Beyond its blissfully quiet beaches, the Golden State has more autumn than you may think. From the northern Shasta Cascade region all the way down to San Diego County, you’ll find nature’s paintbrush at work, turning California's autumn leaves on aspens, oaks, maples, cottonwoods, and dogwoods into glowing golds and traffic-stopping reds.
But in a state flanked by the ocean and mountains, autumn comes with a few creative twists. In wine country, for instance, the grapevines reveal their own colour palette, and the harvest season brings grape-stomping and wine-tasting adventures. In the mountains and the Shasta Cascade region, California’s autumn leaves provide a colourful canopy for autumn’s excellent river rafting. Seek out the turning colours in Gold Country, meanwhile, and you’ll find plenty of sugar maples and American sweetgums—the majestic results of seeds planted by fortune-seeking pioneers in the 19th century. All along the way, California’s scenic drives and hikes are dotted with charming places to eat pie, sip a pint, or just bask in the scenery.
Fall’s show is fleeting, of course, so timing matters. The brilliance of California autumn leaves change with the elevations, starting in the highest mountains and descending to the foothills. But some of the fall foliage also lasts well into November, after many other leaf-peeping destinations have shifted into winter mode. So pour yourself a mug of apple cider. Feel the crispness of the morning air. Grab your camera, and go! Wind your way along California’s roads and trails to the leaf-viewing sites below, arranged according to peak times, from earliest to latest.
—Ann Marie Brown
Nature’s autumnal fire burns bright on the eastern side of the Sierra, where glaciers have chiseled stream-fed canyons deep into the mountainsides. Starting in mid-September, drive any road heading west off U.S. 395 near June Lake and Mammoth Lakes to find dense groves of quaking aspens and willows. Each canyon has its own charms, but the blue-ribbon autumn foliage drive is the June Lake Loop (Highway 158).
Try to keep your eyes on the road as you cruise past the flaming aspen extravaganza at Silver Lake, where leaves glow like stained-glass windows in the afternoon sun. Continue past 10,909-foot Carson Peak on your way to Gull Lake and June Lake’s village. When you hit eye-candy overload, stop at the June Lake Brewing Company and sip a thirst-arresting double IPA. Or take a walk on the 4-mile round-trip Parker Lake Trail to see an emerald-blue lake framed by more quaking aspens and craggy peaks.
Mammoth Lakes also has its share of golden treasures. Near downtown, stroll or drive near Sherwin Creek Campground where aspen groves light up in tints of translucent reds, oranges, yellows, and lime greens. Or head south of town to drive aspen-lined McGee Creek Road or Rock Creek Road, then celebrate the stunning beauty with a slice of pie at Rock Creek Lakes Resort. In this high country, near 10,000 feet, autumn colours typically peak in late September, but in the lower canyons, colours linger until mid-October.
Autumn begins in the high country as early as mid-September when Tahoe’s meadows and hillsides begin to flame in bright hues of gold. Willows are the first to turn, soon followed by aspens. See them on the lake’s northwest shore as the foliage at Page Meadows lights up in a spectrum of yellow mixed with touches of ruby and amber. To get there, hike 1.5 miles north on the Tahoe Rim Trail from Ward Creek Boulevard. From the meadow’s edge, Twin Peaks, Grouse Rock, and Ward Peak soar above the trees.
In South Lake Tahoe, drive the Fallen Leaf Lake Road to Fredrick’s Meadow, a short distance from Fallen Leaf Lake Campground, where a vista of Mount Tallac is perfectly framed by a foreground of quaking aspens. For more leafy colour, continue along the road to the Glen Alpine trailhead and walk a colourful mile along the cobbled trail to Glen Alpine Springs.
