As easy as it is to be boastful about California’s natural beauty, we have to hand it to the eastern United States – your fall foliage is truly incredible. With forests dominated by evergreens, the Golden State simply can’t compete with New England or the Appalachians when it comes to diversity or density of those multi-hued, seasonally showy deciduous trees. However, we do have some noteworthy places to enjoy some autumnal leaf spotting.
These prime spots are mostly at higher elevations or at least in the foothills, so you get to enjoy cooler temperatures while taking in views of fall foliage. Do so by hiking, taking a scenic drive, or seeking out seasonal activities like apple-picking and Oktoberfests. Pull on a flannel shirt and beanie, and of course, bring along a camera to capture the fleeting fall foliage of California.
Tip: Some of the best spots for seeing fall foliage are in California State Parks, so check out the department’s guide to fall colors.
The Eastern Sierra Nevada is undoubtedly California’s No. 1 spot for fall color. It’s an enormous region, so pick one of many possible destinations for a day trip or longer stay. Aspen, cottonwood and willow trees all change color from September through to early November, depending on elevation. You can check Mono County’s Fall Color Report, which is frequently updated, to find prime locations and peak times. Also download their Fall Color Guide and Map to help plan a trip.
The Eastern Sierra spans Mono and Inyo counties and encompasses parts of Yosemite, Mammoth Lakes, Mono Lake, and the towns of Bishop and Lee Vining. US-395 bisects the region from north to south, with access points to spectacular lakes, canyons and summits. Among the top fall foliage destinations are the June Lake Loop, a scenic drive on Highway 158 lined by golden aspens; the well-developed Mammoth Lakes and nearby Devils Postpile National Monument; and Conway Summit with a viewpoint overlooking Mono Lake. The ghost town of Bodie State Historic Park makes a fun side trip.
One of California’s most-stunning landmarks at any time of year (OK, it’s a Nevada landmark too), Lake Tahoe is uniquely beautiful in fall. Along with its dense pine forests, the pristine lake is surrounded by stands of quaking aspens, pink dogwoods, bigleaf maples, black oaks and other deciduous species, making for a colorful show of fall foliage.
The popular Tahoe Rim Trail is especially stunning for hikes during fall, as are the Lam Watah Trail/Rabe Meadow, and Fallen Leaf Lake off Highway 89. Consider a sunset cruise on Lake Tahoe for prime scenery plus serenity. The National Forest Service has a guide to fall color viewing areas in the Lake Tahoe Basin here.
The wild and wonderful Shasta Cascade in the far northeast corner of California has a long fall foliage season and ample places to admire it. Most visitors make their home base around Redding or Mount Shasta, the name of a town as well as the famous snow-capped volcano. An unusual place to take in the natural beauty of the season is the architecturally notable Sundial Bridge in Redding. It spans the Sacramento River in Turtle Bay Exploration Park, where the McConnell Arboretum and Botanical Gardens bring the forest to the town, and connect to the Sacramento River Trail.
A little more wilderness-adjacent are Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, and McArthur Burney Falls Memorial State Park, where the colorful foliage of oaks, ash, redbud and maples compete for attention with the centerpiece waterfall.
The Cuyamaca Mountains
The Cuyamaca Mountains in San Diego County feature some of the best spots to see fall foliage in Southern California. The little mountain town of Julian, which had its heyday during the gold rush, is a delightful tourist destination, especially in fall. Julian boasts some of the most fiery fall foliage in all of California, and complements it with pick-your-own apple orchards, cider mills and copious opportunities to eat apple pie.
Nearby Cuyamaca Rancho State Park has hiking trails through landscapes of abundant black oak, with leaves that turn golden yellow in fall. Also consider taking a trip to Lake Cuyamaca or Palomar Mountain State Park, also in the mountains and offering beautiful fall scenery.
The San Bernardino Mountains
The mountain communities (and ski resorts) of Big Bear Lake and Lake Arrowhead both offer a brief fall foliage season before embracing the snows of winter. Maples, cottonwoods and black oaks share the forested slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains with evergreens, with peak colors from mid-October into early November.
A little lower in elevation is Oak Glen, a rural community in the foothills famous for apple orchards. It is also home to Oak Glen Preserve, run by the Wildlands Conservancy, an ideal destination for a family-friendly fall foliage trip. The preserve’s 909 acres include a botanic garden, children’s outdoor discovery center, hiking trails and the 114-year-old Los Rios Rancho Apple Farm, which serves homemade apple pie.
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