Fall road during autumn at June Lake, California with yellow aspen trees, view of road, falling leaves.

7 Small Towns In California's Sierra Nevada That Come Alive In The Fall

As autumn arrives in California, pushing the sweltering summer days behind us, we come to relish the days in California’s Sierra Nevada when the weather is just right. This time of year is ideal for visiting this region and not just for the temperate climate. Every year, the fall season, defined colloquially here as when the foliage begins to change color, arrives early in California's Sierra Nevada. This early change in foliage color results from less direct sunlight hours than other Northern Hemisphere locations along the same latitudinal line. Because of the angle of sunlight during the autumn season in North America, the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range blocks the sunlight from directly hitting much of this region beyond the hours around high noon. This lack of sunlight causes deciduous trees to produce less chlorophyll, effectually changing the color of the foliage earlier in California’s Sierra Nevada.

Because of this, the many fall festivals held by the towns of California’s Sierra Nevada begin earlier than those celebrated in towns located in other regions of the state. Here, we celebrate towns in California’s Sierra Nevada region that exemplify natural autumnal beauty, as well as hosting lively, unique, and fun community events that celebrate this enchanting time of year.


Julian Pie Company, a popular stop for visitors to Julian California, via David Lafontaine / Shutterstock.com
Julian Pie Company, a popular stop for visitors to Julian California, via David Lafontaine / Shutterstock.com

Julian, California, situated in the Cuyamaca Mountains, undergoes a significant transformation each autumn. As the foliage adopts a spectrum of autumnal colors, the town's historic apple orchards become ripe for harvest, perpetuating a tradition that spans over a century. Concurrently, the Julian Apple Days Festival, an annual event, offers a structured platform to celebrate this agricultural yield, featuring activities that underscore Julian's profound history. Furthermore, Julian's historic district is dotted with structures from the 19th century gold rush era. The Julian Pioneer Museum, for instance, provides insights into the town's early days, while preserved buildings like the old jailhouse and schoolhouse stand as silent witnesses to bygone eras. Notably, the town's reputation for producing exemplary apple pies remains a culinary highlight. 


Golden aspens and evergreens across an open meadow.
Golden aspens and evergreens across an open meadow in Truckee. 

While there are many fall events in Truckee, California, including the Annual Downtown Truckee Wine, Walk, and Shop Festival, the Family Farm Festival, and the Truckee River Day Fair, the pièce de résistance of autumn events in Truckee is the Annual Fall Festival. Primarily catering to children, activities at this event include bounce houses, face painting, a candy apple station, and pony rides, to name a few. For the rest of the family, there is also lots to do in Truckee during this festival, including sampling some of the many food trucks on-site, exploring the artisan booths, and reveling in the overall joyous fall atmosphere. 

For those looking for a more nature-based fall experience, there are some beautiful parks and hiking areas just outside of town. Popular sites to experience the fall foliage around Truckee include Truckee River Regional Park, Donner Memorial State Park, Shoreline Park, and the Martis Creek Wildlife Area, all of which are less than 5 miles from the center of Truckee. Each of these sites displays the beauty of the autumn season in unique and wondrous ways that will surely be a highlight of your visit to Truckee.

Mammoth Lakes

Picturesque rural landscapes on Mammoth Lake
Picturesque rural landscapes on Mammoth Lake.

Adventure awaits in Mammoth Lakes, California, and not just during the winter ski season. During the festive fall months, Mammoth Lakes hosts many lively community events, including the Mammoth Yoga Festival, Mammoth Lakes Oktoberfest, the Leaves in the Loop multi-day art and nature festival, which is held in conjunction with neighboring community June Lake, and the Mammoth Trail Fest, to name a few. For families with kids, there are some great seasonal activities in town, including the annual Halloween Party and Haunted Ice Rink event held on the Friday closest to the 31st of October, the Thanksgiving Turkey Trot, and, to close out the fall season, on the day after Thanksgiving Mammoth Lakes holds its Annual Holiday Tree Lighting Ceremony.

For those who love the aesthetic of the autumnal season but are looking for a more low-key way to experience it, you are in luck. There are some great places and mechanisms in and around Mammoth Lakes that allow you to explore the stunning fall foliage of Mammoth Lakes and the entire Mammoth Lakes Basin. A popular fall activity in this region is to take the Panorama Gondola at Mammoth Mountain up to the summit of Mammoth Mountain. From this, local passengers are treated to a unique vantage point from which to experience the glorious fall colors of California’s Sierra Nevada. For those looking for a less elevated autumnal foliage experience, check out the Lakes Basin Path, which takes hikers along a peaceful and relaxing hike around Twin Lakes, which, for a good portion of the trail, is covered by a canopy of autumnal foliage, second to none. 

June Lake

Beautiful fall colors at Gull Lake in June Lake Loop, California
Beautiful fall color at Gull Lake in June Lake Loop, California.

Remaining in the Mammoth Lakes Basin, the village of June Lake, California, has various fall events and festivities to enjoy. Highlights include the September event of the June Lake Autumn Beer Festival and the June Lake Jam Fest, and in October, there is the Leaves in the Loop festival held in conjunction with the town of Mammoth Lakes. This event is held in Gull Lake Park and includes events such as a photography hike, a landscape painting collective, and a range of guided historical walks.

