California Highway 2, Angeles Crest Highway, La Canada to Buckhorn. Smoggy in the San Gabriel Valley, clear at 2000 feet in the morning, 5000 feet in the afternoon.
La Canada to Red Box, 1200 to 4666 feet
The colors seem to scream; they are so intense, so vibrant. It's maple-walnut time in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. The walnuts are turning yellow from inside out. The bigleaf maples are turning a deeper yellow from top down, most of them; they are more erratic than the walnuts. Do you like raspberry sherbet? Or do you prefer orange, or lemon; how about boysenberry or even mai-tai pink? Big bushes of poison oak like big scoops of ice cream melting over the hillsides give you a choice; even offering you a giant cherry-red popsicle by climbing up and covering dead tree snags. Golden-yarrow (Eriophyllum sp.) is for those who like lemon bits. Chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum) is now the color of coffee ice cream made from freshly ground American roast; wild oats are butter pecan. Do you yearn for that seasonal favorite, pumpkin spice? Then, California buckwheat is for you. What a treat!
Chilao Road, 5300 feet
At the Meadow Campground turnoff, yellow cottonwoods with great character attract the eye. More cottonwoods stand in the streambed at the picnic area, yellowing; the wind tickling their leaves which squirm and fall away. The well-watered cottonwoods near the amphitheatre, their trunks encircled with sapsucker holes, are still and green and perfect.
Cloudburst Summit to Buckhorn Campground exit, 7018 to 6300 feet
Small canyons glitter the northern slopes of the mountains (the south side of the road). Here the ranges run west to east, the canyons south to north. At this season, the sun barely peeping over the ridge at noon, illuminates the willows like a golden stream. At another canyon just east of the Buckhorn Campground exit, sunbeams sparkle through a filter of still green alder leaves picking out the antique gold of bracken ferns and the lemon pie yellow of currant leaves. The rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus) that lines the sides of the road grows bigger and brighter daily attracting the migratory Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) butterfly and the native California Bumble Bee (Bombus californicus) which can be distinguished from other species by its small size and single light-yellow band on its abdomen only, the rest of it being black.
A Mountain Circle Tour from Clear Creek Junction and N3 Angeles Forest Hwy to Mt. Emma Road to Fort Tejon Road to Valyermo Road to Big Pines Hwy to Angeles Crest Hwy back to the junction.
Very windy in the mountain canyons, visibility unlimited to southern Sierras, fires in Ventura County.
In the foothills
The walnuts are thinning out, the top leaves are green, the center leaves are yellow, the bottom leaves are gone. The maples are ragged, some branches are bare, some crunched brown leaves cling to the top, some tattered green leaves remain near the trunks. The poison oak has lost its leaves, their colors melted away. The tips of the elderberry (Sambucus mexicana) twigs hold only the whitened blue berries.
Fall in the San Gabriel Mountains is a long drawn out affair; you can't miss it. Even though, the maples and walnuts are finishing their fall display, the sycamores and cottonwoods are just beginning.
Monte Cristo Campground, 3600 feet
The sycamores have some yellow leaves as do the willows, the cottonwoods are green and the stream, now flowing less, has strings of green algae.
Valyermo Road from Pallet Creek Road to Bob's Gap Road, between 3500 to 4000 feet
Viewed from Fort Tejon Road just before the Pallet Creek intersection, the Lombardy poplars at St. Andrew's Abbey look like many giant candles clustered on a cake with bright yellow flames at the top, dripping green wax at the bottom. At the bridge, mounds of yellow willow, spots of bright yellow cottonwood amidst the green, brilliant rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus); sound of rustling leaves, sound of running water, crock of crow, call of quail. Goldenrod, sycamore, clear blue sky line the banks of Big Rock Creek.
Fall does not come suddenly to be gone over night. Here, it is subtle. You might find it in the morning with the sun backlighting the translucent bunch grasses along the Fort Tejon Road or in the song of a white-crowned sparrow recently arrived from the Pacific Northwest. You might find it at noon in mountain glens where sunbeams filter through openings left by falling leaves or at a sudden bend in the road revealing a single blazing tree.
Big Pines Highway from Mile High to Big Pines, from 5000 to 7000 feet
Past Mile High on the way to Big Pines, the black oaks (Quercus kelloggii) begin. They are at their finest just after the right turn back onto Angeles Crest Hwy. Full gold, full leaf.
Going west on Angeles Crest Highway, around 7300 feet
Further on at Grassy Hollow Visitor's Center, a crazy quilt of grasses covers the open hillside--differing heights, differing textures, differing colors. Picturesque Jeffrey pines shaped by wind and fire pattern the slopes with shadows.
Awestruck, I watch seventy silent ravens stream southward along Pinyon Ridge. Where are they going? Other mountain birds--fox sparrows, Oregon juncos, and western bluebirds--content for the moment, feed singly or in small flocks in the meadow.
Snow-melt gullies, where the winter lingers longest and summer's wildflowers bloom brightest, now, in fall, have the most varied colors in the high country. Yellow of willows, bronze of corn lilies (Veratrum californicum), lemon of currants, gold of bracken fern look painted on the mountains from tubes like a Van Gogh canvas.
The status of fall color in these mountains is bewildering in its complexity. High country cottonwoods and sycamores are green, lowland ones are browning and yellowing. High country willows are golden, lowland ones know the season as summer. With luck, you may find an Arizona ash (Fraxinus velutina) anywhere totally engulfed in yellow, a bonfire.
Mt. Baldy Road and Glendora Ridge Road; calm, stray clouds
Manker Flat Campground to San Antonio Falls Road, 6300 feet
I find a concentration of maples (an attraction of maples? an enchantment of maples?), these trees are a pleasant surprise, higher in elevation, later in season, greater in abundance than expected. Multitrunked, their shadows reflections in the puddle of leaves beneath, each clump grows on its own mound of granitic gravel, cobble and boulders; no soil visible here. Their bark in youth is soft, smooth, light gray; bark grown older is rough, furrowed, dark gray. Leaves are deeply lobed, bluntly pointed, broad as a hand, colored green, glowing yellow, or burnished bronze. Leaves tug on branches, float down, form bronzed rivulets on the ground. Branches glow against blue skies, branches contrast with dark green sugar pine, branches shimmer above gray granitic talus slopes providing a variety of backgrounds.
Glendora Ridge Road, two miles west of Mt. Baldy Village, 4315 feet
A spring appropriately named Fallen Leaf at mile marker 8.95 has another concentration of maples; these are taller, single trunked specimens with fewer leaves but nonetheless striking. Multicolored leaves float in the water; trees stand silhouetted against the sky; few sunbeams penetrate the north slope shade. Further on, a butter-leaved maple is surrounded by claret-colored poison oak; still further, orange-red California fuchsia encircle another maple. Across the road, grand vistas of the high peaks at the eastern end of the San Gabriels embrace the viewer.
At sundown, Mt. San Antonio, familiarly known as Mt. Baldy, 10064 feet high, catches the wispy clouds of the tail end of the passing cold front. The clouds turn soft pink, then "loud" pink, finally purplish gray. The sun has set.