The Best Places to Spot Fall Color in Northern California
California may not have the spectacular displays of New England, but we do get our fair share of fall color. In fact, “leaf peeping” is absolutely a thing here, especially in the Sierra Nevada, where quaking aspens, cottonwood, oaks, maple, and willow put on a fiery show.
The city of Sacramento itself has spectacular displays of fall colors, as many exotic trees were planted here during the city’s early days. Color is especially prevalent in the neighborhoods of Land Park, Midtown, and East Sacramento, where ginkgo, Chinese pistache, liquid amber, and scarlet oak are common. Nearby towns follow suit, including Auburn, Placerville, and Folsom.
Although the peak season for fall color varies greatly year to year, as well as location to location, generally speaking, the higher in elevation, the earlier in the season the color arrives — late September in the Eastern Sierra, mid-October for the foothills, and late October to November for lower elevations, including Sacramento. For the latest updates, visit californiafallcolor.com, which has created an interactive map showing the status of turning leaves across California.
If you’re looking to go on a full-fledged exploration of fall foliage, consider an overnight getaway at one of the many mountain towns near Sacramento. Following are some of the top spots near Sacramento and Northern California where you can find some primo fall color.
Sugar maples and liquid ambers dot Nevada City, making for impressive canopies of yellow, orange and red come fall. Before you go, download a fall color brochure that highlights the best spots. You can also see red maples and quaking aspens on a driving tour along the Yuba-Donner Scenic Byway.
Late October to November is the best time to spot fall color in the Napa Valley, when the rolling vineyards turn brilliant shades of gold. Fall colors are around every turn, both from the native and non-native trees planted here. Some of the best spots to see fall color include the Silverado Trail and Highway 29, and towns like Yountville and Rutherford. Bothe-Napa Valley State Park and Jack London State Historic Park also have a kaleidoscope of colors. There are also many wineries that boast great fall colors, including Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena and Chateau Montelena Winery in Calistoga.
Although much of the Lake Tahoe Basin is blanketed by pine trees, there are also groves of deciduous trees where you can spot dazzling displays of gold and crimson. It’s especially striking against the bright blue of the lake! Specific spots include Zephyr Cove, which has a string of quaking aspens along the shore; Taylor Creek, which has a visitor center; and Fallen Leaf Lake, which has numerous hiking trails.
Just 20 minutes south of South Lake Tahoe is Hope Valley, an all-season high-Sierra destination known for its fishing, camping, hiking and skiing. Come fall, the area is awash in brilliant yellows from the aspens that line the valley floor. In fact, the entire Carson Pass area is known for its fall color, which is especially dazzling against the dark green of the pine trees and the deep blue of the many lakes here.
Yosemite National Park draws thousands of visitors worldwide during its summer high season. But come fall, the crowds thin and the leaves begin to change, making it a perfect getaway for taking in some fall color. Quacking aspen, dogwood, sugar maple, black oak, white alder, and cottonwood are just a few of the colorful trees you’ll spot here, especially in the valley. Plus, you’ll have the added benefit of seeing Yosemite’s main attractions, including Half Dome, El Capitan and Yosemite Falls (which was still flowing at the time of this writing; check the live webcam for current conditions).
You can’t beat the scenery along the Feather River Canyon on Highway 70 between Oroville and Quincy — after all, it’s been named a National Scenic Byway. The Plumas County area is one of the best in the state for fall color, with its black oak, big leaf maple and mountain dogwood illuminating the entire corridor with crimson and gold. Quincy is a good home base, and there’s a handy-dandy “Awesome Autumn” map for leaf peeping. Further along Highway 89 near the town of Graeagle, the Plumas-Eureka State Park is another good bet.
No talk of Northern California fall color is complete without mention of June Lake and its infamous June Lake Loop. The loop, otherwise known as Highway 158, takes you past June Lake, Gull Lake, Silver Lake and Grant Lake, showcasing the colorful groves of quaking aspen and willows. Just east of Yosemite, the quaint mountain region is a haven for mountain lovers, with visitors flocking here to fish, boat and hike.
Tilden Regional Park
Think the Bay Area doesn’t have fall colors? Think again! Tilden Regional Park in Berkeley is one of the best places to see colorful displays, as it has a 740-acre nature preserve with oak and bay woodlands that erupt into brilliant displays of red, orange and yellow. Plus, there are miles of hiking trails to explore. There’s also a little farm, a steam train and a merry-go-round if you’re traveling with little ones.
Fall colors also surround the nearby area of Mammoth Lakes. The main hub of the region’s trail system is the multi-use Mammoth Town Loop, a 7-mile stroll through town, taking you to Mammoth Creek Park and Snowcreek Ponds. If you’re up for a hike, visit Reds Meadow or head south to Convict Lake, which is known for its bright yellow aspen grove. Be sure to check the most current fall color conditions in Mammoth Lakes.