While California is known for attracting tourists during its sweltering summers, only made bearable due to its proximity to ocean waters, the autumn season, with its milder weather, smaller crowds, festive ambiance, and gorgeous foliage, makes the prospect of visiting California, and particularly Northern California, during the fall season, a tempting prospect. With harvest and Halloween celebrations, crisp evening air, and a cozy atmosphere, Northern California is made to be visited in the fall.
As the middle of September rolls around, the many small communities of Northern California switch from the exhausting summer heat into the lively autumn season. From Pacific Ocean coastal villages to High Sierra communities, how different locals celebrate this season varies from place to place. While having so many options is undoubtedly a good thing, it can also make choosing where to visit challenging. To help narrow your choices, we have put together our favorite fall towns in Northern California. But, if the town you were considering does not appear, have no fear, it only means there are too many exciting options for them all to fit onto this list.
In McKinleyville, California, a range of fall celebrations bring this Northern California community to life in the autumn. ‘The Thing Festival,’ which celebrates the fall season through various musical events, including live music performances and music learning workshops, is a great way to open the season, and, for those who can never get enough of live music, there is also the Annual Fall Into Music Festival, held a week for so before the ‘The Thing Festival’ most years. And while it is a 95 mile drive west of McKinleyville, it is worth the drive for music festival aficionados. A little closer to homem and just 7 miles south of McKinleyville, there is the Thanksgiving Day Walk at the Arcata Marsh, a fantastic way to close out the fall season. To experience the fall colors near McKinleyville, visit Hiller Park or Pierson Park in town, or Azalea State Natural Reserve, which, in the fall, is a spectacular delight for the senses.
Ferndale, California, with its stunning Victorian buildings and coastal redwoods, offers a unique autumnal charm. Nestled in the Northern California landscape, this town is a mosaic of rich history and natural wonders. Each October, Ferndale is aglow with the spirited Pumpkin Festival, capturing the essence of the season and community. Not to be overlooked, Francis Creek Inn is renowned for its pumpkin spice lattes and delectable pumpkin pies, relished by locals and visitors alike. For those keen on immersing themselves in nature, Russ Park provides trails awash in fall colors, becoming a serene retreat. As the sun dips, the Ferndale Repertory Theatre becomes a hub of cultural activity, with performances that echo the town's artistic legacy.
Popular amongst Oregonians, who live just miles north above the California-Oregon border, for celebrating the fall season, the Crescent City Fall Fest is of particular note as it draws visitors from across the United States and from across all of North America. Put on by the Crescent City Downtown Partnership, this festival is also an annual highlight for locals. For those looking to explore the natural fall beauty of the region Brother Jonathan Park is a great place to enjoy the mild weather and lovely colors in town. On a grander scale, a visit to Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, 5 miles south of town, or a trek along the trail out to Fern Waterfall are both wonderful options that will certainly be highlights of your visit to Crescent City during the autumn season.
Of all the towns in Northern California, Mammoth Lakes is one of the first to see its leaves turn to the autumnal colors we all know and love. Because of its altitude, at 7,880 feet above sea level, the fall season arrives comparatively early in mid-September and lasts through the first two weeks of October. As the majestic forests around Twin Lakes and Lake Mary, the closest bodies of water to Mammoth Lakes, and the entire Mammoth Lakes Basin transform into their autumnal colors, this region becomes nothing less than magical. A great way to enjoy the leaves as they change colors in the Mammoth Lakes region is to take the Panorama Gondola up Mammoth Mountain to get a panoramic view of the foliage canopy of California’s Sierra Nevada. In town, Mammoth Lakes also celebrates the fall season with a range of events, including Mammoth Lakes’s Oktoberfest and the Leaves in the Loop multi-day festival, put on in conjunction with the town of June Lake, attracting many visitors.
Are you looking for a memorable fall vacation for the entire family? If so, you should check out Placerville, California. Placerville is the hub of the Apple Hills region, which annually draws visitors from far and wide looking to participate in this region’s annual apple harvest. Of all the local orchards, nearly 40 just around Apple Hill alone, High Hill Ranch is the pièce de résistance, with a range of apple varieties growing on site. So, if you plan on being in the area between mid-September and the first few days of November, do some apple picking.
