Think New England Is the Only Place for Fall Foliage? Try California

We’re not knocking the Northeast’s fall colors—but the third-largest state has some prime leaf peeping as well.

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The willows and aspens of California’s June Lake Loop provide just one the state’s many autumnal hues.

Photo by Patricia Elaine Thomas / Shutterstock

Best U.S. states for fall foliage? Vermont and New Hampshire are the usual suspects. Yet the third-largest state’s mostly Mediterranean climate means a huge variety of deciduous trees, and elevation ranging from 14,000 feet to sea level produces a long season of color. Elevation, more than latitude, determines the descent of fall hues in California. Changing at a rate of 500 or more feet a week, the Golden State’s season for leaf peepers stretches from September through November. Here are some of the top spots for nature’s awesome autumn art.

Mammoth Lakes

U.S. Route 395 runs some 550 miles along the eastern Sierras and rivals Highway 1 as California’s most scenic drive, especially the 55 miles from Bridgeport to Mammoth Lakes. And it offers the bonus of two unique geologic detours along the way: ancient Mono Lake, with its otherworldly tufa (limestone columns) and Devils Postpile, a national monument of columns of basalt up to 60 feet high.

Eastern Sierra lakes surrounded by multihued trees include June Lake, Convict Lake, Lake George, and Lundy Lake. The June Lake Loop Road (aka Highway 158) is 16 miles of scenery with several lakes; aspens and willows are among the trees providing autumn hues; it’s a popular detour off Route 395. Convict Lake features an easy 2-mile loop trail to stretch your legs.

Yosemite and other national parks

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Yosemite also explodes into color in the fall.

Photo by Luc Stadnik / Shutterstock

In October, Yosemite is an obvious choice for enjoying fall’s palette: You’ll see pink- and red-leafed Pacific dogwoods, pumpkin shades of black oaks and golden big-leaf maples, plus yellows of deer brush, Indian hemp, and some grasses. Near the east entrance, Tioga Pass offers quaking aspens. But for fewer crowds, try Sequoia National Park. No, sequoias do not change their appearance, but among the towering evergreens are plants and trees that do. For an easy day trip from the Bay Area, try Pinnacles National Park; at the eastern entrance a few years ago, stands of rusty orange sycamores greeted me in November (and outnumbered the visitors). And in fall, you’ll have more comfortable temperatures than summer.

Napa Valley and nearby wine country

When you rave about the reds in Napa Valley in fall, you might mean leaves as well as wines. At various wineries, you may spot golden ginkgos or scarlet liquid amber leaves, as well as the shifting shades of countless grape leaves. Fall harvests mean you may also sit in traffic on weekends on the main road, Highway 29, through Napa Valley, so consider heading west to Sonoma County’s parks and vineyards. And in Mendocino County, instead of flat, straight Highway 29, the route through the Anderson Valley’s vineyards is often twisty along scenic Highway 128.

Other wine country options include the River Road Wine Trail that links wineries in the Salinas Valley, near Monterey. Further south, you’ll encounter vineyards galore in the Santa Ynez Valley, northeast of Santa Barbara. Head for the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, linking Santa Maria, known for its distinctive barbecue, and Los Olivos, so small it’s officially a “census designated place” but loaded with wineries and tasting rooms.

Lake Tahoe and vicinity

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Yellow is the predominant color among Lake Tahoe’s trees.

Photo by yunjun / Shutterstock

Thanks to aspens and cottonwoods, yellow is the star hue here, at an elevation of some 6,000 feet. North and west of Lake Tahoe, a short drive takes you to Truckee, a good base for scenic small towns—like historic Sierraville and the nearby Sierra Hot Springs—and forests along Highway 89. To escape the commercial coast of Lake Tahoe, head to Donner Lake to focus on foliage. At the south end of Lake Tahoe, Camp Richardson offers a fall palette and options for viewing it: biking, hiking, horseback riding, or an afternoon cruise of Emerald Bay (available until mid-October). Nearby are two other notable color spots: Taylor Creek Visitor Center and the high alpine Fallen Leaf Lake. Taylor Creek’s Rainbow Trail is a wheelchair-accessible way to view aspens. An easy flat walk at Fallen Leaf leads to Cathedral Meadow’s aspen grove. And a half-hour drive to undeveloped Hope Valley supplies more fall foliage.

Southern California

The SoCal coast is not the place for leaf peeping. You’ll need to head inland and uphill from Los Angeles and San Diego for shades of autumn. Two spots offer the bonus of apple orchards. Oak Glen, with eponymous oaks and black walnut trees showing off (plus an apple butter festival in November), is in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains. Julian, about a 90-minute drive from San Diego, is near Volcan Mountain; besides apple trees, you’ll find colorful oaks and vineyards near this former gold mining town. A short drive away is Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, also noted for the yellows and oranges of its oak trees.

And two places more commonly associated with summer and winter feature ample fall foliage. Lake Arrowhead (with an Oktoberfest every weekend in October) is northeast of San Bernardino. Crimson and amber maples and golden aspens are among the striking trees on view along various hikes near Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino National Forest. Both lakes are about a two-hour drive from L.A.

Climate change and unpredictable weather in general impact when leaves turn. (I’m recalling snow on yellowing aspens near Lake Tahoe in September a few years ago.) But even if you miss color peaks, your travels around the Golden State will include memorable scenery. Be sure to check californiafallcolor.com for the latest developments.

Pat Tompkins has written for AFAR about books, art, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and other topics.
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