Trees on Carson Pass and down the eastern slope into Hope Valley begin to show their fall colors in early September. Higher elevation trees start first and then over the next two months the color spreads down the pass. The best places to find the dazzling bright gold color of aspen trees are along the eastern slopes of the pass. Oaks and other trees on the western side can also present colorful displays.
Choosing the best time to enjoy the trees in autumn splendor is always a challenge since the changes in leaf color are triggered by shortened days and cooler temperatures. A sudden cold spell can bring dramatic changes to the trees, seemingly overnight. Or a burst of warm weather can delay the transition. A phone call to one of the ranger stations might offer some insights into current conditions.
You can easily drive from Jackson over Carson Pass and back in a single day. Or, if you prefer, you can drive over Carson Pass going one way and return via Ebbetts Pass or Echo Summit. If time permits, from Woodfords drive south on Highway 89 through Markleeville. Several miles beyond Markleeville turn up Monitor Pass. Extensive groves of aspens on the west side of the pass are among the best in the Sierra.
For accommodations along the way, see our suggestions for lodging below. There are several places along the drive where you may want to get out of your car for a better view and to take pictures. Be prepared for cool weather, of course.
Carson Pass is one of the safest and easiest-to-drive roads over the Sierra Nevada. Unlike some mountain roads, Carson's Highway 88 is wide, well graded, and has no harrowing hairpin turns. Numerous, well-placed turnouts offer visitors safe places to pull off the highway and take in the scenery.
Savvy mountain drivers fill up their gas tanks before heading into the high country. Convenient gas stations are found from Jackson all the way up through Pioneer. On the east side gas stations are more difficult to find. One is available near Woodfords along Highway 89 and another in Markleeville.
Check road conditions and weather before setting out. Carry chains.
Of course you can find beautiful fall scenery all along Highway 88 over Carson Pass. We have three stops that we think are especially worth visiting.
Only a short distance down the eastern side of Carson Pass watch for a spacious turnout where you can pull over and take in a panoramic view of Red Lake and the surrounding valley. Restrooms are available back at the summit of the pass.
For those who have time, an enjoyable side-trip is to take the Blue Lakes Road off Highway 88, even for a short distance.
There is no single spot that is best for enjoying Hope Valley. Many of the most brightly colored trees are easily viewed from the highway. In many places the shoulder is wide enough to pull over and step out of your car. A worthwhile side-trip is up Highway 89 toward Luther Pass. The return down Luther Pass into Hope Valley offers wonderful views of the fall colors.
Farther east around Sorensen's Resort dazzling stands of aspen display their shimmering golden-yellow leaves in the fall. There are several wide places along the highway where you can pull off and stop. Better yet, spend some time at Sorensen's Resort. They are offering a fall color hike on October 18, 2013.