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Looking for Sierra gold.

Take it slow. Catch the low autumn light setting the central Sierra aglow as you cruise lightly used roads. Flick a fishing line into a fork of the Carson River. Pitch a tent under white-barked boughs. Row across an alpine lake trimmed with gold. Smell the tang of decomposing leaves in the crisp air as you walk a forest trail.

For a few weeks in autumn (usually late September through mid-October), when blue-sky days shorten and night temperatures dip below freezing, patches of fall color streak the valleys and cap the high mountain passes near Lake Tahoe. Aspen thrive here, splashing gold from elevations of about 6,000 feet to the tree line (about 9,500 feet)-and offering a colorful reason to visit the Sierra one more time this year before snow falls.

Some of the most spectacular stretches of quaking aspen grow along State Highway 89, less than an hour's drive south of Tahoe, and along adjoining state highways 88 and 4. At other times of the year, most people pass quickly through this land of sweeping meadows, 10,000-foot peaks, and rivers, hurrying on to the lake or, in winter, nearby Kirkwood ski resort.

Our autumn tour encourages you to linger. Start on State 89 where it heads southeast from U.S. 50, about 5 miles south of the town of South Lake Tahoe.

Heading east into the color

Climbing gently out of the Tahoe Basin on State 89, you see the first aspens set off by dark conifers. Notice the variation: one grove may be pale yellow, another ablaze

in gold or, occasionally, red. For more on why aspen turn color, see page 25.)

About 5 miles from U.S. 50, the road loops down into the mile-wide Hope Valley (elevation 7,180 feet), so named by optimistic pioneers in the mid-1800s.

Since 1987, some 10,000 acres in or near the valley have been transferred from private to public ownership; another 15,000 are slated for acquisition by 1991. But acquiring remaining parcels-and removing the risk of development-isn't guaranteed, notes Scott Ferguson of the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Lands, which is managing the transfer. Both state and federal funds must be earmarked for buying these private lands.

But visitors can already explore just about everything bordering State 89; simply

heed any "no trespassing" signs, and close gates (some range cattle remain). There's unlimited access along the West Fork

Carson River as it winds through granite boulders and over gravel bars-perfect trout territory.

In the heart of the valley, State 89 joins 88. Turn either way for activities.

Turn right, for lakes and hikes ...

State 88 heads southwest through the valley. Climb over Carson Pass (elevation 8,573 feet), the spot where Kit Carson blazed a trail in 1844. About a mile from the pass, take the signed turnoff to Woods Lake for picnicking, fishing, and campsites tucked into a granite cirque.

Caples Lake reservoir lies just beyond Woods Lake. There's a Forest Service campground flanked by Caples Lake Resort, open until mid-October. Cabins ($60 to $1 1 0) sleep two to seven; lodge rooms cost $30 to $45. Boats are also for rent. Big windows frame views in the good restaurant here (dinner only; reservations advised). Write or call the resort, Box 8, Kirkwood, Calif. 95646; (209) 258-8888. Next, stretch your legs on the Lake Margaret Trail, a mostly flat out-and-back walk (2 1/2 miles) past creeks and beaver ponds to towering aspen and the lake. Trailhead is on the right, 0.2 mile beyond the Caples Lake spillway.

You can get a hamburger at Kirkwood Inn, open from 6:30 A.M. to 9 Pm. daily. It's just ahead on the right.

A half-mile farther is the turnoff for Kirkwood Resort, unbusy and relaxed this time of year. Stretch out in deluxe condominiums at off-season rates ($55 for a studio to $120 for two bedrooms). The rental office staff can suggest hikes to lakes and fall color in the nearby Mokelumne Wilderness. Write to the resort,

Kirkwood 95646, or call (209) 258-6000. Beyond Kirkwood, you pass more lakes and low-key resorts. Eventually, State 88 brings you to Jackson, 63 miles southwest.

... or turn left and tap into hot springs and history

By turning left (east) on State 88, you travel into the gorge cut by the West Fork Carson River, passing spectacular aspen and tall, spreading cottonwoods.

Some of the prettiest aspen surround Sorensen's, a mile ahead. Rates are $45 to $115 (24 cabins hold two to eight people); book well in advance. Or stop by to enjoy a meal (lunch daily, dinner nightly except Wednesdays), rent a mountain bike, take a fly-fishing lesson, join a guided bike, or peruse a selection of books. For prices for activities, write or call the resort, Hope Valley 96120; ?16) 694-2203.

