Fall colors: Some favorite outdoor/hiking spots for autumn beauty

Fall is upon us. The leaves change colors across the city, and the evergreens in the mountains drop old needles and don darker green for winter. Hidden pockets outside hold special colors and unique fall nature events, if you know where to look.

While there’s no shortage of beautiful sights in the autumn, here are a few of my favorites.

Spooner Lake is a classic stop on the east shore of Lake Tahoe. Part of the Nevada State Parks system, this stunning lake is surrounded by aspens and other deciduous trees that display a rainbow of autumn hues each year. With recently renovated facilities, Spooner Lake has plenty of space for visitors to enjoy the sights and sounds in the area.

A mostly flat, two-mile trail will take you all the way around the lake, through aspen groves where you can appreciate the colors up close. Migrating birds often stop at Spooner Lake, and a pair of binoculars is a great addition to any visit to this alpine refuge. Many miles of backcountry trails and camping—including a portion of the Tahoe Rim Trail—wind their way through this scenic backcountry.

Taylor Creek, just west of South Lake Tahoe, is another excellent fall classic. With a visitor station run by the U.S. Forest Service and a trail spotted with educational signs, this area is more than just a pretty walk in the woods. You can learn about the local ecology while winding through trees, meandering over meadows and marshes, and listening to the whisper of the aspen groves, with their twisting leaves.

Each fall, Taylor Creek is the site of the kokanee salmon run. These non-native (but well-managed and integrated) fish turn bright pink and red as they make their way from Lake Tahoe into Fallen Leaf Lake to spawn. In this shallow creek, their vibrant colors add to the magic of the area—made more spectacular by frequent visits from hungry bears looking for a fishy snack.

In Hope Valley, just south of Tahoe, Highway 88 offers a feast for the eyes as it winds along the west fork of the Carson River. The undergrowth and the aspens put on a colorful display in the fall, made all the more beautiful on a frosty sunny morning or a rainy, overcast afternoon. The campground along the river has little cell service but great views and the musical backdrop of water flowing over rocks.

The main expanse of the valley is home to grasses and willows that make up an impressively large meadow. Spring wildflowers give way to the soft yellows, browns and oranges of fall colors. Creeks crisscross, giving homes to fish and crusting over with picturesque frost on brisk mornings. There’s much to explore in the area, with side roads heading up to hidden lakes and more valleys housing migrating sandhill cranes and mule deer.

PHOTO/MAGGIE NICHOLS: A mushroom in Desolation Wilderness.

Desolation Wilderness is spectacular in every season. The granite slabs full of lakes and twisting trees feel foreign and exotic—under the midsummer sun or covered in snow. Evergreens and junipers dominate much of this wilderness, and at first glance, this may not be the ideal spot for bright fall colors. However, for the intrepid explorer who is willing to hike farther distances, the autumn damp that collects in pockets of shade creates oases for brightly colored mushrooms to flourish.

Rather than looking up at leaves, most of these mushrooms grow from the ground, from downed trunks, or sprout off the sides of living trees. They represent a spectacular array of fungal life, from small, white toadstools covered in tan dots to enormous orange, yellow and brown elephant ears sprawling across the ground. Entire trunks may be coated in delicate, rust-colored flakes, while crevices between branches give rise to shiny, banana-yellow blobs, and unassuming patches on the ground explode in great cherry-red mushroom caps with white spots, as if out of a parallel universe full of Mario characters.

Whether you’re looking for classic aspen groves, exciting animal antics, or obscure fungi sprouting just two weeks each year, our little neck of the Sierra Nevada Mountains has so much to offer in the fall. These are some of my favorite spots that I return to bask in each year. What are yours?