5 Spectacular Fall Foliage Drives in Northern California

Vineyards in fall

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Fall is here and it's time to start thinking about autumn weekend getaways and West Coast fall road trip ideas. Looking for a place to go leaf-peeping? You don't need to travel to New England—fall colors abound in the northern parts of the Sunshine State. Here are five of the best fall colors destinations within a short drive from San Jose, California.

You'll find the best autumn colors when the weather is cool and dry, but before the temperatures start to freeze. In all cases, pay attention to the weather and contact the destinations for updates on the current color conditions. An unexpected fall frost may cause leaves to drop sooner than you expect.

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Mono County, California

Convict Lake in Eastern Sierra's, California.

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California's Eastern Sierra region (East of Yosemite National Park, south to Sequoia National Park) is one of the best places in California to see wide swaths of colorful leaves flanked by mountain peaks and rugged canyons.

Travel Highway 395 through Mono County to see picturesque autumn landscapes near the towns of Lee Vining, June Lake, and Mammoth Lakes. Convict Lake is a wonderful place to catch the sunrise on the rugged mountain peaks and watch the vibrant foliage reflected in the still lake. 

Check out the Mono County visitor's bureau website for a weekly updated Fall Colors Report on the top leaf-peeping destinations in the Eastern Sierra. 

Distance from San Jose: 4 hours and 48 minutes / 229 miles (to Lee Vining, CA)

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Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Valley in fall

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While Yosemite National Park is busy through the spring and summer months, the crowds start to thin into the fall, so it's a great time for an autumn getaway.

In the Yosemite Valley, the vibrantly colored trees frame the base of the valley's landmark rocky landscapes. The valley is easy to traverse by car and there are some lovely vistas accessible to all without having to trek too far off the path of the road.

You can also take the free Yosemite Valley shuttle providing bus service across the valley with stops at major trailheads, vista points, and all the overnight accommodation areas in the Yosemite Valley.

Beyond Yosemite Valley, there is colorful foliage near Glacier Point, Wawona, Tuolumne, and along the Merced River into El Portal.

Distance from San Jose: 3 hours and 6 minutes / 161 miles

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Lake Tahoe

View of lake tahoe in Fall

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In the fall, Lake Tahoe is a great place to watch the colors change framed by the vibrant blue of the lake. Explore some of the best fall color views along Highway 89 by following the Truckee River Canyon from South Lake Tahoe to Truckee.

Bunk in South Lake Tahoe for a more vibrant evening community and active things to do like hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail, fishing at the Tahoe Trout Farm, or a hot air balloon ride with Lake Tahoe Balloons. Stay closer to Truckee for a more relaxed community and small-town feel.

Distance from San Jose: 3 hours and 42 minutes / 220 miles (to South Lake Tahoe, CA)

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Napa and Sonoma Wine Country

Sonoma valley vineyard in fall

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After the annual fall harvest, the vineyards in northern California's Napa and Sonoma Wine country start to change from green to gold, to red. While the winemakers are busy through the seasonal harvest ("the crush") things slow down later in the fall so it's the perfect time of year to plan a fall colors wine tasting trip.

Drive the rural back roads of the Napa and Sonoma Valleys to see the brilliantly colored landscapes. Look for ​wineries with outdoor patios where you can enjoy the colorful autumn views with a glass of wine.

Some unique foilage viewing options include visiting Jordan Estate (Healdsburg) for a guided tour of the estate, vineyard, and farm and periodic vineyard hikes, and visiting Sterling Vineyard (Calistoga) to ride the gondola, an aerial tram that gives a one-of-a-kind view over the Napa Valley.

Distance from San Jose: 1 hour and 32 minutes / 88 miles (to Napa, CA)

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Southern Oregon

Crater Lake National Park

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Southern Oregon offers some memorable fall colors destinations just beyond the California border. The diverse communities of the region offer a great long weekend getaway for nature, food, and wine lovers. Here are a few of Southern Oregon's best leaf-peeping spots:

Applegate Valley

The agricultural and wine-making region just west of Medford, Oregon is a lovely place for a fall drive. In the fall, the vineyards turn to vibrant shades of red and orange, making it a great place for a wine-tasting trip. Food and farm lovers shouldn't miss Pennington Farms, a family-owned organic berry farm, and bakery. Rogue Creamery offers free guided farm tours every Friday at noon, no appointment needed.

Historic Downtowns

The leafy historic Gold Rush-era downtowns of Jacksonville, Ashland, and Grants Pass are great places to wander on an autumn afternoon. The towns are filled with color-changing trees and seasonal festivals, activities, and events.

Crater Lake National Park

A bucket list-worthy national park, Crater Lake offers red and orange fall foliage around the rim that provides a strong contrast to this deep blue volcanic lake. Pay attention to the weather when you are planning a fall trip—Crater Lake is one of the snowiest places in the continental United States and even an early fall trip can be interrupted by a storm.

Distance from San Jose: 6 hours / 395 miles (to Medford, OR)

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