If you're going to chase fall colors in the Eastern Sierra, aim high — and then low. The sweep of aspens turning gold and orange began at higher elevations in mid-September and may last as late as November in the valleys.
Boots-on-the-ground leaf-spotters report that trees appear to be turning about a week earlier than last year. Colors are popping in the high lakes near Bishop Creek and are expected sometime this month at places such as Mammoth Lakes and June Lake farther north.
At this time of year, U.S. 395 along the Owens Valley becomes the Fall Color Expressway, with plenty of turnoffs to canyons and lakes from Lone Pine in the south to Topaz Lake on the northern border with Nevada.
Catching the peak moment involves a little homework: Pay attention to elevation and color reports before you hop in the car.
"In California, if colors peaked last week at 9,000 feet, it's now peak time at 8,500 feet," said John Poimiroo, who posts reports from leaf-spotters around the state at his website californiafallcolor.com. "We drop consistently 500 feet per week. That's what gives us the longest fall color season in the U.S. and the most dependable."
The most popular trees for Sierra colors are aspens, which turn from lime green to gold, orange and sometimes a light or rosy red. Cottonwoods, willows, black oaks and even some big-leaf maple trees keep alive the mostly yellow color palette.
Naturalists, weather forecasters and leaf-spotters say they don't know how intense colors will be this year (sunny, warm days and cool nights are best). The drought has caused leaves to turn faster, and freak rainstorms or super-dry winds that strip leaves off the trees could spoil the show too.
But one thing the pros agree on: When the colors hit, go immediately; they don't stick around in one area for long.
"Any time in the first three weekends in October, you're going to find a lot of great stuff to see," said Bartshe Miller, a naturalist guide based at Mono Lake near Lee Vining.
Here are some fall color stops in the Eastern Sierra that experts recommend. Check the color report (see below) and weather before you head north in search of the Sierra's true colors.
Bishop Creek west of Bishop: Expect crowds. Visitors and especially photographers flock to North, South and Sabrina lakes along the winding mountain road (California 168) to shoot colors reflected in the lakes. South Lake is a mere puddle because of the drought, but turn onto North Lake Road, park and walk a bit. Here you can be immersed in thick stands of golden aspens that line the roadway all the way to the lakes. Colors peaked last weekend, but that doesn't mean it's too late to see color here.
June Lake Loop north of Mammoth Lakes: Farther north, turn off 395 onto California 158 that loops past June, Gull, Silver and Grant lakes. A trail on the west side of June Lake is good for bicycling and hiking. Or you can drive the 14-mile loop and stop at whichever lake you like. The road eventually takes you back to U.S. 395.
The hidden gems
McGee Creek Canyon west of Crowley Lake: This is a good spot to take off on foot to see the aspens that line the creek. Take McGee Creek Road off the 395 and continue to the end (it becomes a gravel road). There's a trail where you can walk a little or a lot — it's five miles one way to Steelhead Lake — to catch the colors. Stop at the East Side Bakery at the trailhead for coffee and freshly made pies and quiche.
Lundy Canyon northwest of Mono Lake: It's worth stopping at Mono Lake to see the quirky tufa towers (more revealed now, thanks to the drought) as well as the cottonwoods and willows on the west shore.
The late show
Round Valley northwest of Bishop: It's a nice little spot on a paved old highway, a good place to see poplars and cottonwoods, as well as views of Sierra landmarks such as Wheeler Crest, Bishop Creek Canyon and Mt. Tom. Take South Round Valley Road off U.S. 395 and make a loop with Pine Creek Road.
Walker River Canyon north of the Sonora Pass: Stay on U.S. 395 for one of the prettiest stretches of roadway. Cottonwoods and willows join aspens on this route from the canyon north to Topaz Lake on the Nevada state line. It's often good for color into November, but stay on top of reports to make sure.
If you go
CaliforniaFallColor.com tracks the most current reports from more than 50 leaf-spotters in the Eastern Sierra and around the state. The real-time color photos are great to help you figure out what's happening where. Photos from prior years can help you plan where you want to go, and an interactive map shows "where's fall now" at a glance.
California's Eastern Sierra Fall Color Guide & Map is a great trip planner that outlines 21 fall color stops along U.S. 395 in Inyo and Mono counties. It's free; you can download it at bit.ly/1ups01b or pick up a copy at a visitor center.
Nothing replaces good old-fashioned insider tips. Joe Pollini at the Bishop Chamber of Commerce (690 N. Main St.;  873-8405, bishopvisitor.com) is happy to share his knowledge with visitors. "There's a spot behind Rainbow Pack Outfitters [west of Bishop] right behind the cabins where I was just surrounded by gold," he said.
MonoCounty.org provides a list of ranger station and visitor centers where you can find information and maps in Lone Pine, Bridgeport, June Lake and other areas on U.S. 395. It also offers tips on where to enjoy fresh homemade pie (Pie in the Sky Café at Rock Creek Lakes Resort). Go to bit.ly/1pdCJVm