Few things get my heart racing more than the vivid yellows, oranges, and reds of autumn. And after missing most of last year’s fall color thanks to the double whammy of COVID and California’s extreme fire season, I was especially excited as I motored over the mountains for this year’s Eastern Sierra workshops.
Of course as much as I love it, this trip doesn’t come without its anxiety (that’s just how it is when people pay you to deliver a workshop featuring something as unpredictable as fall color). On the other hand (I reassured myself), there’s a whole lot more to the Eastern Sierra than colorful trees (waterfalls, Mt. Whitney and the Alabama Hills, the ancient bristlecone pines, Mono Lake, and Half Dome from Olmsted Point in Yosemite). Plus, with Eastern Sierra elevations ranging from 4,000 to 10,000 feet (even higher if you don’t mind hiking), finding yellow (and occasionally orange and red) aspen from late-September through October is usually just a matter of changing elevation. Nevertheless, I have a few favorite autumn locations I love sharing with my groups, and it’s impossible to know in advance whether the color there will be early, peaking, or past peak.
The truth is, timing of the fall color peak is fraught with mystery and misconception. Show up at the lake where someone in your camera club said the color was peaking at this time last year, and you might find the trees displaying lime green, mixed with faint hints of yellow and orange. When you check in to the lakeside inn and ask the old guy behind the counter inn what happened to the color, he shakes his head and says matter-of-factly, “The color’s late this year—it hasn’t gotten cold enough yet.” Arriving at the same inn on the same weekend the following year, you find just a handful of tattered leaves clinging to mostly bare branches—this time the old guy hands you your keynd proclaims, “That freeze a couple of weeks ago got the color started early this year—you should have been here last week.”
While these explanations may sound reasonable, they’re not entirely accurate. The truth is, the why and when of fall color is complicated, and armchair experts resort to memory, anecdote, and lore to fill knowledge voids with partial truth and downright myth. But while we still can’t predict fall color the way we do the weather, science does provide pretty good insights of the fall color process upon which to base our plans.
A tree’s color
The leaves of deciduous trees contain a mix of green, yellow, and orange pigments. During the spring and summer growing season, the volume and intensity of the green chlorophyl pigment overpowers the orange and yellow pigments, and the tree stays green. Even though chlorophyl is quickly broken down by sunlight, the process of photosynthesis that turns sunlight into nutrients during the long days of summer continuously replaces the spent chlorophyl.
As the days shrink toward autumn, things begin to change. Cells at the abscission layer at the base of the leaves’ stem (the knot where the leaf connects to the branch) begin the process that will eventually lead to the leaf dropping from the tree: Thickening of cells in the abscission layer blocks the transfer of carbohydrates from the leaves to the branches, and the movement of minerals to the leaves. Without these minerals, the leaves’ production of chlorophyl dwindles and finally stops, leaving just the yellow and orange pigments. Voilà—fall color!
The role of sunlight and weather
Contrary to popular belief, the timing of the onset of this fall color chain reaction depends much more on daylight than it does on temperature and weather. Triggered by a genetically programmed day/night-duration threshold (and contrary to innkeeper-logic), the trees in any given region will commence their transition from green to fall color at about the same time each year, when the day length drops to a certain point.
Nevertheless, though it doesn’t trigger the process, weather does play a significant part in the intensity, duration, and demise of the color season. Because sunlight breaks down the green chlorophyl, cloudy days after the suspension of chlorophyl creation will slow the chlorophyl’s demise and the coloring process that follows. And while the yellow and orange pigments are present and pretty much just hanging out, waiting all summer for the chlorophyl to relinquish control of the tree’s color, that tree’s red and purple pigments are manufactured from sugar stored in the leaves—the more sugar, the more vivid a tree’s red. Ample moisture, warm days, and cool (but not freezing) nights after the chlorophyl replacement has stopped are most conducive to the creation and retention of the sugars that form the red and purple pigments.
On the other hand, freezing temperatures destroy the color pigments, bringing a premature end to the color display. Drought can stress trees so much that they drop their leaves before the color has a chance to manifest. And wind and rain can wreak havoc with the fall display—go to bed one night beneath a canopy of red and gold, and wake the next morning to find the trees bare and the ground blanketed with color.
Since the fall color factors come in a virtually infinite number of possible variations and combinations, the color timing and intensity can vary a lot from year to year. Despite expert advice that seems promise precise timing for the fall color, when planning a fall color trip, your best bet is to try to get there as close as possible to the middle of the color window, then cross your fingers.
Of course, fall color doesn’t need to be on the trees to be photogenic…
Up the creek in Lundy Canyon
Catching up from 2020, this year I did two Eastern Sierra workshops. On the second workshop’s next to the last day, I learned that an incoming storm that threatened to dump a few inches of snow on the highest elevations of the Sierra had forced the National Park Service preemptively close Tioga Pass. That meant I’d lose my Olmsted Point (Yosemite) sunset location, which forced me to improvise.
One option would be to return to Mono Lake South Tufa, but we’d just done sunset there the night before. Another option was the spectacular Minaret Vista above Mammoth, but between smoke (which had dogged us intermittently throughout the second workshop) and the incoming storm, there was no guarantee we’d even see the mountains. So I decided to move the Lundy Canyon shoot from the next morning (when it was supposed to be raining), to that night.
The road up Lundy Canyon starts at around 6500 feet and climbs to more than 8000 feet, with the last mile-and-a-half a pretty gnarly dirt road that can be navigated without high clearance if you take it slow. Lined with aspen, the road follows Mill Creek past a few small waterfalls and reflective beaver ponds. The color along most of the road normally peaks in mid/late October, but near the end of the road it can happen earlier.
We parked at the trailhead at the end of the road, about two hours before sunset. With so many options here, the group immediately scattered, some hiked 1/3 mile up the trail to the small lake behind a massive beaver dam and filled by a nice waterfall; a couple walked the short distance back down the road to another beaver pond; a few headed off into the nearby aspen.
The approaching storm provided the cloud cover we hope for when photographing fall color, but it also brought wind—not so great for fall color. I started with the group behind the beaver dam, then found my way into the aspen, where I spent a little time demonstrating my creative selective focus technique to a couple of participants.
I eventually moved deeper into the aspen, first searching for leaves or trunks to isolate against a soft background, but I hadn’t gone to far before I noticed that the entire forest floor here was blanketed with fresh aspen leaves. Hmmmm…
I added my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens to my Sony a7RIV to try something a little different. My thought was by dropping low, setting up close to the aspen, then going ultra-wide and angling slightly down, I could emphasize the white trunks and yellow leaves, and eliminate the (less attractive bare) mountainside in the background.
One thing I try to be careful about is avoiding any view of the world beyond the scene I want to photograph. By eliminating any hint of the world beyond, someone looking at this image could infer that this grove of aspen might just extend all the way to infinity. Of course that won’t be a conscious thought, but that simple exclusion makes the scene more inviting to anyone who loves the quiet and solitude of a deep forest.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.