It took me 15 years of living in the Eastern Sierra before I drove up northern Mono County’s Green Creek Road in the fall – which is just too damn bad.
The combination of the placid, serpentine creek, wide, golden meadows rimmed with deep green lodgepole and flaming aspens and the sheer mountains above Green Creek’s headwaters is incomparable in the Eastern Sierra, rivaling even the more popular – and more crowded – Lundy Canyon.
Even better, aspen lovers can make a sweet loop using both Green Creek and Virginia Creek, hitting some of the best aspen shows in Mono County this week. Better than that? Add a short detour off Green Creek Road to another, even more isolated aspen show, by taking Summer Meadow Road to its terminus four miles up at a huge, flat, creek-fed meadow ringed by slopes covered in a kaleidoscope of aspen confetti.
This trip is best done around 1 p.m, as the sun begins to slowly descend into the west, backlighting the aspen leaves. It’s even better if you begin at Green Creek and head south toward Virginia Creek (rather than beginning at Virginia), because this direction takes better advantage of the backlighting and the scenery created by Dunderberg Peak towering over the road to the southeast.
So go on. Get out there.
First, get a map, This route has a few side roads that can be confusing and these directions are not intended to be complete enough to be your only guide. I prefer the Inyo National Forest Service map, which includes most of the area’s gravel and secondary roads, always a good investment for fall color hunters. They are available at the Mammoth Ranger Station off S.R. 203 just east of Mammoth Lakes.
Head north on U.S. 395 and over Conway Summit until you hit the intersection with Green Creek about eight miles from the top of Conway Summit or about two miles south of Bridgeport.
Take a right/west on Green Creek Road. Drive for about a mile, until you reach Summer Meadows Road on your right/northwest. If you intend to add the side trip, go right here and follow it to the end, about five miles. Along the way, you will see some of the best aspens in the Sierra right now. The road begins as a good 2WD but will require higher clearance SUV or a 4WD the last mile or so. The road is also the trailhead for a hike to isolated and seldom visited Tamarack Lake on the slopes of wide-open Dunderberg Peak; it’s worth a trip in its own right, but if aspens are your goal, it’s better to stick to the trip described here. Backtrack to Green Creek Road and continue on it heading right/west up the Green Creek (Don’t head south on the main road to Dunderberg Peak and Virginia Lakes quite yet). Follow the creek about four miles, meandering through some of the prettiest meadows and creek-side aspens in the Sierra. You’ll end up at the trailhead up to Green Lakes, but trust me, the aspen show is actually better on the road.
Backtrack down the creek until you get to the junction with the main road that will take you to the Virginia Creek Road, bypassing Dunderberg Creek on its way. The junction is signed. From here, head south along the base of stark, pyramid-shaped, snow-studded Dunderberg Peak, exploring whichever side roads or groves of aspens catch your fancy, or that your vehicle can access.
My favorite is the very first road to the west, which climbs a short, sweet way along Dunderberg Creek in the aspens. The camping here is even sweeter.
Some of the spur roads in the next mile or two below Dunderberg peak have great aspen groves. Some are 2WD, some are not – part of the fun of this adventure in the first place is that it’s a bit uncivilized. Continue on the main road toward Virginia Creek, passing by an especially flamboyant group of aspens off to your right about five miles in from U.S. 395. The colors here defy naming: are they scarlet or crimson or vermilion or … ? Don’t know, but they are darned pretty. Especially with the sun at about 3 p.m. slanting in light and long.
At about six miles, the aspens clear and you begin the descent to Virginia Creek. By this time, you have come about seven miles from U.S. 395. Drop down to the paved road and head right/west one mile and take a look at the lake. The aspens aren’t the main draw here, but they sure are pretty. Follow the paved Virginia Creek Road about four miles back to U.S.395 and retrace your steps back to Lee Vining, Bridgeport, Mammoth – or wherever you call home.