Autumn Leaves In California

Courtesy of Visit California

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 autumn’s excellent river rafting. 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.

Fall Foliage in Mammoth Lakes and June Lake
Nature’s autumnal fire burns bright on the eastern side of the Sierra, where glaciers have chiseled stream-fed canyons deep into the mountainsides. Drive any road heading west off U.S. 395 near June Lake and Mammoth Lakes to find dense groves of quaking aspens and willows. Each canyon has its own charms, but the blue-ribbon fall foliage drive is the June Lake Loop (Highway 158).

Try to keep your eyes on the road as you cruise past the flaming aspen extravaganza at Silver Lake, where leaves glow like stained-glass windows in the afternoon sun. Continue past 10,909-foot Carson Peak on your way to Gull Lake and June Lake’s village. When you hit eye-candy overload, stop and take a walk on the 4-mile round-trip Parker Lake Trail to see an emerald-blue lake framed by more quaking aspens and craggy peaks.

Mammoth Lakes also has its share of golden treasures. Near downtown, stroll or drive near Sherwin Creek Campground where aspen groves light up in tints of translucent reds, oranges, yellows, and lime greens. Or head south of town to drive aspen-lined McGee Creek Road or Rock Creek Road. In this high country, near 10,000 feet, fall colors typically peak in late September, but in the lower canyons, colors linger until mid-October.

Fall Color in Oak Glen
It’s called Oak Glen with good reason. With an elevation that’s nearly a mile high, this town, 80 miles east of Los Angeles, is home to extensive oak groves, plus apple farms, berry ranches, and plenty of old-fashioned country twang. The seasons may not seem to change elsewhere in L.A., but here, autumn is palpable in the brilliant oaks dotting the hillsides. Visit Oak Glen’s historic schoolhouse museum, surrounded by bright red maple trees, then take a hike at the Wildlands Conservancy’s Oak Glen Preserve. The preserve sits side-by-side with century-old Los Rios Rancho, Southern California’s largest apple farm. A 2.4-mile family-friendly loop leads from the preserve headquarters downhill through the apple orchards and into Oak Knoll Park.

Oak Glen hangs its hat on harvest-themed fun. At Riley’s Farm, pick your own heirloom apples, press apple cider on a wooden cider press, or dine in an 18th-century colonial public house. At Los Rios Rancho, get lost in the corn maze or take a horse-drawn wagon ride. As autumn wears on, apple-picking gives way to pumpkin-picking, so be sure to take home a few of those lovable bright orange squashes.

Autumn Fun in Julian
It’s not all palm trees and sandy beaches in San Diego. The county has its share of premium foliage viewing too—all you have to do is head inland and uphill. In Julian, a historic mining town at 4,200 feet in elevation, autumn is the grandstand season when apple growers flaunt their crops and Julian apple pie and other treats headline every menu. Sample the crumb-topped confections at Julian Pie Company in Santa Ysabel, and stop in at neighboring Dudley’s Bakery for apple nut bread. Go see the region’s black oaks do their color-changing trick at Lake Cuyamaca in Rancho Cuyamaca State Park, or by hiking the Five Oaks Trail at Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve. Some of the oldest and largest black oaks in San Diego County grow on Volcan Mountain, and the 5,719-foot summit rewards hikers with a view spanning from the Pacific to the desert.

Other leafy road trips near Julian include a drive up Palomar Mountain, where meadows filled with bracken ferns turn a deep, rich gold. The Observatory Trail, which connects Palomar Observatory to Observatory Campground, is lined with leafy black oaks. At Palomar Mountain State Park, Doane Pond’s meadowy vista morphs into a classic autumn Instagram.