Autumn Road Trip: Where to See California's Fall Foliage

By Rachael Medina September 30, 2019

Cool breezes now fill the morning air, pumpkin spice items line the shelves of every supermarket, and sweaters make their way into daily wardrobes—even if it’s not quite cold enough to fully justify wearing them mid-day. Whether you’re adapting to the latest fall style trends, incorporating Pantone autumn color accents into your home, or thinking about your California-inspired Halloween costume, there’s no denying fall is here. And that can only mean one thing: Fall foliage is about to appear.

It’s a wondrous time of year, when the holiday stress hasn’t quite set in yet and the post-summer routine starts to feel normal, allowing peaceful bliss to take hold. This sensation is complemented by the child-like curiosity and playfulness provoked by the trees changing colors and releasing their leaves. From jumping in piles of leaves to hunting down the best gourd at the pumpkin patch, there’s a sense of freedom that sparks as soon as the foliage starts to change. And there’s no better way to feel the fresh fall freedom than by taking a leaf-peeping road trip across California. 

But before we dive into the best places to see California’s fall scenery, do you know why the leaves transform into so many beautiful colors during this time of year? As it turns out, the shorter days and resulting lack of sun stop the production of chlorophyll, allowing the leaves to display their other compounds. Carotenoids, for example, are present in most leaves and reflect yellow and red lights from the sun, producing a brilliant orange color to the eye. Similarly, flavonols are always present in leaves, but their egg-yolk hue is only discernible once the chlorophyll’s green coloration begins to fade. The production of anthocyanin, meanwhile, is actually spurred on by the autumn weather, resulting in a variety of reds and purples that provide some of the most stunning foliage. 

While there are likely several trees with autumnal hues lining your neighborhood and local parks, there are plenty of places throughout California to see standout fall foliage and embrace the season. 

Yosemite National Park 

Dogwoods dance with radiant red as cottonwoods come alive with vivid yellow in Yosemite National Park's expansive forests during fall's spectacular display.

Getting there: From the Bay Area, cruise along 680 until it turns into 580. Then, hop on the 5 to get to CA-120 West, which takes you directly to the park. The entire drive takes about 3.5 hours. 

Yosemite National Park is soaked in beauty year-round, yet it is often overlooked once the season of summer vacations and backpacking trips is over. This is a shame, because the park is home to some of the state’s best fall foliage and is at its prime during leaf-peeping season. Featuring everything from pink dogwood and yellow cottonwoods to orange-hued black oaks and golden bigleaf maples, Yosemite’s fall colors are unbeatable. 

Embrace the lack of tourists and take advantage of the park’s tall mountain peaks so you can truly appreciate your surroundings. Traverse the picturesque Horsetail Falls at golden hour, and you’ll see the valley flicker with reds and yellows as if set ablaze by autumn’s forces. 

Lake Tahoe

Gorgeous autumn hues, towering mountains, pristine blue waters, and a less-crowded experience await visitors during the fall season in Lake Tahoe.

Getting there: Take 50 East from Sacramento to South Lake Tahoe. The drive takes roughly two hours and winds along mountainsides, offering picture-perfect views of fall foliage along the way.

Like Yosemite, Lake Tahoe is full of verdant forests, making it a highly photogenic landscape throughout the year. But in the fall, green pines are interspersed with golden quaking aspens, pink dogwoods, yellow-hued bigleaf maples, and orangey black oaks, forming a hodgepodge of colors. 

Make your way ever-so-slightly south to Hope Valley to view the fall foliage as early as mid-September. The forests here are densely packed, making the brightly colored leaves appear like fireworks in the night sky. Or, immerse yourself in the region’s autumn celebration by hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail, where you’ll spend a week or more surrounded by nothing but beauty. Either way, a drive from Truckee to South Lake Tahoe is necessary in order to see fall foliage in all its glory.  

Bishop Creek Canyon

Tucked between the Inyo National Forest and Kings Canyon National Park, Bishop Creek Canyon bursts with fall color for a breathtaking display.

Getting there: Drive south on the 395 from Yosemite National Park for about an hour and a half, admiring the spectacular views along the way.

Located near portions of the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail, encompassed by the Inyo National Forest and Kings Canyon National Park, Bishop Creek Canyon is the secluded natural wonder you’ve been looking for. Set out on your own fall-foliage tour throughout the area, making sure to stop at Treasure Lakes, Lake Sabrina, and Bishop Pass. Because the expanse is surrounded by rugged mountain ranges, there’s something different to see around every corner. The northern edge tends to fill with orange hues, while the southern end comes alive with bursts of yellow among the granite. And in between, there is plenty of green foliage to keep your attention. 

June Lake

Autumn is one of the best times of the year to tour June Lake, as the Mono County destination transforms into a brilliant swath of vibrant yellow, forest green, and burnt orange.  

Getting there: Cruise from South Lake Tahoe on the 89 until it meets up with the 395. Lasting just under three hours, the drive south leads you past hot springs, majestic mountains, and shimmering lakes.

Triangulated between the Mammoth Lakes and Yosemite, June Lake is transformed during the fall. Travelers can spot the golden trees and colorful aspen lining the shores by hiking the June Lake Loop. This scenic, 16-mile pathway leads you by a handful of lakes, past sagebrush, and through the ever-changing wilderness. 

