Spectacular fall color in Southern California? It exists! Just a short distance from Big Bear we found the southernmost aspen grove in California. The quaking aspen (populus tremoloids) are readily identified by the disc-like leaves about the size of a silver dollar. The slightest breeze sets these leaves in motion, leading to that “quaking” effect. It’s beautiful to see and a delight to the ears.
I had heard of this Southern California grove when I was planning my Fish Creek hike on San Gorgonio, but didn’t have time to check it out. Being the first weekend of October, we thought it would be a perfect time to check it out.
Getting to the trailhead is an adventure in itself. You take Highway 38 from Redlands up the mountains — about 30 miles to Forest Route IN02 (the sign points to the Heart Bar Equestrian Campground). This Forest Service road is gated and usually closed winters through about May. It begins as a paved road, but quickly turns to a washboard gravel road that made me thankful I was driving my Xterra.
After a few easy miles, we headed right at the fork toward Fish Creek. Here the road narrows to a single lane, and gets very rocky and rutted. You won’t need four-wheel drive, but I’d recommend an SUV or truck. We saw a couple of sedans at the trailhead, but I’d advise against that. The trailhead itself is easy to spot, with a big sign and information about the area. Parking is free and an Adventure Pass is no longer required, but you will need a free permit, which you can pickup at the Mill Creek Ranger Station on Highway 38 at Bryant.
Hiking to the Aspen Grove
The trail begins with an easy downhill jaunt to Fish Creek. As we headed down the trail, we caught glimpses of the aspen trees turning brilliant gold.
At the 0.3 mile mark, we reached Fish Creek. In spite of it being early October with very little precipitation this summer, there was still water flowing.
After crossing the creek, you’ll see a sign marking the entrance to the San Gorgonio Wilderness and noting that wilderness permits are required. Just beyond this sign, the first grove of aspen trees begins.
When you cross the creek, you reach a junction with the Fish Creek trail. To your left, the trail heads uphill toward the Fish Creek Trailhead. We headed to the right, following Fish Creek downhill to the second and larger aspen grove.
One of the unique characteristics of aspen is that unlike most trees, a grove is actually a single organism with a shared root system. So the leaves of a “grove” will turn colors at the same time, and generally the same colors. In areas where multiple groves co-mingle, this manifests itself in variations of colors.
We took our sweet time picking our way down the trail, stopping frequently to take photos or simply enjoy the beautiful colors and sounds of the aspen. There are several crossings as you head down the trail, but all easily manageable.
At the 1.4 mile mark, it looked like we had seen all of the aspen groves, and turned around. Backtrack up the same trail. We attempted to find an easily navigable route into the larger grove (seen in the featured photo at the top of this post), but the growth along the creek was pretty heavy. Instead, we enjoyed the view from across the creek.
We headed back up toward the trailhead. But before we left, we setup the hammock in the first aspen grove. We laid back and enjoyed the view.
Aspen Grove Trail Map
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Aspen Grove Tips
- Getting to the trailhead takes you up a very bumpy dirt road. I’d recommend a high-clearance vehicle.
- Adventure Pass required for trailhead parking
- Wilderness Permit required for entry into the San Gorgonio Wilderness
- Be prepared for cold weather. You’re in the mountains.
- Aprés-hike libations? Check out Hangar 24 Brewery in Redlands, right off Highway 38
Looking for more fall color in California? My friend Josh has created a list of the Best Places for Fall Color in California.
Angeles Oaks Weather Forecast
Angeles Oaks is the nearest weather station I could find. Note that the temperatures are likely to be much cooler, since you’ll be more than 8,000 feet above sea level.