As a lifelong resident of California I can tell you we only have 2 seasons: summer and winter. While much of the United States enjoys the changing of the leaves we have a brief window of a few weeks where the leaves change and then they’re gone. Unfortunately there’s no way to pinpoint a date when the leaves will change as it’s dependent upon the weather. Here’s some information that will help you plan your next trip and possibly to catch some fall color.
Plants that change color in Yosemite
There are quite a few deciduous plants speckled in among the pine trees that will change color as the days get colder. The ones you want to keep your eyes out for are:
Quaking Aspen: Golden Yellow
Non-native Sugar Maple: Red
Bigleaf Maple: Bright Yellow
Black Oak: Orange/brown to golden yellow
Ceanothus/Deer brush: Yellow
White Alder: Yellow
Black Cottonwood/Fremont Cottonwood: Yellow
Poison Oak: Red to purple
Where to find fall color in Yosemite
Tioga Road: By far the best area I’ve found to get fall color in Yosemite is the Tioga Road. At higher elevations Quaking Aspens are the ones to look for. Noted by their bright yellow leaves they can coat hillsides, valleys, glenns and meadows for miles. Best areas to view these colorful beauties is around Tuolumne Meadows or by continuing over Tioga Pass and venturing up one of the little canyon roads surrounding Mono Lake. Quite a few noted photographers (*cough Ansel Adams) shot in those canyons and find it quite favorable every year. Some even have creeks which last long into fall that make for some great shots.
Valley: When most people think about fall in Yosemite they think of the picturesque Sugar Maple near Yosemite Chapel but did you know that tree isn’t even native to Yosemite? It was planted by settlers. If you’re looking for native color there’s lots of it to be see but it may not be as noticeable or as prominent as you’d find along the Tioga Road.
In the Valley Bigleaf Maple is one of my favorites. It often blends in with the oaks much of the year, but come fall its yellow leaves outline the river areas along the southern side of the Valley adding splashes of color among the brown of the oaks.
I also like to shoot from the river bank looking into the shade of the south rim by the former Yosemite Lodge. Bright yellows from cottonwoods and aspens will often add good contrast among the dark greens of the pine and shadowed granite walls.
Be sure to look down especially around Fern Spring and Bridalveil Creek at the viewing area. Fallen leaves on rocks and quiet pools of water often make for excellent photos in a season where there’s not traditionally a lot of water coming over the waterfalls.
Glacier Point: I’ve never found a lot along the Glacier Point Road. I’ve been told you can look for yellow, such as from deer brush yellows and low-growing shrubs and, in a few locations, the yellows and oranges from quaking aspens but I’ve always found the Tioga Road much more favorable for color. Maybe this will be the year I explore the Glacier Point road in fall before the snow closes it out.
Wawona: Black Oaks and Bigleaf Maples provide a lot of show in the Wawona area. Look for mostly yellows and dark orange/browns. Dogwoods can offer a small splash of red in the right areas.
El Portal Entrance: At a lower elevation, El Portal doesn’t have the Quaking Aspens many have come to associate with fall but you can still see some color. Willows along the riverbanks and Fremont Cottonwoods can put make for a nice picture. If you see something read it’s probably poison oak so feel free to take a picture but try not to get too close. Even without it’s leaves it’s sap can still cause you to break out.