Coronado locals refer to early autumn as a “second summer.” The weather remains mild, the walkways less crowded, and streets a little more open. The same holds true for our National Parks and Forests and the post-Labor day season is the perfect time to explore the Sierra Nevada landscape by engaging in the Californian-way of “leaf-peeping.”
Leaf-peeping, you say? A foreign term to some Coronado residents, but to our Midwestern and New England counterparts it refers to those who hit the road in early autumn seeking to capture the beauty of fall foliage. What California lacks in deciduous nature, it makes up for with its rare variety of needled trees found along the Sierras—the Sequoia, Yucca Palm, Ancient Bristlecone and Ponderosa Pines. (Here’s a FUN FACT: Both of the world’s oldest and tallest trees are located in California.)
For this “second summer” road trip, the toughest part is slogging through SoCal traffic. Aim for an early departure (before 5 am), and you’ll coast through LA in two hours arriving at your first destination before lunch!
Another helpful tidbit—make sure you check the alerts at the parks. When I traveled to Sequoia National Park with my family, they were conducting a controlled burn. Luckily, it didn’t affect our visit (or our children’s health) and the Sequoias require the heat for germination.
Hikes and Highlights: Congress Trail and the General Sherman Tree, Crystal Cave Tour, Big Tree Trail, Giant Forest Museum, Tokopah Falls Trail, Driving Generals Highway, Ranger-led programs
Wow! This place was magical and I didn’t want to leave. We camped two nights at site 102, a private area, close to the river, but not next to it like other campsites (perfect for preschoolers and up). One traveler remarked that she preferred the less crowded park and remarkable trees over Yosemite. It really is a secluded paradise anytime of year.
We dipped our toes in the cool Kaweah River, ate s’mores by the campfire, the kids painted with naturalist artists, and went spelunking. Reserving the hotel room after camping was a necessary luxury, but the best part was the night sky tour at the lodge. It only added to the splendor of this forest.
Destination: Yosemite National Park
Stayover: 2 nights
Lodging: The Ahwahnee, formerly The Majestic Yosemite Hotel ($589/night for the classic room)
Dining: Curry Village Pizza Patio and The Ahwahnee Bar (casual dining)
Floor Elevation: 4000 ft.
Hikes and Highlights: Lower Yosemite Valley Falls Hike, Vernal Falls Hike, Watching the Bats Fly at Stoneman’s Bridge, Happy Isles Art and Nature Center, Mariposa Grove
We left the Land of the Tree Giants and drove four hours to the rising Granite Behemoths in Yosemite Valley. Driving into the park, make sure to see the Mariposa Grove and stop for lunch at the Wawona Hotel. Built in 1856, this wooden-Victorian lodge still retains some of the era’s features, like community bathrooms.
Our Ahwahnee room, styled in 1920s decor, had reproductions of John Muir’s drawings on the wall. Being a special occasion, we splurged on our accommodations and awoke each morning to the most breathtaking view of Half Dome (room 303, I think).
Change was afoot in Yosemite, during our stay many of the lodgings reverted back to their historic names after the settlement of a trademark dispute. Another change you’ll encounter is the colorful foliage of autumn here.
Don’t be afraid to wave a shuttle down at dusk–there’s a lot of wildlife out there! We were caught walking along the meadow at night and warned that a bear and buck had been sighted. After meeting the buck, I had my air horn out ready for “bear action” while the kids blew their whistles (luckily, the shuttle gave us a lift).
Destination: Ancient Bristlecone Groves @ Inyo National Forest
Stayover: 1 night
Suggested Lodging: Bishop Creekside Inn
Dining: Erick Schat’s Bakery
Hikes and Highlights: Discovery Trail and Visitor’s Center at Schulman’s Grove
Elevation: 11,000 ft.
Leaving Yosemite Valley, you’ll travel east through the park on CA-120 and south on Highway 395 towards the quaint town of Bishop, about three hours away. Depending on the timing of your trip, you may stumble across the golden leaves of the Quaking Aspen on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. June Lake Loop might be worth a quick stop for a better view of them.
We got up early to head to the Ancient Bristlecones Grove, about an hour drive south. Be wary, Traveler—it’s high elevation! Make sure to bring plenty of food and water to stay hydrated, especially if you are planning to hike the Methuselah Loop. The Ancient Bristlecones twisty, knobby branches are a wonder and the high altitude makes for a surreal quietness.
After leaving the grove, we headed home on the 395 and traveled south along the foothills and through the High Desert where the strange Palm Yucca thrives. Before moving to this state, I only imagined sand and surf, but the real heart of California lies in the Sierras.
Know Before You Go: Tioga Pass on CA-120 that connects to Highway 395 typically closes in mid-November during the snow season. Click here for updates.