Feel that nip in the early-morning air? That's right, fall is delivering cooler temperatures and shorter daylight hours, which signals California's broadleaf trees to get their colors on. Grab a thermos of steaming, pumpkin-spiced something and hit the road to see oaks, aspens, dogwoods, and willows cloaked in their candy-colored coats.
For optimal leaf-peeping without the weekend crowds, plan a midweek trip to these autumn hotspots, listed south to north:
Julian, San Diego County
In Julian, autumn is the grandstand season, both for apple-pie eating and leaf-peeping. Sample the town’s homemade apple confections, then watch black oaks do their color-changing trick at Lake Cuyamaca in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. A scenic 45-minute drive leads to Palomar Mountain State Park, where you can put some miles on your feet while you admire bracken ferns and leafy oaks on the Thunder Ridge and Chimney Flat Loop. Or hike the Five Oaks Trail at Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve, home to some of the oldest and largest black oaks in San Diego County.
Temecula Valley and Murrieta, Riverside County
In Southern California's wine country, colorful leaves cling to gnarled grapevines after the harvest, making autumn's magic last well into November. Savor vintages and vineyards decked out in fall colors as you drive past 19 wineries on Rancho California Road plus 10 more on De Portola Road. In neighboring Murrieta, pedal your mountain bike or hike through Cole Canyon‘s oak woodlands and Sylvan Meadows’ bunchgrass prairie. At the end of the day, nab a patio seat for fall-themed dining in Old Town Temecula.
Oak Glen, San Bernardino County
At this rural enclave in the San Bernardino Mountain foothills, autumn stakes its claim in the golden oaks punctuating the hillsides and orange pumpkins dotting Riley’s Farm. At the Wildlands Conservancy’s Oak Glen Preserve, a 2.4-mile loop leads from park headquarters downhill through the apple orchards of century-old Los Rios Rancho, Southern California’s largest apple farm.
Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County
Southern Santa Barbara County is known for palm trees and sandy beaches, but northern Santa Barbara—aka the Santa Maria Valley—is known for tasty Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Chardonnay. Drive the 30-mile Foxen Canyon Wine Trail to see pastoral vineyards showing off their autumn regalia. Hop on your bike and ride through 14 miles of forested canyon on Tepusquet Road, a one-lane byway near Byron Winery. Or drive to Guadalupe's Oso Flaco Lake to see golden-hued arroyo willows and walk its 1.5-mile boardwalk trail above the tranquil lake (don't forget binoculars for bird-watching).
Bishop to Bridgeport, Inyo and Mono Counties
Expert leaf-peepers never miss a road trip on US 395 to see the Eastern Sierra's blue-ribbon fall foliage. Catch the aspen show between Bishop and Bridgeport by side-tripping west on major roads heading into the mountains: Highway 168 from Bishop to Sabrina and South Lakes, the June Lake Loop (Highway 158) past Silver and Grant lakes, and Lundy Lake Road seven miles north of Lee Vining. Or keep north on US 395 to see quaking aspen stands glow like stained-glass windows at Conway Summit, then score even more aspen eye-candy by driving Bridgeport's Twin Lakes Road west to Twin Lakes. The Mono County Fall Color Report offers weekly updates on where the fall colors are looking their best.
Sonora to Sonora Pass, Tuolumne County
Every autumn, Highway 108's aspen groves put on a dazzling color show. Start your trip in Sonora with a hike on Dragoon Gulch Trail, taking in views of Gold Country's colorful hills. Then head east on Highway 108, cruising up the grade past Pinecrest Lake. Pause at Donnell Vista to admire volcanic ridges gussied up in fiery yellows and oranges, then pop in to Kennedy Meadows Resort to say hello to the horses or fill up with a hearty burger before ascending another 10 miles to Sonora Pass. As you descend down the east side, the aspen show is nearly nonstop.
Hope Valley, Alpine County
South of Lake Tahoe, Hope Valley’s dense aspen groves offer nearly traffic-stopping displays of glowing golds, opulent oranges, and brilliant reds. Start your drive from the west on Highway 88 in Jackson or Pioneer, then wind your way uphill until you top out at Carson Pass. A sharp descent plunges you into Hope Valley, where you'll pull over every quarter-mile to snap another photo. Aspens border both sides of the highway, but especially showy stands are found near Red Lake and Wylder Hope Valley Resort. For even more aspen glory, take a side trip north on Highway 89 over Luther Pass into Meyers and South Lake Tahoe. Gorgeous groves show off their colors all the way north to Emerald Bay.
Nevada City and Grass Valley, Nevada County
Walk down Nevada Street in Nevada City to see century-old sugar maples and American sweetgums (liquidambars) turning a brilliant stoplight red. Planted by Gold Rush miners in the mid-1800s, these fall foliage champions pair well with the Victorian buildings lining the town's historic district. Explore downtown, then walk the level Cascade Canal Trail, shaded by red-hued dogwoods and deep green Douglas firs. In nearby Grass Valley, stroll around Empire Mine State Historic Park, where the colorful leaves of ornamental sweetgums, silver maples, and sugar maples accent the subtler gold of native black oaks. Walk any of the trails that start at the Gold Hill Drive Trailhead to see the trees sporting their fall colors.