Autumn leaves

What is your favorite season?

Mine is hands down autumn or fall, whatever you choose to call it. It always has been. The smell of harvested fields, long peaceful walks through colorful beech forests, shiny horse-chestnuts, flying kites, fresh plum cake, feeding hedgehogs, family day trips into the Lüneburger Heide (Lunenburg Heath) foraging for wild porcini mushrooms, and hiking through colorful huckleberry fields towards stunning glaciers in Norway rank high in my favorite collection of memories growing up. You may say: “Wait, I was there! Autumn meant shorter days, greyness, fog and rain, bad road conditions due to British military exercises, getting stuck behind caravans of tractors, weeks of black fingers after collecting and peeling soaked walnuts, wasps in the pear tree, and the unique smell of the local sugar beet processing plant!”

Horse-chestnuts, a happy sign of autumn

Touché! I guess it must be a case of seeing the glass half full or half empty then 🙂

Autumn colors in California?

Each year when autumn announces itself through a change in the air, a first chill in the morning, and subtle changes in light, my camera gear and I get restless. We itch to go and play with colors!

Visitors and new transplants to California tend to believe that the Golden State has no autumn to write home about. I would argue that it’s a matter of expectations. We certainly don’t have the glorious color palette that leaf peepers pilgrimage to see on the East Coast. However, we sure can serve up some yellows!

Beautiful Eastern Sierra

Where and when to go

In good years, the Eastern Sierra can dish up stunning colors thanks to groves of quaking aspen trees. Populus tremoloides turns golden-yellow in fall, and even orange, when the stars align. And along creeks, cottonwood and willow trees add color. I prefer to stay in Lee Vining or Bridgeport (Mono County), which are easily reachable via Tioga Pass and provide access to hot spots like June Lake Loop, Lundy Canyon, Convict Lake, and McGee Creek. Mammoth Lakes is a bit further but definitely worth visiting as well, especially if you are ready to hit the trails!

To prepare your trip, download the Eastern Sierra Fall Color Guide from the Mammoth Lakes or Mono County websites or pick it up in the area.

If you are looking for a destination closer to the Bay Area, head to Lake Tahoe. Fall is the quiet season between summer lake fun and hitting the slopes, and there are some nice trails along the lake that offer fall colors, for example around the Tallac Historic Site. And if you are there, make sure to visit the Taylor Creek Visitor Center and check out a different colorful autumn spectacle: the annual Kokanee salmon run. You might even encounter a bear! One of the best color drives in the area with plenty of aspen groves is through Hope Valley.

Yosemite is not known for its colors but even here you can find color spots courtesy of bigleaf maples, dogwoods, and valley oaks. Of course, everyone’s favorite tree in the park (and a reminder of fall on the East Coast) is the lone sugar maple near Yosemite Chapel.

The wine country offers its very own version of autumn when the vineyards turn color. Napa, Sonoma, Russian River, and Livermore are all easily reachable from the Bay Area and make for a nice road trip … treat yourself with color for the eyes and for the glass!

Lastly, some of the best colors can be found in our cities and on university campuses like Stanford! Last year, I went up Mount Umunhum in late October and it was interesting to see how colorful the valley looked thanks to streets lined with Chinese pistaches and ginkgo trees.

Prepare your trip

Timing is everything when it comes to Eastern Sierra colors. The window to see the aspen trees is usually just a few weeks in September and October when chilly nights and sunny days do their magic. In addition, one storm, and the delicate leaves of entire groves can get knocked down!

A great resource for you planning is John Poimiroo’s California Fall Color website which features excellent reports and photos during the season. Google has a Foliage map which is good to get a quick overview.

Make sure to keep an eye on the weather! In late September, the “white curtain” can come down any moment. It happened to me more than once that I was photographing aspen trees around June Lake in the morning and snow started coming down in the afternoon quickly closing the pass roads back to the Bay Area. If in doubt, get out!

Photography tips

Have you ever photographed autumn trees and been unhappy with the results because the colors did not pop? If so, you are not alone! Here are a few things that help when photographing fall colors. Cloudy skies? It’s your lucky day! Photographing leaves under soft light leads to better color saturation! The reason is that the clouds function as a diffuser and filter the glare from the surface of the leaves. As a result, colors appear more saturated. Just make sure your camera settings factor in the lack of bright light or you end up with blurry photos. When the sun is shining bright, your DSLR’s best friend is a polarizer filter. It has a similar effect to your cloudy skies in that it dials out leaf glare and reflections. As a bonus, it saturizes the blue of the sky at certain angles. If you do not have a polarizer or shoot with a simpler camera, consider the technique of back lighting. Place the tree between yourself and the sun so that the light falls through the leaves. Now, when you take a photo, your subject literally glows. Also experiment with the composition of your photo. Creeks and lakes can add lovely reflections to your scenes and close-ups of leaves or pine cones complement your photos of trees and groves.

