Eastern Sierra Nevada Autumn Color

In just a few weeks the wonder of autumn color will begin to decorate the canyons of the eastern Sierra Nevada. These lemon-lime, yellow, gold, and orange slopes and canyons draw scores of photographers each year – myself included – from late September through early November as the color moves from the highest elevations down towards the floors of the valleys. The where-to and how-to photograph autumn color are well-covered on other sites (including the wonderful and thorough Eastern Sierra page of G. Dan Mitchell). This entry is not a prognostication for the coming 2013 season, but  I will promise you this: this year’s Autumn color may be early, late, great, or poor. In other words, climate change and continuing California drought makes color forecasting a folly (the Eastern Sierra has experienced multiple years of “average” – not great – color). And after a 17% of normal snowpack 2012/2013 winter, what will happen with this year’s color is anyone’s guess. The best way to ensure that you’ll photograph during the peak of color is to follow the numerous online reports and to simply invest as much of your time photographing as you can. Good photographs rarely arise from limited photographic itineraries.


Choking at Olmsted Point

Shauna and I arrived in Tuolumne Meadows (Yosemite National Park) on August 30 with the intent of a few days of technical rock climbing and hiking (a long-running annual outing for us). What we didn’t know is that earlier that day the wind current had shifted, blanketing Tuolumne Meadows and the eastern Sierra in the thick, acrid smoke of the Sierra Nevada’s Rim Fire (now the third largest in California’s history). On the 31st – with out eyes still burning – we drove to Olmsted Point to assess conditions (photo to left). I was able to download Howard Scheckter’s wonderful weather report  which confirmed our bad timing and a couple more smokey days in Yosemite’s high country. Everything looked and felt sad, so we departed from Yosemite and headed south to the smoke-free zone.

South Lake - GONE!

South Lake – GONE!

We ended up in familiar Bishop Creek Canyons and Rock Creek Canyon for the next few days. The weather was beautiful, the temperatures cool, and the smoke nearly invisible. I did not expect to find any autumn color. We headed to South Lake hoping to paddle our kayak, but what we found was shocking: A nearly disappeared South Lake! I observed and photographed two vest-wearing fishermen walking the bathtub rings of the lake bottom who were likely as shocked as I was. South Lake is an Edison-managed power-generating reservoir, but I have never seen it look like this. Many photographers are accustomed to shooting the colored slopes and shimmering lake – not this year! Many trees and aspen groves around South Lake exhibited surprisingly early color (some rather advanced yellows and oranges). This is not a forecast, but the arrival of color as much as 30 days early is not a good sign.

Lake Sabrina - GONE!

Lake Sabrina – GONE!

In search of water and paddling, we headed next to the North Fork and Lake Sabrina. More shock and awe – Sabrina was GONE! I found the “PLEASE BE CAREFUL” sign to be a rather sad and ironic statement on this water-less and boat-less reservoir. Many photographers are also accustomed to shooting these colored slopes and shimmering lake – not this year!


PRINTS FOR SALE – click for details and larger view

Still in search of water and paddling opportunities, we found ourselves in Rock Creek Canyon the next day. Here is where I observed some of the most advanced aspen color (September 1??). The photo at right was made on September 2 in a location that I visit and photograph each year, typically during the first week of October. This small grove was in peak color on September 2, and these leaves will be gone with the the coming season’s first strong winds.

Although climate change is still denied by many, those of us who spend much time outside see obvious signs everywhere.

You are visiting the blog of fine art photographer Michael E. Gordon. Please visit his official website  for more information.

9 thoughts on “Eastern Sierra Nevada Autumn Color

    • Hey Floris: The reservoirs look this way because output has exceeded input. Consider the current state of “Lake” Powell…. Natural Sierra lakes currently look mostly normal.

      Aspen color in the E. Sierra requires fatter winters and/or summer rains in order to appear vibrant. Color has been lackluster the last few years because we’ve had neither.

      Thanks for commenting! I hope you’re doing great.

  1. Wow indeed. This is a powerful statement regarding the effects of climate change. Backpacking the Sierra this summer, the natural lakes all seemed “normal,” but what you found at South and Sabrina Lakes is surprising…disconcerting.

    I participated in the Tioga Pass Run this last weekend, and experienced many of the same reactions as you did to the smoke and general feel of the area. ‘Sad’ is a good word to describe things, and that general feel has been on my mind a lot this week since returning home.


    • Hi Greg: On this trip, I glassed (with binoculars) two Sierra ice gullies that I climbed once upon a time (Mt. Humphreys, Mt. Gilbert). Both are now melted out, and the Palisades Glacier’s U-Notch and V-Notch look nearly unclimbable and unsafe right now. Many of the ‘permanent’ snowfields that once existed are now gone, and the Lyell Glacier was recently declared stagnant (no longer living/moving). Climate change is gripping the Sierra; I’m not sure how naysayers can keep a straight face anymore…

      • Hi, Michael. Yeah, sometimes it’s difficult to not be blunt, but at this point denying global warming & climate change is simply ignorance. The Sierra’s glaciers are going the way of the glaciers in Glacier NP.

        For people like you and I (and anyone else reading our blogs for that matter), this amounts to a level of suffering we have to cope with, not unlike suffering the loss of a close friend. Pico Iyer had a nice op-ed piece last weekend in the NY Times on the value of suffering that I think relates to this loss; you might be interested in it:


  2. According to the Lake Sabrina facebook page (which is moderated by one of the family members that run the restaurant/boat facility at the lake), an inspection of the dam was required last year by the federal government leaving the lake about 1/2 full at the end of last season. Only raised a few feet this year.

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