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Fall Foliage Travel

Every autumn, visitors can enjoy a vibrant display of fall colors throughout California from the tree-lined alpine lakes of the High Sierras to the colorful vineyards of Wine Country. Fall is also an ideal time to view wildlife migrations, from Monarch butterflies and birds to elephant seals and gray whales. Below are some of the best places to chase fall leaves and migrations up and down the state.

FALL COLORS

Autumn Colors in Siskiyou County
The abundance of oak, big leaf maple, aspen and dogwood trees in Siskiyou County put on a vibrant display of yellow, gold, orange and burgundy every fall. The 24-mile road loop through Scott Valley is ideal for a bike or motorcycle expedition, with a mandatory photo stop at the Mormon Church in Etna where several exotic trees put on a peak color display in mid-October. Mt. Shasta Resort, a lakeside golf getaway, is another great place for viewing fall color set against the backdrop of snow-capped Mt. Shasta. In Siskiyou County, exotic trees typically peak in the first half of October, while native trees typically peak in the second half of the month.

Nevada City’s Changing Colors
In Nevada City, Nevada Street is a must-visit for watching century-old sugar maples and American sweetgums turn brilliant shades of 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. The easy Cascade Canal Trail, shaded by dogwoods and Douglas firs, is another great option for leaf-peeping. In nearby Grass Valley, the changing leaves of Empire Mine State Historic Park’s ornamental sweetgums, silver maple and sugar maples accent the subtler gold of native black oaks.

Fall Colors Explode in North Lake Tahoe
From September to November, trees on the north side of Lake Tahoe transform with hues of red, orange and yellow. Leaf-peeping hikers head to Page Meadows just south of Tahoe City seeking a wealth of trails that lead through miles of fall foliage. Sweeping 180-degree panoramic views of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding fall foliage are attainable with a quick 15-minute hike up to Eagle Rock, a few miles south of Tahoe City near Blackwood Canyon.

Fall Foliage in South Lake Tahoe
October is the perfect month for enjoying fall foliage in South Lake Tahoe, with the Hope Valley area providing some of the best leaf-peeping. Taylor Creek is another great spot for fall foliage, featuring a paved path that winds through the surrounding meadow and forest. In addition to vibrant colors, early October also marks the annual fall migration of the Kokanee salmon.

Yosemite Valley Offers Incredible Leaf-Peeping
The Merced River that meanders through Yosemite Valley is lined with big leaf maples and quaking aspen trees that turn brilliant shades of yellow and gold in the fall. Throughout Yosemite Valley, dogwood trees turn bright red and the majestic black oak trees pop with vibrant yellows. For those staying near Oakhurst or Bass Lake, caravan tours from Visit Yosemite Madera County’s participating partners are a great way to experience Yosemite’s autumn colors from the safety of your own vehicle. 

Take a Hike in Tuolumne County to Experience Fall Colors
In Tuolumne County, Dragoon Gulch offers an ideal vantage point for viewing historic Sonora and the colorful hills of Gold Country. A hike through the uncrowded side of Yosemite National Park at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is also ideal for viewing fall foliage. Kennedy Meadows is a local favorite for leaf-peeping, with the changing colors contrasted against the evergreen pines along Highway 108.

Spectacular Views in Mono County
Mono County and the surrounding Eastern Sierra provide some of the most vibrant fall colors in the western United States. Deciduous trees in the Eastern Sierra tend to grow close to water sources, so the tree-lined lakes and creeks are perfect for spotting fall colors. There are several drive-accessible lakes in the Mammoth Lakes Basin, but many other alpine lakes require a hike to get there. The higher in elevation, the sooner the leaves will start to turn, so plan to hit high-elevation lakes early in the season and lower elevation lakes as the temperatures get cooler. Some of the best places to view fall colors are June Lake Loop, Mammoth Lakes Basin, Sherwin Creek/Mammoth Creek, Mammoth Scenic Loop and Reds Meadow. The Mono County Fall Color Report offers weekly updates on where the fall colors are looking their best and what regions are open.

Vibrant Fall Colors in Sonoma Wine Country
The vibrant fall colors of Sonoma Wine Country are best viewed during outdoor wine tastings, self-guided vineyard walks and hikes. The Sonoma County Vineyard Adventures Program, operated by the Sonoma County Winegrowers, provides free self-guided vineyard tours. For hikers, Trione-Annadel State Park features the red-yellow foliage of Big Leaf maples next to amber-leaf oaks.

Harvest Season in St. Helena
During harvest season, the quaint town of St. Helena comes alive with the changing colors of the fruit vines and the fresh scent of crushed grapes. Harvest Inn, located on an eight-acre resort, is an ideal place to experience true wine country living and farm-to-table creations among the vines. Charles Krug, one of the oldest wineries in Napa Valley, offers new cabanas for outdoor wine tasting overlooking the vineyards.

