The RIGHT Places: Fall 'California-Style'

It’s a patchwork of orange, yellow, rust, copper and red every fall when California’s foliage changes, offering up vibrant colors as part of the state’s autumnal displays through November. Some of the best fall foliage in the country can be found in California’s foothill and mountain regions. Crisp weather and relaxed pace, along with the changing colors of the landscape, provide a tranquil setting that visitors can experience throughout the fall season traveling by car, bike, or their own two feet.

The Shasta Cascade Region offers some of the state’s most spectacular displays of colors amid rugged and rolling terrain. Many of the best driving routes, along with leaf illustrations by color, can be found in the self-guided tour brochure Fall Colors of Plumas County, including tours to Lake Almanor, Feather River Canyon, Indian Creek and Davis and Frenchman Lakes. Serious leaf-peepers can plan their foliage trip over the Internet with the help of the “Autumn Awesome” blog, which is updated daily with photos and on-the-ground reports about best locations of “celebrity” trees.

In Lassen County, biking enthusiasts can take part in the Fall Color Bike Rides, up to 25 miles, available along the Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail that traverses a remote area inaccessible by cars. Old railroad tunnels and bridges along the trail enhance the beauty of the surrounding area. Some of the most breathtaking fall colors can be viewed in Castle Crags State Park in Shasta County, 6 miles south of Dunsmuir on Interstate 5. Travelers can also enjoy the beauty of the outdoors from the comfort of their vehicles on Highway 299 in Shasta County through the historic town of Old Shasta and down to Whiskeytown Lake. Day hikes are ideal in Tehama County’s Ishi Wilderness Area and its 48,000 acres of changing vegetation. Events celebrating California’s fall foliage and include Autumn in the Alps, taking place from September 28 to October 31 in historic Weaverville.

From mid-October to early November, the Inland Empire Region’s Big Bear Lake mountain region is peppered with changing oaks, aspens and cottonwoods. The most spectacular spot to see fall colors is Big Bear’s Aspen Grove off Highway 38 at the Heart Bar Campground. The quaking aspens display brilliant gold leaves that typically peak the first or second week of October. The remarkable fall colors appear only once a year, and last about three weeks before Mother Nature drops her temperature and blows the leaves away. The Aspen Grove Trail leads to Fish Creek Trail, where travelers can continue a hike in the San Gorgonio Wilderness.

The High Sierra Region of California also puts on a fantastic fall display. The autumn color in Yosemite National Park peaks in September and October, when maples, dogwood, aspen and oak adorn themselves with leaves yielding vivid seasonal hues. In Mammoth Lakes, the leaves begin to change in mid-September. Some of the local hot spots for viewing include the Red Meadows area, with side trips to Rainbow Falls and the Devils Postpile National Monument.

The Highway 395 corridor through Bishop is also magnificent, especially the Owens Valley and the Bishop Creek Canyon. The region’s Eastern High Sierra Fall Color Guide, available upon request from the office of Mammoth Lakes Tourism and the Bishop Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, details the most popular spots for viewing. Visitors can tour the changing colors by bike or on foot in Truckee, northwest of Lake Tahoe, by heading down to the Legacy Trail, accessed through River View Park. The Legacy Trail and its adjacent single track parallel the rushing waters of the Truckee River, extending eastward with willows, aspens and cottonwoods dotting the landscape. For a historical perspective of the area, hikers immerse themselves in fall colors on interpretive tours via the Donner Party Hikes, October 4-5, departing from the Sugar Bowl Lodge on Donner Summit.

Each year, thousands of visitors venture to the historic mining town of Julian, located in the San Diego County Region. Nestled in the Cuyamaca Mountains at an elevation of 4,235 feet, visitors can enjoy the colorful fall foliage while they sample fresh, crisp apples, homemade apple pies and ciders. Set among 1,200 acres within walking distance of downtown San Diego, Balboa Park is a horticulturist’s paradise, featuring eight lush gardens and 350 different species of trees. While San Diego’s temperate climate ensures most of the park is verdant year-round, fall does bring vibrant colors to some special trees throughout the park. September through November, the Chinese Flame Trees are recognizable by their papery, rose-colored seed capsules and yellow foliage. Each summer the 40- to 50-foot-tall trees blossom with large yellow flower clusters that reach 1.5 feet in size. However, it’s the showy, reddish seed capsules following the blooms that give the tree its name and bring fall colors to the park.

