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The Golden State's Best Fall Road Trips
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The Golden State's Best Fall Road Trips

Vibrant hues of reds, oranges, and yellow leaves crunch beneath your army boots; pack your bags; head on the best fall trips to take next.

California.com

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8 min read

October 30, 2021

Admiring the vibrant hues of red, orange, and yellow on the trees; sipping on steaming pumpkin spice lattes; cozying up on the couch and reading novels by California's best Black authors—are these not the best parts of fall? With the arrival of the chilly autumn months comes the time for a fall road trip around the Golden State. Sightsee and unwind before the craze of the holiday season settles in.

The Best Fall Road trips

Whether you want to travel to remote regions, low-key beach cities, or charming mountain towns, there are plenty of places in the Golden State where you can celebrate the majesty of autumn and get away from it all. For magical valley tours, California fall foliage, and alpine lake activities, these are the fall road trips to take next.

Fall Foliage Road Trips to Take in Northern California

Take a scenic drive to the world-renowned Napa Valley to admire the contrasting hues of the vibrant leaves with the darker-hued grapes.

Napa Valley

Although Napa Valley draws crowds during harvest (late August to early October), visiting the region after the last of the grapes has been crushed may be the best time to soak in all the fun. From late October through November, the crowds begin to dwindle, leaving you as one of the few visitors touring the vineyards. While Napa Valley is known for its world-class wineries, the region offers far more than just wine, which you’ll love discovering the ins and outs of on an autumn road trip.

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For the ultimate aerial view, visit Sterling Vineyards to take a ride in the aerial tram, which offers guests unparalleled 360-degree views of the valley. For a romantic date above the changing trees, go on a hot-air balloon ride with Balloons Above the Valley

Cruise along the scenic Highway 395, take in the stunningly vivid foliage bordering the road, and make the most of your autumn road trip.

Scenic Highway 395

Nothing beats a soothing drive through Northern California's fall foliage, and Highway 395 surely doesn't disappoint, especially if you're taking a trip with your S.O. With the cool breeze rustling the colorful leaves and encouraging them to fall all around you, Mother Nature's romantic vibes make this drive one of the best fall road trips for couples.

Mountain slopes dotted with aspen trees make a quick escape to Mono County a must when on a fall driving trip; the spectacular geological formations and unique landscape create an otherworldly feel. But don't just enjoy the view from the car. Head to Methuselah Grove within the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, which is located just off the highway, to experience the sights, sounds, and feels of autumn in real-time.

Once you're done viewing the forest's jaw-dropping fall foliage, continue on to the Hot Creek Geological Site, where you can unwind in the spiritually healing powers of the hot springs. Before heading home, stop by Mammoth Lakes or take a quick detour to Yosemite National Park to experience even more beautiful landscapes and one of the best fall foliage road trips.

Spend a weekend enjoying the breathtaking scenery of Lake Tahoe in the fall; this is the best time to visit.

Lake Tahoe

No fall road trip list would be complete without the Golden State’s Big Blue. With the summer crowds gone and the busy winter days not yet in full swing, Lake Tahoe’s fall season is as perfect as it can get. The clear and crisp air paired with the colorful landscape of ever-changing trees makes for a dreamy autumn destination to witness on a fall colors road trip.

The best way to see the stunning landscape? Take a hike. Head to Fallen Leaf Lake and walk around the 3.1-mile mountain lake offering spectacular views of the colorful trees in its reflection. For a shorter journey, try the 1.4-mile out-and-back Cascade Falls Trail. This hike is ideal for the entire family, including your furry best friend. If you want to admire the splendid fall views from the water, make your way over to Rent A Boat Lake Tahoe; grab your fishing equipment, too, and head to the lake for a secluded and relaxing fall fishing experience to round up the best autumn road trip.

With a wide range of elevations, Yosemite National Park offers a completely different visual experience in the fall than any other season.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is unarguably beautiful year-round, yet it’s often overlooked once summer vacations and backpacking trips are over. The park is home to some of the state’s best fall foliage, making it an ideal destination for a fall colors road trip. Featuring every color on the fall spectrum—from pink dogwoods to orange-hued black oaks—Yosemite’s fall foliage is a feast for the eyes.

