El Capitan and Merced River in the Autumn, Yosemite, California. Image credit Nadia Yong via shutterstock

Top 12 Fall Destinations In California

The Autumn season is the very best time to visit California with summer-like days and no rain in the south for all the beach fans. This list offers the most memorable fall getaways throughout the state during fall.

Death Valley

Tourists in Artist's Palette rocks on the mountain side in Death Valley National Park, California
Tourists in Artist's Palette rocks on the mountainside in Death Valley National Park, California. 

Death Valley is a desert-scape national park known for shirt-drenching heat during summer. The fall comes with optimal weather of just-warm days and cool evenings for the ultimate experience in the otherworldly landscape. It is also the optimal time to capture natural and record-breaking wonders sans crowds, like North America's lowest point of the Badwater Basin's salt flats, the vibrant Artist Palette desert hills, and the famous lookout, Zabriskie Point. There's the Inn at Death Valley or the Ranch at Death Valley for weekend-long trips or camping at the several sites around for some of the nation's best stargazing opportunities at night in the area known as the International Dark Sky Preserve.

Hearst Castle

Exterior view of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California
Exterior view of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. Editorial credit: Abbie Warnock-Matthews / Shutterstock.com

Set on California's Central Coast, Hearst Castle is a must-visit during fall for the best crowd-free experience and the exclusive night tour for everything the historic home has to offer and more. The former residence of the publishing tycoon William Hearst comes with unforgettable sights like the recreated facade of a Spanish cathedral and the iconic pool surrounded by Greek columns. The spectacle of what life was like in the castle's prime days is enriched by costumed actors who roam the halls for a dramatic flair that is especially spell-binding at night. The one-hour and 40-minute lavishly-historic affair takes place on weekends beginning in October, just in time to set the mood for Halloween. 

Highway 395

Scenic Highway 395 through eastern Sierra mountains
Scenic Highway 395 through eastern Sierra mountains. 

Running along the Eastern Sierra high country, the scenic Highway 395 opens up views of the range dressed in its best fall attire. One gets to spectate the cascading golden-hued aspen trees covering the mountainside that appears on fire. Known as one of Sierra's lesser trotted landscapes, a pit stop is a must to explore around the bewildering geological formations that seem from another planet. The combined scenery of the fall foliage and the otherworldly environment must be seen to be believed. Other notable stops along the highway include Mono Lake with infamous tufa towers, June Lake's abundance of golden aspens, the Lone Pine town's Western Film Festival in October, and the Japanese internment camp, Manzanar.

Joshua Tree National Park

A grove of Joshua Trees fill a desert meadow in front of dramatic layered rocks in Joshua Tree National Park
A grove of Joshua Trees fills a desert meadow in front of dramatic layered rocks in Joshua Tree National Park. 

Straddling the Mojave and Colorado deserts, the Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California comes with the famous namesake tree right off Dr. Seuss's book cover. The ideal place to visit during fall, one will find four visitor centers for information and bearings of the locale traversed by countless hiking trails from leisurely strolls to tedious workouts. The active can also rock-climb many boulders dotting the barren landscape or hike to the top of Ryan Mountain for spectacular views over the park. In mid-October, one gets exclusive access to the four-day Joshua Tree Music Festival in the midst of a desert setting. There are day passes for the renowned vibrant event, or one can buy a ticket for the whole duration while camping on-site. Set in the "dark skies area," it is a really cool place for stargazers to spot the Milky May on a clear night.


A view of Lake Cuyamaca in autumn in Julian, California
A view of Lake Cuyamaca in autumn in Julian, California. 

Perched at 4,000 feet above the palms and beaches of San Diego County, Julian is filled with fresh mountain air. The town quickly grew around the mines, following the stampede of gold-diggers to the locale for the riches in the 1800s. Although the gold ran out, the legacy remains in the atmospheric downtown with old-fashioned charm. Now steeped with apple orchards that turn color and yield harvest, it is a real “fall” spectacle that is so rare in the southern portion of the state. It feels extra special to sip a hot apple cider in the chilly evening surrounded by the scenically-dressed mountains. In the fall, one can pick apples from the orchards or stock up at the countless roadside stands, while every café offers its own spin on the homemade apple pie.

Lake Tahoe

Fall colors reflected in Lake Tahoe, California
Fall colors reflected in Lake Tahoe, California. 

The lake is best to visit in-between the busy winter and summer seasons. Appearing at its best on the clear and crisp days in October, it sits quietly, emanating a prideful vibe adorned in fall attire. The unique experiences in autumn include yellow aspens set starkly against the green backdrop of the firs, the seasonal salmon run, and boat tours for a different perspective. There are several areas for best fall spotting via a hike or drive around the lake. In the south end, there’s the Fallen Leaf Lake with yellow aspens on the Fredrick’s Meadow. From there, a mile-long trail leads to Glen Alpine Springs for a stunning contrast of fall colors against the cool-blue waters. In the north end, the Tahoe Rim Trail leads to Ward Creek Boulevard and another 1.5 miles north to the Page Meadows. Nearby, there’s the Marlette Lake and Upper Truckee River, offering their unique spin on fall attire.  

Mammoth Lake

Peak fall colors at Convict Lake in Northern California, close to Mammoth Lakes area
Peak fall colors at Convict Lake in Northern California, close to Mammoth Lakes area. 

