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Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Fall Tour of the Sierras: Bridgeport, Bodie and the June Lakes Loop

Aspens highlight the contours on the flanks of the Eastern Sierras
If forced to choose a favorite season, I'd definitely choose summer. I love the sunny days and warmer nights and the fact that it's the best time to camp in the mountains. But autumn is a close second on my list, and this year Mom and I decided to take a road trip to see what the Eastern Sierras have to offer in the foliage department.

The Western Sierras get a lot of press: Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Tahoe, Donner Lake, the list goes on. I love those places, but they are kind of loved to death most of the year. For our road trip we decided to travel a little farther (hopefully away from the crowds) and visit some of my favorite getaways along Highway 395. Besides, when Mark and I were there during the previous summer I saw a really cool pamphlet touting the fall color in the area. The Inyo/Mono County Tourism Board scored on that one.

(image credit: Inyo and Mono Counties)
The pamphlet had informed us every year is different; the fall color season can be spectacular in early September, or stretch out into mid October, or if the rains come too soon it might not be much of anything at all. I had kept my fingers crossed for weeks, watching the weather forecast and checking the tourism websites for updates (yes, there is actually a website for this at http://www.californiafallcolor.com of course!).

I couldn't convince Mom to camp along the way—truth be told I didn't try too hard, it's cold up there in October!—so I booked some rooms along the way. If you plan to do this, a little advice: this area is a bit more popular than I realized in autumn, so book early, especially if you're picky about the lodgings. It might have been easier to camp, although many of the campgrounds were closed for the season at the end of September.

We drove up and over Monitor Pass, stopping for lunch in Markleeville for some delicious Mexican food at a little cafe. I had never had the chance to stop here, save for the quaint old general store and a quick swim in Grover's Hot Springs once, so it was fun to explore the tiny, one street town. Just out of town we found our first hint of what was to come: The first look at some aspens that were turning golden along Poor Boy Creek. We stopped at a turnout and took some photos before continuing up to the pass.

Aspens mix it up with the pines outside of Markleeville

A couple of big wildfires have burned through the Monitor Pass area in the last few years, the most recent just last August, so the flora on the way over was somewhat limited. Once we got down to the turnoff to Highway 395 though, the trees started making an appearance again. Things were looking very promising. We stopped at a day use area along the Walker River and watched the water flow by for a bit. This year's snowfall was near record breaking and there was still snow on the highest peaks that made for some beautiful scenery and a fast flowing river.

The Walker River
Mom brushes up on the ecology of the Walker River ecosystem
Our first stop was Bridgeport, where we had reserved rooms at the Bridgeport Inn. We couldn't check in until four though, so we took a tour around Twin Lakes first. It was not nearly as crowded as during the summer months but there were still a considerable amount of fisherman there tooling around on kayaks and small boats. It was a picture perfect day.
Upper Twin Lake, where the trees were just starting to turn.

The view from one of my room windows.
Bridgeport courthouse



The Bridgeport Inn has a line of motor-lodge type rooms behind the original inn but, being the old-house fanatic I am, I wanted to stay in the circa 1877 building. Our rooms were cozy, and the bathrooms impossibly small, but I loved it. The carpets were bright red, the curtains frilly, and the furniture old-timey—a very Victorian experience. Added bonus? It's supposed to be haunted.

It was darn cold that morning, 25 degrees. These flowers had turned
to popsicles in the sprinkler spray on the courthouse lawn.

We got up early the next day and walked across the street to the High Sierra Bakery where Mom got "the best maple bar there ever was." (Don't challenge this statement; Mom is an expert when it comes to maple flavored anything.) I had a delicious sticky bun, covered with candied pecans. It was the perfect way to start the day, although Mom deeply regretted not getting a maple bar to go.

This is the look you get when keeping her
from eating her maple bar













Our mission that day was to find some serious fall color and visit Bodie Historic State Park. It's one of my favorite places in the world and when I found out Mom had never been, there was no question we'd be going there.

First we drove up the gravel road Mark and I had explored that summer just outside of town. I had seen a cluster of aspens then, and was hoping there would be even more farther up the canyon. Mom was a sport; we had to go several miles up the rough dirt road and even make a few small stream crossings to get there (did I mention we were driving her car?). It paid off though; an old mill pond and a lovely creek flowed through a stand of bright yellow aspens. We took a short trail to check out the pond. As we were leaving a couple pulled up in an old truck and started gearing up to go fly fishing. I made a mental note to bring Mark here next year to try our luck.

