8 Dreamiest Places to Enjoy Fall in California

Estimated read time 15 min read

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This is a guest post by Jamie English.

California may not be the first state you think of for your next fall getaway, but it is possible to do some incredible leaf-peeping here. Combine the changing colors of the trees with the state’s famous golden light and mildly cold temperatures, and California becomes its own travel worthy autumnal destination.

Here are the top eight places to visit for your next fall trip as a solo female traveler:

1. Eastern Sierra Nevadas

The eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range is one of the best places you can experience fall foliage in California. It extends for about 400 miles and can be easily accessed along Highway 395 north of Los Angeles. It is much less visited than the western side, giving it a sense of solitude among the changing leaves in early October. 

In this area, you’ll find groves of aspen mingling with cottonwoods, willows, and native grasses. Temperatures can get cold as the wind comes down off the mountains into the desert, so bring layers during the day and dress warm at night as you take in the autumn vibes. 

The colors look amazing at all times of day, but be sure to catch sunrise or sunset as often as you can to see the trees truly light up.

A perfect day here would be to soak in Travertine hot springs in the morning, then head out for an afternoon of leaf-peeping at Lundy Canyon and Conway Summit until the sun sets. On the southern end of the Sierras, find your fall color kick at Rock Creek Road and Lake, then hike from there to Little Lakes Valley; or start your day at North Lake Road with a hike to Lake Sabrina. Finish the day with a soak at Wild Willy’s Hot Spring. And don’t forget to look up at the stars. This part of the state has one of the darkest night skies you’ll see!

Camping abounds, but if you don’t have the right gear to stay warm, we recommend making your home base in Bridgeport at the historic and quaint Bridgeport Inn, or in Mammoth Lakes at the recently updated Outbound Mammoth.

2. The Redwoods

California’s coastal redwoods may not be the easiest to get to at the far western corner of the state, but if you make the 5-6-hour trek from San Francisco or Sacramento, then you are in for a mind-blowing getaway. 

The redwoods are on average 500-700 years old, with some of the oldest being up to 2,000 years. Having lived that long, these trees are among the largest you’ll ever encounter — over 300 feet tall and 20-30 feet wide. Add the colorful fall foliage of big-leaf maples, dogwood, and black oak trees, and your senses will be completely lit up. 

redwood trees in humboldt california

Temperatures will be in the 60s, and the ocean brings a cool crispness to the air that is ideal for hiking among the giants. One advantage of a fall trip here is that you can go later in the season and still find incredible colors. Plan for a trip from mid-October through mid-November for the best leaf-peeping show.

Head to Humboldt Redwoods State Park to hike along the stunning Eel River, drive the Avenue of the Giants, or even take a ride on a gondola or train. Another option further north is a visit to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, where you’ll find the best fall foliage on the Cathedral Trees and Big Tree Circle trails. 

Other incredible sights in the area include the 1,500-year-old Big Tree Wayside, herds of grazing elk, coastal cliffs at Patrick’s Point State Park, and the Jurassic-like Fern Canyon. You can also drive to the three other parks that make up California’s Redwood State and National Parks: Del Norte Coast, Jedidiah Smith, and Redwood.

Camping is available at all of the state and national parks, but if you don’t want the hassle of camping gear, check out Scotia Lodge, near the entrance to Avenue of the Giants.

3. Western Sierra Nevadas 

As the largest high alpine lake in the US, Lake Tahoe is spectacular year round (see the best things to do in summer and winter), but come in the fall to watch as the aspens turn gold and show off against the lake’s clear blue water. 

Within a few short hours’ drive from Sacramento or Reno, you can be immersed in colorful aspen groves at the Taylor Creek Visitor Center and Camp Richardson on the south shore. Take a slow stroll along the boardwalk and breathe in all the fall feels.

When you’re done there, head to the Eagle Creek Falls trail for an array of colorful trees and plants by the river’s edge, a lively waterfall at the end of the hike, and views of Emerald Bay along the way. If you’re feeling bold, you can cross the road and go down a stone staircase to walk along the top of a second waterfall as it plunges down over granite.

The sunsets are incredible here as the days shorten and the skies turn pink, casting soft hues over the mountains and lake. Make sure to pick a spot along the lake or at a viewpoint and settle in for a colorful show as the day ends. 

With multiple days, you can also take in a scenic drive along Luther’s Pass or Carson Pass Highway through nearby Hope Valley. Just 30 minutes from South Lake Tahoe, the Aspen forests here surround the roads and open meadows.

If heading into the mountains, your best bet is to aim for mid-October, but make sure to follow a fall foliage predictor like this one if you are able to make a spontaneous day or weekend trip.

Stay at The Coachman, one of the best boutique hotels in Lake Tahoe, for a warm and modern environment, or at the recently renovated Desolation Hotel in Hope Valley for cabin getaway vibes.