Hike to the beautiful waterfalls, spend a night under the clear night skies and surrounded by tall trees, and embrace the lack of tourists in the area. If you have enough time to go on one hike before continuing your fall driving trip, traverse the Horsetail Falls at golden hour—you’ll get to see the park flicker with strokes of yellows and reds under the real-life filter brought on by the sun on a crisp autumn’s day.

The Best Road Trips for Fall Colors in Southern California

For a fun road trip with the family, head to Julian for apple picking, leaf-peeping, and non-stop fun.

Julian

In the 1800s, gold-seekers rushed to Julian in search of the precious metal. Although the gold ran out eventually, the small town survived the harsh times when many others like it didn’t. Now, the charming city in San Diego County attracts visitors year-round—especially during the fall when it's prime apple-picking time. From Volcan Valley Apple Farm to Apple Starr Orchard, the choices are many and the apples are aplenty. 

Aside from munching on local Julian apples, touring the town is an absolute must on a fall driving trip. Go on a historical walking tour of Julian to see the historic landmarks that significantly shaped the town. You should also pursue the antique stores—such as Heartland Vestige—and local craft shops lining the town's Main Street. For another unique adventure, head to the California Wolf Center, a conservation facility dedicated to the conservation of wolves; go on a wolf tour to learn more.

Enjoy a secluded escape in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, where starlit nights are even more magical in autumn.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Does anything compare to the beautiful landscape, gorgeous sunsets, and dazzling night skies found in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park? The lack of light pollution makes this underrated state park one of the best places to visit on a fall road trip. Enjoy mild evening temperatures as you take in the sparkling skies and changing fall landscape.

Start at the visitor center for tips on exploring the land from local park rangers. The park’s 500 miles of arid desertscape make it a popular destination for four-wheelers and mountain bikers. The park’s trails are aplenty, too; a few of them connect to the famed Pacific Crest Trail. Quick day hikes include the two-mile, out-and-back Palm Canyon Trail, which is suitable for all skill levels. While exploring the path, take a break to savor a picnic streamside and enjoy the gorgeous surroundings. Trust us, you won't want your day to end, so pitch a tent, spend a weekend in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and make your fall road trip go on for as long as possible.

Fall is one of the most vibrant times of the year in Santa Barbara. The days are warm and the nights get crisp enough to call it “sweater weather.”

Santa Barbara

You can never go wrong with a romantic fall road trip to Santa Barbara. The dreamy California city is always a top pick for couples (and not only) who love the Mediterranean atmosphere. 

Immerse yourself in the fall foliage by taking a hike in the Santa Ynez Mountains—you’ll discover a hidden gem: Knapp’s Castle. Admire the beauty of the ruins as the golden sun rays illuminate what once used to be a grand mansion and snap a couple of pics while you’re there.

Next on your romantic autumn road trip itinerary is a tour at Old Mission Santa Barbara, where you can wander through the rose garden and learn about the history of the "Queen of the Missions." Historic and beautiful, the place is full of endless charm. Keep yourself busy during the rest of your day with activities at the Santa Barbara Waterfront. Here, you'll find a range of fun activities to explore, from boating excursions and stand-up paddleboarding to exemplary museums and superb restaurants.

Wrap up your fall road trip by stopping by Savoy Cafe and Deli for pastries, sandwiches, and a salad bar featuring everything from wild salmon to organic tofu.

Explore the vineyards, farms, and rolling hills spotted with vibrant colors this fall season in San Luis Obispo.

San Luis Obispo

Take the best fall road trip a bit further up the Central Coast to San Luis Obispo for a magical excursion. Enjoy seasonal pumpkin picking at Brookshire Farms, and if you're traveling with your partner, relive the honeymoon phase of your relationship with lively outdoor activities like hayrides, apple cannons, and peddle cart races. 

For an art-appreciating afternoon, check out the area’s famous landmarks and embark on an adventure full of aesthetic history. A tour at Hearst Castle is a must—it adds a much-needed touch of opulence to your autumn road trip. And if a luxurious private retreat sounds enticing, Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort and Spa is the place for you. Located on 100 acres of wooded land, the resort will rejuvenate you and on your fall road trip with private hot mineral spring tubs and an exclusive spa. 

San Luis Obispo is also known for its caffeine-loving community, so bring your book and nestle in a cozy corner at Linnaea's Cafe and indulge in delicate scones and fruit-filled muffins along with a cup of organic coffee. Don’t forget to leave your mark on Bubblegum Alley before you head back from your fall driving trip.

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