I am continuing on last week’s theme so I can talk about some more of the unique aspects of the Sierra autumn, to help you get the most from photographing this spectacular display.
Chasing the Color
In the eastern United States, color starts up north and moves south as the season progresses. In the Sierra, color starts at the higher elevations, which experience cooler nights earlier in the season than lower elevations. The Aspen groves above 8000-9000 feet are generally smaller “scrub” and their color display can peak quickly. It’s quite common for the peak to have passed at 9000 feet, with the leaves off the trees, but still find green trees at lower elevations.
I chase the color by elevation. If the trees down low (~7000 feet) are green, go higher on any of the amazing side roads off Highway 395 and elsewhere that lead to high elevation. If the trees up high are past peak, go to lower elevations.
Color may also change more rapidly depending on how far north or south in the Sierra you are. My experience from north to south is mainly from Conway Summit (just north of Lee Vining) to Bishop, where trees peak fairly close to the same time…but if nothing is happening where you are, drive somewhere else!
As the Aspens peak in the Eastern Sierra, the color is usually starting in the Western Sierra, with incredible Black Oaks and Big Leaf Maples, and wonderful meadows of dried grasses. Many years I’ve photographed the oaks in Yosemite into November.
Fall Color Reports
How do you decide if it’s worth the drive? I’m about three hours from the Aspens in Lee Vining Canyon when Tioga pass is open. It’s a long haul for just a day of photographing, but I’ll do it when I can’t stay longer. But it’s always easier to be motivated to make the drive and take the time if you know you’ll find some good color, not just green trees or blown out trees…so it’s a reasonable idea to check out fall color reports.
The problem with fall color reports is that everyone seems to evaluate the conditions differently. Too many times I’ve read reports that this area or that area was “past peak,” only to go for myself and see that the peak had only just begun. Therefore, I generally don’t trust color reports unless they are from friends who I know and trust. My favorite way to see what’s going on is to view pictures people have posted from recent trips, as this allows me to make my own judgement on whether the color is peaking, or not.
When in doubt, go anyway! Even a bad day of photography is better than the best day at work, and I almost always manage to find something if I just get off my haunches and go out with my camera!
While fall color photography often focuses on the bold colors of the trees, don’t miss the subtlety all around. The understory of the forest is filled with a multitude of plants that are wonderful in their autumn garb. One of my favorite things is walking through the meadows of Yosemite and looking at the multitude of browns, tans, yellows, and other earthy colors. I’m particularly fond of the dead stalks of cow’s parsnip, and the wonderful pods of milkweed as they burst open to release their seeds. Try and throw away your preconceived notions and photograph what you find!