October in Southern California. That exciting time of year when pumpkin patch corn mazes start popping up around town, the smell of autumn candles wafts through the air, thoughts of warm apple pies baking in the oven fill your mind and the internet explodes with #pumpkinspice mania. A deep primal need to pull on a sweater, snuggle by a fire and see trees bursting with fall colors begins to take over. Until you realize it’s 90° outside and we’re still stuck between our two seasons of green and greener, warm and insanely hot.
Growing up in LA, we only got to experience “real fall” by hopping on a plane to visit our family on the East Coast once in a while. New England always seemed to hold the title for Best Fall Colors in the country. Clearly the Charles Wysocki puzzles I diligently put together fireside on my sunny-and-clear 75° holidays would back that up. I would place each little puzzle piece of bright orange, red and yellow trees next to mini Americana homes with great care and dream of a world where fall existed each and every year.
As an adult explorer, my annual trip out to Oak Glen apple orchard country on the way out to Big Bear satiated that autumn craving a bit with its quaint 5-mile loop of picturesque landscape and fall festivities. But I always knew there had to be more. Somewhere, a California Fall Wonderland must be waiting for me. So when we got the invite from the folks at Visit Mammoth to join them for a Sierra Fall Colors Instameet at Silver Lake in Mammoth this year, it sparked that tiny hope that just maybe this Angeleno’s lifelong prayer was finally going to be answered.
With Siren Sarah in tow, we hop in the Prius and set off to chase some Autumn in California. Just a couple hours up the 395 past Bishop, something called “weather” starts to appear. Beautiful grey clouds and gusty winds roll through as new twists in the road reveal our first smattering of trees all dressed in orange and mustard yellow. We gasp and pull over, stepping outside to revel in our discovery and commune with the trees as trucks honk at us to stop looking at nature and get back on the road, whydontcha. Apparently some people are used to this fall thing around here. As we make our way up towards Mammoth, a huge moon begins to rise, winking at us and playing hide-and-seek behind giant wisps of cotton candy clouds over amber waves of grain and we know…something truly magical is beginning. We arrive in Mammoth just as the clouds break open and rain starts to fall, singing us off to sleep with the sweetest lullaby and visions of autumn leaves dancing in our heads.
The Instameet is called for 7am, so we wake up before dawn and slowly make our way through silent pine-flanked mountain roads until we reach the June Lake Loop turnoff. A huge mountain crest offers a morning greeting, proudly showing off its first dusting of snow for the season. Never ones to miss a chance to canoodle with a handsome gentleman decked out in his finest, we stop to take in this gorgeous sight before easing on down the road.
We wind past the tiny sleepy mountain village of June Lake until the view suddenly opens onto a breathtaking vista of snowcapped mountains looming over deep blue waters. This is Gull Lake and, stunning as it is, it’s another passing hello, leaving us something to come back for as we make our way towards the main event.
We roll into Silver Lake and find a group of people sporting serious cameras all bundled up in their winter gear. Yep, it’s extremely cold and windy…and we couldn’t be happier. Sliding on our hats and mittens, we bound outside to say hi to Daniel Mansfield, owner of The Adventure Project. Dedicated to getting people off their couches and into the mountains, T.A.P. has become a close friend and ally for sharing other-worldly California adventures. (Read about our dream-like hike in Running Springs HERE and camping in the Alabama Hills HERE.)
We meet the event organizer, Josh Wray, and his team from Visit Mammoth, Mammoth Lake’s tourism board, and are immediately struck by their infectious passion for these great outdoors. Looking around, I can understand why. This Silver Lake is nothing like the one back in Los Angeles. A gorgeous crystal blue alpine lake surrounded by bright yellow aspen trees beneath mountain peaks that could be mistaken for the Swiss Alps, this is definitely not your hipster’s Silverlake. As the sun begins to rise over the mountains and light up the yellow aspens with a golden glow, we collectively gasp and take in the moment. Then just as quickly, the cameras come out, attempting to capture the teeniest bit of this thing we’re all feeling…total and complete awe.
A few delicious breakfast burritos and a cup of the smoothest ever local Black Velvet Coffee later and it’s time to bust out the paddleboards. POP Paddleboards is on hand with their inflatable fleet ready to hit the glass. Having never done a SUP sesh before, I figure this is as good a time as any. Why not start it off in a freezing alpine lake while dressed in a cashmere sweater and flannel? What could possibly go wrong? Lucky for me, POP’s Joe Sabina suggests starting off a little less hardcore for my first time out and lets me enjoy a tandem sit while he steers so I can get acclimated. The ride is smooth and we float along serenely as the sun rises higher above us and the lake explodes into bright glittering gold sparkles of light as far as the eye can see. Joe paddles us through this sea of golden diamonds surrounded by mustard yellow trees and I think my heart might burst from all this beauty as I realize this is my own backyard…all my Autumn in California dreams are coming true and it’s barely even 10 o’clock.
