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8 Perfect Places to See Fabulous Fall Colors

See Mother Nature's paintbrush brighten the forest as autumn 2020 unfurls in California

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Posted 2 months agoby Ann Marie Brown

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. Some national forests and public lands are closed right now due to wildfire concerns, but you can still catch the leaf show at these spots, listed south to north:

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

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—a.k.a. 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).

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

Bridgeport, Mono County
If you're one of the many leaf-peepers who make an annual autumn trek to towns along US 395, keep in mind that the Inyo National Forest is closed until at least Oct. 8 (check here for updates). That means you can't access the forests near Bishop, Mammoth Lakes, June Lake, or Lee Vining. But near Bridgeport, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest is open for aspen-admiring (plus hiking, camping, fishing, and more). Fill your windshield with color by driving west on paved Twin Lakes Road to Twin Lakes. Once you're there, see even more aspen eye-candy by hiking to spectacular Barney Lake. Another great fall-color drive follows US 395 south from Bridgeport to Conway Summit, then up Virginia Lakes Road. The Mono County Fall Color Report offers weekly updates on where the fall colors are looking their best and what regions are open.

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 psychedelic displays of glowing golds, opulent oranges, and traffic-stopping 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 drops you into Hope Valley, where you'll pull over every quarter-mile to snap another photo. Aspen groves are everywhere you look, but especially showy aspen stands are found near Red Lake, Wylder Hope Valley Resort (previously Sorenson's), and Woods Lake Campground. For even more aspen glory, take a side trip on Highway 89 into Markleeville.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Harvest time at @lucchesivineyards photo by @bill_wages as part of the @nccameraclub ———— #visitnevadacity

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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.

Before you explore California, be sure to visit our Responsible Travel Hub, which includes helpful Travel Updates. Also check out our What You Need to Know series for information on staying in a hotel, visiting state and national parks, renting a car, and more.

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