Northern Sierra Nevada Fall Color

November 9th, 2011 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Fall Color In The Northern Sierra Nevada Of Northeastern California

Indian Creek Above Indian Falls, Fall Color, Northern Sierra Nevada, California, copyright 2011 by David Leland Hyde. Nikon D90. Single exposure. I saw this scene with the sunlight on a large area of the trees making an array of reflections as I drove home from the annual Apple Harvest at the Dawn Institute near Indian Falls. By the time I turned around, came back, parked and set up, the sunlight had faded down to this one small spotlight. There were no more still afternoons on Indian Creek when I looked before the trees lost most of their leaves.

Autumn 2011 has been the strangest Fall color season yet in the Sierra Nevada of Northern California. Many types of trees in the Northern Sierra have had a leaf disease. I have seen it mainly effecting black oaks and some maples, but also showing up on the leaves of some Indian Rhubarb. The leaf disease has caused many deciduous trees to turn brown and not produce any Fall color at all. Because of erratic weather and temperatures, some trees without leaf disease dropped their green summer cloaks slower than usual, others changed into their Fall color dressing much faster than usual.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service puts out a report called Pest Alert. The following is what Pest Alert said about this leaf disease:

A phenomenon known as Sudden Oak Death was first reported in 1995 in central coastal California. Since then, tens of thousands of tanoaks (Lithocarpus densiflorus), coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia), and California black oaks (Quercus kelloggii) have been killed by a newly identified fungus, Phytophthora ramorum. On these hosts, the fungus causes a bleeding canker on the stem. The pathogen also infects Rhododendron spp., huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), bay laurel (Umbellularia californica), madrone (Arbutus menziesii), bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita), and California buckeye (Aesculus californica). On these hosts the fungus causes leaf spot and twig dieback. As of January 2002, the disease was known to occur only in California and southwestern Oregon; however, transporting infected hosts may spread the disease. The pathogen has the potential to infect oaks and other trees and shrubs elsewhere in the United States. Limited tests show that many oaks are susceptible to the fungus, including northern red oak and pin oak, which are highly susceptible. On oaks and tanoak, cankers are formed on the stems. Cankered trees may survive for one to several years, but once crown dieback begins, leaves turn from green to pale yellow to brown within a few weeks. A black or reddish ooze often bleeds from the cankers, staining the surface of the bark and the lichens that grow on it. Bleeding ooze may be difficult to see if it has dried or has been washed off by rain, although remnant dark staining is usually present.

Indian Rhubarb Near Indian Falls, Northern Sierra Nevada, California, copyright 2011 by David Leland Hyde. Nikon D90. Single exposure. The wild Indian Rhubarb had just begun to change color as I made this photograph. I probably missed the peak of the Indian Rhubarb because I haven't made it back since.

I have seen the red ooze or the dark stain on many leaves of many trees this Fall season. Some disease has also infected the aspens, the leaves of which in many cases this Fall turned straight from green to brown, or from green briefly to gold and then to brown. Before the last storm, some of the Indian Rhubarb looked like it was starting to show some good color. At first, in early October, it seemed all the tree species leaves were turning faster than usual, then for about a week everything turned very slowly. It was unusually warm into early October. We went skinny dipping in Indian Creek on October 1. It was a bit too cold to feel the elation Walt Whitman described in Leaves of Grass, but it was the first time we have ever swam in Indian Creek that late in the year without wetsuits and river rafts. In early October the oaks were just starting to go yellow and I’m sure the aspens were already turning up high. In the second week of October I heard that the aspens at higher elevations had gone straight from green leaves to brown. Here the few my mother planted were normal: their leaves turned from green to yellow and gold.

Maple Impressions, Northern Sierra Nevada, California, copyright 2011 by David Leland Hyde. Nikon D90. Single exposure. I tried a number of soft focus images of this composition. This was the frame that seemed to work best, but I'm still not sure if it is as I would like it to be.

After being warm enough to skinny dip on October 1, it snowed the morning of October 5. The temperatures dropped from 85 plus degrees Fahrenheit in a few days down to 34 degrees with a light dusting of snow. The temperature drop brought on the Fall color. During the first week of October, in a sea of green leaves I saw only one yellow Indian Rhubarb leaf. Today I will go check on more patches of wild Indian Rhubarb, but I believe I missed the peak of the Fall color for the Indian Rhubarb, which is a shame. I had looked forward to a lot of Fall color photography this year, but it has been for the most part a disappointment, except for in my mother’s garden right around the house where her dogwoods and Japanese maples were consistently brilliant in oranges, yellows, and reds as usual. The Virginia Creeper also proved disappointing, changing straight from green to red without much in between this year. For more contemporary landscape photography see the blog post, “David Leland Hyde Archival Print Pre-Launch.”

Was your Fall color season unusual this year? Where did you photograph?



  1. pj says:

    Fall this year has been unusual for me in that I haven’t really seen anything that resembles autumn weather, except for a few recent cool days. Everything is still the same shade of green it was when I came here last winter. Then again I haven’t been out of LA either. It could be different out in the mountains. No doubt it is.

