Apples or wine? Rolling fogs over the beaches or cozy mountain towns? Or perhaps a castle and a few world-renowned national parks? Now, would it really be the Golden State without a "golden state" in the relevant season? Despite a sun-drenched claim to fame, autumn does not kid in California. The state gets really dressy for the fall through its national parks and tree-lined cities, while the harvest time means wine country and apple orchards are at their peak. Just visit a city for the exuberant Halloween, or Hearst Castle, the roaming grounds of many serious politicians enjoying a high life by the pool amid Greek columns in the heydey.
Apple Hill, a top falltime family getaway in the state, is a triple threat contender for the best destination for any taste, near the old gold mining town of Placerville in the Sierra Nevada—a destination of its own. Just off the beaten path, in between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, you can enjoy fun apple picking in autumn scenery without crowds or traffic, especially midweek. This historical agriculture community from 1964 represents over 50 fruit and vegetable local farms, 16 apple ranches, unique bakeries, as well as flower gardens and Christmas tree farms.
Also, in the wine-making business, you can cozy up with a glass of your favorite in the apple-scented outdoors. From scenic strolls through the colorful apple orchards to stocking up on juicy, sweet fruit, the mountains are under an hour to the north, and Lake Tahoe is just over in the west, so dip your toes and picnic against pretty alpine views. This orchard, a destination along the winding scenic road for over 50 years, is great in any season for tasting apple cider, apple pie, and caramel apples, particularly from the fall harvest to Halloween, with pumpkins and wagon rides.
Death Valley, a national park in the lower elevations, sees scores of tourists from June to August, seeking a unique getaway on vacation time from work. It is best to visit in October through November, when the park empties by mid-fall, for the same renowned otherworldly landscape under cooler temperatures. Without the blazing sun during the day and cool nights, you can enjoy strolls without sweat and unobscured photo opportunities of all the natural wonders, as well as stargazing in this International Dark Sky Preserve.
Death Valley is a world destination with a lot to see, with highlights like North America's lowest point, the Badwater Basin's salt flats, the colorful desert hills of Artist Palette, and the spectacular Zabriskie Point lookout. You can stay at the Ranch at Death Valley Inn at Death Valley, the most well-known lodge, which opens in October, for experiences that even only a few locals can boast about. From ranger talks and walks to self-guided wandering for even more bucket list memories, the 49th annual encampment over the first full week in November is a good reason to visit. Celebrate pioneer history in the park with special activities and events in a lively atmosphere this fall, and return in 2024 on March 1–3, 2024, for the Dark Sky Festival.
San Simeon's Hearst Castle, a 1917 jewel in the crown of San Luis Obispo County along California's Central Coast, is a must-visit in the falltime scenery abounding in the landscape. The 60,645-square-foot home was designed by Julia Morgan, California's first licensed architect, amid an uninterrupted landscape with unparalleled views of the California coastline framed by the Santa Lucia Mountain Range. This meticulously preserved estate atop Enchanted Hill is a dazzling destination that brings history to life with a decadent exterior beauty and William Randolph Hearst's, the publishing tycoon's, browsable art collection within now an accredited museum and a California State Park. Autumn is an excellent time to visit, with exclusive night tours every weekend in the fall and roaming costumed actors adding a dramatic flair to an already lavishly historical affair that is Hearst Castle.
See the recreated facade of a Spanish cathedral or the Greek columns around the iconic pool to imagine when it was the liveliest during the afterhours during the castle's heyday. Its former celebrity visitors as well as politicians and entertainers include Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Hedda Hopper, Winston Churchill, and Charles Lindbergh, whose steps you can trace in a wide variety of narrative walking tours around the conserved sights in their original state. From the Grand Rooms Tour to the other cottages, cottages with kitchens, and upstairs suites, you will feel like people just got up and left the property on a few minutes notice. The Hearst Castle Visitor Center offers an IMAX theater daily screening of "Hearst Castle: Building the Dream," a restaurant, a cafe, and a souvenir shop at the base of the hill. The Hearst Ranch Winery tasting room is just across Highway 1 from Hearst Castle.