Shasta Cascade 

Mount Shasta serves as a dramatic backdrop for the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, which puts on a dazzling display of fall foliage that deserves a spot on any Instagram feed. 

Getting there: Start the 4.5-hour journey along the coast in the beautifully rugged region of Point Reyes. Find your way east toward the 505, which leads to the 5, and take in the scenery as you drive up toward the lake. 

Bushy pines meet mountain hemlocks, fir trees, and maples for a dazzling display of fall foliage in the Shasta Cascade. The area’s quaking aspens and oaks line Lake Shasta as patches of brilliant reds and oranges stipple in to frame Mount Shasta. Watch the beauty of the autumn leaves falling as their reflections shine off the lake, and hike up into the mountains to get the best views in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

Muir Woods 

Named after world-renowned naturalist John Muir, the Muir Woods National Monument transforms into a tapestry of fall colors as its red alder, California bigleaf maple, and Douglas fir change hues. 

Getting there: Hop on the 17 from Santa Cruz, and drive inland until the road meets up with 280 North. You’ll eventually find your way to Highway 1, cross the Golden Gate Bridge, pass by the waterfront town of Sausalito, and wind through the wilderness to Muir Woods National Monument. The road trip should take approximately 2.5 hours.

Hike your way through Muir Woods, admiring the giant redwood trees and lush ferns surrounding you, until you reach Mount Tamalpais State Park. Climb the tallest peaks to see breathtaking views of the trees along the coast as they shed their summery green colors and transform into fall’s reds and yellows.

South Yuba River State Park 

With crisp air and stunning fall foliage surrounding the brilliant-blue waters of the Yuba River, it's hard to find a better place to savor the season in Nevada County. 

Getting there: Travel north along the 70 from Sacramento toward Yuba City before jumping on 20 East. This scenic drive usually lasts 1.5 hours and will lead to a stunning combination of rivers, mountains, and fall foliage. 

As one of the top places in California for float trips, the Yuba River gets lots of love during the summertime, but the region is equally gorgeous once the temperatures start to drop. Indeed, Nevada County comes to life with bursts of autumnal hues, which even turn the hazardous poison oak into crimson works of art. The region is distinct for its variety of ecological zones, leading to an impressive range of foliage. Look around at the oaks, pines, and grasslands lighting up the hills and riverbanks with swatches of color. 

Ortega Highway 

Experience the diverse landscapes of California like never before by driving along Highway 74, which leads from the coast, through the fragrant forests, and into the desert. 

Getting there: Travel from San Juan Capistrano to Palm Springs along the 74 for 4.5 hours. This drive winds from the beach, through forested regions, and into the desert to highlight California’s diverse landscapes.

Driving between San Juan Capistrano and Palm Springs, it is fascinating to see how differently autumn shows its colors throughout the state. Taking you from the palm trees by the ocean, through fragrant pine forests, and into the arid desert, this road trip allows you to truly see it all. As an additional benefit, this highway is said to be haunted, so October is the perfect time to tackle it.

Big Bear 

Big Bear Lake shines brighter than ever during the fall, when dense forests of pine and fir create a lush backdrop for oaks, cottonwoods, and aspens splashed with amber, yellow, and orange leaves.

Getting there: Take the 274 to the 18 from the desert of Joshua Tree National Park, continuing on until you see the stunning Big Bear Lake. This 1.5-hour journey takes you down into the barren landscape of the valley floor and up into the tree-lined mountains.

Driving from Joshua Tree, it’s easy to see fall creeping in as the mountains come into focus. Unlike the northern portions of the state, Big Bear’s fall foliage peaks in mid-October and early November, but when it comes, it’s undeniably gorgeous. Gold, amber, crimson, and maroon colors cover everything in sight and reflect off the surface of Big Bear Lake. The area’s multitudinous hiking trails provide the ideal opportunity to admire the beauty of fall—luckily, there are no bad views here. 

Calistoga 

The verdant vines of Calistoga morph into beautiful hues during the autumn months, with crisp coppers and ruby reds perfectly accentuating the clusters of purple grapes. 

Getting there: Cruise south from Mendocino along the Pacific Coast Highway until it meets the 128. You’ll eventually enter Napa Valley and see its sweeping vineyards, ending the roughly 2.5-hour road trip.

The Napa County town of Calistoga provides an entirely different way to experience fall foliage. Whether you’re walking amongst the vineyards to see the vibrant reds and oranges of the grapevines or hiking through the hillsides to see the calming yellow tones of the oak trees, fall is everywhere in Calistoga. For an extra special experience, hop in a hot-air balloon to see Calistoga in a whole new way

Julian 

Nestled in northern San Diego County, the mountain town of Julian ushers in the fall season with colorful conifers, homemade apple pies, and warm cider. 

Getting there: Start in San Diego and head east on the 94 before merging onto the 8. From here, venture north on the 79 until the 1.5-hour journey ends. 

This quaint mountain town is an ideal autumn destination. With oak and pine forests speckling the hillsides with color, historic buildings from the gold-mining days, and homemade apple pies galore, Julian seems to pop right out of a Hallmark movie—and it’s not exactly what you’d expect from a locale in northern San Diego County. Spend a day picking apples at one of the many orchards, photographing the fall foliage, and cozying up with a mug of cider. 

With so many ways to see the changing of the seasons, where will you go to see 2019’s fall foliage?