    I noticed the same situation back in Montana the last couple of years — little color. The leaves went from green to brown and disappeared almost overnight. I’ve heard the same from other places too.

  2. Hi PJ, thanks for the information. When I was a boy, I remember listening to a rock song about the last tree on display in a museum and reading a short story or something like that about the same topic. I remember thinking, ‘How ridiculous, that will never happen.’ Now the way disease, drought and climate changes are going, we may possibly see the last live tree in our lifetime. This of course spells doom for human life.

  3. Steve Sieren says:

    David, it certainly is an odd year for fall color but it’s seems to never really be the same every year. The aspen grove up in the mountains north of Los Angeles has already peaked and usually it’s a little later.

    I’m sure our perception of the Northern Sierra was a little different from what you’re showing us. You have a lot more color then I have scene or heard in the photographs you’re sharing.

    I saw a virginia creeper on a restaurant’s wall in Springdale, Utah with the same type of change, no golden leaves on it all, just reddish to pinkish and green.

  4. Steve Sieren says:

    That’s very unfortunate that oaks are infected, I hope that does not happen down this way because we do have a lot of black oaks that turn down here in Southern California.

  5. Hi Steve, thanks for the compliments on the color. Just to reiterate for all readers what I’ve said before about my images: as you know, Steve, my photographs are all single exposure with minimal post-processing. I sometimes work on shadows and highlights and some curves to get my photographs to look as the scene did when I made the photograph, but I very rarely increase saturation unless the raw file appears washed out compared to the real life scene.

  6. Nancy E. Presser says:

    Beautiful post David. I agree with you about our Northern Sierra fall. It was so much more vivid and lively last year. I remember saying that the trees seemed sad this year. I wasn’t sure if it was the trees or me and my outlook on things. Thank you for the information on the tree disease. It is sad to see the leaves all black spotted. When I lived in So. Cal and went up to Big Bear, they had a terrible problem with the bark beetles killing off trees. At the camp I worked at we even raised money to save one of the diseased trees because we wanted the tree to be a memorial for one of our campers that died that year. Thank you for sharing your photographs too. I enjoyed your Maple Impressions.

  7. Thank you, Nancy. This was the Fall the color died, the sky was crying and the trees were sad.

  8. Sharon says:

    Nice to see some of your work, David. The first has such great texture and, like Nancy, I like the Maple Impressions.


  9. Hi Sharon, I appreciate the compliments coming from a fine photographer like you. Perhaps “Maple Impressions” is a hit. Several others have expressed a liking for it.

  10. Greg Russell says:

    Great set of images, and commentary on the biology/phenology of what’s going on in the northern Sierra this year.

    I’d hoped to get up to an aspen grove here in southern California but the weeks crept by, and I’m sure recent snow has destroyed them. I’ve been focusing on some coastal work, with the storms we’ve been having, but I haven’t photographed much, unfortunately.


  11. Hi Greg, thanks for the comment. I am sad to hear you haven’t been photographing, but you have made so many excellent images already this year that you can afford to coast for a while. Missing the Fall color is unfortunate, but Fall color is a bit overrated anyway.

  12. Jim Shoemaker says:

    I was shooting in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado in late September and early October. The colors there were late compared to last year. In fact, daytime temperatures sometimes reached almost 90, and the nights were not cool enough to trigger the leaves to color. (The weather also seemed to effect the elk, as the rut even seemed off than previous years.) I had better luck in the higher elevations, but Ogden Canyon in Utah was only showing limited color going into the second week of October. It has been a strange year indeed.

  13. Hi Jim, I am glad for the news of what photography and Fall color conditions are like in other states. I am sad that the Fall color and weather seem to be so out of whack this year. Is this the beginning of the end? Whatever “the end” is? I wonder if it is just a fluke year or if we are going to see a continued escalation in strange weather phenomenon and the die off of species due to heat, drought and disease…

  14. Hugh Sakols says:

    I like your Indian Creek image, especially the reflection in the water. I was just photographing on the Merced River trying to get the last of the colors. In Yosemite Valley the black oaks never really became golden like they usually do.

  15. Hi Hugh, thanks for the Yosemite report and the compliments on the Indian Creek photograph.

  16. Hi David
    Fine images. Yes, I think Maple Impressions is a hit. I also like very much the first.
    I am sorry to hear about the widespread fungus problem. Hopefully, something will come along to control it naturally as happens in many cycles. The Forest Service may come up with a fungicide, but one never knows what the secondary consequences of a treatment may be.
    Our color season here very much resembled your report although, fortunately, not as a result of a pathogen. Just unusual weather resulting in isolated patches of color but not what is expected of New England. Then it was followed by a freak heavy snow and that was it. We now have forests filled with broken branches and hanging treetops. Definitely have to watch your head when walking the woods now.

  17. Thank you, Steve, for sharing with me which images you like and for letting me know what happened in New England. It’s strange that even on the East Coast your Fall color was cut short too.

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