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Of tangerine trees and lemonade springs

October 31, 2011

Tangerine grove. This aspen grove above the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center north of Bridgeport is located right in the middle of one of the Eastern Sierra's biggest, least visited aspen groves. PHOTO/Jynx MacTavish

After 18 years of seeking out every aspen grove in the Eastern Sierra, I thought I had found them all: Rock Creek and Lundy, McGee and Bishop, Convict and North Lake. Even the lesser known areas like Molybedenite and Birchim and the Parker Bench and the Little Walker.

Been there, done that.

Boy, was I wrong.

This past weekend, the crowds that can turn Lundy Canyon’s tiny trailhead and one-lane road into a virtual Disneyland in the fall color season defeated me and I spun north like a compass, seeking solitude and gold.

I remembered a spectacular grove up near Sonora Pass, above the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center, that I had visited with my mother 11 long years ago; a riot of color and shape and light I have always wanted to return to.

When I arrived, the grove was gone — a victim of time and cold and wind. I took some familiar roads above the Marine base, found some old friends still aflame this late season and headed for camp. Then, on a whim, I took a left turn instead of a right at a junction I had passed through many a time in the past two decades.

And that, as Robert Frost once said, has made all the difference.

Within minutes, I found myself overlooking what has to be one of the largest group of aspen groves in the Eastern Sierra. Miles upon miles of them, gold and yellow and scarlet and vermillion and in the very middle, in the very heart of it all, the most elegant grove of all; tangerine orange trees flaming against pure white trunks, shaped like an artist’s dream of symmetry and form, untouched by time or frost, incandescent in the cool, cloud-drenched afternoon, giving off light from within.

So go on.

Get out there.

The drive
Length: From the Marine Corp base entrance gate, a public access road, Silver Creek Road, runs through the base and to the forest service land right above the base. This drive can be as long as 10 miles or as short as three miles one way from the base, depending on how far you wish to go.
Difficulty: This drive is suitable for a passenger car. A higher clearance vehicle will allow you to explore some of the spur roads that branch off the main roads.
Considerations: A map of the Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest roads is nice, although simply driving wherever the light takes you works fine, too.

Begin your drive at the Marine Corps base four miles west of U.S. 395 on the Sonora Pass Road. Take the sharp right turn into the base where a Marine Corp member might or might not be manning the gate. They will wave you through.

Drive through the base facilities and immediately onto the gravel road that heads steeply up the hill behind the base.

Follow this road for a steep mile or so until it branches west as the Silver Creek Road. Go left (east)(F.S. Road 023).

Almost immediately, you can see the mass of aspens that carpet this soft, sage covered mountainside like some glow-in-the-dark quilt; an intricate tapestry of gold and scarlet and red and, right in the center, that tangerine orange grove.

Begin driving mostly north and east on this unnamed road, winding and meandering through grove after grove, stopping when and where you wish, walking when and where you wish, following spur roads when and if you wish.

The tangerine grove right in the middle might catch your interest or it might not. Maybe it will be the flaming candlesticks on the way there; their brilliant white trunks almost bare until the top, where their remaining leaves burst forth like fire.

Or maybe it will be the tiny perfect meadows surrounded by gold, carpeted with whipped-butter grasses, dappled by fallen leaves, or the many, icy, spring-fed streams that tumble down the mountainside, the reason the groves are here at all.

Or maybe it will be the roll of thunder and the bright bite of the incoming storm, the steel blue-grey sky flinging the first snowflakes through the sunlight; this last weekend of fall before winter comes home to stay.

Looking west, toward Sonora Pass, the high ridges of the Sierra crest above the 10,000-foot pass spin toward the sky. Looking south, across the deep valley of the West Fork of the Walker River, the high, sheer escarpment of the northernmost mountains of Yosemite National Park light up the grey day with new snow.

To the east, the improbable pure white peaks of the Sweetwater Range just above the Bridgeport Reservoir provide a perfect background to the aspens.

It’s all good.

It’s all very, very good.

Retrace your tire tracks back to the Marine base. On the way home, take a right (south) turn up the Little Walker River, just a few miles east of the Sonora Pass turnoff. It’s another little known canyon, broad, well watered, that almost rivals where you just came from. Walk up Molybdenite Creek, camp in Obsidian Campground, and for a true walk on the wild side, take Burt Canyon to Molybedenite Creek as a mostly trailed hike (except the pass between the two canyons, which is easy cross-country rambling).

You won’t see a soul.

You will be glad of it.

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