Leaf-peeping is thought to be an East Coast phenomenon, an autumn endeavor only for folks in states with four well-defined seasons per year. While no one begrudges them their foliage, they hardly have a monopoly on vibrant, changing trees.
If you’re West Coast-based and foliage-hungry, you’re in luck. California experiences its own version of autumn, and along with it comes the season’s annual riot of natural color.
How did we all forget about leaf-peeping in California, anyway? The most likely explanation is that much of the state’s best reds, golds, and oranges peak farther inland, away from the beaches and coastal cities most tourists visit when traveling through.
And while there’s nothing wrong with Los Angeles and San Diego, they just can’t deliver the experience of leaf-peeping on a crisp autumn morning, hot chocolate in one hand and fresh-picked apple in the other. And there’s nothing wrong with rockin’ the flannel shirt and duck boots for the full Instagram-ready leaf-peepin’ look.
*SEPTEMBER 2021 UPDATE: Due to wildfire risk, all national forests in California are closed until mid-September. That date could change in response to wildfire behavior, so check the official websites before you go. State and national park are not part of that closure, but may close independently depending on wildfires.*
Where to Leaf-Peep in California
All right, moving on from leaf-peeping fashion: let’s get to the foliage, which tends to peak and disappear faster than you can say “beautiful yellow poison oak.”
With California’s state and national parks, it’s best to call ahead for advice on how to time your leaf peeping as foliage varies year to year depending on rainfall and recent temperatures. You’ll also want to be mindful of fire conditions and potential park closures.
1. Yosemite Valley
Why you should go: Vibrant colors starkly contrast with Yosemite’s massive granite peaks.
- Location: Yosemite National Park
- Peak foliage: Mid-to-late October
Yosemite reveals stunning colors each fall thanks to the park’s prevalence of maple, oak, yellow cottonwood, and pink dogwood trees. Yosemite Valley in particular is known for its dogwoods and maples that turn golden in fall, a view made all the more impressive thanks to the iconic El Capitan looming in the background.
For an autumnal hike, hit the Valley Loop Trail, marked by yellow maples and red dogwoods if you time it right. If you visit closer to early November, expect most of the leaves to have fallen, which can make for some truly epic hiking photos, especially around the Mist Trail and Happy Isles. Note that higher-elevation areas of the park (if they’re still open) are mostly pine – the peak leaf-peeping is in the Valley.
Follow ’em: @YosemiteNPS
2. Sierra National Forest
Why you should go: The perfect spot for some mid-fall backpacking with unbeatable views.
- Location: Outside Oakhurst
- Peak foliage: Late September to late November
As it’s to the southeast of Yosemite, fall foliage season in Sierra National Forest ends a touch later. But because it has more variety of color-changing trees, you can start finding color as soon as September. There are several excellent drives to take for top California leaf-peeping in the area, but start with one of the most well-known: take the Sierra Heritage Scenic Byway to Shaver Lake, and from there, Dinkey Creek Road to the McKinley Grove of Giant Sequoia.
If you climb a bit higher in elevation in the forest, you’ll get views of gold and orange aspens. As an alternate option, drive the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway (note that the byway names are very similar; don’t get them confused), which passes through Clover Meadow and Bass Lake. Along the way, you’ll have plentiful views of oaks and shrubs at lower elevations and lovely golden aspens further up the hill.
3. Napa Valley
Why you should go: Sip a little vino while leaf-peeping the grapevines — or opt for an alcohol-free hike.
- Location: Napa Valley
- Peak foliage: Middle October to early November.
In addition to yielding our favorite thing to drink at happy hour, vineyards are a vibrant source of fall color — the vines even change hues depending on grape variety. So, off you go to Napa Valley, where you can combine some of the best California leaf-peeping paired with fantastic wine tastings. Call ahead to your vineyard of choice to see when leaves are usually at their peak.
