Every year around the end of September, foliage in the Eastern Sierra begins to turn color to signal the change in season. For a brief couple of weeks, the Sierra crest lights up with brilliant hues of red, orange, and yellow as Aspen groves transition towards fall. It is one of the most dazzling displays of nature found on the West Coast. Furthermore, the fact that this amazing explosion of seasonal color occurs in California, which is traditionally devoid of these types of scenes, makes the occasion even more special.
3 years ago, Riss and I ventured up to Bishop to see the color change for our first time, and we ended up with a treasure trove of amazing landscapes to photograph in the brief visit. It was the most memorable morning I’d ever had in the Sierra. Instead of simply writing a fall color guide for Bishop, I want to frame the landscape through our experience that morning to help reveal how compact the area is with splendor.
Dog Friendly: Yes
Driving up highway 168 towards Bishop Canyon in the predawn twilight, we were giddy with anticipation for a long awaited trip. The Eastern Sierra crest was blanketed with a set of ominous clouds sure to provide fantastic photography conditions, and according to recent reports the area was close to its peak for fall color. Conditions could not be more ideal, and we had the added fortune of this being our first foray into fall color in the Sierra.
We pulled off on the North Lake turnout and began heading up the steep dirt road as the morning light softly illuminated the scene around us. Suddenly, the road passed through a dense grove of red Aspens, unlike anything we’d ever seen. The Sierra landscape, a familiar sight to us by now, had been completely transformed beyond our own expectations, and we sat there for a moment in awe of the sheer beauty of it all.
There was no time to lollygag though, sunrise was quickly approaching and I intended to capture it at North Lake. Upon arriving at the parking lot, we were greeted by mobs of photographers who had the exact same goal in mind. A tour bus was idling nearby, which explained the unusually large group of Japanese photographers who all happened to line up at the exact same location that I had in mind on the Southern shore of the lake.
This did not come as a big surprise to us. Arriving on a Saturday morning when the colors are peaking, one should expect these types of crowds. It is a breathtaking show that is limited to a few locations and weekends a year, so it is natural that so many people congregate at the same time and place.
Instead of rub elbows with the mob of photographers, we decided to ford the outlet stream and take our chances on the eastern side of the lake. The reward for our dedication was this stunning view, and we arrived just in time for the morning light to peek through the clouds.
06:24 North Lake Sunrise
Our minds blown once again already, we stood and stared at the mountains for a few minutes in reverence. Meanwhile the other side of the lake was abuzz with activity from the mob of photographers. I was glad to be on the east side of the lake now.
The light was so incredible that I wanted to see what other scenes we could capture while it lasted. We quickly packed up our gear and retraced our steps back to the car, crossing the stream more carefully this time after seeing another photographer slip and dunk his expensive SLR into the water. Doh!
North Lake is very close to Lake Sabrina, so we decided to head over that way. It’s a short drive, and only 25 minutes after leaving North Lake, we were staring at another sublime scene.
07:04 Lake Sabrina Shoreline
07:10 Lake Sabrina
Unlike North Lake, there was only one other person here despite the ideal conditions. It goes to show that as long as you stay away from the classic spots there is plenty of room to break away from the crowds up here. We felt like doing just that, so we set out along the trail on the south side of Sabrina through the Aspens to have a piece of the mountains to ourselves. A dayhike or backpacking trip up to the Sabrina Basins in these conditions would be a slice of heaven, and it is something we will definitely do in the near future, but for now we had more to explore and more photos to take. Before long we headed back to the car to survey Bishop Creek.
The creek that flows out of Lake Sabrina is ripe with photo opportunities. It is flanked by Aspen groves on both sides, and it runs alongside the road to the lake which makes access a breeze. We took this shot right next to the road.
08:16 Bishop Creek
This entire stretch of road was surrounded by Aspens in full peak. We meandered around the groves and tried to capture some of the details of the fall foliage through our macro lens. The drops of water on the Aspen leaves added the perfect element for a close-up.
09:00 Aspen Leaf Detail
It was time to explore the road to South Lake, so we headed down the canyon to the intersection. Right before the junction to South Lake, there is a marvelous view looking back up the canyon towards North Lake and Lake Sabrina. A stand of vibrant Aspen trees provides an excellent foreground for the distant peaks of the Sierra crest popping into view.
09:15 Bishop Canyon
The variety and abundance of incredible views up to this point had been nothing short of mind blowing. We’d arrived in the mountains only three hours earlier and it was already one of the most productive and fun photography trips we’d ever set out on.
We headed all the way down the 18 miles to South Lake, where we were greeted with a fine view, but one that failed to inspire us after the witnessing the grandeur of North Lake and Lake Sabrina at peak. So, we began to head back down the road in search of more intimate scenes.
The Aspens here were not at full peak yet, so the landscape was tinged with the yellow of trees transitioning from summer to fall.
10:02 Aspen Detail
Similar to the outlet stream for Lake Sabrina, the South Fork of Bishop Creek runs mostly alongside the long road to South Lake. There is rarely a stretch of road where a new opportunity does not present itself.
10:17 South Fork of Bishop Creek
10:51 Fall Fishing
After close to five hours in the mountains, we had done a quick and dirty, but by no means comprehensive photo tour of the entire Bishop canyon; at least as far as a car can take you. We could have easily spent the entire weekend seeking out new gems within the landscape, but since this was our first trip to the area in the fall, there were other areas to explore. So, we headed back down the mountain in search of new discoveries. As amazing as the Bishop fall color display is, it is just a small piece of the beauty that can be found in the area during this time of year. We look forward to continuing to find more of that beauty to share here on Calitrails.