Aspen and cottonwood trees on Ebbetts and Monitor passes begin to show their fall colors in early September. Higher elevation trees start first and then over the next two months the color spreads down the passes. The best places to find the dazzling bright gold color of aspen trees are along the eastern slopes of Ebbetts Pass and the western slope of Monitor Pass. Oaks and other trees on the western side can also present colorful displays.
Choosing the best time to enjoy the trees in autumn splendor is always a challenge since the changes in leaf color are triggered by shortened days and cooler temperatures. A sudden cold spell can bring dramatic changes to the trees, seemingly overnight. Or a burst of warm weather can delay the transition. A phone call to one of the ranger stations might offer some insights into current conditions.
You can easily make a driving tour of the eastern side of Ebbetts Pass and the western slope of Monitor Pass in a single day. From the west side of the mountains consider driving up Carson Pass (Highway 88) and including the dazzling colors in Hope Valley in your tour. From Hope Valley drive south on Highway 89 through Markleeville, take in the western side of Monitor Pass, and then head for Ebbetts Pass. The East Carson River valley from Markleeville to Ebbetts Pass is another area displaying wonderful autumn colors.
For accommodations along the way, see our suggestions for lodging below. There are several places along the drive where you may want to get out of your car for a better view and to take pictures. Be prepared for cool weather, of course.
Ebbetts Pass is known as a narrow and twisting road high on the eastern side of the summit. If you would rather avoid that section of road, consider using Carson Pass to reach the eastern Sierra. Carson is a much wider road with gentle grades and sweeping curves. Another approach is from South Lake Tahoe over Luther Pass (Highway 89) and then south to the Markleeville area.
Savvy mountain drivers fill up their gas tanks before heading into the high country. Convenient gas stations are found along Highway 4 from Murphys up through Bear Valley. On the east side gas stations are more difficult to locate. One is available in Markleeville and another near Woodfords along Highway 89.
Check road conditions and weather before setting out. Carry chains.
Of course you can find beautiful fall scenery all along Highway 4 and Highway 89. We have several stops that we think are especially worth visiting.
Groves of aspen trees shimmer in the mountain breeze along the highway 3 miles east of Ebbetts Pass. Although much of the color can be appreciated from your car, there is more to discover for those who have the time to pull over and wander a short distance from the road. Several wide turnouts provide great places to stop. Look for the glow of small clusters of aspens hiding off among the pines.
Some of the most scenic stands of aspens are found around the Scossa Cow Camp, a cluster of old-time ranch cabins and corrals a short distance east of the foot of Ebbetts Pass. Park in small turnouts west of the cow camp and then walk back down along the shoulder of the highway, enjoying views of trees and mountains that can't be appreciated when driving by.
The entire length of the East Carson River from the Wolf Creek Junction to Markleeville is one continuous flow of autumn beauty. Cottonwoods, aspens, and willows show off their golden-yellow colors along with the dark browns and muted golds of late season grasses and shrubs. Dozens of spacious turnouts are found along the highway.
Five miles south of Markleeville Highway 89 turns up Monitor Pass. Once you have driven about 6 miles up the pass you find yourself in open country with spectacular vistas of the western side of the pass and beyond. Several turnouts along the road make good spots to stop and enjoy the panoramic views. Groves of aspens below and across on nearby slopes glow in the sunlight. Farther up the pass colorful trees crowd along either side of the road. Turn around at the top unless you have other reasons to descend the eastern side of Monitor Pass to Highway 395.