Fall color season is long gone in the Sierra, but the following couple posts might be helpful to bookmark if you’re looking into experiencing the wonderful fall color show in the Eastern Sierra next autumn. This post is on McGee Creek and the next post will be on some great fall color hikes farther north including one of my favorites from Twin Lakes to Barney Lake.
For a few weeks in the late September through mid October, aspen groves in the canyons and hillsides in the Eastern Sierra transform into dazzling displays of fall color. Every year the show presents itself slightly differently resulting from variability in soil moisture, preceding weather conditions (both winter and summer), winds and other factors. The aspen groves are typically found at elevations ranging from 7,000 feet to 9,500 feet with any aspen above that elevation becoming patchy and scrubby in nature. There are some aspen in the canyons west of the crest, often intermingling with pines and firs, but the drier climate east of the crest is much more conducive to expansive groves, particularly from Big Pine Creek northward.
In the Sierra the aspen are never present in the overwhelming quantities that are found in some other parts of the American west. instead what makes the Eastern Sierra aspen show special is it’s positioning in rugged settings including deep canyons or high on steep mountainsides which contrasts with the rugged, rocky peaks of the High Sierra above. Most of the famous aspen groves are accessible by car and the trailheads are located near the upper limit of the aspen, particularly Bishop Creek and Rock Creek. This means that it does not require much effort to see the famous aspen; simply drive through the groves and pull off for photography. However, some of the most rewarding opportunities to view the fall color are when it requires a hike or trail run to see and experience it. In these peaceful and quiet settings one’s senses become heightened and you can truly become immersed in the fall color.
McGee Creek features one such trail. While there is great fall color along the McGee Creek road and at the trailhead, some of the best stuff is located above the trailhead where one must lace up and get out for a walk or run. For about 3 miles of single track the fall color display is nearly continuous with cottonwoods, willows and aspen that turn beautiful yellow and orange. The setting of the display is unreal with steep canyon sides rising to rugged peaks and contrasting with colorful geology of red, white and gray rocks. The most prominent peak at the head of the canyon is Mount Baldwin with it’s red and white rock. The aspen, cottonwood, and willow groves are most concentrated along the creek as it winds through the deep, glacier-carved canyon.
At about 2.5 miles one arrives at a large beaver pond where a mountainside filled with small slide aspen becomes ablaze with yellow and orange and reflects in the water with Mount Crocker looming in the distance. Beyond the Beaver Pond the aspen begin to thin out but pockets of aspen can be found for over a mile beyond. Eventually the forest transitions entirely to whitebark pine and the fall color show is largely over. One can continue to beautiful Big McGee Lake, McGee Pass and high points like Red Slate Mountain and Red and White Mountain. While fall color is not as present at these higher elevations, fall is often an awesome time to visit the high Sierra.
This year I made two trips to McGee Creek for fall color separated by only a week. It was amazing to see the progression of the fall color over just 7 days and the two visits really highlighted the ephemeral nature of the show – 1-2 weeks in any given location for peak color. Complete photo albums from this years hikes to see the McGee Creek fall color: (1) in connection with climb of Red and White Mountain and (2) the following weekend.