Last autumn, we headed west in our Airstream camping trailer with the goal of being in Yosemite National Park for two weeks, only stopping on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains because a great wild camping spot aligned with our travel schedule. As a Colorado-based landscape photographer, I have a lot of experience with the Rocky Mountain’s superlative aspen forests and rugged mountain scenery. With some of the most expansive stands of colorful autumn trees at my fingertips each autumn, I had pretty low expectations for photographing fall colors in California’s Eastern Sierra. But, after a little more than a week camped near Mono Lake and in close proximity to some of the best fall color spots that the Eastern Sierra area has to offer, I came away with a strong appreciation for this landscape and its trees.
From Lone Pine to the south and Bridgeport to the north, California Highway 395 snakes for about 150 miles along the base of the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This highway offers convenient access to a wide variety of natural features, including the Owens River Valley, the Alabama Hills, the Buttermilk Hills, many lakes, numerous canyons, and some of North America’s finest hiking trails. For photography in the autumn, the lakes, canyons, and hillsides dotted with colorful trees offer the best opportunities for landscape photographers.
While the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains offer up hillsides covered in colorful trees to landscape photographers, the Eastern Sierra offers more mixed and intimate views. Smaller patches of often craggy and distinctive trees dot steep hillsides or rolling sage-filled hills, with coniferous trees and granite boulders mixed in. While the opportunities for more expansive grand landscapes are a bit more limited than some other fall colors destinations in the United States, I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in the vignettes and small scenes offered up by this landscape.
Beyond the colorful trees, we also photographed the popular Mono Lake tufas. While we have visited Mono Lake on many occasions in the past, California’s drought has changed the landscape at Mono Lake. With the lake level lower than normal, different features are exposed, creating new opportunities for photography than on previous trips.
Logistics & Timing
The general areas around June Lake, Mono Lake, and the town of Lee Vining can serve as an excellent base for exploring this area in the fall and is where we stayed. Some of the best spots for fall colors are in close proximity, with Mono Lake close by for an added photography opportunity. This general area also offers many opportunities for camping and lodging, making this an easy logistical trip. We visited during mid-October, which at least for 2015 turned out to be perfect timing for the lower elevation stands of aspens in the areas we visited. Photographers can also choose among many other base locations along Highway 395, or move from spot to spot based on conditions.
Trip Planning Resources
Mono County publishes a concise but excellent fall colors guide, which served as our primary resource for the trip. In addition to their updates on Facebook and condition reports from California photographer Michael Frye, we had more than enough information about the best spots and current conditions to fill about a week and a half with exploring and photography.
Having visited most of North America’s prime locations for fall colors, I can confidently offer that California’s Eastern Sierra offers up excellent opportunities for landscape photography and should be on every photographer’s list of places to visit.
About the author: Based in the Rocky Mountain West, photographer Sarah Marino travels the country in a 25-foot Airstream trailer with husband and fellow photographer Ron Coscorrosa. Together they produce high-quality educational photography e-books and other nature photography resources. You can view more of Sarah’s work and read her travel stories at www.naturephotoguides.com.
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Some advice requested? I have two Yashica 35 mm film cameras. I have used them for over 45 years. I have about two rolls of film left. So what is your recommendation on buying a new camera. I am about ready to give up on film.
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I agree with yo 100% about the beauty of the Eastern Sierra. Going there again this October. Can you tell me about the shot of leaves on the ground. The field of focus is even across the entire frame. Did you point the camera straight down?
Hi, Steve. Yes, my camera was pointed straight down to the ground. The leaves and grasses were fairly flat, so focusing and getting everything sharp in a single frame was easy. In this case, I fully extended my tripod legs and spread them far apart to allow me to point my camera downward without getting the tripod legs in the frame. Enjoy your trip in October!
Your first picture of trees (beautiful). Where do you put the focus point of the picture.
Hi, Gerald. Thank you for the kind comment. In this case, the focus point was likely around the trees on the front on the left. The distance between the front trees and the back trees isn’t very far, making focusing for this photo pretty straighforward. I was able get all of the trees in focus in one frame with a smaller aperture (f/16). I also used my camera’s depth of field preview in conjunction with live view to make sure that everything is in focus before clicking the shutter. If not, then I can adjust my focus point in the field.