After spending a long day on ladders and in apple trees, enjoy the fruits of your labor, so to speak, and try some of the famed local hot apple cider and/or fresh apple pie at one of the local restaurants or coffee shops. And, if you are visiting without children, check out some of the nearby hard apple cider makers, which offer tastings during the fall season.
Once more, we head to the Eastern Sierra Nevada, finding June Lake at an elevation of 7,621 feet above sea level. Like Mammoth Lakes, the foliage in the region of June Lake changes earlier than most of California. While its name may suggest that June is the best time to visit this community, rest assured it is the autumn in June Lake when this town comes alive. Most would guess that this region's forests are primarily pine tree forests, which do not change color in the fall, where there is access to flat ground and fresh water, as there is around June Lake and the many valleys of the Sierra Nevada, you will find a healthy population of aspen, willow, and cottonwood trees, each known for having lovely fall foliage.
One of the fall highlights in June Lakes is the June Lake Leaves in the Loop joint festival with Mammoth Lakes, held annually in mid-October. Held in Gull Lake Park, this festival celebrates the art inspired by autumn in the Eastern Sierra Nevada, with photography hikes, landscape painting, and guided historical walks being some of the planned events. For those looking to explore this region's fall colors, look no further than Horsetail Falls Trail, Minaret Falls Trail, or Twin Falls Trail, each with a relatively easy hike through breathtakingly beautiful deciduous forests.
Known for the Redwood trees found just outside of its border, Mendocino, California, is the closest community to some of the tallest Redwood trees in the world, Mendocino, California, has a unique appearance during the fall season. Because Redwood trees do not change color, the forests around town turn into a multi-tiered canopy, with the trees at the bottom sporting golden yellows, oranges, and red, with the taller redwoods towering above in all their deep green glory. For those wanting to experience this unique fall aesthetic, great excursions take you on a passenger train along the California coast, with the ocean on one side of the train and this striking autumnal foliage on the other. Take the Mendocino County: Skunk Train Wolf Tree Turn Train Ride for an unforgettable experience. Visiting Russian Gulch State Park or Cypress Grove will provide a lovely view of the local fall foliage for those not fans of trains. During the fall season, Mendocino also hosts a range of fall festivities, the most popular being the Paul Bunyan Days Celebration in September and the Harvest Festival in November.
Half Moon Bay
As the pumpkin capital of the world, Half Moon Bay is all about the autumnal aesthetic. Throughout the fall season, in Half Moon Bay, you will find musical performances in Mac Dutra Park an Shakespeare performances in Carter Park. The season's pinnacle event in Half Moon Bay is their world-famous annual Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival, held in mid-October. During this multi-day festival, there is the biggest pumpkin competition, drawing entries that often rival the size of a small car. This event concludes with the Great Pumpkin Parade, where the winning and runner-up pumpkins parade, with their owners, through the Half Moon Bay townsite. This festival also attracts artisan vendors from across the United States, usually around 250 booths worth, selling their high-quality, hand-crafted, unique wares. This event also sees many food trucks and bakery booths with delectable, pumpkin-infused treats for the entire family (there are even pumpkin dog treats).
Get to know Half Moon Bay history while also reveling in the beauty of the fall season at Burleigh H. Murray Ranch State Park, or wander the Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, where you will experience the unique phenomena of a deciduous conifer that turns golden orange and fire red during the autumn.
The Take Home
As the days become shorter and the temperatures drop, the knowledge that the cold of winter gets closer and closer with every new day can be pretty disheartening. But remember, for many towns in Northern California, fall is the most spectacular season to visit. From the autumnal aesthetic that pops up all around the region, as well as inside local small towns, and the associated cross-cultural festivities celebrated during this part of the year, this season brings Northern California and its communities to life in the best way possible. With food, family, and fun all in the fall, who could ask for more?