Pay a visit to vineyards like Silver Oak Cellars, Kunde Vineyards, Far Niente, or Jordan Winery, but if you’d prefer to forgo the wine all together, Bothe-Napa Valley State Park is a good place to start — head to the Redwood Trail. Despite the name, the trail has changing leaves on the black oaks and big-leaf maple trees growing along the route.
Another great option for fall foliage is Spring Lake Regional Park in nearby Santa Rosa.
Follow ’em: @VisitNapaValley
4. Humboldt Redwood State Park
Why you should go: See changing trees and foliage without ever strapping on hiking boots.
- Location: North of Myers Flat
- Peak foliage: Mid-October to mid-November
Deciduous trees mix with evergreen redwoods in Humboldt Redwood State Park, offering you a shot to take in fall color in a perennially magnificent setting. Hike along the Eel River to take in beautiful shades of yellow and gold, drive the Avenue of the Giants, and look out for dogwoods, black oaks, and big-leaf maple trees among the redwoods.
This is one of the best places for leaf-peeping in California if you’re not big on hiking as there are several alternate ways to see foliage that don’t involve hiking boots. You can take a gondola ride through the treetops, take a train ride on a historic railway “speeder car,” or even see the area on horseback.
Follow ’em: @HumboldtRedwoodStatePark
5. Muir Woods National Monument
Why you should go: Get your leaf-peeping fix at the big trees just an hour from San Francisco.
- Location: Muir Woods National Monument
- Peak foliage: Late September
Muir Woods is easily doable for Bay Area folks at less than 17 miles north of the city. It’s known for its giant redwoods, which lose a bit of color in the fall, but don’t go through throes of red or gold like other trees. But you should still be prepared to cautiously whip out your cameras — for poison oak, of all things.
Though you obviously don’t want to come into physical contact with the plant, whether as vine or shrub, its leaves turn brilliant red come fall. It’s a beautiful spot for photos, with the red bark of the giant redwoods in the distance and vibrant reds of the poison oak in the foreground. For a safer leaf-peeping endeavor, stick to the yellow hues of big-leaf maple trees.
Want to keep hiking? You can get great views of the coast and whatever’s happening tree-color-wise with a hike through adjacent Mount Tamalpais State Park.
6. Big Bear Lake
Why you should go: Catch the fall color reflections lakeside, or strap on your boots and head out on the trail.
- Location: Big Bear Lake
- Peak foliage: Mid-October to early November.
For a laid-back autumnal experience not too far from Los Angeles, just head to Big Bear Lake, hang out, and enjoy views of both brilliantly hued foliage and the San Bernardino Mountains. If you want to be a bit more active, though, head out on one of the area’s moderately difficult hikes to pair a little sweat with your fall color fantasies.
Castle Rock Trail is a good option for families, known not just for its foliage but its curious rock formations, appreciable year-round. At seven miles, the Pine Knot Trail is a moderately challenging route that offers leaf-peeping views throughout the walk.
And as the name implies, the mile-and-a-half Aspen Grove Trail is — shocker — known for its aspens, which turn deep shades of yellow and gold during the area’s short leaf-peeping window.
Follow ’em: @VisitBigBear
Why you should go: San Diegans don’t have to go too far to catch some good leaf peepin’.
- Location: Julian
- When to go: Late October to early November
Remember the part above that said you’ll need to head inland and away from your favorite coastal cities to see the most vivid leaves? Well, the exception to that is the scenic mountain town of Julian, which has great leaf-peeping, plenty of opportunity for apple picking, and pretty close proximity to San Diego.
Once a gold-mining town, today Julian is better known for its apple orchards. After you visit the charming downtown area, take a hike along William Heise County Park’s Canyon Oak Trail (at about 1.5 miles) or head up the Volcan Mountain Wilderness Preserve, known for its black oaks. Don’t leave town without hitting up an orchard like Calico Ranch or Volcan Valley Apple Orchard, to make all your apple cider and harvest dreams come true (at least for an afternoon).
Follow ’em: @VisitJulian
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