Fall is one of the best times to be out and about in the Golden State, a season when the color of the leaves matches the state's nickname. Tourist crowds disappear, just like the gloomy fog that may have plagued the coast all summer long.
And contrary to any urban legends you may have heard, California does have four seasons.
What to Expect
California has some spectacular spots of fall color, but it isn't like New England. Visitors are especially surprised to find little fall color in the Yosemite Valley, where most trees are either evergreens or oaks whose leaves simply turn brown. Instead, the best fall color displays are on the east side of the Sierras along US Hwy 395.
Skies will be mostly clear and are particularly welcome on the coast, which may have been fog-shrouded for much of the summer.
Fall weather can be glorious. Check the average temperatures and rainfall
California Places at Their Best in Fall
Eastern Sierras: The eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains boast the most beautiful stands of aspen trees. They're so pretty that once you've seen them, the place will look plain in any other season. See my notes on the best spots below.
The cool, gray city of San Francisco is at its nicest after the fog goes away and tourist crowds thin out.
Find the best places for a fall getaway, with spectacular fall scenery or special activities.
Mother Nature in Fall
Point Reyes and the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge are two of the best places in the state to observe bird migrations. In Kern County, migration is a good excuse for the annual Turkey Vulture Festival and in Lodi, it's the Sandhill Crane Festival.
Monarch butterflies also begin their annual return to California.
In northern California, the elk are mating and especially easy to watch at Elk Meadow in Redwood National Forest, where you can settle into the Elk Meadow Cabins and watch them from your back yard.
One of the year's most spectacular light shows, the Leonid meteor showers happen in mid-November. Good places to watch it include Yosemite National Park, Death Valley and almost anywhere east of the Sierras. For the ultimate in relaxation and dark skies, book a room at the Inn at Benton near the California border where you can watch the show while you soak in a spring-fed hot tub.
Driving in Fall
Highways are generally open in fall except for repairs and improvement projects, but it's always wise to check a highway's status if you plan to travel on it.
Two of California's most scenic roads remain open through fall, closing when snowfall starts to accumulate:
- Depending on snowfall, Tioga Pass through Yosemite may close anytime between mid-September and mid-November. Check its current status before you go. If it's still open, this is the most direct route to the state's best fall foliage, the fascinating area east of the Sierras, Bodie, the "mother lode" of ghost towns and bristlecone pine trees, the world's oldest living things.
- In Sequoia National Park, the road into Kings Canyon closes in mid-November, regardless of the weather. This spectacular drive into the heart of a glacier-carved canyon is not to be missed, and I recommend planning your trip before then.
Holidays and Festivals in Autumn
Fall in California is a time for It's not a holiday or a festival, but in fall, special Hearst Castle night tours give a glimpse into daily life at the castle.