4. Sacramento and the Sierra Nevada Foothills

For a less crowded area on the western side of the Sierra Nevadas, small Gold Rush towns one hour east of Sacramento are nestled in the foothills and surrounded by a huge variety of deciduous trees that will make your jaw drop come October. 

For example, quaint Nevada City is just the right place to stroll with a warm drink in hand on a cool autumn day. Here you can find maples, ash, American sweet gums, and birch trees (among others) with every shade of red, orange, and yellow you can imagine. 

After spending a lazy morning in town exploring the restaurants and shopping, take a hike on the Cascade Canal Trail, and be sure to catch a sunset up Highway 20 at this roadside viewpoint. Stay nearby in Grass Valley at the restored Holbrooke Hotel

For more fun fall activities, head to Apple Hill and drive along the farm trail. Apple Hill is known for its U-pick apple orchards, and come fall, you will find plenty of color and festivities as well as pie and warm cider. Some favorites include hot apple cider donuts at Rainbow Orchards, coffee or apple cider flights at Grandpa’s Cellar, or a glass of wine with a view from Edio Vineyards at the family-run Delfino Farms. Apple Hill is a local favorite and does get crowded, so try to come on a weekday if you can, or aim to arrive as early as possible on the weekend. 

Stay close to the farms in Placerville at the Historic Cary House Hotel, or make the drive to downtown Sacramento for a room at The Citizen Hotel. The advantage of staying in Sacramento is that you can visit both foothill towns in one weekend, or you can spend your second weekend enjoying California’s capital city, formerly known as the City of Trees. Your need for autumn leaves won’t be disappointed by spending half a day in Midtown or Land Park, followed by a walk along the American River. Head to Paradise Beach for easy river-trail access from downtown.

5. The California Desert

You won’t find traditional fall leaves in California’s deserts, but you will find perfect temperatures, epic landscapes, golden sunsets, and maybe even a dusting of snow! 

If you want to visit any of California’s desert areas, October and November are some of the best times to go. Cooler temperatures mean you can hike at any time of the day, and if you find a home with a jacuzzi, you can soak in the crisp air at night while you gaze at the stars. 

Joshua Tree National Park, two hours east of LA, is often graced with a dusting of snow in the fall and winter months, making the sight of its twisted cacti even more intriguing.

Stay in the well-liked Joshua Tree House or Joshua Tree Acres if you don’t want to pitch a tent in one of the park’s nine campgrounds. 

death valley national park in winter

If you’re looking for a quieter escape and larger-than-life views, take in a sunrise or sunset at either Font’s Point in Anza Borrego State Park (two hours east of San Diego) or Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park (5-6 hours northeast of Los Angeles). Both landscapes are so surreal in the soft light that you’ll think they are painted backdrops.

And don’t worry, you can still get your fill of unbelievable, eye-popping color by walking through the Artist’s Palette in Death Valley, where oxidized iron compounds, decomposing mica, and manganese minerals create a rainbow-like display. 

Stay at the adults-only Borrego Valley Inn or retro Hacienda del Sol in Anza Borrego, or The Oasis at Death Valley in Death Valley. (See other lodging and camping options in Death Valley here.)

6. Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is one of the most iconic locations in the world, but seeing it dressed up in fall colors takes the beauty of this granite valley to new heights. 

Quaking aspen, big-leaf maple, deer brush, white alder, and cottonwoods shift to yellow; dogwoods and sugar maples turn red; and black oak becomes golden orange throughout October. Walk the valley floor trail to take it all in before heading off to catch a glimpse of Yosemite’s famous waterfalls: Vernal, Bridalveil, and Lower Yosemite. 

The end of October and beginning of November can also bring light snow that covers the valley while the autumn foliage still remains. Consider yourself lucky if you are one of the few visitors who gets to experience Yosemite in those conditions! 

For an accessible view over the whole valley, drive the short distance to Tunnel View. Sunset here will bring out the fall color for the ultimate leaf-peeping experience.

Another must-see viewpoint for sunset is Taft Point. Instead of leaves, the sun itself creates warm pinks and reds across the rocks as it pours over the valley on its way to setting. To find Taft Point, take the Glacier Point Road (open until the first snow in November) up from the valley floor and walk the one mile from the trailhead parking lot for a thrilling view over a sheer cliff. Remember to bring a flashlight or headlamp for the short but dark hike back to your car after the sun sets!

For an easier drive to Yosemite, try flying into Sacramento and heading three hours southeast. Otherwise you can make the six-hour drive up from Los Angeles. 

Stay in the valley, if you can, at Curry Village or the gorgeous Ahwahnee. If there is no availability you can also consider staying just outside the park, at Rush Creek Lodge or AutoCamp Yosemite.

