Why October is the perfect time to visit California’s national parks

A person sitting on a rocky beach looking out over the water while an illustrated seagull looks sideways at them.
The waters off Santa Cruz Island can hit 70 degrees in early autumn.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times ; illustration by Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, fellow Escapists. Temperatures are dropping — slowly — and crowds are dissipating across California’s national parks.

These factors alone make autumn a special time to pay a visit to Yosemite, Joshua Tree and other beloved outdoor spaces in the Golden State. Then if you consider the season’s changing leaves, animal migrations and fall festivals, an October visit to one of California’s national parks becomes a must.

In this edition of Escapes, you’ll find four national park adventures to take this autumn. Where are you traveling over the next few weeks? Send me your recommendations for fall trips around California, and I may include them in a future edition of Escapes.

Need further inspiration? Don’t miss Times travel writer Christopher Reynolds’ roundup of the 43 best California experiences to add to your fall bucket list.


🐠 Go for a dip at Channel Islands National Park

A group of hikers sit on a bluff above the ocean while an illustrated cormorant looks over illustrated yarrow plants.
Potato Harbor Overlook on Santa Cruz Island is a scenic spot for a breather after a morning of hiking.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times; illustration by Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)

As red and golden leaves begin blanketing national parks across the United States, different changes are afoot at Channel Islands National Park.

The park, comprising five islands off Southern California, is a haven for divers, snorkelers, kayakers and fans of other aquatic sports. And autumn brings some of the year’s best conditions for enjoying the Pacific. According to the National Park Service, water temperatures — which climb over the course of the summer — can hit 70 degrees by early fall, and visibility can reach 100 feet.

When I visited Santa Cruz Island with a few friends in October 2019, we spent hours snorkeling through the gentle waves off Scorpion Beach, admiring the Garibaldi, stingrays and other fish that call the undulating kelp forests home.

We rented snorkels, masks and fins from the Santa Barbara Adventure Company stand near the beach — next time, I’ll opt for a wetsuit, too. Renting a mask, snorkel, fins and wetsuit costs $60.

Plus, fish aren’t the only animals to spot during the autumn months. According to the Audubon Society, each island that makes up Channel Islands National Park plays host to migrating songbirds during the fall. In addition, the park service notes that northern elephant seals start convening at their rookery sites in late fall.

🍂 Spot changing leaves in Sequoia, Kings Canyon and beyond

An illustrated California quail stands on the edge of a mountain stream.
Sunlight filters through the trees in Kings Canyon National Park.
(Calvin B. Alagot / Los Angeles Times ; illustration by Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)

Fall colors in California’s national parks — with their many evergreen trees — may be subtler than the vibrant leaves of Acadia National Park in Maine or Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio.


But if you pay attention, there’s great autumnal beauty to be found in Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Lassen Volcanic national parks.

For example, Yosemite’s big-leaf maples, black oaks and Pacific dogwoods are often at their peak in mid-October. Five hours north, visitors flock to areas such as Manzanita Lake and Hat Creek Meadow to see changing leaves on Lassen Volcanic National Park’s aspen, alder and cottonwood trees.

Keep tabs on California Fall Color’s regularly updated map for the latest autumn leaf conditions. Right now, leaves in Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Lassen Volcanic national parks are just starting to change.

Autumn brings fewer crowds, emptier roads and more affordable lodging prices to California’s popular national parks, too. A few years ago, Times contributor Rosemary McClure visited Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks to experience their wonders after the end of high season.

“The adjacent parks … offer beautiful rivers and waterfalls, lush valleys, vast caverns, snow-capped peaks and terrain ranging from 1,300 to 14,500 feet. And it’s all in the southern Sierra Nevada, a 225-mile drive from Los Angeles,” McClure writes.

Read McClure’s story to hear about her visit to sites such as Moro Rock and the General Sherman Tree, as well as her dining and lodging recommendations.

🍁 Visit a fall festival just outside Yosemite National Park

 A view of bright stars and a streak in the sky. In the foreground are evergreen trees.
The nighttime stars are bright as an aircraft streaks through the skies above Yosemite in October of 2019.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

No plans this weekend? If you’re up for a trip to Yosemite, budget some extra time to stop by Oakhurst, the park’s neighbor to the south.

There — 16 miles from the national park — you’ll find the town’s 29th annual Fall Festival, running from Oct. 7 to 9. Local music, rides, food trucks, and wine and beer tastings are planned throughout the weekend.

The Bass Lake Halloween Carnival, held near Oakhurst, is scheduled for Oct. 29. With programming that includes face painting and bounce houses, it makes for a nice outing for those traveling to Yosemite with kids.

One more autumnal festival to mention, for now: 30 miles outside Yosemite is June Lake, which will host Leaves in the Loop on Oct. 15 and 16. It will include a fall colors hike, historical tour of the town, an art event where guests paint a fall scene while sipping wine and more.

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⛺ Embrace cooler temperatures in the California desert

Three donkeys in the desert with an illustrated cactus, roadrunner and icterid.
Wild burros stand in front of the Silurian Hills, southeast of Death Valley.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times ; illustration by Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)

Good news: Temperatures will soon cool down enough for a comfortable camping trip to Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks.

Fall marks the beginning of Death Valley’s camping season, and though its annual ’49ers Encampment will bring crowds in mid-November, autumn generally attracts fewer visitors than the park’s popular spring season. Times travel writer Christopher Reynolds recommends visitors make a beeline for Badwater Basin, included on his fall bucket-list experiences.

Meanwhile, Joshua Tree is in the midst of Desert Tortoise Week, an event aimed at spreading awareness of the embattled species — one piece of the park’s autumn programming.

In August, the two parks were left reeling after massive rainstorms caused flooding and forced extensive road closures.

“This was a 1,000-year flood event. It is quite possibly the most widespread catastrophic event in this park’s history,” Ana Cholo, a Death Valley National Park spokesperson, told breaking news intern Itzel Luna at the time.

Though the parks are reopening, keep a close eye on their websites for updated information on road closures and other conditions.

🎨 Can’t make it out of town this weekend?

A woman is seen in a dancer's pose with one leg and both arms extended, a hula hoop around her knee.
Kimberly Hamilton uses a hula hoop at Barnsdall Art Park as people lounge in the late-afternoon sun.
(Calvin B. Alagot / Los Angeles Times)

Catch many Angelenos’ favorite view of the Hollywood sign from Barnsdall Art Park.

Times contributor Teena Apeles recently rounded up seven fun things to do in the East Hollywood park. “With the reopening of Hollyhock House, which had been closed since before the COVID-19 pandemic, more are discovering its magic,” she writes.

Whether it’s taking an affordable art class at Barnsdall Art Center or the Junior Arts Center, or catching a film screening at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, here are Apeles’ recommendations for a day well spent at the “the L.A. gem that is Barnsdall Art Park.”

For more inspiration for weekend getaways, check out past editions of Escapes. To see this newsletter in your browser, click here.