Julian appears on a lot of lists perched high above San Diego County, and no list of falltime getaways in the state is complete without mentioning this Gold Rush gem. The small inland destination town about an hour from the city is unlike the rest of SoCal, which rarely sees the willingness of trees to redress in different colors, whereas Julian follows suit with the more traditional falltime scenery you expect from a high country town. From horse-drawn carriage rides to hikes through the mountainous landscape, Julian is where the best falltime memories are made with your loved ones, like the most rewarding apple picking experience this harvest season. You can pick apples starting in late September at the most popular Julian Farm & Orchard, complete with a pumpkin patch, or Volcan Valley Apple Farm's extensive orchards.
Leaving the San Diego coastline far below, the surrounding snow-capped Cuyamaca Mountains offer a feeling of being a world away. The historic downtown, having witnessed its gold fame two decades after the northern part of the state went mad, celebrates to this day with events and attractions like a gold mining tour through sites or panning for your own gold with the Eagle Mining Company. Other timeless highlights include the Town Hall and Hotel Robinson amid a charming shopping scene of cafes and cozy goods stores. With each place offering a spin on apple pie, the town's staple, you must try Amed Julian Pie Company with a scoop of cinnamon ice cream, and there's no better place than Julian Cider Mill for homemade cider and a jar of apple butter to top your pancakes at home.
Lake Tahoe, a quintessential lake and quiet town, is a popular summertime destination in the Sierra Mountains. You can still enjoy the cool alpine lakeside recreation with snow-topped views through the fall, or as the locals call it, the "secret season." The shoulder season days along Lake Tahoe are quiet and crisp for scenic hikes and leisurely drives amid scenery similar to Yosemite, with aspens that redress in bright yellow before lighting on fire vibrantly against the green fir trees.
With all the same summer activities and pleasant mid-70s degrees in September, you can even take dips in this spectacular lake without crowds and little chance of rain. Visit in October, and you won't need layers for shoreside strolls, or in the low-50s in November—still bearable, especially when you cozy up with a hot drink. Plan your getaway for the second half of November to be among the first to hit the Tahoe ski slopes before the busy wintertime skiing season and holiday frenzy. Taylor Creek Salmon Run Visitor Center offers a unique experience to see kokanee salmon escape south to the nearby warmer rivers and streams to spawn, called "the salmon run"—a sight to behold.
Napa Valley's busiest season is the autumn harvest, from late August to early October. With its vineyards and wineries prepared for the "heat," you can enjoy special tastings, events, and fun for the whole family. A Halloween visit in late October through November with lower crowds gets you the deals and dedicated attention from the professionals as the last grapes are crushed for juice to become wine. The thin crowds through thick grape leaf foliage of colors on display after harvesting the grapevines rival what deciduous trees can muster, like the surrounding bright orange oaks offering Instagram-worthy shots.
Bring your favorite light sweater to bundle up in the evening over your favorite glass with your favorite people at one of the vineyards or a local winery, with many serving delicious meals and snack pairings. It is an ideal getaway to experience fall foliage together and the best of the rich US wine country. With plenty of small towns around, like St. Helena, you can snatch a rental, B&B, or hotel that is especially travel-savvy in the off-season. The Archer Hotel is the top downtown choice, and Carneros Resort & Spa is great for relaxation, while families love Four Seasons Resort Napa Valley.
San Diego is the perfect place to visit if you are craving a city getaway, with a humid, toasty early-fall season and a mild late-fall. September's early fall beach weather without oppressive heat, humidity, or crowds is great for a day trip to the shores in Encinitas, while the lovely October weather coincides with the most fun times in the city. From the Old Town to Balboa Park and the stunning rose garden in bloom, each sight is a destination on its own! Just take the world-famous San Diego Zoo, which offers fun Halloween festivities for the kids, or the Tan Diego Museum of Man in the California Tower to shoot two birds with one stone: culture and scenery from above with the city in the palm of your hand.
