Did you know that you can find fall colors in California? While New England wins hand down for the best fall colors, those of us on the west coast can also cash in on this fall favorite. Mammoth Lakes fall colors lures visitors from near and far for their yearly display of bright yellow aspen trees and beautiful fall colors in California’s eastern sierras. The best fall colors are typically popping around mid Sept to the end of October, making it the ideal destination for a fall leaf peeping trip.
For those of us in Southern California, sometimes it’s hard to imagine that the seasons are really changing elsewhere in the US. We have heat waves and fires all through the fall, often making the changing of temperatures further up north a distant thought. If you are like me and try to bring a little bit of fall foliage into your autumn, head up the 395 where you can experience the beauty of fall from Bishop to Mammoth Lakes and even further north to the South Lake Tahoe area.
Finding Fall Colors in California
Heading out on a Highway 395 road trip is one of our favorite things to do in California. This route is filled with amazing, unique and beautiful places to explore from backpacking to hiking. One of our favorite places along the 395 is Mammoth Lakes. Spending our summers hiking here and winters skiing, it’s just as spectacular during fall when the leaves are changing colors and the scenery is stunning as it moves from greens to reds to yellows.
Where is Mammoth Lakes?
When looking for fall colors in California, Mammoth Lakes is a top destination. Mammoth Lakes is an Eastern Sierra mountains favorite for outdoor lovers in both summer and winter. Thus it only makes sense that it would also be a go to for fall leaf peeping.
Located just 45 minutes from the northern reaches of Yosemite National Park, 3 hours from Death Valley National Park and 5 hours from Los Angeles, it is easy enough to add this destination on to any California road trip.
Note: The Tioga Pass Road in Yosemite closes in the fall for the winter season, so make sure to check in advance of your trip if your route takes you this way.
Mammoth Lakes is a bustling town throughout the year with everything you would need including grocery stores, medical care, shopping, tons of restaurants, juice bars and trendy nightlife hangouts.
If you don’t want to drive to Mammoth Lakes, you can fly to a variety of airports and rent a car. The closest airports are Mammoth- Yosemite and Bishop, but a more accessible one is in Reno-Tahoe. In order to get the most out of your leaf peeping, you will need a car to get around to all of the areas mentioned in this post.
The best time to see the fall colors in Mammoth Lakes is from Late September through Late October. Of course the timing is not always easy as the fall color season depends on the current weather patterns, but rooms are booked up for months in advance regardless. During that short period of time, roads in the Eastern Sierras are teeming with visitors from all over the states and even some from as far away as Asia, camera’s in hand, ready to see the shift from green to red to orange to yellow on those tiny aspen leaves.
For an up to date report on Mono County fall colors, make sure to check out this website, as well their Instagram page which is awash with spectacular fall colors. Their yearly fall color map download will give you specific information on what area is peaking at the moment. The entire area of the Eastern Sierras starting in Bishop all the way up to the Sonora Pass provides the perfect escape into the wilderness to experience and see the changing of colors for yourself. Finding fall colors in California is not hard if you know where to look!
Where to Find Fall Colors in Mammoth Lakes
In the Mammoth Lakes area there are a ton of places to visit for the best colors. Overall, deciduous trees tend to grow close to water sources – think lakes and creeks. The high elevation areas will see the leaves starting to turn sooner. As the season continues, the cooler temperatures will work their way down to lower elevations, signaling the coming of winter to these areas. When planning your route, consider starting in the higher elevations earlier in the season, working your way down as it gets closer to early November. Below I will outline some of our favorites that provide easy access for the entire family to get in on the fun.
One of my favorite places just off the 395 is Convict Lake. Driving in from Southern California, Convict Lake is about 25 minutes before you reach Mammoth Lakes town. This popular lake is a favorite among locals and visitors alike. The three mile long trail that circles the lake makes it great for all ages throughout the year. Seeing fall colors here can be as quick and easy as hopping out of your car at the parking area. You can also rent a kayak or canoe and get out on the lake to fully immerse yourself. Note: The Convict Lake Resort is a great spot to stay if you want to escape the crowds in Bishop and Mammoth.
Mammoth Lakes Basin
One of my favorite places in summer is the Mammoth Lakes Basin area. However, during our visit, it had the least amount of colorful fall foliage to be seen. That said, it doesn’t mean you should skip this area. Instead, spend time exploring on the bike paths or taking short hikes around the various lakes. We have a huge list of hikes in Mammoth Lakes to check out including Crystal Lake Trail, Heart Lake Trail and more.