South of Lake Tahoe, Hope Valley’s dense aspen groves offer nearly psychedelic displays of yellows and oranges. Drive south through Meyers on Highway 89 to its junction with Highway 88, then toss a coin and turn left or right. You win either way—a bounty of colour lines the road in both directions. To the west, especially showy aspen stands are found near Red Lake, in and around Carson Pass, and near Woods Lake. To the east lie the picturesque Norwegian-style cabins of Sorenson’s Resort. Stop here or at neighbouring Hope Valley Resort for a hearty meal or to watch the aspens dance in the autumn sun.
Yosemite National Park is blessed with towering peaks, free-flowing rivers, iconic granite formations, and a more-than-generous helping of autumn colour. In Yosemite Valley’s grassy meadows, the black oaks turn a soft, burnished gold, a subtle contrast to the scene-stealing school bus yellow of the cottonwoods. Walk the path through Stoneman Meadow on the Valley’s east end to get a picture-perfect perspective of the leafy splendour.
On the Valley’s west side, the waterway at Bridalveil Creek is home to big-leaf maples turning gold and dogwoods cloaked in crimson red. One of Yosemite Valley’s most photographed autumn trees is a non-native—a stately sugar maple planted near Yosemite Chapel that turns a brilliant red.
Near Crane Flat and the Highway 120 park entrance, the burgundy leaves of dogwoods grab your attention amid the hunter green of sugar pines and white firs. Look closely among the red splashes and you’ll find that some dogwood leaves are actually a flaming pink. On the park’s south side, Highway 41 also has showy dogwoods and a colourful understory of low-growing shrubs, especially deer brush and bear clover.
Elevations are a bit lower in the northern Sierra, so Plumas County’s autumn palette tends to last longer than in the mountains farther south. It’s worth visiting the Lakes Basin Recreation Area for the flaming colour show alone, but the region also has alpine lakes, rock-bound peaks, waterfalls, and miles of trails to explore. Take a hike at Plumas-Eureka State Park in Johnsville, where $25 million in gold was mined in the late 1880s. Visit the five-storey stamp mill and miners’ boarding house then find your own gold rush in the exuberant show of oaks, dogwoods, and cottonwoods.
For leaf-peeping from your car window, Gold Lake Road (off Highway 89 near Graeagle) offers a 20-mile-long tour of aspens and willows, with showy stands found near Lakes Basin Campground.
The town of Quincy makes a perfect home base for leaf driving tours with its array of hotels and restaurants. Highways 70 and 89, between Quincy and Lake Almanor, show off a dazzling spectrum of autumn colours—watch for golden oak and chokecherry along the roadside, plus the flaming hot red of Indian rhubarb growing alongside the creek. Or travel the road to Bucks Lake for an eye-popping explosion of dogwood.
A steep, winding drive across the Middle Fork Feather River to the Gold Rush town of La Porte (population 26) rewards leaf-peepers with the yellow glow of big-leaf maples and the wine-red tones of dogwood. Quincy’s colours can also be seen on foot by walking the Spanish Creek Trail where wild grape and Indian rhubarb are plentiful.
When gold miners poured into the Sierra foothills in the mid-1800s, they fought off homesickness by planting seeds from their hometown trees. That’s why Nevada Street in downtown Nevada City is decorated with century-old sugar maples and American sweetgums (liquidambars) that turn stoplight red in autumn. They’re show-stopping fall foliage champs. Take a stroll around the historic district—the New England ambience is further enhanced by Victorian buildings and a skyward-pointing church steeple.
Just east of Nevada City is Banner Mountain, where the Cascade Canal Trail makes an easy autumn meander. This level path, shaded by deep green Douglas firs and colourful dogwoods, follows alongside a tranquil canal 4.5 miles one way, so walk as far as you like then retrace your steps.
In Grass Valley’s downtown area, Neal Street is the nexus for Vermont-style leaf colour, but a more expansive display of the early settlers’ tree planting lies just a mile away at Empire Mine State Park. Among the historic mine buildings, the colourful leaves of ornamental sweetgums, silver maples, and sugar maples accent the more subtle gold of native black oaks. Visit the museum and Empire Mine model, which shows the mine’s astounding 367 miles of underground tunnels. Check out the nuggets in the gold room then walk any of the paths that start at the Gold Hill Trailhead to see oaks and maples wearing their fall colours.
