Going. Going. Almost gone.
If you crave colorful autumn leaves, jump in your car and hit the road in the next few days. It’s the last call for fall in California.
You’ve already missed colorful changes on the state’s highest mountains, but it’s not too late for procrastinators to spot flashy colors on the leaves of oak, maple, cottonwood, sycamore and alder trees at lower elevations.
I checked out some of the state’s top options in the last 10 days, hunting north and south for glowing golds and traffic-stopping reds. It was road-trip heaven.
My first destination was the Eastern High Sierra, famed for its bright colors. I raced north on Highway 395 a few days ago with photographer Jim Edwards and found the region in the midst of its annual transformation.
The rugged mountains were in show-off mode, with groves of aspens creating brilliant patchwork quilts of yellow and pink. It might be too late to spot aspens now, but autumn is in full bling and there are a lot of other things to see.
“Even if you’re coming late, you can still see color,” said Jess Simpson, chief leaf peeper and economic development director for Mono County, home to Mammoth Lakes and a score of other locations known for their fall regalia. Simpson has the enviable job of reporting on autumn leaf changes weekly for the county's Fall Color Report. This is his ninth year photographing and writing about the annual transformation. “It’s the best job in the world,” he said.
His advice: “The lowest elevations are the last to turn. The June Lake loop (California 158) is a good bet because trees continue to change there over a long period. Even if you miss the peak, you’ll see some trees that are joining the party late.” Download the Eastern Sierra Fall Color Map; it's an excellent—and free — resource.
The June Lake loop is a magnificent drive, with or without colorful leaves. It arcs away from Highway 395 for 16 miles, following a horseshoe-shaped canyon that holds four lakes, a waterfall, Rush Creek and a small village. My favorite spot was Silver Lake, where a score of fishermen and boaters enjoyed mild temperatures and brightly colored surroundings set off by a clear blue sky.
Unfortunately, the sky here hasn’t always been clear this year. The Creek fire, which started eight weeks ago nearly 100 miles away, still burns and some days causes smoky skies in the area. With 352,000 acres scorched, it has become the largest fire in state history. But you usually can avoid the soot by checking the air quality conditions at gbuapcd.org in advance.
Other good bets he recommends for latecomers: Antelope Valley (the one in Mono County, not the one in Los Angeles and Kern counties). It’s known for its cottonwoods, which turn late. Check out the towns of Coleville, Topaz and Walker, all along Highway 395 near the Nevada border, about 50 miles south of Lake Tahoe.
The Tahoe region is another hot spot for late fall color. Some aspen are still hanging on, with cottonwood, maple, alder and willows peaking now. Recommendations for visitors: Drive up Blackwood Canyon on the west shore, walk or bike along the Truckee River Trail or hike around Spooner Lake, a two-mile loop on the east shore.
Southland color spots
If you’re looking for a shorter road trip, you can find fall color magic in Southern California too. The San Bernardino National Forest is home to both Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake, favorite hangouts of mine in the fall.
From San Bernardino, follow California 18 to Lake Arrowhead Village for lunch, a little shopping and a look at the region’s oaks, willows and dogwoods. Then take a three-mile drive east on 18 to Heaps Peak Arboretum Trail. This mile-long loop is an easy walk, where you’ll see a variety of trees, including sequoias and dogwoods.
Continue east on California18, also known as Rim of the World Scenic Byway, for spectacular views of the valley and access to Big Bear Lake, where you’ll find cottonwood, aspen and oak trees, plus vibrant red maples in the village.
Favorite hikes here include Woodland Interpretive Trail, Pine Knot Trail and Castle Rock Trail.
Oak Glen, at the edge of the San Bernardino Mountains, is another location that will give you an autumn vibe. The draw here? Apples. You can pick them from trees heavy with fruit. Or buy a pie, cider, an apple burrito or mini doughnuts warm from the fryer.
The hillside community is the Southland’s largest apple-growing region, producing dozens of varieties that ripen in the fall.
Wildfires bedeviled the community repeatedly this year. The Apple fire began July 31, causing evacuations and charring more than 33,000 acres; on Sept. 5 the El Dorado fire erupted, again causing evacuations, burning 22,000 acres and killing a firefighter. Both blazes are 95% contained and are no longer considered a threat.
Despite the prolonged fires, we found people such as Hermosa Beach resident LeighAnn Repko and her family enjoying an outing.
“We took a day off to pick apples and pumpkins,” said Repko, who was helping her 2-year-old son gather apples.
Distant hillsides are scarred and blackened, but most orchards look fine. “We’re thankful for everyone coming up to support the community here,” said Taylor Jackson, who works at Los Rios Rancho as an “apple lady,” answering questions and helping U-pick customers.
If you can, visit during the week. Weekends are too crowded for social distancing — or even to find a parking place.
Of course, you can also find fall at some of L.A. County’s well-known gardens, such as San Marino's Huntington (adult tickets $25), and county parks such as the Arboretum in Arcadia, Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge and South Coast Botanic Garden on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. (Admission at the county parks is $15 for adults, $11 for seniors and $5 for kids.) Advance online ticketing is required.
One good thing about local parks: Because temperatures were warm this summer, many trees are just beginning to turn, said my friends at South Coast Botanic Garden. They think we’ll have a colorful late fall season.
And that’s great for procrastinators. It won’t make much of a road trip, but it will help your Instagram posts.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.