I didn’t get it.
I had been repeatedly told Lundy Canyon was the quintessential Sierra hike.
Don’t get me wrong. It had ample wildflowers, a stunning waterfall with a 60-foot drop you can get up to nice and close, beavers, birds, ample peaks, plenty of colorful rock to impress, and trees galore.
And among those trees were plenty of ambers.
My goal on a Saturday in late July was to reach the eastern boundary of Yosemite National Park. I had heard the trail to Helen Lake in the heart of Hoover Wilderness was a tad difficult.
Long story short not only was it hard to find in stretches but the talus chute was more than a bit unstable,
To paraphrase Clint Eastwood, “I knew my limitations.”
The trail was more than too steep and precarious. I turned around and headed back to the trailhead after three times misreading where the trail was buried under rock and ending up in nerve racking terrain that was too steep and unstable for my tastes requiring me to carefully retrace my steps.
I decided to return in September when I was in the mood for a short hike and more sure of myself. I figured the aspens would be worth the trip.
I was wrong.
They were more than worth the trip.
The fall colors accented by the aspens were incredible.
As stunning as parts of Yosemite Valley and Sonora Pass can be in mid-fall and the June Lakes-Mammoth area in mid- to-late fall, Lundy Canyon topped them hands down. That’s saying a lot given how gorgeous June Lake is in the autumn.
Over the years I’ve been a bit startled to find very few people who have ventured into the Eastern Sierra given it is roughly a three-hour drive to crest the Range of Light and to descend the other side of Sonora Pass and Tioga Pass. It is then another half hour to reach several popular destinations.
It goes without saying the best fall colors in a high Sierra setting for the ages is the three-mile out and back Lundy Canyon Trail. The 8,201-foot trailhead is at the end of Lundy Lake west of Bridgeport. It is moderate until you reach the talus chute and then it becomes strenuous as you make your way carefully to Helen Lake at 10,112 feet at the edge of the Twenty Lakes Basin.
That said you can cut out the final ascent up the talus chute to Helen Lake and still get an eyeful of stunning autumn colors along Mill Creek in Lundy Canyon. The trailhead starts appropriately enough in a stand of aspens just beyond Lundy Lake Resort.
There are cabins and campsites at the resort. Between the lake and the beauty of just a mile or so excursion up the canyon would make an ideal stay to decompress and put things in perspective.
If hiking is not your bag
there are easier options
I always thought it was a bit of wishful thinking for the Mammoth Lake Visitors Bureau and its Mono County counterpart to bill Inyo-Mono counties as “The New England” of California.
But then I spent an October weekend taking in the autumn colors.
As long as Tioga Pass (Highway 120) and Sonora Pass (108) are open you can make a fall visit as a day trip do-able. Just keep in mind coming and going you will spend seven hours on the road.
Such a trip would be centered on the June Lake Loop where the terrain is mostly level with three lakes accented by aspens and fall colors that you can drive to.
Add in the autumn colors and scenery you can take in by doing a loop trip — heading up 108 and returning by 120 (or vice versa) — you can make it a pleasant 14-hour day with plenty of fall colors and stunning vistas to soak up while working in a meal in either June Lake, Bridgeport or Lee Vining.
A 4 a.m. departure would allow you to enjoy the colors in the eastern Sierra as their intensity shifts with the moving sun. You would also be able to crest either pass at 9,000 feet as darkness descends. And if the moon is right and the skies are fairly clear you might able to catch the moonlight shimmering on Tioga Lake or Tenaya Lake on the edge of Highway 120 (it becomes Tioga Road through Yosemite).
Keep in mind both passes are open until the first snow that typically doesn’t occur until November. Also taking Highway 120 through Yosemite requires a pass to the national park that is $35 and is good for seven days.
If you want to make it an overnight excursion or multiple days there are other fall color hot spots you can visit around Mammoth Lakes and Convict Lake that you can drive almost up to and have relatively flat terrain to venture forth.
There are also other stunning areas that require more of a hike.
A multiple day trip can include visiting Mono Lake with its eerie tufa towers.
The best place in terms of being close to the colors, in accommodations that are nice and won’t make your ATM card cringe, the best spot to stay is June Lake.
It is devoid of the relatively heavy traffic Highway 395 brings through Lee Vining and Bridgeport. June Lake is also free of the hustle and bustle of Mammoth.
The Mono County Visitors Bureau website (VisitEasternSierra) has the downloadable Eastern Sierra Fall Color Map. There are 22 fall color hot spots highlighted.
Keep in mind the colors linger longer at lower elevations with Mammoth, June Lake, Lee Vining and Bridgeport being the starting point at 7,000 plus feet.
You can get updated detailed autumn color reports at www.CaliforniaFallColor.com or check in with local visitors’ bureau so you can plan your trip for optimum viewing.
Fall colors start appearing in mid-September and can last into late October.