This may be the last good weekend for fall color in the Eastern Sierra.
Brilliant color lingers in aspen groves along U.S. 395 north of Lee Vining. Cruise over the mountains on Highway 120, head north on 395, and return to the Valley via 4 or 88 for a beautiful loop trip.
Another great option is to enjoy some fall color closer to home. While the aspens of the Eastern Sierra are the best known in the state, we do have a few groves on our side of the mountains.
One of the largest is located at Bell Meadow, near Pinecrest. From most starting points in Merced or Stanislaus Counties it is an easy drive -- less than 2 hours. The hike is a nearly level round-trip walk of up to 2.4 miles that just about anyone can do.
The grove at Bell Meadow stretches east along a pretty meadow for over a mile. It's a quiet spot -- we saw only two other people and a dog on Sunday afternoon. Although some of the leaves show some signs of damage from weather or other environmental factors, I expect there will be some nice color very soon -- probably by this weekend and stretching through the following week.
When I visited the majority of trees were still green, though quite a few had begun a transition to yellow. While I expect that they may not be quite as vibrant as the aspens of the Eastern Sierra, they still should be quite nice.
You can get to Bell Meadow by driving east on Highway 108 through Sonora to the small town of Cold Springs. Less than a mile beyond the town, turn right on Crabtree Road (4N26).
After about 6.5 miles you'll come to a road junction with a sign indicating a right hand turn for Bell Meadow. This is 4N25 and you'll turn on it for just 0.3 miles. Watch for a small wooden sign on the right side of the road that indicates a left turn to Bell Meadow. The sign says that it is 1 mile to your destination, but it's actually about 1.8.
This road is unpaved and has a couple of rough spots -- you'll definitely want a vehicle with high clearance to get there safely, but 4WD isn't necessary unless it has rained recently. About 1.4 miles along this road you'll see a parking area at Lower Bell Meadow. It's worth a stop, but your ultimate destination is at the end of the road -- 0.4 miles further.
There's plenty of parking, though you probably won't see many other cars. You can stroll out into the meadow along a fairly clear "use" trail to enjoy a view of aspens, meadow, and mountains. A gate and fence posts indicate that the meadow is used for summer grazing of stock. The fences are down, so be careful of barbed wire that may be hidden in the dry grass along near the fence posts.
For the main trail, start at the large Emigrant Wilderness boundary sign in the upper parking area. At first you'll pass through pines and firs, but before long you'll be paralleling the northern edge of the aspen grove. The trail follows the grove for 1.2 miles to a trail junction to the Crabtree and Pine Valley trailheads. You can walk as far as you want and return whenever you're ready.
Nearly translucent, aspen leaves have a radiant glow on sunny days when the light shines directly through them. An aspen grove can be more beautiful than a whole cathedral of stained glass. Afternoon can be one of the best times to appreciate and photograph these beautiful trees. When the breeze blows, the leaves have an unusual rattle that can sound almost like a flowing stream. If you hear it, you'll know why the species is also often referred to as "quaking aspen." Otherworldly color and sound, solitude, and an easy walk make this a Bell Meadow a great destination for an October afternoon.
Because this is National Forest land, leashed dogs are welcome. The trailhead is primitive and you won't find a restroom or water. For more information, contact the Summit Ranger District of the Stanislaus National Forest at (209) 965-3434.
Adam Blauert is an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, backpacking and exploring the western states. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org