Mom on the trail to the pond
The pond on Green Creek
Aspens lining Green Creek, the snow covered Sierras in the background.
Bodie was great, as it always is. I made Mom pose for me here and there, and she read me the points of interest from the guide booklet we got at the gate. It was nice to have a tour guide: I'm usually the one trying to read the excerpts to Mark while trying to catch my breath in Bodie's 8400' elevation.

This giant fly wheel greets you on arrival to Bodie State Park

Mom's ready for a lift, mining style.

One of the nicest houses in town.
Doesn't this photo just make you want to yell "Shane! Come back!"
A cabin room is reflected in a hutch mirror
Mom takes a rest from her tour guide gig in front of the IOOF building, Bodie State Park
Once back out on the road, one of the most spectacular sights was from a large turnout on the side of the highway. We pulled over with a number of other cars and gawked at the huge snowy mountains, with the smaller foothills lined with brightly colored trees snaking down the creek beds and crevices (large photo at the top of the blog). It was breathtaking.

Oh, here it is again. I don't think the photo does it justice though.

We explored the road to Virginia Lake and found a lot of color (and people) there. It was a lesson in Fall Color Timing; the trees at the 6000' elevation were just turning, 7500' was full color, and at the top of the road (9000+'), the trees had already dried up and lost most of their leaves. Elevation plays a huge roll in the dynamics of leaf color. Trees are affected by temperature and amount of sunlight during the day, so the cooler temps at night, and days further shortened by the shadows of the mountains lead to the leaves turning more quickly in higher elevations. This effect works its way down the mountains, finally ending in the valleys below. While it would be nice to have the beautiful colors everywhere you go, it's helpful to have the season drawn out, otherwise there would only be a one week window to view them.
I really wanted to go up this gravel road, but it didn't look suitable for a mom-car outing.
Next time we're in the area with our truck we'll make the trek.
I like how crooked the trunks were in this area
We stopped in for some snacks at the general store in Lee Vining, then took our apple and cheese lunch up to the Mono Lake Visitors Center. The back patio has a great view of the lake, and makes a nice spot for a picnic lunch.

Even the cottonwood outside the Mono Lake visitor's center got into the action
Our next stop was the June Lakes loop. This area is jammed packed in the summer with campers and fisherman, and I know it's a popular winter stopover, but I had no idea just how popular it would be during the "off" season. There's a good reason for this; the scenery in the summer is great, but autumn was spectacular!
A colorful valley on the June Lakes loop. Makes you want to yodel, doesn't it?
The aspens seemed to be climbing the granite
It's funny how the trees would grow in patches, something you don't notice in the summer

We stayed at the Whispering Pines motel, which is a funky old resort that looks like it was built in the 50s and renovated promptly in the 80s. They are working on another renovation now, I think, but I liked the funky charm. It kind of reminded me of all my friend's houses when I was growing up. Each room had a little kitchenette, which would have been great had we been staying longer than one night (eating out all the time gets tiresome). They had little cabins for rent too, but there was a three night minimum for those. The view though...that view from the balcony was awesome. The rooms faced a massive granite cliff, resplendent with splotches of fall color and a waterfall to boot. Despite the chilly morning, I stood outside the room, snapping photo after photo of the moon going down over the granite.
Close up you can see the color variations.

The moon was setting over granite cliffs right outside our rooms that morning in June Lakes. Note the waterfall at the left, because the colorful trees and granite and moon weren't enough to make it spectacular.

We finished our trip with a drive up and over Tioga Pass, another first for Mom. I felt privileged to show off Yosemite's high country to her, and on such an incredibly warm and sunny day too. We got really lucky; it had snowed the weekend previous and closed the road, but only for a day or so. It's always touch and go when it comes to the passes in the area at this time of year.

The always beautiful Tenaya Lake, Yosemite National Park
I had a great time, and I think Mom did too. I know we're related, because the last item on her to-do list for the trip was to stop for a frosty. We found the perfect spot in Oakdale, halfway home.

Enjoying a half & half frosty, Sno White Drive-In, Oakdale CA
We saw a small grass fire just outside of Fairfield on our way home. Little did we know we were in for far worse once we got home. I'm glad we were clueless at the time; it would have spoiled a perfect road trip with my very first traveling partner in life.

Mom, let's do this again soon.

(This trip was taken October 6-8 2017. Since it had been an extremely snowy 2016-2017 winter, the colors were delayed more than usual. Always check the website and other sources before you plan your trip as the ideal timing varies greatly from year to year.)