San Diego's renowned beer-loving spirit boasts a local version of Oktoberfest at the Liberty Public Market called Craftoberfest, a 10-day celebration of craft beer that guarantees many fun falltime evenings in the warm company of your closest peeps. The haunted Whaley House offers extended hours and special ghost tours in October. Dia de los Muertos, a traditional Mexican holiday, honors the departed with lavish costumes, music performances, and other events after Halloween. The giant, colorful skeletons remain on the streets for a fun scavenger hunt in a golden haze of trees in between festivities and elaborately decorated shrines.
San Francisco's fog, as scenic as it may be, finally lifts off in the fall, with sights for days and attractions for all. From the famous Golden Gate Bridge to the climbing tramway up the hill and strolls down to the waterfront, the lushly vibrant autumnal scenery follows you everywhere. Former tourists admit that the off-season is a whole other scene, with only local crowds and a myriad of hotels with the best prices to enjoy all the hotspots without lines, unobstructed views, and attentive service in the hidden nooks around the city.
Without the tacky crowds of tourists, you can enjoy the authenticity of this world hub like a local under clear, blue skies while leisurely going through your list of attractions without rushing. With even warmer temperatures than the summer in September and October, you must hit its beach scene with the renowned Ocean Beach or China Beach, each with its own vibe. The city's most iconic event, the Folsom Street Fair, is uniquely San Francisco. If the leather festival isn't your cup of tea, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in October has something for everyone at the spectacular Golden Gate Park over three days of music, dancing, food, and drinks.
Santa Ynez Valley and Solvang
This most rewarding destination, just 30 minutes from Santa Barbara, is a wine region rivaling its larger neighbor and Denmark-inspired small town of Solvang. You can still enjoy the same great wines without the hiked-up prices amid thinner crowds through the lush vineyards and tasting room. Solvang, with riverside nature for family experiences, offers a small European town vibe and falltime festivities like the Danish Days in September for all things Danish. You can enjoy the October Celebration of Harvest over Columbus Day Weekend with local food and wine pairings, while the kids love the Scarecrow Fest.
Home to one of California's missions, Mission Santa Ines, it is always a hit with families to learn about the cultural state. The sprawling valley has six towns that call it home and many ranches, including several dude ranches like the popular Alisal Guest Ranch. From Solvang, Buellton, Ballard, Los Olivos, Los Alamos, and Santa Ynez, you can get into the spirit of each without wasting time or gas on your precious fall getaway. Santa Ynez Valley is ideal for active families in the early fall, with nice weather for outdoor adventures like bike rides through vibrant autumn scenery of any longevity, while Santa Barbara is your getaway to the coast, where you even hit the beach under the sunny September skies.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite, the most popular park in California and one of the best in the county, is a world-renowned destination. No wonder it is a favorite summertime escape in the state, with so much to do in the refreshing outdoors when you have a whole vacation from work. A fall-time visit offers all the views and almost the same weather if you arrive September through October, without the extreme summertime of recent years. The magnificent landscapes dress in stupendous autumnal colors, while the iconic places to stay in comfort are cheaper to experience it all, like Tenaya Lodge or Ahwahnee, the best in-park hotel.
Bursting with fall foliage, Yosemite is an ideal destination for active sightseers on hikes through California's best national parks and strolls through the scenically long meadows with free-roaming deer. Looking to relax? You should reserve your entrance now for some R&R this fall, with picnics under the giant trees looming over the valley and gold leaves shimmering in the breeze, and a stylish stay at the chic AutoCamp Yosemite, the best design-for-dollar hotel.
Celebrate this season in California with an apple pie from one of the local cafes and a pimpin one from the next, and share glasses of wine over dinner; after all, it is the season to give thanks! It's not too late to start planning your great escape this fall to these one-time wonders in the Golden State. You can jump-start priceless experiences in the autumn colors before the holiday frenzy. End the year on a high note with warm memories that will get you through the toughest of winters while keeping an eye out for other gems in the colors of fall to visit in the next golden season.