Tons of gorgeous photos and many wonderful new friends later, it’s off to the next adventure. Us Sirens are here to experience every inch of fall these mountains have to offer, so with a few Scoundrels as our guides, we dive in deeper. Continuing down June Lake Loop just past Silver Lake, the entire landscape opens up into an ocean of aspen trees, all shimmering and swaying in the morning light. If Heaven does indeed exist somewhere on Planet Earth, this is it. We get out to explore on foot. Enfolded in dazzling yellow leaves dancing against sunbeams, creating a blazing golden halo all around us, we can literally hear angels singing overhead. Having now seen Heaven on Earth before noon, it would be easy to leave well enough alone. But we push on, asking California to reveal all of her glorious magic to us. Because that’s the secret with big magic. If you’re willing to see it…you’ll find it everywhere.
After a quick bite at June Lake Brewing with the Silverlake Instameet crew, Josh suggests we check out Lundy Canyon, just a little north of here in the Inyo National Forest by Mono Lake. Since Josh basically IS Mammoth, we take his word that this is a not-to-be-missed spot on our autumn hunt. The winding drive into Lundy is like something out of a movie. The clouds have started to roll in again, so now the mountain peaks are punctuated by dark grey puffs outlined in brilliant diffused light, reflecting back endlessly on itself from sprawling Lundy Lake below. We could easily be in Lord of the Rings. If you told me the elven people resided amongst these trees, I’d believe you.
Betty White the Prius has seen a lot of tough terrain in her day, but at a certain point along this trek, she can go no further. Joe motors us in on the back of his bike and drops us at the edge of some tall yellow bushes. Stepping through them gingerly, we hold our breath for the big reveal…and discover a giant beaver pond waiting on the other side. Piled wood logs create endless water dams amongst a landscape blanketed in electric greens and yellows. Towering mountains jut into the wintry sky, providing the perfect epic backdrop. Just when we thought it couldn’t possibly get any more magnificent, Nature comes in to show us that she’s just getting started.
Heading back out towards Lundy Lake, we take a moment to explore the campgrounds that are available here throughout the year. Each campsite becomes its own secret to be discovered, with nooks and crannies of private mini aspen forests and woodland wonderlands. One campsite has a bed of grass and freshly-fallen aspen leaves, the perfect spot to watch the clouds pass overhead through the swaying tree limbs. Completely wrapped up here and supported by the earth, all time begins to recede and fade away. Cloud puffs roll across the sky framed by delicate flittering yellow leaves that fall on our faces and in our hair as if in stop-motion. If Snow White, the Cheshire Cat and the Last Unicorn all showed up right now to join us, I would not blink an eye.
Further down the trail, another campsite offers a private Fantasia forest, if you can make your way down to it. If you don’t have mud-proof shoes on, you may be in need of a gentleman friend with proper footwear and a penchant for chivalry. But the trek is worth it. A babbling brook and mossy trees provide a bridge to an enchanted land pulled straight from the tomes of Walt Disney.
Having experienced Heaven on Earth, Wonderland and AND legit Autumn in California, it’s time to call it a day. But Daniel has one more surprise in store for us. Heading back down Highway 395, we pull over on the side of the road to view an abandoned wood shack standing alone against a stark expanse of the Eastern Sierras, known simply as “That 395 House”. The tin roof lights up with just the right glint of sunlight peeking from behind the overhead storm clouds, its decrepit beauty another stunning jewel in the crown of Mono County.
As we slowly return to “real” time and space, we bid our adventure scoundrels adieu and pack up Betty White to hit the road. Heading back down the 395, a full moon Supermoon begins to rise in the east while storm clouds hang over the mountains in the west. It’s by far the largest moon either of us has ever seen. And it’s here to light our way home. Still floating and aglow from so much incredible beauty today, we chat about the magic that happens when you say yes to adventure. The incredible friends you make. The once-in-a-lifetime experiences. How time stretches, expands and even holds still for a while. How these moments sear themselves into your soul and become a part of you, fuse into your very fiber. And bring a joy that is so pure, it lights you up from within.
And right in this moment, Sarah screams to stop the car. Outside our window in the dead of night hanging over the Eastern Sierras…is a double night rainbow. Lit from the light of the Supermoon. A double. Night. Rainbow!! Not knowing such a thing could exist in the world, we pull over and sit with the moonbows for a full forty-five minutes in utter amazement, knowing no one else in the world is seeing this except us. A powerful heavenly confirmation that magic really is everywhere…if you only know how to look.
The Eastern Sierras and Mammoth Mountain have just experienced their first major snowfall of the year and as of now, the fall colors are still holding strong. So go find your own California Autumn Magic while you can! Get out into Nature & light up your life!!
~love, Sirens & Scoundrels
Check out Visit Mammoth’s video on the Silver Lake Instameet~
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