When autumn beckons, many leaf peepers head for New England. But out West, there really is “gold in them thar hills”—the mighty Sierra Nevada. Fly in to the Bishop Airport in fall and you’ll strike it rich, guaranteed. The canyons of the eastern Sierras offer an unbeatable combination of vivid aspen, tumbling creeks, and mountain lakes teeming with hungry trout. Jagged peaks tower above the nation’s deepest valley, with a lifetime’s worth of hiking trails in between. You’ll depart for home rich indeed.
Each of these areas—Bishop Creek, McGee Creek, and the June Lake Loop and beyond—makes a wonderful weekend vacation alone. But if you have four or five days, you can visit them all in one trip. One note on flying in: Take winds aloft seriously. Strong winds can create deadly turbulence and downdrafts on the lee side of the Sierras. We suffered a close call years ago. Steve Fossett was less lucky than we were.
Heading north about 20 miles from Bishop on Highway 395, you’ll climb over Sherwin Summit, and then you can turn left at Tom’s Place. A rustic lodge sits at the entrance to Rock Creek Canyon, where you can wander by car or on foot, the busy creek framed for miles by aspen gold. About 10 minutes north of Tom’s Place, across Highway 395 from Crowley Lake, you’ll find McGee Creek, where you can hike along the creek, explore the foothills, and stay at the historic McGee Creek Lodge. McGee Creek Packstation provides trail rides. A few miles north on Highway 395, stop by Convict Lake for stunning views of blue water, jagged peaks, and autumn glory.
About 20 minutes north of Mammoth Airport, the June Lake Loop provides creeks, waterfalls, and four lakes surrounded by aspen and pine—look for bald eagles in the pines. The Double Eagle Resort and Spa also has private cabins and fly fishing. Frontier Pack Train offers trail rides, and fishing or pack trips to suit every taste. Lee Vining is 12 miles farther north on Highway 395, a tiny town with a surprising gourmet spot, the Whoa Nellie Deli. Continue north seven miles to Lundy Lake Road where you’ll spot intensely red trees and a series of beaver dams and their resulting lakes at the end of its dirt road. Hike along Mill Creek in Lundy Canyon (with a couple of stream crossings) and enjoy cascading waterfalls and more aspen backed by Sierra peaks. Finally, you can continue another 20 minutes to Bridgeport with its Italianate courthouse, completed in 1880 and on the National Register of Historic Places. Fall color hot spots near here include Virginia Lake, Twin Lakes, and the Conway Summit.
Want to soak au naturel? Travertine Hot Spring is a half mile south of Bridgeport off Highway 395, and you’ll enjoy panoramic Sierra views. Turn east at Jack Sawyer Road just north of the Ranger Station and proceed one mile on the dirt road; closed in winter. Mono Lake is near Lee Vining; the state preserve protects the strange calcium carbonate tufa towers rising out of the alkaline lake. Over a million shorebirds visit yearly, especially during fall migrations. South Tufa is perhaps the most dramatic area, accessed off Highway 120 south of Lee Vining, open 24 hours. To visit Bodie Ghost Town, continue 11 miles north of Mono Lake to State Highway 270 and then drive 13 miles east. You can explore dozens of deserted structures, now preserved in a state of arrested decay.
Since the Gold Rush days of the 1850s, Easterners have been discovering the natural beauty of the Sierra Nevada. Whether or not they found shiny yellow metal, the new settlers were rewarded each autumn when nature set the canyons ablaze with aspen gold. As a pilot, you can savor this golden gift with a walk along a creek as well as a breathtaking view by air—don’t miss it!
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