With all these events, a visit to June Lake can get busy quickly, but if you have the time, make sure to visit some of the parks and forests in and around June Lake. In particular, Inyo National Forest, located 12 miles from June Lake, has some great fall trails, including the Crystal Lake Trail and the Barney Lake Trail. The Reversed Peak Trail also gets hikers up close and personal with the majestic autumn foliage in the Mammoth Lakes Basin, but it is a more strenuous hike than those in Inyo National Forest.


Valley and Sierra Nevada mountain range near Yosemite National Park in Oakhurst
Valley and the Sierra Nevada mountain range near Yosemite National Park in Oakhurst.

By the end of September, the fall festivities in Oakhurst, California, are in full swing. Events such as the Oakhurst Fall Festival, the Oktoberfest Celebration, the Bass Lake Halloween Festival, and the Yosemite Goddess Festival attract visitors from across the United States. Autumn is undoubtedly the best time of year to visit the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada, along which Oakhurst is found. For those wanting to experience a more serene fall season, there are many lovely green spaces where you can get lost in the cool, crisp air and quintessential foliage of the autumn season. On the eastern side of Oakhurst, you will find the Fresno Flats Historical Village and Park, where you can experience an exceptionally well-done living museum and enjoy a day amongst the lovely fall foliage that fills this park.

Another great way to experience the fall foliage is by taking the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, which provides a unique vantage point to take in the fall foliage. Leaving from the Sugar Pine Railroad Station, about 11 miles north of Oakhurst, you can take one of four narrated fall train tours or the Halloween Train, which runs only during the weeks leading up to Halloween.


Autumn landscape near Sabrina Lake, Bishop, California
Autumn landscape near Sabrina Lake, Bishop, California.

Bishop, California, is one of the best areas in California to take in the autumnal spirit of the Sierra Nevada in California. Visually, the foliage in Bishop-proper is unique due to its abundance of tree-populated spaces compared to other California villages in the region. Then there are the multitude of local trails in the vicinity that take hikers to an elevation where they are rewarded with a bird’s eye view of the golden-orange soaked foliage of the rolling foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada as they are drawn higher into the barren tundra above the tree line, makes for a unique view not found anywhere else in California. In Bishop itself, many lovely green spaces turn to ‘golden' spaces in the autumn, including Izaak Walton Park and Bishop City Park, and just outside of Bishop, you will find Millpond Recreation Area. In this recreation area, the annual Millpond Music Festival is held in mid-September, ushering in the fall season in Bishop and bringing this community to life.

Grass Valley  

Mill Street in downtown Grass Valley.
Mill Street in downtown Grass Valley. 

For those looking for an ‘off the grid’ fall experience, Grass Valley, California, is the perfect place to visit. Set up base camp at one of the local campgrounds, such as Golden Briar Camp, which is one of the highest-rated campgrounds in the region. From here, take the time to view the many parks, including Highland Park, Empire Mine State Historic Park, and South Yuba River State Park, all of which offer great hiking trails. While meandering through deciduous tree forests bask in the full canopies of golden, orange, and red foliage so beautiful that visitors come to this region for no other reason but to experience this natural magic. Of particular note are the trails within South Yuba River State Park, with Buttermilk Bend Trail and Point Defiance Trail being popular during the fall season.

With many autumnal celebrations, Grass Valley also offers those looking for some lively fall fun with many options. The fall season in Grass Valley begins with the annual opening event, the Harvest Fair and Draft Horse Classic, held at the Nevada County Fairgrounds. Other popular autumn events in and around Grass Valley include the Annual Grass Valley Brew Fest, the Sugar Pine Music Festival, AutumnFest, and the Sierra College Art & Harvest Festival.

Honorable Mention: Yosemite National Park 

Half Dome Trail View, Yosemite National Park, California
Half Dome Trail View, Yosemite National Park, California.

If you are exploring California's Sierra Nevada between mid-September and mid-November, then you would be remiss not to take the opportunity to visit Yosemite National Park. This park has innumerable famous features, including Half Dome, the Tuolumne Meadows, and El Capitan, but in the fall, it has one seasonal element that transforms this already majestic national park into something otherworldly. In the fall, Yosemite National Park becomes a sea of stunning fall colors, turning this already stunning region into an ethereal landscape.

Popular autumn hiking trails in Yosemite National Park include Tuolumne Grove & Nature Trail, which takes hikers into one of Yosemite National Park’s three giant sequoia groves, and Lower Yosemite Fall Trail, which takes hikers through Yosemite Valley. For experienced hikers, the Half Dome Cable Hike is just the one. This strenuous, full-day hike takes 10 to 12 hours round trip and provides a spectacular panoramic view from its summit.

The Take Home

While the fall season may arrive early in California’s Sierra Nevada, it certainly arrives in style. Every year, domestic and international tourists join the local populations to experience the joyous and cozy atmosphere in California’s Sierra Nevada towns during the fall season. With autumnal foliage in more shades of orange, red, and yellow than you could imagine, the fantastic range of festivals and events, and the unending supply of scrumptious fall harvest-enhanced delicacies to enjoy, the autumnal season in California’s Sierra Nevada merges nature and community in the best ways possible, bringing this beautiful region to life.

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