Already a member? Please login below for an enhanced experience. Not a member? Join today

Nature's gold rushNature's gold rush

Eastern Sierra Nevada, CaliforniaEastern Sierra Nevada, California

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.

  • Sierra gold lines Bishop Creek. Along the eastern Sierra Nevada, well-maintained roads lead up into canyons where you can hop out and walk as little or much as you’d like. Dozens of canyons feature frothy creeks, twinkling lakes, and quivering aspen against a backdrop of snow-topped peaks. Along with stark images of Bodie Ghost Town and Mono Lake (particularly at sunrise and sunset), this trip is a photographer’s dream. Photo courtesy Jared Smith, GM Parchers Resort.
  • Bishop Airport lies in the Owens Valley; the Sierra Nevada rise to the west, crowned by 14, 491-foot Mt. Whitney. In calm weather, consider a flightseeing tour of the areas between Bishop and Bridgeport, 70 nm to the north. Simply following Highway 395 between the two will offer sensational views of aspen in their fall finery, as well as Mono and June Lakes. Since you’ll mostly be looking west toward the mountains, this tour is best flown in the morning, with the sun in the east; it also affords calmer air. Photo by Ken Babione.
  • Lake Sabrina, flanked by orange and gold aspen. Bishop Creek has three forks: North, Middle, and South. The North Fork flows into North Lake, the South Fork flows in South Lake, and the Middle Fork flows into Lake Sabrina. The road to Sabrina is perhaps the most colorful and the lake is a perfect spot for a picnic. Photo courtesy Jared Smith, GM Parchers Resort.
  • The road to North Lake is lined with flaming aspen trees. Photo courtesy Jared Smith, GM Parchers Resort.
  • Autumn reflections on North Lake, part of the Bishop Creek drainage. The surrounding mountains range from 13,800–14,200 feet. Photo courtesy Jared Smith, GM Parchers Resort.
  • A waterfall, visible from the Bishop Creek South Lake Road. Photo by Ken Babione.
  • Aspen leaves flutter like gold coins over the South Fork of Bishop Creek. Photo courtesy Jared Smith, GM Parchers Resort.
  • Parchers Resort nestles among aspen and pine trees at 9,260 feet in Bishop Creek Canyon. General Manager Jared Smith, an accomplished photographer, will happily share photo tips. The resort coordinates fishing, boating, and horseback riding activities; there’s also a general store and café. Cozy, green-roofed cabins of knotty pine are scattered among the woods. You won’t have TV, phone, or internet, but you will hear the breeze and the birds in the pines outside your window. Photo courtesy Jared Smith, GM Parchers Resort.
  • Retired General Chuck Yeager devoted an entire chapter of his first book to the Sierra Nevada’s golden trout. Photo courtesy Jared Smith, GM Parchers Resort.
  • On a late-October day, a hiker discovers pure Sierra Nevada gold. Photo courtesy Eitan.
  • The McGee Creek Lodge is about six miles south of Mammoth Airport and dates to 1929. An on-site bake shop serves breakfast and lunch Thu–Mon in summer. Eight rooms in the lodge and two cabins sport rustic knotty-pine furniture and updated baths, some with luxury tubs, and Crowley Lake or Sierra views. Photo by Dan Witte.
  • Towering mountains are reflected in the still waters of Convict Lake, accented by autumn gold. Photo by Ken Babione.
  • The Gold Rush brought miners, including Leroy Vining, who founded a mining camp in 1852 (and later accidentally shot himself); the town is now Lee Vining. Prospector W.S. Bodey founded another camp in 1859, which eventually became known as Bodie. Over the next two decades, Bodie grew into the quintessential gold boomtown, producing nearly $34 million of gold and boasting a population near 7,000, with 65 saloons and enough barroom brawls, opium, prostitutes, shootouts, and robberies to fill a hundred Western films. Pictured here is Bodie Ghost Town by Dan Witte.
  • A storm looms high over Bodie Ghost Town, where you can explore dozens of deserted structures, now preserved in a state of arrested decay. Remaining as they were abandoned, many are still stocked with goods. Bring snacks and drinks, as there are no services except restrooms. Photo by via Wikipedia.
  • Mono Lake dates to about 760,000 years ago, when an epic volcanic explosion released so much ash its magma chamber collapsed, causing even larger explosions, altogether releasing nearly 600 times as much ash as the Mt. St. Helens eruption. The collapse created Long Valley, which filled with water. 100,000 years ago, its southern dam was topped and floods poured south into the Owens Valley, creating the Owens River Gorge. The huge lake drained completely except in a northern depression—the Mono Lake we know today. With no outlet, Mono Lake became very alkaline and salty. The Mono Lake State Preserve was created to protect the strange calcium carbonate tufa towers that rise out of the alkaline lake. Over a million shorebirds visit yearly, especially during fall migrations, to feast on brine shrimp as well as the alkali flies that congregate in astronomical swarms along the shore. Photo courtesy Mono Lake Committee.

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.

In September and October, from Bishop all the way north to Bridgeport, the Sierra’s eastern flanks are bursting with fall’s gold. In Bishop, take State Route 168 west to Bishop Canyon. You can drive all the way up to South Lake at 9,768 feet; the roads and myriad hiking paths along the way are lined with glowing golden and orange aspen. Trailheads at South Lake lead toward Bishop Pass and literally hundreds of lakes backpackers can explore for weeks in the John Muir Wilderness. Situated between a pair of streams in Bishop Creek Canyon, Parchers Resort makes a great base for fall adventures. Rainbow Pack Outfitters can take you on horseback.

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.

Within the June Lake Loop, the Double Eagle Resort & Spa sits on 13 acres among streams and pines at the base of Carson Peak and Horsetail Falls. Private forest pine cabins feature wood-burning fireplaces or stoves. Four two-story buildings surrounding Ron’s Pond feature multiple rooms, whirlpool baths, and decks overlooking the pond. Guests can fish the pond, enjoy the comprehensive fitness center and pool, or indulge in spa treatments. Photo courtesy Double Eagle Resort & Spa.

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!

Strong west-to-east winds aloft can create a “Sierra Wave,” a long lenticular cloud that provides visual evidence of dangerous mountain wave activity and turbulence. While glider pilots seek out these conditions, they can be extremely hazardous to pilots of powered aircraft. Photo by Ken Babione.

Share your favorite destination in the AOPA Hangar: Places to fly, things to do, where to eat! 

Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association. To suggest future destination articles, send an email to [email protected]
Topics: US Travel

Related Articles