The beautiful Mammoth Lakes is one of the most excellent places in California for an early-fall visit, with yellow and orange aspens embracing the range for a stunning contrast against the granite Sierra Nevada peaks. With warm days and clear skies, there's the best hiking, backpacking, and even camping out in the fresh mountain air. The trailheads of the Reds Meadow, Devils Postpile, and Agnew Meadow are absolute scenic wonders of nature, adorned in beautiful fall foliage. The delightful hikes include Ediza Lake, Rainbow Falls, Minaret Lake, and Thousand Island Lake. One can also head to Alabama Hills to watch the sunset over Mt. Whitney for a truly un-forgetful spectacle. After paddle-boarding, kayaking, boating, or fishing on the lake, there's the drive along on the Mammoth Scenic Loop of the Convict Lake for more fabulous fall colors. One can also choose to stay in a wooden ski in-ski-out cabin for a rustically-homey feel.

Napa Valley

Napa Valley vineyards in autumn
Napa Valley vineyards in autumn. 

The northern wine country becomes especially bountiful come fall, with many great towns like St. Helena and Calistoga offering great bases to explore around. The scenic Napa Valley cannot be beaten during this time of year for scenic relaxation of sipping a deeper vino that pairs especially well with a cool autumn evening. The countless number of local wineries around guarantee a fall-time experience in the foliage of the surrounding vineyards. The pleasant weather offers endless wanderings from one winery to the next, without the crowds of the summer months. The highlight Sterling Vineyards comes with a gondola for a fun family ascent from the valley to its hillside location, while the mesmerizing Castello di Amorosa is a replica of a Tuscan castle. Other proximate attractions include Old Faithful Geyser, the Petrified Forest, the Sharpsteen Museum, and Safari West wildlife reserve with jeep tours.

Pismo Beach

Monarch butterflies begin to gather at the Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California
Monarch butterflies begin to gather at the Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California. 

The town is a perfect destination for the beaches and ocean views from a fall-time perspective, without crowds. One will never have a boring moment in Pismo with highlights like the historic Pismo Beach pier, Dinosaur Caves Park, Monarch Butterfly Grove, and the breathtaking Oceano Dunes. First held in 1946, the Pismo Beach Clam Festival is now a tradition, with over 15,000 attendees each year in October. Featuring most events near the pier parking lot, one can enjoy three days-worth of seafood, fun, and entertainment within views. Free to enter the grounds, the fantastic atmosphere comes with live music, a wine walk, a parade, a local clam chowder contest, clam dig for kids, and surfing. The town is also known as one of the cheapest in the area, with affordable stays like the Ocean Palms Motel set just 300 meters from the pier.


A view of Sacramento, California, downtown by the river during fall
A view of Sacramento, California, downtown by the river during fall. 

The state's capital, "City of Trees," with 110,000 city-owned trees, shines brightest in the fall season. Calling for a stroll along the tree-lined streets adorned in beautiful autumn colors, the neighborhoods worth stopping include the residential Curtis Park with beautiful homes. The Pangaea Bier Garden is favored by many, while East Sacramento is full of epically-decorated palatial homes for Halloween. One must also take the bridge across the river for another perspective of Mother Nature's artwork of painting the city in fall colors. The lush parks block out the skyscrapers, offering atmospheric family strolls in the fresh air and many piles of leaves to jump in.

San Diego

Fall in the city of San Diego - view of the bridge with Balboa Park and autumn foliage
Fall in the city of San Diego - view of the bridge with Balboa Park and autumn foliage. Editorial credit: Irina Lev / Shutterstock.com

San Diego retains perfect weather through fall, becoming real heaven for beach-goers when others are in full work mode or returning to studies. Voted one of the world's best, Coronado Beach is set on Coronado Island, with a ferry departing from downtown San Diego. Other attractions to enjoy without the oppressive city heat and humidity include the beautiful Balboa Park and the world-renowned San Diego Zoo, along with its Halloween events for kids throughout October. For adults, there's the October Dia de los Muertos celebration in Old Town, featuring giant skeletons, music performances, as well as a haunted Whaley House with special ghost tours. The San Diego Museum and California Tower will hold the interest of the cultured, while the nature fans must head straight for the stunning rose garden that pleases all senses.

Yosemite National Park

A view of El Capitan and Merced River in autumn, Yosemite National Park, California
A view of El Capitan and Merced River in autumn, Yosemite National Park, California. 

California's best state park lures outdoor fans with a varied landscape and perfect weather for endless hiking in the autumn season. Yosemite brims with fall-essence on the long meadows housing deer and massive, colorfully-dressed trees looming over the quaint valley. With most visiting during summer, the park's epic grandness becomes a respite to those who know. Offering hiking for all levels, there's the more accessible Mirror Lake, Glacier Point, and Tuolumne Meadows, perfect for families to enjoy the scenic fall time together. The Mist Trail also comes with an easy start over some hills to the magnificent Vernal Falls footbridge. It is best to visit Yosemite early to mid-fall, as snow may arrive by November and cause road closures. The off-season also allows booking the highly-demanded rooms at the iconic Ahwahnee Hotel and Tenaya Lodge.

The desert locales offer clear skies and days in the low 90s, with overnights in the low 60s perfect for camping and stargazing in the renowned dark sky areas. Northern California, including Lake Tahoe, has increasing cloud cover in the mid-fall, with average daytime temperatures in the low 60s. The cities come with average temperatures in the mid to high 70s and 80s and occasional warm Santa Ana winds.


More in Places