Autumn is a golden time in California, and not just for the fall foliage in the mountains. It’s prime time for festivals that celebrate local crops—like olives, avocados, and pumpkins—while it’s also an excellent time of year to listen to music in the balmy climate, and it’s the kickoff for high season in the desert. Make your fall richer with one of these charmingly only-in-California events.
All Month: Kids Free San Diego
October is typically sunny and warm in San Diego, making this annual, month-long promotion a nice treat: 100-plus ways that kids can get free admission, meals, and more (with a paying adult) around the county, from free dolphin encounter at SeaWorld San Diego to park hopper tickets at LEGOLAND California (and October includes the park's Brick or Treat Party Nights).
All Month: Haunted Pathway, Nevada City
For things that go bump in the night, take a walk at the Inn Town Campground in this charming Gold Country town, where this spooky but self-guided Halloween walk winds underneath 130-foot towering pines. The campground also holds fireside chats this time of year, along with guided hikes to see autumn colors.
October 1–8: Fleet Week San Francisco
Check out the Parade of Ships, take tours on the vessels, and watch the air show at this annual celebration of the sea services in the City by the Bay. Or, head south for San Diego’s Fleet Week on Oct 26–28.
October 3–14: Big Fresno Fair
The annual Central Valley fair has livestock, agricultural exhibits, and plenty of classic fair cuisine, from local tri-tip to fried frog legs and cinnamon roll sundaes. This year’s musical headliners includes Boy George & Culture Club, Salt-N-Pepa, and Chicago.
October 4–7: Newport Wine & Food Festival
This posh Orange County town puts on a fabulously elegant foodfest, with special chefs’ dinners at area restaurants, along with tastings and cooking demos at the town’s civic center and some hotels, such as Balboa Bay Resort and The Resort at Pelican Hill.
October 4–7: Joshua Tree Music Festival
The global and eclectic music theme seems right at home at this camping-friendly festival just outside the desert national park. Acts this year include Mali singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara, UK dance band The Egg, and Bay Area band House of Hamsa, described as an “improvisational aural feast for the intergalactic soul.”
October 4–14: Mill Valley Film Festival
The high-powered but low-key film festival in Marin County, just outside San Francisco, is known for showcasing future Oscar winners. This year’s centerpiece film is Roma, a black-and-white tale of a Mexican family, directed by past Oscar winner Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity).
October 5–7: California Avocado Festival, Carpinteria
The Golden State grows 90 percent of the nation’s avocados, so it makes sense that this festival, south of Santa Barbara, also boasts the world’s largest vat of guacamole, as well as a guacamole-making contest and a strong arm competition (how long could you hold a 10-pound bag of avocados?). Admission is free, and festivities include 75 musical acts on four stages.
October 5–7: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, San Francisco
As the name promises, the musical fare at this annual music fest in Golden Gate Park does not limit itself to the mandolin and banjo—but rather extends into, blues, rock, country, Dixieland, and zydeco. This year’s lineup includes Alison Krauss, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Ani DiFranco.
October 6: CalJam, San Bernardino
This fun-loving one-day music festival actually kicks off on Friday night with Billy Idol, but the main event Saturday features Foo Fighters, Iggy Pop, and a long list of other acts, against the backdrop of carnival rides, camping, and a water park.
October 6: Corning Olive Festival
Olive trees cover more than 13 square miles in Tehama County, the Shasta Cascade home of this festival that dates back to 1947. Come sample the savory pitted fruit, along with its accompanying oils and other products, and check out the crafts, parade, and pit-spitting contest.
October 6: Temecula Oktoberfest
The San Bernardino Mountains, surrounding the Inland Empire town of Temecula, make an idyllic setting for lots of beer, sausages, pretzels, and traditional German music, along with yodeling and beer-stein-holding contests.
Oct 6–7: Camp Richardson’s Oktoberfest, South Lake Tahoe
This is the 24th year for this Oktoberfest at the historic Camp Richardson compound on Lake Tahoe, which first opened in the 1920s. The weekend activities in South Lake Tahoe include lots of beer and authentic cuisine, live music, a climbing wall, pumpkin patch, and a bungee platform.
Oct. 13–14: Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival
South of San Francisco, the town of Half Moon Bay is surrounded by pumpkin patches—so in the self-proclaimed “World Pumpkin Capital,” October is a special time of year. This beloved festival includes enormous pumpkins, sculpted pumpkins, pie-eating, seasonal craft beer, pumpkin-infused ales and cocktails, and the world’s largest mosaic pumpkin sculpture (to the tune of 12-feet long, 11-feet high, and 10,000 pounds).
Oct 18–21: Extreme Sailing Series, San Diego
This ultimate sailing race in San Diego Bay features elite-level sailors helming hydro-foiling GC32 catamarans that can go up to 45 mph. For a teaser, watch Olympic skier Jonny Moseley try his hand at this extreme sport.
October 19–21: TASTE Costa Mesa
See why this Orange County town has serious culinary street cred. Admission gets you unlimited tastings from some of the region’s best chefs, such as Top Chef’s Amar Santana (Vaca), Richard Blais (San Diego’s Crack Shack), and Brian Huskey (Tackle Box), paired with wine, beer, and cocktails, and accompanied by chef demos and seminars.
October 19–21: Pismo Beach Clam Festival
This beach town festival has more than just mollusks: The weekend includes a wine walk, a chowder-making contest, and the grand reopening of the Pismo Beach Pier, debuting after an 18 -month rehabilitation project
October 21: Pinot on the River, Healdsburg
Taste some of the best wines of Sonoma County—limited production West Coast Pinot Noirs—on the downtown Healdsburg Plaza Square. Meet winemakers and perfect your pairings at the Grand Tasting with 100 wineries and lots of artisan food vendors.
Oct 26–28: Intercontinental GT Challenge, Laguna Seca
Watch an eight-hour endurance sportscar race held at the WeatherTech Raceway, the central Coast’s 11-turn, 2.23-mile-long track that was once part of the Fort Ord military base. The race is the season finale of a multi-part GT race held around the world, and it’s the second year that Laguna Seca has been part of the contest.
October 26–28: Contemporary Crafts Market, Pasadena
Start your holiday shopping early at this juried, public event with a wide array of hand-crafted works of art, from jewelry to ceramics, furnishings, blown glass, wood, and more. Meet the artisans and, while you’re at it, explore the surrounding Old Pasadena.
October 28: 54th Annual Palm Desert Golf Cart Parade
Some may consider this the kickoff of high season in the Palm Springs area: a colorful parade of souped-up golf carts making their way along the side of shopper’s haven El Paseo. Check out the nearby stores, food vendors, or browse golf carts for sale.
October 31: West Hollywood Halloween Carnaval
If you’re past knocking on doors for Halloween, fun, come to what claims to be the world's largest Halloween street party, on Santa Monica Boulevard between North Doheny Drive and La Cienega Boulevard. The event is free and all-ages, with several stages for live music and entertainment.