Starting in mid- to late-October, the grape harvest crush winds down as the leaf pageant begins its debut. Autumn colour in the wine country isn’t limited to trees—the verdant grape leaves of summer transform into radiant foliage in autumn, with crisp coppers and ruby reds accentuating any grapes left on the vine. Witness the beauty by driving the Silverado Trail from Napa to Calistoga. Take your pick from dozens of wineries, including Frog’s Leap, Rombauer Vineyards, and Reynolds Family Winery, all worth a stop for autumn scenery and wine tasting.
Many Napa vineyards have planted specimen trees like silver maples and liquidambars that dazzle in Technicolour. Make an appointment for a tour at Far Niente Winery in Oakville and you’ll get to admire its 40,000-square-foot wine-aging caves, plus its stately double row of ginkgo biloba trees. Hailing from China, these autumn foliage kings are revered for their fan-shaped golden leaves that hang on long after oaks and maples have gone bare.
To see California’s native trees in autumn regalia, head to Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, south of Calistoga, and take a walk on the Redwood Trail alongside Ritchey Creek. Black oaks and big-leaf maples form a canopy over the creek that runs year-round. The big-leaf maples bear massive leaves—many bigger than your head—that turn a brilliant yellow in autumn. Ferns, wild grape, and spice bush add to the colour show. Climb to the top of Coyote Peak to get a birds-eye view of the entire forest.
It’s not all palm trees and sandy beaches in San Diego. The county has its share of premium foliage viewing too—all you have to do is head inland and uphill. In Julian, a historic mining town at 4,200 feet in elevation, autumn is the grandstand season when apple growers flaunt their crops and Julian apple pie and other treats headline every menu. Sample the crumb-topped confections at Julian Pie Company in Santa Ysabel, and stop in at neighbouring Dudley’s Bakery for apple nut bread. Go see the region’s black oaks do their colour-changing trick at Lake Cuyamaca in Rancho Cuyamaca State Park, or by hiking the Five Oaks Trail at Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve. Some of the oldest and largest black oaks in San Diego County grow on Volcan Mountain, and the 5,719-foot summit rewards hikers with a view spanning from the Pacific to the desert.
Other leafy road trips near Julian include a drive up Palomar Mountain, where meadows filled with bracken ferns turn a deep, rich gold. The Observatory Trail, which connects Palomar Observatory to Observatory Campground, is lined with leafy black oaks. At Palomar Mountain State Park, Doane Pond’s meadowy vista morphs into a classic autumn Instagram.
It’s called Oak Glen with good reason. With an elevation that’s nearly a mile high, this town, 80 miles east of Los Angeles, is home to extensive oak groves, plus apple farms, berry ranches, and plenty of old-fashioned country twang. The seasons may not seem to change elsewhere in L.A., but here, autumn is palpable in the brilliant oaks dotting the hillsides. Visit Oak Glen’s historic schoolhouse museum, surrounded by bright red maple trees, then take a hike at the Wildlands Conservancy’s Oak Glen Preserve. The preserve sits side-by-side with century-old Los Rios Rancho, Southern California’s largest apple farm. A 2.4-mile family-friendly loop leads from the preserve headquarters downhill through the apple orchards and into Oak Knoll Park.
Oak Glen hangs its hat on harvest-themed fun. At Riley’s Farm, pick your own heirloom apples, press apple cider on a wooden cider press, or dine in an 18th-century colonial public house. At Los Rios Rancho, get lost in the corn maze or take a horse-drawn wagon ride. As autumn wears on, apple-picking gives way to pumpkin-picking, so be sure to take home a few of those lovable bright orange squashes.