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Where to See California's Fall Foliage in Every Region

Where to See California's Fall Foliage in Every Region

There’s no better way to feel the fresh fall freedom than by taking a leaf-peeping road trip across California.


9 min read

October 08, 2020

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: California 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 picnicking amongst the trees, there’s a sense of freedom that sparks as soon as the California 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 fall colors, do you know why the leaves transform into so many beautiful shades 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 to see the iconic California fall foliage and embrace the season. Whether you want to embark on a road trip to the mountains, take a scenic Bay Area drive, or cruise through lush forests, these are the best places to see the Golden State’s autumn hues. 

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Yosemite National Park's expansive forests come alive with vibrant colors 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 foliage is unbeatable. 

On your trip to see Mono County’s fall colors, 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. 

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


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.

Encompassed by the Inyo National Forest and Kings Canyon National Park, close to portions of the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail, Bishop Creek Canyon is the secluded natural wonder you’ve been looking for and is one of the prime places to view Eastern Sierra fall colors. 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. 

Gorgeous autumn hues, 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.

Lake Tahoe, with its lush forests reminiscent of Yosemite's iconic landscapes, offers breathtaking scenery year-round, solidifying its status as a top vacation destination. However, it's the autumn season when the region truly transforms into a vibrant tapestry of color. Amidst the evergreen pines, the landscape comes alive with the golden hues of quaking aspens, the soft pinks of dogwoods, the bright yellows of bigleaf maples, and the rich oranges of black oaks, creating a stunning mosaic of fall colors.

For an early glimpse of the fall foliage, a trip to Hope Valley, just a bit south of Lake Tahoe, is highly recommended by mid-September. The dense forests here make the vivid autumn leaves stand out starkly, reminiscent of colorful fireworks against the night sky. For those seeking a deeper immersion into the season's splendor, hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail offers an extended retreat into nature's autumnal beauty. And for a comprehensive experience of the area's fall foliage, a scenic drive from Truckee to South Lake Tahoe is an absolute must, presenting an unparalleled opportunity to witness the seasonal transformation in all its glory.

In the autumn months, the landscape around June Lake 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 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. Pitch your tent at June Lake Campground to enjoy close proximity to the lake while viewing June Lake’s fall colors during your vacay. For more leaf-peeping, make a 20-minute drive to admire Mammoth Lake’s fall colors and explore the mountain town

Mount Shasta serves as a dramatic backdrop for the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, which puts on a dazzling display of fall foliage.


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 of 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.

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


Getting there: Travel north on 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 floating 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. 

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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: To savor the calming fall colors in the Bay Area, 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.

The vines of Calistoga morph into beautiful colors during the autumn months, with crisp coppers and ruby reds accentuating the 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. 


Experience the diverse landscapes of California by driving along Highway 74, which leads from the coast, through the forest, and into the desert.


Getting there: Travel from San Juan Capistrano to Palm Springs on 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.

Nestled in northern San Diego County, the mountain town of Julian ushers in the fall season with colorful conifers, homemade apple pies, and 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 destination to experience the fall foliage of Southern California. 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

Big Bear Lake shines bright during the fall, when the shimmering waters contrast beautifully with the autumnal hues of the trees.


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. 

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