Another half-mile ahead is Hope Valley Resort, a private campground beside the river. Its six tent sites cost $3 each; 18 trailer hookups are $18 each. Write to the resort, 14655 Highway 88, Hope Valley 96120, or call (916) 694-2292.

The highway now slips into rugged Woodfords Canyon. A yellow strip of aspen, cottonwood, and willow follows the river. At the bottom of the gorge, trees stop-a fire ravaged the area in 1987.

The road splits at Woodfords, a hamlet

that for a few weeks in 1860 was a Pony Express stop. The inn has motel rooms ($28 to $42 a night); call (916) 694-2410.

Take State 89 southeast 6 miles to Markleeville, Alpine County seat. In the mid-1800s, silver mining pushed the county population above 10,000. Now, it's 1,190-the lowest in the state. A few aspen and cottonwoods brighten the

sleepy town's clapboard buildings.

For a closer look at the region's past, tour the Alpine County Historical Complex. It has a reconstructed school, antique mining tools, and Washo Indian artifacts. Admission is free. Hours are noon to 5 daily except Tuesdays through October. Turn right on Montgomery Street, then right on School Street.

On Montgomery (it becomes Hot Springs Road), continue 4 miles for a soak in relaxingly warm water in the big concrete pool at Grover Hot Springs State Park (campsites available). Hours vary, and the pool closes September I I through 30 for maintenance; call (916) 694-2248.

On State 89, a small Toiyabe National Forest office has maps and leaf reports. Hours are 8 to 4:30 (closed noon to 1) Thursdays through Mondays.

Leaving Markleeville, the road follows the wide cut of the Carson's east fork through dry, jagged mountains. About 3 miles from town is East Fork Resort, with seven cabins ($35 to $50), campsites, trailer hookups ($15), and a store (including fishing supplies). About 3 miles past the resort, turn left and follow State 89 east over 8,314-foot Monitor Pass. Here, huge stands of aspen sweep over the otherwise bare mountaintops. Walk or bike the lonely mining roads; routes are well marked on Forest Service maps.

To return, just retrace the route. Or, if you're heading to the Bay Area, try taking State 4, which snakes over 8,730-foot Ebbetts Pass, then continues about 100 miles to Stockton. (Don't try it in an RV.)

A third possible route isn't as scenic, but takes you to Minden, Nevada, where you can see aspen in a heart-stopping way-

from the air. For $95, up to three people can board a Cessna for an hour-long ride above sawtooth peaks splashed with color. To get to Minden, return to Woodfords and go north on State 88. Drive into Nevada's arid Carson Valley; Minden is 10 miles ahead. For reservations and directions, write to Hutt Aviation, Box 1163, Minden 89423, or call (702) 782-8277.

To return to Lake Tahoe from Minden, drive west 3 1/2 miles on Mottsville Lane (in the center of town, off State 88). It becomes State 207 and climbs Kingsbury Grade to the lake and U.S. 50 (11 miles).

Maps, hunters, and a hotline

Two Forest Service maps ($2 each) cover the areas described; you need both. Ask for the recreation map of Eldorado National Forest, 26820 Silver Dr., Pioneer, Calif 95666; (209) 295-4251. Request the Carson District map from Toiyabe National Forest, 1536 S. Carson St., Carson City, Nev. 89701; (702) 882-2766. The maps show campgrounds first-come sites are $6 or $7 a night). Some close by mid-September; call ahead.

Mountain weather can change quickly, so pack warm clothing. This is hunting season; hikers should wear something red or orange and choose open routes. Temperature extremes, wind, rain, or snow could shorten the season. For leaf reports, call area Forest Service offices.

What makes aspen turn gold?

One of North America's most widespread forest trees, quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) splashes fall color from Alaska to New England. In the West, pure forests cover parts of the Rockies and Utah's Wasatch Range. Central Sierra stands tend to be smaller-like drops of amber among the mountains.

Temperature determines when aspen turn. It takes a good freeze to kill the green chlorophyll and reveal the leaves' red and yellow pigments. Since an area may have several microclimates, its aspen may change at different times.

What color a given tree turns (yellow, red, or a mix of the two) depends on its genes. Since aspen reproduce by root suckering, stands tend to have identical genetic makeup. That's why these trees grow in clumps and tend to turn the same color at the same time. Soil minerals may affect color, too. Even the sun can influence the color you see: low morning light turns leaves pale lemon; afternoon brings out rich golden tones.
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Title Annotation:autumn tour starts south of Tahoe
Date:Sep 1, 1989
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