In the Gold Country Region, many motorists make the historic gold rush towns of Grass Valley and Nevada City their home base when exploring the colorful forests of the foothills along the Yuba-Donner Scenic Byway, a 130-mile looped route through the Sierra Nevada. For day trips, the Foresthill Divide off Interstate 80, is ideal, particularly Mosquito Ridge Road toward French Meadows. The winding road also affords fantastic views into the Middle Fork American River Canyon. Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway, a 61-mile stretch of California’s Highway 4 and 89 between the towns of Arnold in Calaveras County and Markleeville in Alpine County, is one of the most beautiful drives across California’s Sierra Nevada. Visitors can enjoy the fall colors while exploring the rugged landscape once home to native peoples and pioneer emigrants. For travelers anxious to participate in a truly unique fall event, the 29th Annual Poison Oak Show on September 27 in historic Columbia features one of California’s most abundant floras. “Best” awards are given in several categories, such as Best Individual Arrangement, Best Specimens, Best Photograph and Best Poison Oak Dish.

In Northern California, State Highway 299, part of the North Coast Region between Arcata and Willow Creek, offers a natural fireworks display as pockets of maple trees ignite into bright yellows, sharply contrasting with the evergreen forests around them. The area’s mountains are thick with redwoods and Douglas firs. In Southern Humboldt County, a visit to the Avenue of the Giants, a 30-mile stretch of historic Highway 101, is worthwhile to see the largest single stand of old-growth redwoods in the world. In the autumn, the maple trees that line the Eel River add an unexpected burst of color.

In St. Helena, located in the San Francisco Bay Area Region, travelers and local residents escape to the back roads off Highway 128 near Lake Hennessey to explore the autumn colors by bike. Some take to the water as sailing and canoeing are permitted on this reservoir. Those traveling to Napa Valley wineries will enjoy the connecting road from Chiles and Pope Valley, where some of the state’s oldest oak trees can be found. In Calistoga, fall ambience is found in the changing grapevines along the natural hillside vistas best viewed by a morning hot air balloon ride. The San Mateo County coastline is alive with color as yellow sunflowers and vibrant orange pumpkins create a stunning visual effect.

In Gilroy, part of the Central Coast Region, travelers turn east toward Redwood Retreat Road off Highway 152 to tour this picturesque fall route by horseback or even dirt bike. Just north of Santa Barbara, fall foliage surrounds El Capitan Creek, which meanders between groves of oak and sycamore trees. Fall colors are evident throughout Paso Robles’ 26,000 vineyard acres beginning in mid-September, when harvest activities swing into action. Of special interest is Highway 46 West from Paso Robles to the coast, where many vineyards blanket the landscape, offering picture postcard views at every turn as the elevation increases over the lower Santa Lucia mountain range.

In the Orange County Region, head to Caspers Wilderness Park in San Juan Capistrano, O’Neill Regional Park in Trabuco Canyon or Santiago Oaks Regional Park in Orange to view an array of yellows displayed by the native California sycamore trees. During the late fall, the liquid ambers’ leaves turn gold, yellow and red at Craig Regional Park, Irvine Regional Park and Mile Square Regional Park.

Fall foliage in the desert means something unusual. In fact, it’s a lawn phenomenon. In Palm Springs, part of the Desert Region, the Bermuda grass goes dormant in the fall and winter rye takes its place. It usually happens in late September or early October as area golf courses perform an annual ritual, known to locals as the “scalping of the lawns.” Lawn mower blades are lowered and the grass is cut to the ground. A few days of no watering, followed by the sprinkling of winter rye grass seeds and the resetting of sprinklers, results in new grass that turns into Palm Springs’ signature lush grounds. For stunning mountain views of the region and plenty of activities, visitors should head to Borrego Valley and the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Fall foliage in the Central Valley Region means one thing — citrus — oranges in particular. Every January through November, Fresno offers the Fresno County Citrus and Fall Foliage Trail where, on a self-guided tour, visitors can explore agricultural splendor and lush orange groves.

In Los Angeles, the Urban Garden, located at the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall and part of the Los Angeles County Region, offers spectacular blooming trees. The 1-acre community garden is home to the Chinese Pistache, a 15-ton Delftware, rose-shaped fountain and perennials. Visitors can take to the garden’s path to stroll through the brilliantly colored trees and flowers.

For more information and for a free California Visitor’s Guide, go to