Journey from La Canada north to Mt. Gleason along Angeles Crest and Angeles Forest Highways; also Upper Big Tujunga Canyon Road east from Angeles Forest to Angeles Crest
Clear Creek Vista about 4000 feet
Breezy, some high clouds over the desert, Catalina visible to the south above the marine layer.
California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) is already crimson in some spots, dappled orange and white in others. This is one of the best fall color plants in the chaparral. Later the crimson seed heads will be a dominant part of any view. Wild Oats (Avena fatua) the preeminent California grass--who doesn't visualize California as live oaks and this golden grass?--lines the side of the road, the empty seed holders (glumes?) backlit by the sun against a blue sky. Deerweed (Lotus scoparius) earlier this year, the tallest I've seen it, now forms bushes of bright red stalks along the side of the road. Chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum), reddish-brown flowers dried on yellow stalks, patterns the hillsides. It will be the dominant color plant today. A few butter-yellow leaves show on the bigleaf maples (Acer macrophyllum). Poison Oak has only a little scarlet at the base yet.
Hidden Springs Picnic Area at the tunnel about 3100 feet
South-facing slopes are particularly beautiful against the blue skies. Mainly golden-brown chamise are interspersed with the bluish-gray green leaves and dark red trunks of manzanita punctuated by exclamation points of beige yucca stalks.
Monte Cristo Campground about 3600 feet
California Sycamore (Platanus racemosa) look green and healthy (no blight, which turns the leaves prematurely brown). Cottonwoods, willows and alders all wear summer green. A beautiful clear stream reflecting the blue of the sky above ripples over large grains of multicolored sand.
Mt. Gleason at the end of the paved road about 6200 feet
A kettle(?) of 20 or so ravens cavort. Here, the chamise blossoms are still cream colored. (It is summer yet, fall does not always start at the highest point!) Wand penstemon still blooms; some basal leaves, however, burgundy wine colored. As the season progresses, this color spreads upward and because the plant holds the leaves a long time, you'll see these vibrant wine-colored bushes late into the season.
Upper Big Tujunga Canyon Road up to 4700 feet
The buckwheat here are still mostly whitish. However, the hillsides are almost totally covered by chamise, very little manzanita and no trees. The texture is reminiscent of the heather-covered hills of Wales and Scotland, but the color is different, of course. Not purple. I find the color of the chamise now very difficult to describe. One book even calls it rusty red. So it is...rusty red golden brown, how's that? Alders and sycamores green. Black locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia) at Shortcut Station (and one at Mill Creek Picnic Area) have a few, very few, yellow leaves.
Journey on California Highway 2, the Angeles Crest Highway, from 210 Freeway to Buckhorn Campground
Woodwardia Canyon Bridge, elevation about 2200 feet
The large bigleaf maple just south of the bridge has yellow leaves at the top changing to yellow-green to green at the bottom. The smaller trees growing out of the rocks are almost entirely yellow. Some even show a few leaves of a warm mellow brown. The maples in the canyon itself are still green.
Mt. Wilson Road, Red Box to the Observatory, about 5,200 feet, over a mile high
Scarlet monkeyflowers (Mimulus cardinalis) drink in a seep just after turning up the road. Giant blazing stars (Mentzelia laevicaulis) at the turnout to the JPL hiking trail are in very good condition, in a good location, facing the morning sun against a rocky slope. You must get there very early in the morning on a sunny day to see them open, however. They close up before 10:00am.
Further on, orange-red California fuchsias shout a warning, "Stop, look at me, look at me!", a silene catches the eye with chartreuse bracts and white petals, and a heuchera, like coral bells, stands erect with reddish dried flower stalks above a mat of dark-green, round, ruffled leaves. Sometimes all three of these colorful plants are nestled together in a cranny in charcoal-gray granite with white stripes.
Chickadees fuss, scrub jays shriek and western gray squirrels bound across the road, their gray tails fringed in white. One is actually sleeping in the road, its tail folded over its back.
Looking down the canyon of the west fork of the San Gabriel River towards the east, serried ridges deep green near you change to deep blue to lighter and lighter blue, mistier and mistier as you look farther away, the peaks in the background just barely distinguishable. The sky behind them today is tinted yellow. In the middle distance, hang purplish-gray clouds solid, thick, with virga falling, dissolving in the yellow haze.
