Fall is one of my favorite seasons in California. The tourists have gone home, and the weather is still warm, right before the rainy season starts. From vibrant fall foliage to serene beach towns, the Golden State shines during autumn. Here are some of the best fall destinations in California that should be on your radar.
When does fall start in California?
Autumn starts first in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in late September to early October and then rolls down to the lower elevations around mid-October to early November. During September and October, California experiences a second summer in areas that are closer to sea level and some cities like San Francisco have their warmest weather of the year. Your best bet to see fall colors is to come later in the season around mid-late October when the weather starts to finally cool down.
A Note About Fire Season in California
In the past decade, fire season has become more pronounced, starting in late summer and going into November when the first winter rains begin to fall. The hot, dry months of early and mid-fall, along with the statewide drought have fueled forest fires from Northern to Southern California. When traveling during this time make sure to check for any wildfires in your specific destination, since roads and national parks can be closed due to fire danger and poor air quality.
Best Places to See Fall Colors in California
Here’s a shortlist of the best places to see fall foliage in the state, since not all regions (especially Southern California) have trees that change with the season:
- Sacramento and surrounding areas – including Amador County, El Dorado County and Nevada City
- Highway 395 along the Eastern Sierras – including June Lake and Mammoth
- Shasta Cascade – including Lassen State Park
- Marin County – including Napa, Sonoma, and Petaluma
- Oak Glen – a small town 80 miles from Los Angeles with apple and pumpkin picking
- Julian – an hour outside of San Diego, this historic Gold Rust town is famously known for its apple pies
Best Places To Experience California In Fall
Late September through November is one of the best times to visit the state’s most popular national park. The traffic jam into the valley is easing up and the summer heat is cooling down. Although most of the trees are evergreens, there are pockets of color around the valley in the form of orange oaks and golden maples. If you come to Yosemite in mid-November, you’ll be right at the peak of the Leonid meteor shower.
Travel tip: make sure to stay in the valley, since it can take an hour to get into the park from neighboring towns like Mariposa.
November is one of the best times to visit this national park since the weather is bearable with warm days and cool nights. There are hardly any crowds, so it feels like you have this otherworldly landscape to yourself. Make sure to check out highlights like the Badwater Basin’s salt flats (North America’s lowest point), the vibrant desert hills of Artist Palette, and the park’s most popular lookout Zabriskie Point.
Stay at either the Inn at Death Valley or the Ranch at Death Valley, and make sure to stargaze in this International Dark Sky Preserve.
Northern California wine country is a great place to sit back and sip some of the area’s best whites and reds. As the grape harvest winds down, the fall colors ramp up. The trees as well as the grape leaves all turn shades of reds, yellows, and oranges, turning the entire landscape into an autumnal wonderland. Stop by small towns like Calistoga, where you can take a dip in one of the natural hot springs as the weather cools.
A great alternative to Napa Valley is the Anderson Valley wineries, a two-hour drive away. This is a lesser-known wine region but has equally delicious farm-fresh cuisine and memorable wines.
Los Angeles is a great place to visit during mid-to-late October since the weather is still seasonably warm. There is also no Californian city that does Halloween better than this theatrical town. From Universal Studios Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights to West Hollywood Halloween Carnival, there is plenty of haunted happenings taking place through the entire month of October (and before).
Other seasonal activities worth checking out are getting a ticket to one of the TV shows that come back for the fall or take a tour of a studio to see the behind-the-scenes of your favorite TV show or movie at places like Warner Bros. Studios. Catch a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, the iconic outdoor music venue that is situated in the Hollywood Hills and is perfect for a warm fall night.
Located in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, this charming agricultural town is a popular fall escape an hour and a half from Los Angeles. Since it’s about 4,000 feet above sea level, the area experiences all four seasons and is known for its abundant apple harvest in autumn. Stop by the Oak Glen School House Museum for a historical run-down of the area and free maps.
Apple farms worth visiting are:
- Los Rios Rancho – you can pick apples, take a tour of the packing houses, press your own apple cider in antique machines and pick up a tri-tip sandwich for lunch at the Market Barn and Kitchen. The Oak Glen Preserve is nearby and has scenic trails to explore.
- Willowbrook Apple Farm – a small family-owned farm that has u-pick apples and u-press apple cider. Educational tours are also available for children and their families that include a tractor ride, farm animals, and caramel apples.
