Companion blog: Adventures In Stoving

Monday, October 8, 2012

Fall Color in Aspen Grove

UPDATE 16 July 2015:  Many (but not all!) areas in and around the San Gorgonio Wilderness are currently closed due to the Lake Fire.  See Lake Fire Closure Map for details.  Unfortunately, Aspen Grove did burn, so it will be some time before the trees described below once again show forth their glory.

Nature puts on for us a spectacular annual show, a show most commonly known as "fall."  Of course, Southern California "doesn't have seasons" (or so they say), so there's simply no point in going looking for any fall color -- or is there?

Well, interestingly enough, there's a lovely grove of quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) in Southern California.  Yes, you heard that right, there are quaking aspen in Southern California.  And quaking aspen are famously colorful in the fall.
Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides)  in Southern California
But how can this be?  Quaking aspen are more associated with cooler northern climes such as those found in the Colorado Rockies.

Well, the answer lies in geologic history.  In the last ice age, a cooler, moister climate prevailed here in Southern California.  Trees like the quaking aspen prospered.  After the ice age, the area grew warmer and drier, the aspens largely died out, but a small remnant grove of aspens was left behind in a sheltered spot along the banks of Fish Creek high in the San Gorgonio Wilderness, a spot now appropriately known as Aspen Grove.  Please join me as I take a brief look at this year's fall display.
Fall colors at Aspen Grove in Southern California
Or trip begins on unpaved Forest Road 1N05 where it leaves the better maintained and wider Forest Road 1N02 (also unpaved).
The turn off to Aspen Grove and Fish Creek
Don't worry, though.  Even though the road is unpaved and a bit rough, with a bit of care, the average passenger car can make it.  The sign says 7 miles (11km) to Fish Creek, but we're not headed that far.  We're only going to Aspen Grove Saddle which is about 1.25 miles (2km) from the road junction.  From there we'll hike about 10 or 15 minutes to the boundary of the San Gorgonio Wilderness and then perhaps another 20 minutes to get to the various stands of aspen.  This as you might surmise makes for good family hiking.

Note:  The San Gorgonio Wilderness is a federally designated wilderness area.  A wilderness permit is required for all day and overnight use.  Contact the Mill Creek Ranger Station to obtain a free permit.  See contact information in Appendix "A," below.
The well marked trailhead for Aspen Grove.  
Shortly after leaving the above noted road junction, we come to Aspen Grove Saddle, the location of our trailhead.  The hiking portion of our trip starts down the rutted remains of an old road.  The trail begins behind the "WELCOME" sign that you can see in the above photo.  After only a few minutes walk, we start seeing the brilliant colors of what we came to see:  quaking aspen in their fall plumage.
The brilliant colors of the quaking aspen stand in stark contrast to the surrounding forest
Soon thereafter, we come to Fish Creek, which marks the boundary of the San Gorgonio Wilderness.  Fortunately, Fish Creek runs low in fall, and presents little obstacle in terms of crossing.
Fish Creek at the crossing point en route to the aspens.   Easily crossed.
 Despite its low water level in fall, Fish Creek is still a picturesque spot.
Lovely Fish Creek, just above the crossing
On the far side of the creek, we enter the San Gorgonio Wilderness and come under the golden canopy of the aspens.
Entering the first stand of aspens
From the entry point to the wilderness, we have the choice of either turning left (south) or right (north). The majority of the aspens lie to the north, but a brief walk south takes us to this scenic, aspen-lined section of trail.
The Aspen Grove trail heading through the aspens.
For whatever reason, it seems that the best, most vivid colors lie to the north, but this section of Aspen Grove is well worth visiting.

Turning, we now head north.  We leave the dense stand of aspens at the entry point of the wilderness and head through more open forest with a mixture of aspens and conifers.
Heading through mixed, open forest en route to the more northern stands of aspen
This is comparatively gentle terrain, generally suitable for even young walkers.
Easy hiking in Aspen Grove
Heading further down the trail, we re-cross Fish Creek, ascend a slight rise and come to this:
A large, relatively pure stand of quaking aspen
The stand of aspen shown above is the largest and purest in the Aspen Grove area.  It is here that I've typically seen the most brilliant colors.
Fall gold in Aspen Grove
My experience is that late afternoon, when the sun backlights the trees from the west, is a good time for fall color viewing and photography.
Aspen aglow in the afternoon sun
Here, photographic opportunities abound.
Ripe fall gold
Take care though, not too come too late.  As the sun fades, so does the brilliance of the fall color.
Fall color in the late afternoon
But as long as the sun shines, the golden colors show forth.
Vivid late afternoon hues
I'm not much of a photographer, nor do I have anything more than a "point and shoot" camera, but I think a few of these photos came out quite nicely, which is more a tribute to the natural scenic beauty of Aspen Grove than to any photographic skill that I might have.
The shifting sun variously highlights the brilliant autumnal leaves
It's such a lovely sight that we stay as long as we can, but alas the sun finally sinks below the ridges of Grinnell Mountain to the west, and we lose our light.  Still, even in the fading light of evening, the aspens put on quite a display.
Aspens in the fading light of evening
It's now time to turn for home, but not before we take one last shot of autumnal gold.
A parting shot of fall's glory at Aspen Grove
The best time for viewing the colorful aspen leaves has been around the first weekend of October the last couple of years.  Indeed, the fall colors are at their height as I write this on October 8th.  Don't wait to go, the leaves drop to the ground quickly after the colors peak.  After all, why do you think they call it "fall?"

I hope you've enjoyed this brief look at the fall colors of Southern California.  I thank you for joining me,


Appendix "A" -- Contact Information

Mill Creek Ranger Station
34701 Mill Creek Rd.
Mentone, CA 92359
(909) 382-2882

Appendix "B" -- Personal Notes
This post of course is concerned primarily with the rich fall colors of Aspen Grove, but really Aspen Grove is a splendid family hike any time the weather is good and the road is open (check with the Mill Creek Ranger Station concerning road conditions).

The banks of the creek are shaded and are a perfect spot for a picnic or just "hanging out."
"Hanging out" at Aspen Grove
Aspen Grove is a great spot, well away from noisy highways, perfect for a relaxing afternoon.
Father-daughter time at Aspen Grove
In all, it's a really fun family outing.
Hammock time at Aspen Grove
Aspen Grove:  Highly recommended.


  1. Excellent report Jim, what a gem for us here in SoCal! Thanks for letting us know about it.
    Great family outing as well.

    Scott 2

    1. Hi, Scott,

      You're welcome. It really is a great spot to see fall color, and it's right here in Southern California.


  2. How cold was it that time of year? Great pictures, thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi, Joseph,

      Sorry, I just now noticed your comment. You can see we're just wearing "shirt sleeves" during the height of the day. As evening came on, we switched to jackets. I'd say highs were around 65F/18C and lows were around 50F/10C. It's often very nice weather during the day in October.