The Best Fall Getaways in California

A Fall Sunrise at Mono Lake in California
David Toussaint / Getty Images

Fall is one of the best times of the year for a weekend getaway in California and the perfect excuse for a quick escape before the holiday season sets in. Along the coast, summer fog dissipates, and you can enjoy the clearest skies you may see all year long.

These top California destinations are places where you can see the fall foliage, taste the fruits of autumn harvests, or enjoy a seasonal activity or festival. They are all especially fun to visit during September, October, and November, making them the perfect end-of-summer getaways.

01 of 08

Napa Valley: Harvest Time

Vineyards in Napa in autumn
David W. Hamilton / Getty Images

Many people think they should go to Napa Valley during the autumn harvest, which is from late August to early October, but keep in mind that the harvest season is the busiest time of year at a winery. Top that off with an influx of excited visitors and tasting room staff can get too busy to give visitors the dedicated attention that they are able to at other times of the year.

Instead of going during harvest, plan your Napa getaway after the last grapes are crushed and their juice is on the way to becoming wine. Throughout October and November, the crowds start to diminish and the vintners have survived the hectic harvest. You'll not only receive more personal service, but you'll get in on the best reason to go to Napa in the fall: to see the colorful foliage. In wine country, that's grape leaves, not trees. After giving up their harvest, Napa Valley grapevines put on a vivid display that rivals what any deciduous trees in the state can muster.

02 of 08

Scenic Highway 395: Best Fall Foliage in the State

Aspen Trees at Gull Lake in the Fall

TripSavvy / Betsy Malloy

Fall is the time to plan a getaway to Mono County. It's the best place in California for fall color when aspen trees growing on the mountainsides turn golden yellow.  The high country east of the Sierras is one of California's under-discovered areas. In any season, its eye-popping geological formations make for landscapes that look more like Mars than Earth. Take a drive on Highway 395 and you will be busy gawking at beautiful views in all directions. 

In the fall, Mother Nature takes things up a notch. Eastern California is hands down the best of many places to see fall foliage in California. Cascades of aspen trees with their golden leaves quivering in the breeze are so beautiful that you will barely be able to believe they are real.

03 of 08

Hearst Castle: Evening Tours

Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle

Hearst San Simeon Historical Monument

Autumn is an excellent time to plan a trip to Hearst Castle, and not just because the summer crowds have thinned out. Every fall, the historic home that belonged to publishing tycoon William Hearst begins to offer exclusive night tours. Seeing the recreated facade of a Spanish cathedral or the Greek columns around the iconic pool during the day is one thing, but the night tour is by far the best way to get a glimpse into what life was like in the castle's heyday.

Actors in costume roam the halls of the building, adding a dramatic flair to the tour that you don't get to experience during the day. The night tour is also longer than the daytime visits, clocking in at one hour and 40 minutes. They're offered on weekends starting in October, so don't miss out on this lavishly historical affair if you're passing through California's Central Coast.

04 of 08

Julian: Apple Time

Hotel in Julian California

Richard Cummins / Getty Images

In the 1800s, treasure-seekers rushed to Julian looking for gold. The gold ran out, but the plucky little gold rush town survived. Today, it has an attractive downtown and lots of old-fashioned charm. In the fall, people rush to Julian for a new kind of golden treasure that also comes in red and green: the apples that ripen in nearby orchards in the fall and are primed for visitors to come and pick.

Plan your getaway to Julian during the fall and you'll find roadside stands selling apple varieties you've never heard of. You can buy them ready to go or pick them yourself for a fun afternoon spent with family and friends out in the orchards. And don't miss out on all of the locally prepared specialties—every cafe in town offers their own versions of homemade apple pie and cider.

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05 of 08

Lake Tahoe: Fall Foliage

Lake Tahoe in the Fall

Claver Carroll / Getty Images

Between the busy winter and summer seasons, Lake Tahoe quiets down and the days are clear and crisp, making it the perfect time for you to plan your Lake Tahoe getaway. The weather isn't quite as hot as in the summer, but earlier visits in the season should still see warm enough weather for sitting by the lake and even taking a dip. By mid-October, temperatures start to cool and you may even see snow if you visit in November—perfect for hitting up the Tahoe ski slopes.

Throughout September and October, you can enjoy scenic hikes or take a leisurely drive around the lake to see the aspens as they change color to bright yellow, which is especially vibrant against the green backdrop of the fir trees. Another Tahoe experience you can only enjoy in the fall in the seasonal salmon run. As the water begins to cool in October, salmon exit the lake en masse to the nearby rivers and streams to spawn and it's truly a sight to behold.

06 of 08

San Francisco: Clear Skies, No Crowds

San Francisco Skyline on a Clear Day

Marco Simoni / Getty Images

If you want to see San Francisco under clear, blue skies and without having to elbow your way through crowds of tacky tourists, go in the fall. That's when the legendary San Francisco summer fog goes away along with the crowds of tourists that can make all the tourist attractions overly busy. September and October are actually the months with the best weather in San Francisco, with consistently clear days and much warmer temperatures than summer—perfect for visiting some of the local beaches, such as Ocean Beach or China Beach.

Apart from easier access to less-crowded attractions, you can also experience some of the city's most iconic events in the fall. The Folsom Street Fair isn't everyone's cup of tea, but this leather festival is a staple September event and uniquely San Francisco. In October, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival takes over Golden Gate Park for three days of music, dancing, food, and drinks.

07 of 08

Anza-Borrego Desert: Starry Skies

Night sky in the Anza-Borrego Desert in California.

Kevin Key / Slworking / Getty Images 

Because of its clear skies and absence of light pollution, Anza-Borrego State Park and nearby Borrego Springs are perfect for star-watching any time of year. But in the summer, this desert can be hot enough to send you running for the nearest air-conditioned space even in the middle of the night. If you plan your trip to Anza-Borrego in the fall, you can enjoy balmy evening temperatures while you take in those sparkling skies.

The park is located near the border between California and Mexico, a little less than two hours inland from San Diego and not far from Joshua Tree National Park, in case you want to complement your trip with another one of Southern California's treasured parks.

08 of 08

Gold Country

1897 Emporium in Jamestown, California Gold Country

Kai Schreiber / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Gold Country is one of California's earliest settled areas, nestled in the foothills of the Sierras Nevadas. Prospectors flocked here during the Gold Rush of 1849 hoping to make their fortunes, but today visitors throughout the fall can find gold in the color of the leaves as they turn a brilliant yellow.

Gold Country is located off of Highway 49, and Sonora is the biggest city in the area, but you can also visit frontier-style towns in nearby Jamestown and Jackson. Columbia State Historic Park recreates the magic of a gold rush town with a working blacksmith and the possibility to actually pan for gold in the local streams.

Plan a getaway to Gold Country in the fall and you can also visit the orchards in Apple Hill, stop by a winery, go shopping for antiques, or explore one of the area's several caverns.