- Oak Tree Mountain – a 14-acre farm that has u-pick apple orchards, mile-high apple pies at Apple Annies, lots of food options, and a farm for kids.
If you want to see some of the best fall colors in California, head to the Sierra Nevada foothills. Around October into November, the fall colors rival those on the East Coast. The intense heat of the Central Valley is cooling off, especially later in the season. Drive an hour east from Sacramento to Apple Hill in El Dorado County, for apple picking and every apple treat you could dream of.
Gold Country is known for its wineries, where you can find tasting rooms tucked into small gold rush towns like Sutter Creek in Amador County. The picturesque town of Nevada City near the California-Nevada border has some spectacular fall colors amid its historical buildings that are not to be missed.
Head up to the Sierras to take advantage of what the locals call the “secret season,” where you can do all the summer activities minus the crowds. The temperatures hover around the mid-70s in September and drop down to the low-50s in November, with little rain at the beginning of the season. The lake temperature is bearable until mid-October, depending on the year.
The fall foliage is similar to that of Yosemite, with pops of color decorating the landscape. From the beginning to mid-October, visit the Taylor Creek Salmon Run Visitor Center to watch hundreds of kokanee salmon make their way south.
Located about two hours from San Diego, this desert may be known for its springtime wildflower bloom, but it’s just as stunning in the fall. With cooler temperatures to explore California’s largest state park, you can take daytime walks through narrow sandstone canyons and watch for bighorn sheep that roam the area.
Arguably the best attraction comes at night when the moon illuminates the landscape and the stars come out. In 2009, Borrego Springs, the surrounding town was designated as an International Dark Sky Community, to preserve the night skies for uninterrupted stargazing.
The Eastern Sierra fall colors are a must if you are anywhere near this highway during the autumn season.
A memorable highlight is the aspen trees that brighten up the landscape with their golden hue. Stops along the way going north to south include the well-preserved ghost town of Bodie, Mono Lake with its otherworldly tufa towers, the bizarre Devil’s Postpile, June Lake with its abundance of golden aspens, Lone Pine, which holds a Western Film Festival every October and the tragic site of the Japanese internment camp Manzanar.
San Diego is known for its mild late fall weather after a usually humid, toasty early season. This city is also known for its beer-loving nature and it doesn’t disappoint when it comes to celebrating a local version of Oktoberfest. There are festivals in El Cajon, Encinitas, La Mesa, Carlsbad, Ocean Beach, and a bit further out in Julian. At the Liberty Public Market, there’s a Craftoberfest, which is a 10-day celebration of craft beer.
In early November, there are Dia De Los Muertos events throughout the city including Old Town, celebrating this traditional Mexican holiday with lavish costumes and elaborately decorated shrines to departed loved ones.
An easy day trip from San Diego, this charming Gold Rush town located in the Cuyamaca Mountains feels like a world away from the coast. Walk around the historic downtown of Julian on a self-guided tour and stop by places like the Town Hall and Hotel Robinson. Pick up a slice of famed apple pie from the Julian Pie Company with a scoop of cinnamon ice cream. The Julian Cider Mill is another fun stop, where you can pick up homemade cider and other treats like apple butter.
During fall, Julian Farm & Orchard is a great place to pick apples starting in late September. There is also a pumpkin patch there that is open in late September as well. Volcan Valley Apple Farm is another option for apple picking with extensive orchards.
After Labor Day, gone are the summer crowds at this idyllic beach town in Orange County, but the weather is still balmy. Explore the downtown and indulge in a cold treat at the ever-popular Gelato Paradiso. Main Beach is right across the street from the downtown area, but there are also other notable beaches along the coast worth visiting as well.
Stop by Aliso Beach, which has plentiful, cheap parking. Thousand Step Beach is a great alternative for those who want to get a workout with a view (though it’s more like 200+ steps). Crystal Cove State Park boasts 18 miles of hiking trails with ocean views, ranger-led walks, and stargazing tours.
I may be biased, but I think that my home city shines best in the fall. Gone are the chilly summer months (and the tourists), and in its place is some of the city’s best weather. Ocean Beach and Baker Beach are always filled with locals trying to take advantage of a rare sunny SF day.
There are plenty of outdoor activities to do, including Fleet Week (stay for the Blue Angeles air show), Castro Street Fair, Folsom Street Fair (not for the faint of heart), Hardly, Strictly, Bluegrass music festival (free), and Litquake, a literary festival that takes place all around the city.
