful conditions. Now that I think of it, it might even be a good time to do a short trip in the Carson Pass area! Personally, I’m very fond of the Tuolumne Meadows vicinity this time of year, but I can’t say that it is a good place to look for big aspen displays. (Though perhaps someone else will write and set me straight on this.)

(I have a short pack trip planned this weekend myself – more about that in a few days. :-)

By the way, I recommend Calphoto as an excellent source of reports on current conditions for beautiful things such as aspens and wildflowers around the state of California.


October 5, 2006 - Posted by | Commentary


  1. Thanks so much Dan! Lots of great info here. It might be wise for us to head up to the Tahoe area because of the cold factor. Though I guess that might mean we would miss the fall Aspen colors.

    Anyway thanks again…I really love your photos! We were at Vogelsang
    Lake two weeks ago. It’s a gorgeous area and your photos really capture the beauty well!


    Comment by Karen Theisen | October 5, 2006

  2. Ah, Vogelsang (aka Fletcher Lake) – I go there a lot. In fact, I was there the week before you were, back on the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth. It was pretty warm when I was there, and the high sierra camp had just closed the night before.

    I’m going to be back there this weekend for one night with a small group of friends. We have a tradition of doing our last pack trip of the season around mid-October, and we almost always go to Fletcher Lake. We’ll likely do a bit of cross-country hiking, including Ireland Lake and possibly the ridge between Parsons Peak and Fletcher Peak.

    I can’t speak for the aspens at Tahoe (but do see the calphoto web site) but I think that it could be a bit warmer since the elevations are a bit lower.


    Comment by Dan Mitchell | October 5, 2006

  3. Be sure to pack lots of warm gear. We had our coldest temperatures at Ireland Lake (and on the hike out of there the next day) but then had a warmer one the following night at Boothe Lake. We also did x-country from Ireland Lake over to Vogelsang area and it was fantastic! If you do it, you will love it! Have fun!

    Comment by Karen Theisen | October 6, 2006

  4. I know that cross-country route quite well – I do it at least once a year, though I usually go the other direction first; across the ridge above Townsley, traversing the plateau toward the ridge above Ireland, and then down.

    I’m not suprised that it was cold at Ireland as that area is very open and exposed.

    Another variation on your cross-country trip is to head up the valley to the left of Ireland (as you approach it) near the inlet stream and follow up and around to the ridge just below Parsons Peak. I have it in mind to traverse this ridge via Parsons all the way down to Fletcher sometime. Earlier this summer I managed to gain access to the ridge by travelling cross country from Vogelsang Pass.


    Comment by Dan Mitchell | October 6, 2006

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