There is something magical about leaves changing from green to burnished gold, orange, scarlet red, or burgundy with the coming of the fall season. On the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range, these colors are emphasized by a backdrop of blue skies, puffy white cumulus clouds, and sheer, granite peaks, towering from 12,000 to 14,000 feet in elevation.
The mountains of the Eastern Sierra rise dramatically from a sagebrush-covered floor like sentinels reaching for the sky. This majestic California mountain range stretches along Highway 395 from Lone Pine in the south to the Nevada border in the north. It gives the traveler access to historic towns, crystal alpine lakes, lush meadows, and remnants of ancient volcanoes. This is a region with the heady smell of pine mixed with sage, a land of cascading waterfalls, curious outcrops of obsidian and pumice, and relics of the gold and silver mining era.
One of my favorite times of the year to hike on the east side of the Sierras is in the fall, when temperatures are cool and crowds have diminished to the point that on some trails, you may only come across a handful of hikers. Did I mention the stunning colors that will make you grab your camera, thinking you can capture the grandeur of it all? The best chance of experiencing the brilliance of fall is between mid-September through October, however, keep in mind the possibility of road closures if there is an early snowfall, especially along Tioga Pass through Yosemite National Park.
Here are five great hikes to immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, and smells of fall in the Eastern Sierra.
1. Convict Lake Loop Hike
Convict Lake between the town of Bishop and Mammoth Lakes is the perfect place to take an easy 2.5-mile hike and see fabulous fall foliage. The lake nestles in a granite bowl left from glaciation and towering above it is Mt. Morrison. Convict Lake got its name from an incident in 1871, when a group of prisoners escaped from Carson City, Nevada. The gang was rounded up by a local posse, and two men were killed in the shootout that occurred. One of the men was a banker named Robert Morrison, and a nearby mountain was named in his honor.
The elevation of the lake is 7,800 feet and with only an elevation gain of 291 feet, it’s a good hike to acclimate. Plus, with a dense thicket of aspen and cottonwood trees near the inlet of Convict Creek showing off brilliant colors depending on the weather, you’ve found the quintessential introduction to fall in the Sierra.
The trailhead is on the east side of the lake near the marina. After hiking up a sage-covered slope for about a half mile, you will get your first view of crystal-clear Convict Lake, the deepest lake in the Sierra. Continue around the lake to find some lovely spots to picnic and wiggle your toes in the water.
Pro Tip: Check the excellent California Fall Color blog before you go to get great information about locations to view the best fall colors, including, of course, the Sierras.
2. Parker Lake Hike
The hike to Parker Lake, turning off near June Lake Resort is a 3.6-mile in-and-out trail with a moderately challenging climb to a delightful alpine lake rimmed with pine, aspen, and juniper trees. You will find Parker Lake Road off Highway 395 between the Highway 158 turn-off to June Lake and the town of Lee Vining. Follow the dirt/gravel road for a couple of miles and park at the space provided at the trailhead.
The trail starts with a steady climb through sagebrush and beautiful yellow bursts of rabbit brush and continues up through a forest of Jeffrey pines and aspen. As you continue, don’t forget to turn around for the view of Mono Lake, as well as craters from a 600-year-old volcanic eruption. To your west, you can make out the summits of Mount Wood, Mount Lewis, and Parker Peak, all about 12,000 feet in elevation. The trail follows close to Parker Creek, where you will hear delightful sounds of snow-melt water tumbling over the rocks, and great music to accompany you on your hike.
Once you have reached the lake, you can rest on one of the many downed logs and listen to the gentle sounds of wind in the yellow aspen leaves. Unfortunately, there are trees, especially the greenish/white aspen that have been damaged by hikers, carving their initials in the bark.
Pro Tip: The June Lake loop is a scenic two-lane road that is stunning in the fall with willow, aspen, and cottonwoods hugging the shores of June, Gull, Silver, and Grant lakes. Stop at the Silver Lake Café in the town of June Lake, for excellent food.
3. Lundy Canyon Hike
One of the most beautiful trails I have ever hiked in the Sierras is through Lundy Canyon. Head north about 7 miles from the town of Lee Vining off Highway 395 and turn left on Lundy Canyon Road. The trailhead for the hike is located past Lundy Lake where the dirt road ends, and a sign alerts you to the trail.
Gold was discovered near the west end of the lake in 1879 and the town of Lundy was settled at the site. It became famous for its scenic location and great fishing. The May Lundy Mine produced over 3 million dollars of ore, but many houses, mining sites, and even a power plant were destroyed by avalanches over the years, including human fatalities. Mining ceased around 1914, but some historic cabins remain.
The trail leads to the boundary of the Hoover Wilderness and crisscrosses Mill Creek where along the way you will see beaver dams, walk through an aspen forest, and view rust-red, pink, and black rocky outcrops. The first set of waterfalls are 60 to 70 feet high, and as you continue you are certain to see ribbons of water tumbling from the cliffs. There are more waterfalls along the way, and Burro Lake is found high above the canyon floor in a cirque beneath 11,770-foot Black Mountain. You may return the way you came or continue to Saddlebag Lake, but this is an extremely challenging climb.
Pro Tip: After your hike, stop at Latte Da Coffee Café in Lee Vining for coffee, sandwiches, and yummy pastries.
4. Gull Lake Trail
One of the prettiest, but underrated lakes in the June Lake area is Gull Lake, and there is an easy, family-friendly hike around it. Take Highway 158 from Highway 395, a few miles south of Lee Vining heading towards June Lake Resort. You will find the trailhead at Gull Lake Park/June Lake Community Center. The trail around the lake is easy and with just a few places to scramble over rocks, is completely okay for children. If you have a dog, they are allowed on a leash.
I suggest starting the trail and heading counterclockwise. There is a small campground at the southern end of the lake with lots of trees and willows that offer a colorful backdrop to the mountains. There are picnic benches, and if the air is warm enough, you may be tempted to swim, dropping from a rope swing that hangs over the water on the west side of the lake.
In the late afternoon, the light playing on the twirling, yellow aspen leaves makes for great photos. It’s easy to see why the setting of this sixty-acre lake is called the “Switzerland” of the Sierras.
Pro Tip: Gull Lake is known for great trout fishing if you are so inclined.
5. Virginia Lakes Trail
Another incredibly gorgeous trail in Mono County is the Virginia Lakes Trail, off Highway 395, south of Bridgeport and north of Lee Vining. To get to the trailhead, travel north from Lee Vining and turn left on Twin Lakes Road. You will drive about 5.5 miles until you reach a parking lot at Big (or Upper) Virginia Lake. There will be information about the trail behind the restrooms. The trail has many options in terms of your desired distance to hike. For a short 3-mile in-and-out, follow the main trail to Blue Lake, Cooney Lake, and Frog Lake. If you’re wanting a longer trek, push ahead to Burro Pass, Summit Lake, Green Lake, and Hoover Lake.
The trail starts at 9,800 feet elevation and is an uphill climb for the first half-mile. Keep hiking for a view of Blue Lake, and later, you will see the remains of a miner’s cabin from the late 1800s. When you reach Cooney Lake, you will have hiked 1.6 miles and your elevation will be 10,244 feet. The lake is encircled by trees and shrubs bursting with color in the fall. Stop and take in the beauty surrounding you.
Pro Tip: You can continue hiking after reaching Cooney Lake to Burro Summit at 11,120 feet in elevation, but take it slow with stops to catch your breath and drink plenty of water.
The Sierra Nevada range is an incredible place to explore in any season, but in the fall with bold colors, fewer people, and roads still passable, you can’t go wrong.
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