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It's showtime!

These fall color drives and hikes find the gold in the Golden State

What is it about fall color? It can transform the most rational-minded into burbling poets. Show your average tax lawyer, say, a stand of golden aspen or brilliant red maple, and odds are good that within 60 seconds she or he will be waxing rhapsodic about nature's beauties and the glories of seasonal change.

Here's some news: You can have such experiences in California. Oh, other parts of the world are better known for autumnal loveliness, and we're not ones to knock Vermont or Colorado. But with its tall, autumn-cool mountains and its ample stands of deciduous trees, California has the essential ingredients for fall color displays. And it puts on a knockout show.

Here are four of the Golden State's most beautiful fall drives. Autumn leaves are notoriously fickle, so we suggest you call the numbers listed before you make your trip. Then load your car with passengers, load your camera with film, and prepare to be transformed as vividly as the turning leaves.

Photographers post their reports on my Fall Foliage Hotsheet at www.calphoto. com/fall.htm. The Forest Service's foliage hotline is also a good resource (800/354-4595).

Aspen Grove, San Bernardino National Forest

Aspens in Southern California? Not likely--except for one isolated location in the San Bernardino Mountains named, appropriately enough, Aspen Grove.

From Interstate 10 near Redlands, follow State 38 northeast toward Big Bear Lake. At first the road moves mainly through pine forests. shortly after you arrive at Aspen Grove, however, you'll spy a glint of yellow. The quarter-mile pathway down the hill to the grove is a gentle one, and at the bottom you hop across the stones and logs of a makeshift "bridge" over Fish Creek to walk into the grove.

Where: From Redlands, take State 38 about 8 miles--just past Mentone--to the Mill Creek Ranger Station to pick up your required wilderness permit and Adventure Pass (see "Cost"). Continue north approximately 25 miles toward Big Bear Lake. Before you reach Onyx Summit, you'll see a sign on the right for Heart Bar Campground. Take this road (Forest Road 1N02) until it forks. Take the right-hand fork (F.R. 1N05) 1 1/2 miles to a small parking area. (The last stretch of road is dirt.) From here you hike 1/4 mile to the grove.

When: The aspens begin changing just after the first freeze, any time from mid-September through mid-October.

Cost: A wilderness permit (free) and Adventure Pass ($5 per day or $30 per year) are required; pick them up at the Mill Creek Ranger Station.

Contact: Mill Creek Ranger Station: (909) 794-1123. San Bernardino National Forest: 383-5588.

Dunderberg Meadows, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest

Come autumn, eastern California travelers taking U.S. 395 over 8,138-foot Conway Summit often pull off the road to gape at--and photograph--aspen-dotted Dunderberg Meadows below What most of these travelers don't realize is that they can actually drive down to the meadows and view the spectacle close-up, taking in sweeping mountain vistas and admiring the way the aspens' brilliance is set off against the dark green of neighboring pines.

Where: From Lee Vining, head north approximately 20 miles on U.S. 395 over Conway Summit and turn left (west) onto Green Creek Rd. (also known as Green Lakes Rd.). Drive south 4 miles, go straight at the junction (you're now on Dunderberg Meadows Rd.), and continue for another mile. From Bridgeport, drive south on U.S. 395 about 5 miles to Green Creek Rd. and then turn right (west). Drive south as stated above. Although Green Creek Rd. is dirt and gravel, it's satisfactory for standard passenger cars.

When: Fall color generally peaks toward the end of September. But weather plays a huge role in the Sierra Nevada, and predictions can easily fly out the window.

Contact: Call the California Department of Transportation (800/427-7623) for road conditions on U.S. 395. For leaf status, call the Bridgeport Ranger District of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest (760/932-7070).

June Lake Loop

In the eastern Sierra Nevada, the June Lake Loop perfectly combines a scenic drive with the chance to get out and hike a bit. Either way, aspens are the name of the game.

For leaf peeping with very little hiking, plan on slowly driving the 15-mile June Lake Loop past Grant, Silver, Gull, and June Lakes-each edged with aspens. There are also lovely aspen groves around Parker Lake-accessed by a short detour off the June Lake Loop and a 4-mile-roundtrip hike. Drive the dirt-and-gravel Parker Lake Road to the Parker Lake trailhead. Then hike 2 miles to the aspens on the other side. Aspen groves dot the trail as you go, with larger stands waiting for you on the far side of the lake.

Where: From Mammoth Lakes, head north on U.S. 395 about 14 miles to the south end of the June Lake Loop (State 158) and turn left (southwest). From Lee Vining, drive about 4 miles south on U.S. 395 to the north end of the June Lake Loop and turn right (southwest). The Parker Lake Rd. turnoff is just off the northern section of the loop, about 1 mile from the northern junction of State 158 and U.S. 395.

When: The season can peak anytime in October, depending on weather conditions.

Contact: June Lake Loop Chamber of Commerce: (760) 648-7584.

Grass Valley and Nevada City

Lured to Nevada City and Grass Valley by the California Gold Rush, early settlers planted trees that reminded them of their homes back east. As a result, these two Northern California foothill towns feature fall color you won't see elsewhere in the state. The best places to admire the trees are at Empire Mine State Historic Park in Grass Valley and along the residential streets of Nevada City.

"Actually, the most striking color at the Empire Mine isn't a tree at all, it's the Virginia creeper," says University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) master gardener Ben Braly, a docent at Empire Mine. The creeper is indeed spectacular in the fall, turning various shades of red and orange and set off nicely against the weathered brick and stone walls of the Empire Cottage. Elsewhere in the park, you can admire maples-Norway, sugar, and red-that scatter orange, red, burgundy, and yellow leaves at your feet.

In Nevada City, you'll also find trees the miners and their descendants planted-mostly sugar and red maples-growing as tall as 80 feet. "Most of the maples that you see here are native to the eastern forest," says UCCE master gardener Lynn Lorenson. For leaf peeping, locals and visitors alike gravitate to Nevada Street, where liquidambars and maples put on excellent displays year after year, showing their colors against a picture-perfect small-town backdrop of white church steeples, green lawns, and picket fences. The giant maples right next to the courthouse downtown can also be astonishingly beautiful.

Where: Grass Valley and Nevada City are 60 miles northeast of Sacramento via 1-80 and State 49. Empire Mine State Historic Park is located at 10791 E. Empire Street, Grass Valley. For a brochure featuring a walking tour and map of fall colors in Nevada City, visit the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce at 132 Main St. (530/265-2692).

When: Fall color peaks toward the end of October and the beginning of November.

Contact: Empire Mine State Historic Park: (530) 273-8522. Nevada City Chamber of Commerce: (530) 265-2692 or (800) 655-6569.
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Title Annotation:where to go to see the fall colours
Author:Leigh, Carol
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
Previous Article:Happy 75th to Route 66.
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