Charlton Flats Picnic Area, 5,300 feet
California goldenrod (Solidago californica) beams greetings at the turnoff. It is just beginning to bloom. There will be carpets of it under the Jeffrey pines later.
Debris is everywhere, definitely the day after a downpour. Especially good looking at the base of a Jeffrey pine, hues of russet and orange are the popular colors here. Unopened cones reddish brown, dried tan pine needles, gray herringbone-patterned twigs, small curled male cones orange-brown, single scales of cones light bright orange, jigsaw puzzle pieces of bark filmed yellow on the underside and gray-brown on the topside, this wonderful pleasing jumble of shapes and colors rests on top of russet-brown litter of older undistinguishable origin.
At the turnaround by the rock bridge, I find warbler heaven in a canyon oak: heaven for them because of gnats, gnats everywhere, gnats up my nose at every other breath and for me because I count four different kinds, McGillivray's, Townsend's, black-throated gray, and Wilson's. Along the stream I disturb a very angry bathing chickadee, and see in the incense cedars and pines, western bluebirds, a western wood-pewee, a white-breasted nuthatch, a young white spotted brown creeper and an easily approachable white-headed woodpecker.
Furry white-haired milkweed are just forming their spectacular seedpods. Already, seeds from dried thistles take off in the lightest breeze. There are several grasses: tall straight ones, tall drooping ones, some with star-shaped seed heads, some with seed heads like tattered banners, fallen over golden ones that the quail like to hide in.
Upper Chilao Picnic Area, 5,300 feet
Near the stream crossing, sulphur flowers (Eriogonum umbellatum) bloom brightly, mistletoe hangs in a ragged orange cluster in a pine tree, while at its base, small shiny wild rose hips change from green to yellow to orange.
At the streamside, rumex stalks match the rusty color of the water, fuzzy mulleins begin to thrust their spires skyward, the cottonwoods and willows are yellowing, not yet yellow, but losing their summer green. A black phoebe watches.
Buckhorn Campground, 6,300 feet
At the bridge under a canopy of white alder, stands a fine specimen of pine drops (Pterospora andromeda), a root parasite, like snow plant, that appears in late summer.
Berries galore! Currants (Ribes sp.) with crenulated leaves and fuzzy blue berries with little tails are just coloring up, thimbleberries (Rubus parviflora) with great yellow-green leaves big as saucers still have a few berries sparkling ruby-red, manzanitas have large berries like their name, little apples, but are not colored yet, while elderberries at the exit show showers of white blossoms and clusters of blue-black berries at the same time.
In the campground guarded by red barked incense cedar with yellow-green lichen, Steller's jays inspect a rotting log, ground squirrels play chase, a chipmunk is confused about which way to go, and small lizards dash across the road.
A storm is coming. How things change without the glare of the sun! Near Newcomb's Ranch, a root thick as my thigh twists down a glistening slab of milky quartz twenty feet high. I never saw it before. Approaching Clear Creek Junction, dark gray rocks crisscrossed with orange-pink-white veins complement plants with marbled-orange sherbet flowers and plants with smooth gray trunks. Mountain mahogany seeds, just beginning to feather out, catch the rays of the lowering sun.
Into the high country, Highway 2 from Big Pines to Buckhorn Campground, all elevations between 6300 and 7300 feet
Mountain High East
Western chokecherries (Prunus virginiana) have blackish-red translucent berries that will become brighter red. Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseus) is beginning to flower. Black oak (Quercus kelloggii) and Lombardy poplars (Populus nigra) still have shiny green leaves.
Lightning Ridge Nature Trail
This site of a major burn last year now shows black oak and snow bush (Ceanothus cordulatus) crown sprouting.
On a rocky slope at the beginning of the short one mile trail, low-growing wildflowers bloom prolifically as happens after fires: neon-pink gilia, blue-purple asters, a hollyhock type with a light pink flower with dark red splotches inside and large crinkly gray-green leaves is just beginning, a gray matted buckwheat with tiny pink flowers (Eriogonum sp.), prickly poppy with its "fried egg" flowers (Argemone munita), sulphur flower (Eriogonum umbellatum), and California fuchsia (Epilobium canum) which at this altitude grows very short and squat.
