Fall in California: Weather, What to Pack, and What to See

Yosemite national park
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Its 840 miles of coastline make California the quintessential summer destination, but fall is a great time to visit the Golden State, too. After the students go back to school, crowds at the popular tourist attractions become more tolerable and the heat that plagues certain parts of the state (namely the deserts and the Central Valley) subsides. Cooler temperatures are conducive to celebrating the seasonal grape harvest in Napa and Sonoma, visiting Death Valley (i.e. one of the hottest places on earth), and leaf peeping at Yosemite National Park.

With its diverse geography and varied climates, California offers a wide range of things to see and do come autumn. Early in the season, beach activities (including ocean swimming) are still possible in the south, whereas the slopes at Mammoth Mountain and other ski resorts will become more trafficked as fall goes on. How to prepare for your autumn travels in California depends on which region you plan to visit.

California Weather in Fall

The weather during fall varies throughout California, but is ultimately mild throughout. Northern areas, near Oregon, experience chillier weather than southern areas, near Mexico. The summertime cloudiness characteristic of coastal cities in Southern California (known by the locals as "June Gloom") typically lifts by the time autumn rolls around, revealing clear, sunny skies. In the desert (say, Death Valley or Joshua Tree National Parks), temperatures lower from around 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) to as low as 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius).

Average Temperatures by Destination
Destination October November December
San Diego 74 F / 61 F 70 F / 54 F 66 F / 49 F
Los Angeles 79 F / 60 F 73 F / 53 F 68 F / 49 F
Palm Springs 91 F / 62 F 79 F / 52 F 70 F / 40 F
San Francisco 70 F / 55 F 64 F / 51 F 58 F / 47 F
Death Valley National Park 93 F / 62 F 77 F / 48 F 65 F / 39 F
Lake Tahoe 62 F / 38 F 51 F / 31 F 44 F / 26 F
Yosemite National Park 72 F / 41 F  57 F / 32 F 48 F / 27 F

California is a perpetually parched state and its dryness is exacerbated by a decades-long drought. Precipitation is most likely toward the end of the season (around December) and in the northern portion of the state, such as Mount Shasta and Redding. Snow becomes likely in alpine areas (such as Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe) beginning in October.

What to Pack

Packing lists will vary from place to place. If you plan to visit the south, such as Los Angeles, Palm Springs, or San Diego, T-shirts and sandals are acceptable attire toward the beginning of the season. Sweaters and light jackets may be required for evenings and trips at the end of the season. Be cautious, too, of cold temperatures at night in the desert.

If your trip will be centered around the Sierra Nevadas, San Francisco, or other northern parts of the state, bring warm layers and waterproof gear. San Francisco alone gets about 15 days of rain throughout the season. It's always best to pack outdoor attire when traveling to California, seeing as it has more than 300 national and state parks to visit. And don't forget sunscreen—even in the fall, the Golden State is generally sunny.

Fall Events in California

This season beckons a myriad of events throughout the state, from family-friendly carnivals to beer festivals and risqué costume parties.

  • Los Angeles County Fair: Angelenos wait until after the summer crowds let up to celebrate one of their biggest events of the year. The September carnival features your average fair attractions—rides, junk food, livestock exhibitions, etc.—plus big-name performers like George Lopez and Pitbull in the past. This year's LA County Fair has been canceled.
  • Northern California International Dragon Boat Festival: In September, San Francisco holds the largest dragon boat race in the U.S., drawing more than 100 teams from all over the world. The colorful, 40-foot vessels set out in a host of competitions to the beat of Chinese drums. This year, the festival has been canceled.
  • Monterey Jazz Festival: A Monterey tradition for more than half a century, this September music festival sells out year after year. Past performers include such legends as B.B. King, Etta James, and Tony Bennett. This year's festival has been made virtual: acts will stream online from 5 to 7 p.m. September 25 to 27.
  • Sonoma County Harvest Fair: Fall in wine country means the great annual grape harvest. Sonoma County's Harvest Fair is held every October to showcase the region's winning wines (and beers), with more than 100 local wineries participating. This year's fair has been canceled.
  • West Hollywood Halloween Carnaval: Halloween in West Hollywood calls for one of the biggest street parties in the country. On the night of October 31, hundreds take to Santa Monica Boulevard (between North Doheny Drive and La Cienega Boulevard) in costume. Disclaimer: Some of the outfits can be NSFW. 2020's Halloween Carnaval has been canceled.
  • San Diego Beer Week: November kicks off with San Diego Beer Week, a 10-day celebration involving more than 150 independent craft breweries. Past events include Beardtoberfest, beer pairing dinners, and a slew of release parties. This year's event, however, has been canceled.
  • Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival: Just south of San Francisco, Half Moon Bay celebrates the autumn harvest with heavyweight championship pumpkins, a Great Pumpkin Parade, haunted activities, pumpkin sculpting, food, and more. In 2020, the festival has been canceled.

Fall Travel Tips

  • Get your kid-friendly Halloween thrills at Disneyland, Universal Studios (home of Hollywood Horror Nights), Six Flags Magic Mountain, or Knott's Berry Farm—all of which put on spooky events.
  • Early fall is a great time to catch the last of Los Angeles' outdoor movies. Cinespia, Street Food Cinema, and Rooftop Cinema Club are some favorites.
  • There are more than 100 Oktoberfest-related events throughout California, ranging from single-day festivities to entire month-long celebrations. You can find one in any corner of the state, but some of the best are in La Mesa, Big Bear Lake, Escondido, and Huntington Beach.
  • November 2 is the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday during which people paint their faces and celebrate deceased family members. Some of the best places to celebrate are Old Town San Diego and Olvera Street, Los Angeles.
  • Toward the end of the season, Christmas lights will crop up everywhere. One of the best displays in the state is the Festival of Lights at the Mission Inn in Riverside.
  • Point Reyes and the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge are two of the best places in the state to observe bird migrations. Monarch butterflies also begin their yearly return to California in fall.
  • In northern California, the elk will be mating at Elk Meadow in the Redwood National Forest, where you can settle into one of the Elk Meadow Cabins and watch them from your backyard.
  • One of the year's most spectacular natural light shows, the Leonid meteor showers, take place in mid-November. Good places for dark sky visits include Yosemite National Park, Death Valley, Anza-Borrego, and almost anywhere east of the Sierras along Highway 395.
  • Depending on snowfall, Tioga Pass through Yosemite National Park may close any time between mid-September and mid-November. Check the Tioga Pass 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, with Bodie the "mother lode" of ghost towns and the ancient bristlecone pine trees, the world's oldest living inhabitants.
  • 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.
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