Christine Lyckholm, a resident of Lodi, started out Friday wanting to hike somewhere near Sonora Pass, but when she saw brilliant fall colors coming off stands of quaking aspen next to Deadman Creek she changed plans and started taking photos.
“I hike here in the spring, summer and fall every single weekend,” Lyckholm said about 1 p.m. in the Chipmunk Flat area below Sonora Pass, next to Highway 108 in the upper Stanislaus River watershed and Tuolumne County. “Either here in Sonora Pass or Yosemite. And this right here is so beautiful. I think this is the prettiest highway in the state.”
Lyckholm said she loves to watch the aspen change because it’s the start of the transition for so many other Central Sierra plants that change colors in the fall.
“Look at that color,” she said, nodding toward a stand of aspen with green, yellow and orange leaves close to Deadman Creek, within sight of white, snow-dusted ridges of black and brown volcanic rock under a deep blue sky.
“It’s just gorgeous,” she said. “It’s shot with gold.”
Lyckholm said it’s also beautiful right now over at Leavitt Meadow, below Highway 108 on the east side of Sonora Pass in the West Walker River watershed and Mono County.
Gerti and Paul Vander Schuur, of Ripon, parked their BMW R1200 GSA boxer-twin motorcycle at Leavitt Falls Vista overlooking Leavitt Meadow to admire the view and take photos.
“We started in Ripon and went up Highway 88, Carson Pass,” Gerti Vander Schuur said. They were returning westbound on Highway 108 to get up and over Sonora Pass into Tuolumne County.
“The colors are peaking,” Paul Vander Schuur said. “Especially the east side of Carson Pass. Aspen, it’s lime green to yellow to orange. The sagebrush smells like honey. It’s blooming.”
Asked where they’d seen the best fall foliage color Friday, he said, “Best we’ve seen so far is Hope Valley on Highway 88, just short of Highway 89. West of Markleeville and all through Markleeville, but mainly Hope Valley.”
Mother Lode residents can reach Hope Valley via Highway 4 East in Calaveras County and loop back through Markleeville and Hope Valley to return via Highway 88 West to Jackson on Highway 49.
According to the El Dorado County-based nonprofit Sierra Forest Legacy, aspen in the Central Sierra are medium-sized deciduous trees that shed their leaves annually, and they are often referred to as quaking aspen.
Leaves of the aspen tree shake and shimmer in the wind and provide accompanying sound easily identified once heard. Aspen can live as long as 150 to 200 years, and they grow in many soil types, especially sandy and gravelly slopes. They grow best where soils are moist and sunshine is plentiful, which is why so many are thriving right now next to Deadman Creek on the west side of Sonora Pass and next to Sardine Creek on the east side.
Aspen are not tolerant of shade and they do not compete well with more shade-tolerant conifer species.
Further west on Highway 108 from Clarks Fork Road west to Donnells Vista and Strawberry, there are roadside pockets of fall color where black oaks, low-lying vine maple, ferns and other plants are changing yellow and red.
Off Highway 108 and west of Pinecrest there’s more color to be seen along Crabtree Road near Aspen Meadow Pack Station. There are more oaks with yellow, red and brown leaves, more vine maple with yellow leaves carpeting the roadside in places, and more ferns turning yellow and brown in the intense autumn sunshine.
There are numerous pockets of fall color all along Highway 49 as well, featuring dogwood, maple, aspen and poplar that help paint the Mother Lode with flaming oranges, reds and yellows, according to HistoricHwy49.com.
Recommended in Calaveras County and off Highway 4 are stands of colorful dogwood throughout Calaveras Big Trees State Park, aspen and juniper contrasting with exposed volcanic rock formations on both sides of Ebbetts Pass, more aspen at Hermit Valley west of Ebbetts Pass, and more scenic fall foliage at Lake Alpine and Bear Valley.
Staff with Caltrans District 10 and road crews based in Long Barn have already reopened Sonora Pass twice in the past two weeks in the wake of early winter storms, the first of which occurred before summer ended and fall began.
With the potential for rapid changes in the weather on Highway 4 and Ebbetts Pass, Highway 108 and Sonora Pass, and Highway 120 and Tioga Pass, Caltrans staff are urging motorists to be prepared for more early winter weather.
Pass travelers should carry chains, extra food, water and blankets in case of emergency and watch for Caltrans road crews. At least two Caltrans crews were out Friday in orange trucks with “Do Not Pass” signs, installing tall snow markers on the shoulders of Highway 108 that will later allow them to know where the road is under snowdrifts that can get 15 to 20 feet deep.