I pass through a leafy forest of black oak, still green, and climb a short steep log staircase until a picture perfect rock garden appears under the Jeffrey pines at marker number nine. Square blocks of gray granite are spotted with red and green lichens; California fuchsia, sulphur flower and the matted buckwheat grow out of the crevices.
Atop the ridge is a vast view of the back of Mt. Baldy, the deep steep canyon of the East Fork of the San Gabriel River and the 9399' Mt. Baden-Powell. A strong wind blows up canyon today. Migrating monarchs and painted ladies flutter by close to the ground.
I lose the trail in a flat rocky area and scramble down to the parking lot amidst white and yellow prickly poppies, reddish grasses, golden eardrops (Dicentra chrysantha), and bright orange clumps of California fuchsia.
Near the Turnout at Call Box 710 between Vincent Gap and Dawson Saddle
I think at first I am looking at a mule deer browsing at the side of the road. But no, not with those horns; it's a bighorn sheep! The sheep, blending perfectly with the scree, is fawn-colored back and front with a very smooth coat, its hindquarters are white with a short dark tail; I can only find it again it when it moves. The tan horns thick as my forearm curve over the eye and taper to a point behind the ear. This is a young male; he gives me a short sharp glance and continues browsing. I stare for several minutes barely able to take my binoculars away to scan the slope. Movement brings my eye to another. A magnificent creature, this one has almost circular horns, very heavy ones. The body is sturdy, the skin very supple, shaggier than the other, a fine fit animal. He stares back at me, still and silent. Finally, he, too, begins to browse, but always with a wary watchful eye on me. Then they're off clambering effortlessly up the scree, rocks falling to the road.
Highway 39, San Gabriel Canyon Road to Crystal Lake
The charms of this road lie in its views and its water features
Below 2500 feet
A Catalina eddy circulation, a dry storm, throws a new light on the mountains.
The Southern California black walnut (Juglans californica) has a few butter-yellow leaves at the base of the branches. This is one of the few native deciduous trees in California with compound leaves. It can be distinguished from the similar non-native Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) by the spicy odor of its leaves when crushed. Tree-of-Heaven has large glands on the lower underside of its leaves and smells foul when crushed.
Coldbrook Campground, 3350 feet
Coldbrook Creek is still running even in late September beneath the deep green shade of white alders (Alnus rhombifolia).
Soldier Creek and Lewis Falls
A shaded spring tumbles down near the side of the road which has adequate parking weekdays. Shafts of sunlight highlight amber California bay (Umbellularia californica) leaves floating in the pools. At the next switchback Canyon oaks (Quercus chrysolepis) with big plump golden-green acorns adorn another spring.
As the road rises toward Crystal Lake along the numerous switchbacks, the colors change. The California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) changes from crimson to pink to white; chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum) changes from rust to golden brown. The golden wild oats (Avena fatua) drop out to be replaced by blue tinted plants. The rusty pointed tips of the blue blades of the yucca (Yucca whipplei) match the chamise, the dried flower spikes of the white sage (Salvia apiana) are dark red. Further up, manzanita picks up the blue-gray/rust color scheme in its leaves and trunks. Higher still, the new growth on the Coulter pines (Pinus coulteri) is also bluish. Blue birds, namely, the Western Scrub Jay and Western Bluebird, fly amidst the foliage. Finally, near the ridge top, blue skies fill out the picture.
Beyond Crystal Lake to the end of the road, 5800 Feet
Here the wind brings the scent of the pines. Many wide turnouts along the road and an almost total lack of the intrusions of man make this the place for grand views: views down the deep, dark green Bear Creek Canyon in the inaccessible San Gabriel Wilderness, views across the many ridges of the front range fading into blue toward the south, views up the ridge of South Mt. Hawkins to the east wearing a necklace of pearly white clouds.
East Fork Road and Glendora Mountain Road
These roads are not at their most attractive during this season. With the exception of some vivid wine-red poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) and a fine stand of Southern California black walnut north of Little Dalton Canyon, there is little to see except dry brownness.
Upper Big Tujunga Road from Hwy N3 to Fwy 210, about 1200 to 1800 feet
No longer wearing bright summer green, but not yet changed to mellow fall yellow, it is entr'acte for the huge Fremont cottonwoods (Populus fremontii) growing in the broad gravelly channel of the Big Tujunga. Soon, though, in a show scheduled for early November, these trees will take center stage resplendently dressed in leaves of smooth golden satin.