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 color 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 colorful canopy for photographers and leaf-peepers. Seek out the turning colors 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