Fall foliage usually peaks in late September, and the most colorful quaking aspen are in the creek canyons along Highway 395, especially from Bridgeport to Bishop.
Hoover Wilderness provides an accessible hike that progresses through a full complement of eastern Sierra tree life, topping out at a string of beautiful high alpine lakes at the northern edge of Yosemite National Park. From the Green Creek Campground just outside of Bridgeport, take the trail southwest toward Green Lake, then head south to Summit Lake, about 7 miles in. For a quick overnight, continue on the trail to the Virginia Lakes region. For an ambitious four-day hike, pop over Summit Pass to connect to the Pacific Crest Trail, which will take you down Cold Canyon and eventually to Tuolumne Meadows. Contact: Bridgeport Ranger Station, P.O. Box 595, Bridgeport, CA 93517; (619) 932-7070. For the long route, you’ll need backcountry permits from Yosemite National Park, P.O. Box 577, Yosemite National Park, CA 95389; (209) 372-4461.
Wheeler Crest sits just above Rock Creek, one of the more spectacular aspen and birch-lined creeks in the area. About 3 miles up Rock Creek Road, almost opposite Red Mountain, a trail to the left quickly climbs almost 1,000 feet, then parallels the crest, granting a bird’s-eye view of the canyon. The John Muir Wilderness surrounds you, and numerous trail options lead to your choice of alpine lakes, Sierra peaks, or the potential to link up with the John Muir Trail. Contact: Inyo National Forest Headquarters, 873 N. Main St., Bishop, CA 93514; (760) 873-2400.
Ansel Adams Wilderness is easily accessible from trailheads on CA 158 just north of Silver Lake. A tough 3,000-foot climb past Agnew Lake and Gem Lake to Gem Pass eventually rises above the trees and into the spectacular landscapes memorialized by Ansel Adams, the famed landscape photographer who preferred to capture the colorful surroundings on black-and-white film. For a three-day trip, continue past Waugh Lake, climb Donohue Pass on the John Muir Trail, then connect with the Pacific Crest Trail through Lyell Canyon to finish at Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park. Contact: Inyo National Forest Headquarters, 873 N. Main St., Bishop, CA 93514; (760) 873-2400. For Yosemite backcountry permits: Yosemite National Park, P.O. Box 577, Yosemite National Park, CA 95389; (209) 372-4461.
Resource: California’s Eastern Sierra: A Visitor’s Guide, by Sue Irwin (1992; Cachuma Press; 805-688-0413; email@example.com; $18.95) is a thorough introduction both to the natural history and the exploration of the area.