Marek Warszawski

Warszawski: Soggy wakeup leads to fall color-filled birthday in eastern Sierra

Lundy Canyon, located in the Hoover Wilderness just north of Lee Vining, is one of the best, most consistent places to see the annual fall color display in the eastern Sierra. Fresh snowfall from recent storms adds another color to the palette.
Lundy Canyon, located in the Hoover Wilderness just north of Lee Vining, is one of the best, most consistent places to see the annual fall color display in the eastern Sierra. Fresh snowfall from recent storms adds another color to the palette. marekw@fresnobee.com

On the morning of my 46th birthday, I awoke at 5 a.m. in pitch dark to the sound of plinking fiberglass and the cold, clammy feeling of soaked feet.

It took my semi-conscious brain a few moments to figure out I wasn’t home in bed. Nope. Instead I was lying in the bed of my pickup truck, covered by a shell but with the tailgate open, parked on a dirt road in Lee Vining Canyon. Rain was pouring down, drenching the bottom of my feather-insulated sleeping bag.

There was no going back to sleep.

“Happy birthday, Marek,” I muttered to myself.

The day immediately got better when I met my friend, colleague and fellow Sierra enthusiast Carmen George for breakfast at the Latte Da Cafe. (Nice pun.) While waiting for her, I passed the time sipping coffee and thumbing through one of Gene Rose’s books.

The tiny cafe, one of three breakfast options in Lee Vining, was packed with tourists both foreign and domestic who journeyed here for the same reason we did: to see the fall colors.

Whenever I hear someone complain California only has two seasons and that we never get fall color displays like those lucky folks in New England, my response is a knowing smile.

Whenever I hear someone complain California only has two seasons and that we never get fall color displays like those lucky folks in New England, my response is a knowing smile. Those people must not visit the eastern Sierra in October, when groves of quaking aspen trees turn flaming yellow.

Dozens of canyons and lakes throughout Mono and Inyo counties transform into color panoramas every autumn. One of the best and most dependable is Lundy Canyon, which packs an astonishing amount of scenery along a 3-mile trail into the heart of the Hoover Wilderness. (It’s possible to reach Twenty Lakes Basin from here, too, but that becomes a much tougher hike.)

As we drove along Mono Lake, my only concern was the same storm that soaked my sleep and continued all morning may have also knocked all the pretty leaves off the trees. That turned out to be a needless worry. When we turned off Highway 395 and approached Lundy Lake, there was yellow everywhere.

It was cold and rainy when we reached the trailhead, so Carmen and I layered up and donned our hooded rain jackets. Just being outside in tumultuous weather felt invigorating. The mountains above the canyon walls were topped with fresh snowfall, the same snowfall that temporarily closed Tioga Pass, reminding us winter could arrive any time.

After starting out in a grove of aspens that were peak yellow, the trail climbs until it rises above the first of several beaver bonds. It is here that we get our first glimpse of Lower Lundy Canyon Falls, two parallel plunges of about 60 to 70 feet apiece, and the magnificent alpine zone beyond.

Clumps of yellow aspens could be seen in all directions, interspersed with evergreens that never change color. The sun was mostly hidden behind clouds but occasionally poked through, bathing the surroundings in beautiful but temporary sunshine.

We continued hiking. Past more aspen groves, beaver ponds and a dilapidated miner’s cabin. Across creeks on wet logs and slippery rocks. Up and over more sets of waterfalls that we stopped to gaze at and admire.

Finally, above a second set of cataracts, the trail steepened and began to ascend the canyon wall. This was our turnaround point. As we headed back toward the falls to enjoy a snack, the rain resumed. From our lofty vantage we could see blankets of rain travel down the canyon, where sunshine lingered. We were soon treated to a brilliant rainbow.

By the time we returned to my truck I had forgotten all about my soggy wakeup. Or the fact that I was now staring down 50, a number that to me has always signified “old” even though it really isn’t.

By the time we returned to the trailhead I had forgotten all about my soggy wakeup. Or the fact that I was now staring down 50, a number that to me has always signified “old” even though it really isn’t. Heck, I had even forgotten it was an NFL Sunday. Never bothered to check my fantasy football score.

Such is the power of nature, especially when enjoyed with such great company.

It’s why I immerse myself in it as often as possible.

That evening, while we were having dinner at The Mogul in Mammoth Lakes, an older couple from Dinuba approached our table and said they recognized me from my column picture. I felt flattered but slightly embarrassed and made sure they recognized Carmen, too.

Guess we weren’t the only people from the central San Joaquin Valley who came over to see the fall colors.

There was no rain in the forecast Sunday night, but I wasn’t taking any chances. The hotel room was nice and dry.

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