For vibrant fall colors in Northern California, the Shasta Cascade region which includes Lassen Volcanic National Park is the place to go. The peak season for autumn colors is usually around mid-October to late October, depending on the location and elevation. Some locations even have color all the way into mid-November. For more details, check out this handy guide that includes stops like Plumas County, McArthur-Burney Falls State Park, and Redding to name a few.
The American Rivera is a beautiful destination to visit any time of the year with consistent mild temperatures, white sand beaches, and the many wineries within the area. Fall is especially prime time to visit Santa Barbara because besides not having to deal with the summer crowds, you can head down to the beach and watch surfers tackle impressive swells that roll onto the shore. Beaches worth stopping by are El Capitan, Rincon, and Sands.
Santa Barbara wineries also provide a beautiful landscape to sip on wine during the fall, with vines turning various shades of red.
This popular dessert escape from Los Angeles cools down around late October and has plenty of seasonal activities to revel in like Greater Palm Springs LGBT Pride and Props and Hops Craft Beer Fest both in November. The shoulder season of October-November is also a great time to take advantage of the cheaper hotel prices that can be astronomical during the high season.
For outdoor adventures, take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway up to 8,516 feet above sea level or hike the Tahquitz Canyon to properly disconnect and take in the desert landscape.
The City of Trees shines during fall when the hot dry summer weather cools down and is replaced with beautiful autumn colors throughout the tree-lined city streets. Neighborhoods worth stopping by include Curtis Park, a residential neighborhood that’s home to beautiful homes, and Pangaea Bier Garden (a personal favorite). East Sacramento is also worth visiting for its palatial homes and for epic Halloween decorations in October.
Drive half an hour from Sacramento to the college town of Davis, where you can enjoy the walkable downtown and university campus. Make sure to stop by Burgers and Brews, a longtime local favorite.
Some of the best fall foliage is in SF Bay Area’s North Bay, including this community-driven corner of the region. Stop by the town of Sonoma to walk around the center of town that has plenty of wine tasting rooms, cheese shops, and restaurants. A few blocks away from the town square, there are farms with horses mixed in with peaceful residential neighborhoods perfect for wandering.
Drop by nearby towns like Petaluma, where you can enjoy the fall colors and then wander around the historical downtown and pick up a seasonal pie or two at the Petaluma Pie Company.
Santa Ynez Valley
Located 30 minutes from Santa Barbara, this wine region is quickly becoming a destination that rivals its larger neighbor. Entering the valley, it feels like going to a different world with sprawling ranches and vineyards. Santa Ynez Valley is made up of six towns: Solvang, Buellton, Ballard, Los Olivos, Los Alamos, and Santa Ynez.
Partake in fall festivals like the Danish Days in September in Solvang that celebrate all things Danish. In October, stop by the Celebration of Harvest, held over Columbus Day Weekend, where you can sample local wine and food.
An hour from Palm Springs, this national park is ideal to visit after it cools down from intense summer heat. The park is famous for its Joshua trees that look straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. Stop by one of the four visitor centers located throughout the park to get your bearings, and then choose the best hike in Joshua Tree that suits your personal fitness level.
If you’re visiting around mid-October and love a good desert music festival, the four-day Joshua Tree Music Festival is worth checking out. You can either purchase one-day passes or buy a ticket for all four days. On-site camping is available as well.
One of California’s most scenic road trips is best taken during the early fall months when the coastal weather is balmy and the rainy season is still a distant afterthought. Start in San Francisco, and make your way down stopping at notable destinations like Monterrey, Big Sur, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Malibu, before ending in Los Angeles.
Go to this official government website to double-check road conditions before leaving.
This rural coastal area of Marin County provides a fantastic front-row seat to the transition from summer to fall. Stop by small towns like Point Reyes Station, Bolinas, Stinson Beach, and Tomales. Drop by pumpkin patches like Nicasio Valley Farms, which comes with a picturesque background and puts smaller city lots to shame.
Point Reyes Station is a great town to stop in to get provisions before heading out to Point Reyes National Seashore. This national park is where you can hike trails with sweeping coastal views, admire Alamere Falls, which empties directly into the ocean, and visit landmarks like the Point Reyes Lighthouse.
What are some of your favorite fall destinations in California?
Photo sources: Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez Valley
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