8 perfect California road trips to take for the ultimate fall vibes
They say California has no seasons. But anyone who’s taken the time to road trip around the state knows that’s not true.
The Eastern Sierras have spectacular fall colors, beautiful groves of yellow interspersed with vivid orange and reds. As far south as San Bernardino National Forest, you can find quaking aspen becoming bright and golden. And California’s famous wine countries take on warmer, earthier hues. Planted trees offer opportunities for urban leaf peeping.
Even parts of California that don’t see much fall foliage embrace the season. Pumpkin patches and pumpkin spice lattes abound. Orchards open for apple picking and cider galore. The cooler weather makes outdoor adventures in the desert much more enjoyable. Then there’s Halloween: both the kid-friendly trick-or-treating kind and the haunted kind geared toward adults. Whatever autumn vibe you’re looking for, California’s diverse geography and culture has something to offer.
Fall is also a great season to get in your car and drive around California, as the weather is perfect and summer vacation crowds have left. There are fewer crowds in most destinations.
From spots close enough for a one-day road trip to a weeklong adventure through different towns, below are ideas for different types of road trips to get you into the mood for fall. There are plenty of jumping-off points from these destinations for those who want to extend their road trip and explore more of this majestic state. Pointers on the map show the first destination on these road trips.
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Family-friendly fall: Big Bear Lake
For an easy hiking trail that offers some leaf peeping, head to Towne Trail, a 2.5-mile loop that starts near the Snow Summit parking lot. A Segway tour through town is also a fun way to see colorful trees around Big Bear’s neighborhoods.
Another major fall event in Big Bear is Oktoberfest. This is a specifically family-friendly one: There’s a bounce house, face painting, a mechanical bull, and themed children’s Halloween costumes for sale, in case your little one lacks their own lederhosen.
On the way to or from Big Bear, be sure to take SR-18 to Lake Arrowhead so you don’t miss some of the best parts of the Rim of the World Highway. Extend the trip with a stop at Skypark at Santa’s Village in October for some pumpkin spice lattes and Halloween festivities, or explore Lake Arrowhead.
Don’t miss: Pies from Pickle’s Pie Shop, operating out of a whimsical building that looks rather like a witch’s house. They sell their sweet pies by the slice, but the pot pies are only available frozen. If you’re renting a cabin with an oven, it’s worth getting one.
Golden vineyards: Napa Valley and Sonoma
There are quite a few wineries that offer a colorful view beyond the vineyard, including Far Niente Winery with its ginkgo tree-lined driveway or Jordan Winery’s chateau covered in ivy that turns a deep red as the season progresses.
For leaf peeping that doesn’t involve wine tasting, there’s Jack London State Historic Park. This park encompasses the home that was once owned by the novelist and has more than 20 miles of trails with foliage views all around.
There are a lot of high-end boutique hotels in the wine country, but for something a little different, stay in an Airstream surrounded by redwood trees at AutoCamp Russian River.
Don’t miss: Breakfast sandwiches at The Model Bakery. This bakery is known for its muffins and has three locations around Napa Valley and Sonoma.
Gold country: Sacramento, Grass Valley, Lake Tahoe
From there, head 60 miles northeast to Nevada City, a Gold Rush town that still has a lot of the historic 19th century buildings preserved. Early settlers planted maple trees that turn a beautiful red around mid-October, and the surrounding Victorian architecture is a nice thematic bonus. Take a Haunted by History tour at the two historic hotels in the area, National Exchange Hotel and Holbrooke Hotel. They are two of the oldest operating hotels in California and have plenty of stories to tell. Tours are being offered the weekends of Oct. 15 and 29 only.
To extend your trip, drive just over an hour east from Nevada City and you’ll hit Truckee, a good home base to explore the rest of Lake Tahoe. This mountain town has more of a local feel than South Lake Tahoe and offers miles of hiking and mountain biking trails.
Don’t miss: In Sacramento, grab some cakes from Rick’s Dessert Diner. It’s been voted the best dessert place in Sacramento since 1986 for good reason.
