For cyclists, fall riding is hard to beat. The weather is cool, far removed from the blazing summer heat, and the cold of winter is still well on the horizon. Plus there are fewer of the allergies of spring. Then of course there’s the visually-stunning aspect of fall, with the leaves of deciduous trees turning a brilliant palette of yellow and orange, with the occasional red mixed in. California’s Eastern Sierra region puts on a particularly vibrant and unique display of color among its backdrop of granite mountain peaks and well-maintained roads, making it a must visit destination this time of year.
By William Tracy | Images by Dakota Snider
Though many of us no doubt first envision evergreen trees when we think of the mountains, the Eastern Sierra is home to more than its fair share of deciduous trees that erupt into a natural display of beauty each fall. Stands of quaking aspens line roads both paved and unpaved. Leaves gently shimmering in the light breeze, they display brilliant shades of fall fit for a million photo ops.
Located between Mono Lake to the north and Bishop to the south, Mammoth Lakes provides a perfect home base to explore this annual display of natural beauty. This small mountain town enjoys an easygoing calmness this time of year, with the summer vacation season in the rearview, and winter skiing still to come. It’s a perfect time for cyclists to explore the nearly endless supply of quiet roads.
You’d be forgiven for thinking mountain bikes were the only way to go around here—it is the Sierra Nevada mountain range after all! But miles of impeccably paved roads say otherwise. And with the recent rise in popularity of gravel riding, it hasn’t taken long for riders to discover the massive potential of the prevalent unpaved roads and fire trails.
This is the kind of place where you can pull out a map and find a ton of interesting roads just waiting to be explored. Though there are a few go-to options for both road and gravel that are hard to tire of. For road, the June Lake Loop on Highway 158 to the north offers a rolling ride alongside alpine lakes that will leave you understanding why this region is the fall color capital. You can either park at the June Lake Junction trailhead for about a 20-mile ride filled with fall foliage, or make a 60-mile day of it by riding to and from Mammoth Lakes on Highway 395.
To the south of Mammoth Lakes, Rock Creek Road offers an unforgettable climb. Running some 10 miles from Highway 395, this is the highest paved road in California, topping out at over 10,300 feet. With plenty of trees lining the road, this spot is an excellent place to soak in the fall colors. And thanks to its constant increase in elevation, this road gets color throughout the season, as leaves turn starting at higher elevations and work their way down as the weeks progress. Riders up for a bigger day can again ride Highway 395 to and from the climb.
Gravel riders have no shortage of options, either. A good place to start is Owens River Road, a roughly 20-mile road that has plenty of offshoots waiting to be explored. Or link the route up to other nearby trails for an epic day of unpaved riding.
Luckily, however long the ride, whether it’s 10 miles or 100, or if it’s road or gravel, you don’t have to go far to find fall color. Head to visitmammoth.com for up to date resources on where to explore. And remember: Take a deep breath, enjoy that crisp mountain air, and don’t worry too much about where the bike takes you. Mammoth Lakes is one of those locations where it’s impossible to go wrong, especially come fall.
Remember, shoulder season is in full effect this time of year, with brisk mornings that warm significantly by mid morning. With those 30-degree swings in temperatures in just a few hours, layering is essential to a good time—though once you dress right, the good times come easy; all you have to do is take a look around. Ideally, bring a vest and arm and knee warmers, which can be stripped off as things warm up in the later morning. Light gloves never hurt for cool mornings either. Alternatively, leaving in the late morning makes for excellent riding weather—but bring along some layers just in case!