Pumpkin Season in Half Moon Bay
Widely recognized as the pumpkin capital of the world, Half Moon Bay Coastside produces more than 3,000 tons of pumpkins every year by local growers. Fall is an ideal time to visit and see the fields full of brilliant orange pick-your-own-pumpkins and natural beautiful fall colors. Pumpkin beer is on tap, homemade pumpkin entrees and desserts are on the menu and spas offer specialty pumpkin experiences.

Best Places to See Fall Foliage in SLO CAL
The fall colors throughout San Luis Obispo County are best viewed during a scenic drive or hike. To enjoy the changing colors of the vineyards, drive along Highway 46 West or the tree-lined Adelaida Road in Paso Robles, Highway 58 through Santa Margarita, or the scenic roads of Edna Valley. See Canyon Road, located between Avila Beach and San Luis Obispo, is another lively spot for fall colors and fall favorites like cider tasting, apples, wine and local honey. Prefumo Canyon Road, parallel to the Prefumo Creek, offers another colorful drive. San Luis Obispo County’s many hiking trails also provide great vantage points for experiencing fall foliage firsthand.

Best ways to enjoy fall in Santa Maria Valley
After harvest in early fall, Santa Maria Valley’s vineyards change from green to orange. The changing colors are best viewed from Presqu’ile Winery, with its sweeping views of the surrounding vineyards, or during a bike ride down the 14-mile Tepusquet Road or the 30-mile Foxen Canyon Wine Trail. Oso Flaco Lake, near the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes is also known for its fall foliage. While visiting, stop by the Monarch Dunes Butterfly Grove to see the colorful monarchs as they migrate to eucalyptus groves.

Fall Foliage Travel to Temecula Valley
Temecula Valley Southern California Wine Country offers beautiful panoramic views of fall leaves hanging on the vines. Savor vintages and vineyards decked out in fall colors on the drive past 19 wineries on Rancho California Road plus 10 more on De Portola Road. In neighboring Murrieta, mountain biking or hiking through Cole Canyon’s oak woodlands and Sylvan Meadows’ bunchgrass prairie provides another great fall experience.

Visit Historic Julian in San Diego’s Rural East County for Fall Foliage
Nestled in the Cuyamaca Mountains an hour east of downtown San Diego, the historic town of Julian is an apple-growing region featuring four distinct seasons. The Annual Julian Fall Apple Harvest, held mid-September to November, is an ideal time to enjoy colorful fall foliage while picking apples in local orchards.


FALL MIGRATIONS

Monarch Butterflies Add to Fall Color to Morro Bay and Pismo Beach

Every fall from October to March the eucalyptus trees along the Morro Bay Golf Course and throughout Morro Bay State Park turn orange as monarch butterflies cluster along the branches during their migration. The monarch groves and surrounding fall foliage is best viewed during a cycling adventure along some of Morro Bay’s less traveled roads, including Marina Street, Main Street and Turri Road. The black and orange monarch butterflies can also be viewed by visiting the Eucalyptus grove at Pismo State Beach. The colony is easily accessible from Highway 1 and is one of the largest in the nation, hosting an average of 50,000 butterflies every year from late October to February. Many of these butterflies travel more than 1,000 miles before coming to roost in the protected grove for the winter.

Whale Migration Along the California Coast
Each year starting in November, 20,000 gray whales make the 10,000-mile journey from the Bering Sea to Baja Mexico. During their journey, visitors can see whales spouting, breaching and fluking during this time. While the gray whales have the spotlight along the California coast, other sea creatures are known to make appearances such as orcas, humpbacks and hundreds of dolphins.

Fall Bird Migration Along the Pacific Flyway
Newport Beach serves as a stop along the Pacific Flyway, as 20 million birds make the journey south from their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska down to Patagonia for the winter. Every November, visitors can see thousands of geese flying overhead in their signature “V” formation on their way to Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve. This 1.5 square miles of protected coastal wetland is one of the last remaining estuaries in Southern California and a stop for birds twice a year during their migration.

Elephant Seal Migration to San Simeon
Every fall, San Simeon’s magnificent Northern Elephant Seals begin their journey back to the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. The elephant seals are onshore two to four months a year, which they spend mating, birthing, molting and resting. The Piedras Blancas Rookery hosts up to 24,000 elephant seals each year, from 70-pound baby elephant seals to 5,000-pound adult males. 

Note: As communities re-open after COVID-19-related closures, some parks, businesses and attractions may still be closed or have new protocols in place. Please verify local guidelines and regulations for all destinations and hours and availability of individual businesses before publishing. Check out Visit California’s Responsible Travel Hub for guidance on how visitors can travel within California safely.

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