Get spooked: San Jose to Santa Cruz
To continue your supernatural tour, drive to Brookdale Lodge in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The original Brookdale Lodge was built in the 1890s and is known as one of the most haunted places in California. The rooms’ interiors have been renovated and look completely modern, but there’s still plenty of spook for those who love to look. Ghosts or not, the lodge is surrounded by redwood trees and is conveniently located close to the hiking trails in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Check out of the lodge and head south to Santa Cruz. The beachside city was founded as a Spanish Mission in 1791, so there’s a long history and plenty of years to develop legends and ghost stories. The historic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, founded in 1907, was the backdrop for Jordan Peele’s thriller “Us,” but it’s also worth visiting for its thrill rides, sandy beach and its history. Evergreen Cemetery is one of the oldest cemeteries in California and there have been many stories of apparitions. The cemetery is currently maintained by Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and visitors can take self-guided tours.
Don’t miss: Visit Natural Bridges State Beach for its beautiful natural bridge formation off the shore and to catch the beginning of the monarch butterfly migration. The monarchs typically begin arriving at the park in mid-October.
Apples and pumpkins: Oak Glen to Redlands
In between the orchards there’s Oak Tree Mountain, a park that boasts a 350-foot-long mountain slide, the longest in the country. The front part of the park is also home to shops and eateries for anyone who needs to fuel up after apple picking.
On the way home, stop by Live Oak Canyon pumpkin farm in Redlands, the largest pumpkin patch in all of Southern California. Kid-friendly attractions include a train ride, Ferris wheel and pumpkin patch classics like the corn maze.
Don’t miss: Mini apple cider donuts at Snow-Line Orchard.
Lakes and leaves: Mammoth Lakes
One of the best trails for leaf peeping is the Heart Lake trail, a short but steep 2.5-mile trail lined with aspen trees. The ascent rewards hikers with panoramic views and leads to a small, heart-shaped lake. Even if you make it to Mammoth Lakes a bit late in the season, the lower elevation area south of Mammoth peaks later, so there will still be fall colors in November around Lake Crowley and McGee Creek Trail.
A note to those who tend to get carsick: Mammoth Lakes is one of the few California mountain towns you can get to without driving up long, winding roads.
Don’t miss: Go kayaking on Convict Lake, which is surrounded by magnificent mountains. Kayak rentals are available at the marina starting from $45.
Apple pies and metal sculptures: Julian to Borrego Springs
With apple pie packed in your car, head out to the desert to Borrego Springs. Fall is actually the start of the season for Borrego Springs: Many restaurants close during the sweltering summer and reopen on Oct. 1.
Drive around the Galleta Meadows to find Ricardo Breceda’s 130 metal sculptures that are spread throughout the desert. After getting the lay of the land in the daylight, head back out to the sculptures at night to try your hand at night sky photography, or just watch the stars and enjoy the fact that Borrego Springs is the only certified Dark Sky Community in California.
Don’t miss: Hike one of the only slot canyons in California, located in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The parking lot is located at the end of Buttes Pass Road and costs $10 per day per vehicle. This hike has become quite popular, so plan to arrive early.
Scarecrows and pumpkins: Solvang
The Scarecrow Fest is a competition between merchants in the Santa Ynez Valley. Each store can put out a scarecrow and everyone is invited to vote for their favorite creations. Last year there were more than 40 businesses that participated with some rather creative scarecrows, making a walk around this fairy-tale-like town even more entertaining than usual. Grab some treats at Danish Mill Bakery then in the evening, check out the brand new Solvang ghost hunting tour for some paranormal fun.
The Solvang Farmer Pumpkin Patch may not be the biggest pumpkin patch in California, but it’s known for having some of the biggest pumpkins (one weighed in at 700 pounds in 2021) and a 14-acre corn maze.
A bunch of fun new places have opened in the area recently, including boutique hotels with eclectic interiors like The Winston and great Thai food at Na Na Thai in neighboring Buellton.
Don’t miss: Spend some time tasting the excellent wines produced in the area. For a quieter afternoon, head to Alma Rosa Winery tasting room in a semi-hidden courtyard off of Mission Drive, where a handful of other tasting rooms are also located.
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