Another destination for seeking out Mammoth Lakes fall colors is a bit further up the road, past Mammoth at June Lake. The June Lake Loop is a fantastic excursion for a day trip from Mammoth, offering a scenic 16 mile drive on California State Route 158. This route follows a horseshoe shaped canyon containing four lakes, surrounded by dramatic peaks as your backdrop. Here you can pop out when you wish, walk around or just drive the entire loop taking in the sights and sounds. While this area is not as well serviced as Mammoth, there are a few options for meals, renting kayaks and for fishing.
- June Lake – check out June Lake Beach for some fun and beautiful views
- Gull Lake – Gull Lake Campground makes a great spot to stop for leaf peeping and fishing.
- Silver Lake – A great spot for kayaking if you want to see fall colors from a different perspective. Rent kayaks at the Silver Lake Resort. For hikers, head to the Rush Creek Trailhead near the resort to get your fall colors away from the roads!
- Grant Lake – The largest of the four lakes, you can visit the aspen groves at Parker Bench.
Another great place to view fall colors in California at Mammoth Lakes is the area around McGee Creek. The creek itself is filled with color and if you drive a little further across the bridge you will see more color on the right. To continue on, turn right at the first road you see and stop by the house you see on your right. From here, you can walk to the backside of the creek and explore the area a bit more.
If you are at McGee Creek, you can keep driving to the Crowley Lake exit. for even more opportunities to see the best color. At the intersection of Juniper Drive and Crowley Lane there are a bunch of streets that have some amazing color as well. This scenic drive will provide unique views into the color changes from neighborhood views to majestic mountains.
Rock Creek Lake
Our favorite easy backpacking trails is located at the end of Rock Creek Road. Turns out, it’s’ also amazing for fall colors! Depending on when you visit, you should see the colors all the way up the drive from the main road. As you get closer to the lake, the colors may be dissipating and you will notice the air is a lot cooler. At the end of this road, you are already at 10,000 feet and in higher elevations than many of the other places on this list.
On the further northern end of this list is Lundy Canyon. Located just north of Lee Vining, this area is just stunning. We recommend packing your car full of food, snacks and drinks and spending the day up here. You can hike the Lundy Canyon trail, spend time at Lundy Lake or just slowly cruise around these dirt roads exploring the colors as you see them.
Bishop Creek Canyon
Bishop Creek, just outside of the Bishop area continues to be one of our favorites and one of the best places to see the changing colors of the aspen, willows and cottonwood trees. The gold and orange foliage glisten in the reflections on Lake Sabrina and rivers making this one of the most memorable areas to visit. There are plenty of unpaved roads zigzagging through the countryside with clusters of aspens around the streams, from North Lake to Buttermilk County. To read more on other places to visit in Bishop, you can read our post dedicated to finding fall colors in Bishop.
Where to Stay for Mammoth Lakes Fall Colors
We highly recommend the cute town of Bishop if you want to center your visit around this area, or within Mammoth Lakes town if you want to focus on the areas north of Mammoth.
If your main goal is to seek solace in nature, but with some creature comforts, head into the mountains for a stay at Bishop Creek Lodge, Parchers Resort & Lodge or Cardinal Village Resort. If you were slow to reserve like we were, there are plenty of motels and hotels in Bishop that are within easy reach of the best viewings of peak color.
For those of you wishing to stay in Mammoth, there are a ton of great options from Airbnbs to camping to hotels. We have stayed in all three options and would highly recommend any! If you are in town for a quick visit, we have found that a hotel offers the best bang for your buck, while longer stays make the apartment rentals more cost efficient. If you are early in the season or like cool nights, camping is a great option. Instead of camping up in the Lakes basin area, consider the Sherwin Creek Campground which sits at a lower elevation.
Nature is in charge, so you never know what you will see while searching for fall colors in California, but you can be assured you will have your breath taken away by the alluring colors, no matter where they are in the transition.
If you are looking for other things to do, this time of year is also great for visiting the many hot springs in the Mammoth Lakes area.
For those looking to drive a bit further north, the Lake Tahoe region is perfect for fall hiking or even early winter snow play!
The Eastern Sierras are some of the most magical mountains in California. They offer unparalleled backpacking opportunities on the John Muir Trail, esquite skiing and beautiful views of pristine lakes while hiking around. The fall season is the perfect time to make your visit here!
Have you ever visited the Mammoth Lakes area for fall colors? Do you have a favorite area for checking out the fall colors? Share it with us in the comments below!
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