Close-up of aspen leaves

Happy leaf peeping!


A whale of a tale

Growing up in Germany, I never thought I would ever see a whale. Let me rephrase that: I thought I would never see a live whale, because one day a huge semi came to town and my school class went to see it. It was set up like a mobile classroom and inside was, you guessed it, a whale. I actually have no recollection if it was some sort of preserved specimen or a realistic recreation, but whatever it was, it did leave a big impression on this 8 year old. 10 or so years later in California a friend of mine gave me a whale watching trip out of Half Moon Bay as a birthday gift. The sea was pretty choppy that day and lots of people got sick. As for whales, maybe they were out there but we sure never shared the same wave trough… Fast forward to the present Monterey Bay. This beautiful part of the Pacific Ocean, which is hiding a magnificent underwater canyon rivaling the Grand Canyon, is a testament to the incredible success conservation work can have. Wildlife is plentiful in our marine sanctuaries and many species close to extinction have bounced back – so much so that even the BBC came over here a few years ago to document the bounty in a show called “Big Blue Live.”

But back to the whales. There are two big migration events that are easy to witness from many places along the California coast: the southern migration to Baja in winter and the northern migration in spring, when a lot of gray whale mothers embark on the long and dangerous northbound trip with their calves. April and May are the best months to see the grays in the Monterey Bay. They also offer the best chance to see Orcas, which come to the area to hunt those calves. In summer, the bay is teeming with humpbacks, and those who are lucky might see the largest living animal on the planet … a blue whale. Due to abundant food, we even know of a few humpback whales who gave up on the idea of migration altogether, so that there now is a chance to see whales throughout the year.

Humpbacks are the acrobats of the whale family and my favorite photography subject out there. If you are super lucky, you might encounter a breacher! That is a whale which likes to throw its massive body out of the water for a very splashy show. Or you might witness a whale “tail lopping” away for no apparent reason. Finally, it is always a spectacle to watch a group of whales “lunge feeding.”

Some tips
How can YOU see the whales? My favorite tour company is Sanctuary Cruises out of the Moss Landing harbor. I like the fact that they were the first outfit in the bay to run on bio-diesel, and they always have a marine biologist on board. They are also very active on Facebook. I highly recommend checking out their page; the photos and videos are amazing. If you want to go on the weekend, booking a few days ahead of time is a good idea. There are also several companies leaving from Monterey; those are generally better for walk-ins.

I have been out on whale watching trips 15 times or so. I usually check the marine forecast to see what kind of swells are expected. My favorite trips are in the morning or evening since the sea is generally calmer. However, fog can be a problem in summer. I usually make sure to just have a light meal on the day of the trip and the night before. On the boat, the stern or back is the smoother ride but I like to stand on the side, just past the spray zone and away from the smell of diesel fumes. That does it for me, however, if you are prone to sea sickness, you might be better off taking something like non-drowsy Dramamine; on Sanctuary Cruises, you can also rent motion relief bracelets. What I will never understand is people munching on Doritos or the like when out at sea… Other things to consider: wear sturdy non-slip shoes; apply sunscreen; if you wear a hat, make sure it has a tight fit (I have seen many fly away); bring layers for the wind chill. I always take a fleece jacket and some kind of shell on board; on choppy days, I wear rain pants to protect myself from the spray.

Photography tips
A lot of people come back from whale watching trips with a memory card full of blurry pictures. That happens when your shutter speed does not factor in the reality that both boat and wildlife move. A lot! When I am on the water, I usually switch from Manual mode to Shutter Priority mode. Shutter Priority is a semi-automatic mode where the photographer chooses the speed and the camera chooses the aperture or depth of field. My preferred setting is around 1/2000. If your camera has an Auto-ISO feature, it is a good idea to enable it so you don’t have to worry about changing light conditions. I personally adjust the ISO manually as needed.

Last but not least, Mother Nature does not come with any guarantees. You might go on a trip and not see any whales. But a day on the water is hardly ever a wasted day. Just keep your eyes peeled and you may see dolphins, sea otters, sea lions, harbor seals, sharks, sunfish, turtles, and a wide gamut of sea birds.

Ahoi, and have fun!