7. Coastal Wine Countries

mendocino headlands state park

For an unexpected autumn location, head to the laid-back wine countries of Anderson Valley, just 40 minutes east of Mendocino along California’s northern coast, or Paso Robles, northeast of San Luis Obispo.

Both valleys are peaceful and filled with vineyard-covered rolling hills that turn shades of orange, yellow, and red come November for a late-season show. The coastal marine layer adds to the cooler fall atmosphere, but you can warm up from the inside out with a glass of wine in hand as you relax at one of the wineries and enjoy the views.

For picture-perfect vistas and nonalcoholic grape juice options in Anderson Valley, head to Navarro, one of the first vineyards to be planted in the area in the 1970s. Keep things in the family with a stop at the owners’ daughter’s location, Pennyroyal Farms, and order the full charcuterie board, complete with goat and sheep cheese made from the resident herd, which you can watch grazing under the rows of grapevines just off the back patio.

Another fun option for fall vibes in Anderson Valley is a visit to Gowan’s Heirloom Cider, where you can choose from seven ciders as you wander among the 150-year-old apple trees on the property of this multigenerational orchard.

Finally, walk off your food and drink with a redwood hike down the road at Hendy Woods State Park’s Big Henry and Little Hendy groves, and finish your day with a stay in one of three pastoral farm cottages at The Apple Farm, or a cozy boutique hotel for a good night’s rest.

In Paso Robles, you’ll find amazing views simply by taking a scenic drive along Highway 46 West. Turn right at Vineyard Drive for a picturesque road lined with oaks and sycamore trees. Check out Jada Vineyard and Winery in the Templeton Gap to be immersed outside in fall colors from the back patio. Or for the ultimate view over the colorful vineyards, book a hilltop experience at Adelaida Vineyards, where you are driven up to the highest point in Paso Robles and provide a wine tasting and cheese board, complete with walnuts grown on the estate.

Find more local walnuts, along with jam, honey, pumpkins, apples, and other local produce, at the popular U-pick farms Jack Creek Farms or Avila Valley Barn for an extra fall outing. Stay at the gorgeous, centrally located Allegreto Vineyard Resort for on-site tastings and food.

In the evening, be sure to check out Sensorio, a permanent light installation by artist Bruce Munro that covers the hillsides and sways in the breeze. On the weekends, the $43 general admission ticket includes live music as well as food and drinks for purchase. Opening hours vary and range from 4:30 to 10:00 pm. 

8. San Diego

Though not an obvious first choice for a fall location, there are a few unique factors that place San Diego on this list. If you love the festivity of fall but aren’t a fan of the cold, this is the place for you, as the city remains a perfect 75 degrees most of the year, including in the fall.

Come in September and you’ll experience something only locals really know about: warm waters. The ocean is already mild this time of year, but often a swell comes from the south that brings tropical waters. This means you can swim in the ocean without a wetsuit—and without the summer crowds—in September. For beach lovers, it’s the best time of year to be in the city. Go to Ocean Beach, Torrey Pines, or Coronado for our favorite places to enjoy a swim in the ocean.

If swimming isn’t your thing, drive along the Point Loma Peninsula to Cabrillo National Monument in November, after daylight savings has ended, to experience the lighthouse, ocean cliffs, tide pools, and views over downtown San Diego at sunset. Due to the park’s early 5 pm closing hour, this is the only time of year when you can be there to watch the sunset.

Speaking of which, San Diego’s sunsets are at their best in the fall. Chances are good you’ll see a huge display of purple and pink clouds over an orange sky that will completely engulf you. For an alternative location, make your way to Sunset Cliffs. It does get crowded, but the beauty of the blue water against the orange cliffs at sunset is so mesmerizing, you really won’t mind.

What really makes San Diego amazing in the fall, however, is that you can have it all: beaches, ocean views, and warm weather, combined with a day trip into the nearby mountains for the full breadth of autumn activities and sights.

Julian is the ideal stop for a charming mountain town and delicious apple pies; Mount Laguna is the place to be for hiking in forest meadows or along the Pacific Crest Trail, with views over the desert below; and Palomar Mountain brings all the changing leaves to satisfy your need for fall color!

After you’ve taken in everything San Diego has to offer, stay in Point Loma at The Pearl for a boutique, retro hotel that hosts fun events throughout the season, or in North Park at the recently reimagined Lafayette Hotel, built in the 1940s and graced by Hollywood’s celebrities from that time.

***

California may be infamous for its mild weather and warm sunlight, but keep this list on hand as you plan your fall trip, and you’ll find that the state is still full of surprises waiting to be discovered by any solo female traveler. Get on the road and be ready for some unexpected fall colors and experiences!

READ NEXT: The Perfect California Itinerary

About the author: Jamie English is a lifetime traveler and mama of two babes. She shares her knowledge and experiences of family travel on her blog, A Family Atlas.



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