Best Places for Fall Color in California
In the crisp fall air of the Sierras, the leaves are just beginning to turn to hues of yellow and orange. Autumn enjoys an extended season in California due to the state’s range of climates. The changing colors start in September in the mountains and run as late as November and December at lower elevations. The changing of the seasons provides a great excuse to take a road trip to enjoy the show. Below are just some of our favorite spots to catch fall color in California.
Just over an hour from San Diego’s endless summers, the historic mining town of Julian offers visitors a delicious taste of fall. At 4,000 feet in elevation, the sandy beaches and swaying palms give way to the crisp mountain air, apple orchards, vineyards, and beautiful fall colors. Hike the Five Oaks Trail at Volcan Mountain Preserve, which is home to some of the region’s oldest and largest black oaks. More black oaks ring Lake Cuyamaca in a blaze of color at Cuyamaca State Park. At Palomar Mountain State Park, hike the Thunder Ridge or Chimney Flat Loop to enjoy the changing colors of the bracken ferns and leafy oaks. Back in town, grab a slice of apple pie and stroll the charming storefronts dating back to the late 1800s.
Where to stay: Just a short walk from town, Orchard Hill Country Inn is nestled on five acres and features an idyllic pond ringed with hammocks and Adirondack chairs. A delightful collection of 23 rooms and cottages are scattered across the property. The inn welcomes guests with a glass of local apple cider and serves a happy hour featuring local wines each evening.
Every autumn, the aspens and oaks along California’s Highway 108 put on a dazzling display of fall color against a backdrop of pine forests and bright blue skies. The scenic route winds through the Stanislaus National Forest (which will re-open September 17), passing alpine lakes, meadows, and mountain vistas as it skirts the northern boundary for Yosemite National Park and climbs up to Sonora Pass. One of the best spots for fall color along route is the vista point at Donnell Lake. The vista point overlooks the lake and the Dardanelles, which are a series of volcanic ridges. In the fall, the trees are ablaze in fiery yellows and oranges and the colors stretch for miles along the ridges. Other great spots along Highway 108 for fall color include Pinecrest Lake, Sardine Meadow, Leavitt Falls Overlook, and Leavitt Meadow Overlook. The leaves begin turning in late September and peak in October.
Where to stay: Nestled in a quiet forest hollow, the McCaffrey House Bed & Breakfast Inn is a charming mountain retreat near Twain Harte. The inn’s eight delightful guest rooms feature cozy fire stoves, luxurious beds covered in beautiful quilts, and enchanting forest views from every room. Stays include a wine reception served fireside and a delicious breakfast each morning.
North of Lake Tahoe (and far from the fire), the historic town of Truckee is a spectacular fall destination as the aspen and maples change from green to gold to red. One of the easiest hikes for leaf-peeping is the Legacy Trail, which is a paved walking and biking path that follows the Truckee River right from downtown. An easy, four-mile loop at Martis Creek Wildlife Area near Northstar runs along a meadow with beautiful flora and fauna. Another great hike for fall color is Coldstream Canyon, which starts just behind Donner Memorial State Park. More local hikes above Donner Lake provide stunning views of the mountains and the lake ringed in a blaze of fall hues. The leaves around Truckee begin changing colors in mid-September and run through mid-to-late October.
Where to stay: In Truckee, Donner Lake Inn is nestled among over an acre of pine, maple, and aspen trees providing spectacular fall color. Through the fall season, the inn serves hot spiced apple cider and hearty breakfasts featuring locally grown apples. There’s also an outdoor hot tub for soaking up the forest views.
In autumn, the college town of Chico is ablaze in a spectrum of deep reds, oranges, gold, and yellow. At Bidwell Park, which is one of the largest urban parks in the U.S., visitors can hike or bike among the 3,600 acres of oaks and sycamore trees. A series of graceful bridges connect the trails running along both sides of Big Chico Creek and provide picturesque views of the rushing waters lined with fall color. Visitors can also stroll along Chico’s many tree-lined streets to take in the changing colors while fallen leaves crunch underfoot. The leaves typically begin turning colors in October and peak in early-to-mid-November.
Where to stay: Within walking distance of downtown and Bidwell Park, the Goodman House Bed & Breakfast is a grand 1906 Colonial Revival on a broad, tree-lined esplanade. Its five beautifully appointed guest rooms feature antique furnishings, luxurious beds, and private baths, some with clawfoot tubs. A stay includes a delicious two-course breakfast served each morning in the garden or dining room.
Each autumn, the lower slopes of Mount Shasta are painted in a kaleidoscope of color as the oaks, big leaf maples, aspen, and dogwoods turn yellow, orange, and red. Early snowfall on the mountain’s peak makes for an even more dramatic backdrop. Lake Siskiyou’s shoreline trail provides stunning views of autumn leaves and a snowcapped Mount Shasta reflected in the lake. The scenic trails running alongside the McCloud River between lower, middle, and upper falls are all the more stunning when the leaves turn to a blaze of fall color. Following Highway 89 east to McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, visitors will find more fall foliage with fiery splashes of color framing the stunning spring-fed Burney Falls. The best time to see the changing colors in this region is usually mid-October.
Where to stay: The beautifully restored, Art and Crafts-style McCloud Hotel Bed & Breakfast was built in 1915 and features an inviting front porch, a cozy lobby, beautiful gardens, two restaurants, and 16 handsome guest rooms. Just down the street, the McCloud Mercantile Hotel is housed inside the original 1895 McCloud River Mercantile and features a stylish assortment of 12 unique guest rooms, each inspired by an aspect of the region’s rich history.
In Napa Valley’s northern-most town of Calistoga, visitors will find an enchanting fall experience as the lush grapevines turn orange and copper and the oak-studded hillsides take on a golden hue. Driving the Silverado Trail between Napa and Calistoga is a popular way to savor the changing fall colors and visit wineries along the way. At Far Niente in particular, the fan-shaped leaves of ginkgo trees turn bright yellow against a backdrop of grapevines. To see more trees in their autumn regalia, visitors can hike the trails at Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, where black oaks and big-leaf maples form a colorful canopy over the year-round creek. Visitors can also take in the mosaic of fall color from above by booking a hot air balloon ride. The golden oaks tend to peak in mid-to-late October while the timing of the color-changing grape vines vary by the varietal and can run through late November.
Where to stay: Four boutique hotels are clustered in downtown Calistoga, all within walking distance of restaurants and tasting rooms. Calistoga Wine Way Inn and Craftsman Inn are both Craftsman-style inns with beautifully appointed rooms and inviting outdoor spaces. Embrace Calistoga harmoniously blends Old-World luxury with modern design. And The Francis House brings Parisian luxury to the heart of Calistoga with contemporary French design.