Road Tripping through California’s Fall Foliage

When autumn hits, you should consider taking a weekend getaway to enjoy some of the best fall foliage viewing in California. Listed below are some of my favorite places to visit (and things to do) this time of year, such as riding bikes through Sacramento’s Capital Park, strolling around historic Nevada City, or taking a scenic drive along Ebbetts Pass, one of the prettiest byways in the country. Prepare for taking in California’s blazing elms, maples, and oaks.

Featured Photo: Courtesy of Stephen Leonardi
NorCal - Fall Getaways - Yosemite -800x450 - credit Casey Horner
Photo: Courtesy of Casey Horner

The Gold Country: Forests of Fall Colors

Late October is ideal for enjoying the crisp weather, tranquil setting, and vibrant patchwork of California’s fall colors. For fall foliage vistas that rival New England states, head east from Sacramento up to California’s Gold Country. This region boasts some of the most spectacular fall foliage on the West Coast, with the brilliant red and yellow leaves of black oaks, pistachios, and liquid ambers.

Nevada City’s wealth of Victorian homes and storefronts makes it one of California’s most appealing small towns, particularly in the fall when the maple trees are ablaze with color. Its entire downtown area has been designated a National Historic Landmark. 

You can take a wonderful drive through the colorful forested foothills along or take Pleasant Valley Road to the historic Bridgeport Covered Bridge. Built in 1862, the 225-foot bridge is the longest single-span covered bridge in existence and makes for a spectacular fall photo opportunity.

Travel Tip: For more tips (and gorgeous photos) on where to see the best of California’s fall foliage, log onto californiafallcolor.com. This seasonal blog reports on the best fall color destinations throughout California. Reports and photographs are provided by volunteer color spotters.

NorCal - Fall Getaways - Calaveras Big Trees State Park - 800x450 - credit Ludwig Theodor Von Ruhm
Photo: Courtesy of Ludwig Theodor Von Ruhm

The High Sierra: Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway

Murphys, my favorite small town in the Gold Country, makes an excellent home base for exploring Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway. One of the most scenic stretches of winding road in the state, Ebbetts Pass, is doubly so in the fall when the thousands of black cottonwoods, quaking aspens, mountain dogwoods, and big leaf maples become a blaze of colorful contrast against a verdant backdrop of evergreen pines. 

The 64-mile Ebbetts Pass is anchored at either end by Calaveras Big Trees State Park to the west (a must-visit) and Grover Hot Springs State Park to the northeast. It meanders along Highway 4 through the Stanislaus National Forest, offering endless photo opportunities along the way. *Check for park closures.

NorCal - Fall Getaways - California State Capitol - 800x450 - Stephen Leonardi
Photo: Courtesy of Stephen Leonardi

Sacramento: Tree Capital of the World

Did you know Sacramento has more trees per capita than any other city in the world? It’s true. During autumn, the entire downtown area is festooned with a kaleidoscope of vibrant leaves falling around you. One of the best places to watch nature’s fall fireworks is Sacramento’s Capitol Park, where more than 40 acres of trees from almost every continent and climate are on display, and that’s just a fraction of the six million trees within Sacramento County. 

Not to miss while here is a free tour of the California State Capitol. Other tours to catch include the Leland Stanford Mansion, visit the California State Railroad Museum (kids love this place), or stroll down the Gold Rush-era cobblestone streets and wooden sidewalks in Old Sacramento Waterfront District, one of the most popular historical attractions in the state. Riding bicycles through tree-laden William Land Park is another beautiful way to spend a fall day, especially when combined with a visit to the Sacramento Zoo and Funderland Amusement Park.

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Mendocino County: A Coastal Kaleidoscope of Color

If you’ve ever driven through Anderson Valley along Highway 128 between Cloverdale and Mendocino, you already know how beautiful this drive is. But you’re in for a pleasant surprise if you’ve never experienced this region during the fall months with its crystal-clear days and crisp nights. It’s like driving through a natural fireworks display as pockets of maple trees ignite into bright yellows, sharply contrasting with the thick evergreen forests of California redwoods and Douglas firs surrounding them. 

Another reason to take this route is to visit the coastal town of Gualala when it hosts its annual Festival of Trees on Thanksgiving weekend, where the local Arts Center is transformed into a 19th-century mill town, just like it was back in the 1850s. It’s a great excuse to stop, stretch your legs, and enjoy clam chowder before continuing to Mendocino. *Check to see if the event is still taking place before visiting.

Looking for more things to do in the area?

Visit our What to Do in Northern California page!

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