California in the Fall: Explore These 17 Awesome Places

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tree with fall foliage in front of an inn sign in Julian CA
Fall foliage and apple packing mark the changing seasons in Julian, a small town in Southern California. Photo credit: Julian

From the beaches to the mountains and deserts, the fall months are a prime time to visit California. Summer crowds are gone, making it an ideal time to enjoy the Golden State’s sunny weather and fall colors from Southern California to Central and Northern California.

Although California may not be known for fall foliage, there’s definitely a change in the seasons with varying degrees of leaf peeping. Shorter days, cooler weather, and crimson, gold and orange-hued leaves mark the changing of the seasons California-style.

But more than that, fall is a beautiful time of year to explore California’s many treasures. Fewer crowds make it more enjoyable to visit state parks, national parks, beaches, deserts, mountain towns and wine country. Plus, California has spectacular year-round weather. In fact, September through late October is a golden time to visit California. Visit a farm to pick apples, press cider and enjoy a picnic under trees with colorful leaves. It’s a great time of year for a romantic anniversary trip. If you have the time, plan a road trip for a scenic drive through the Golden State.

Explore Southern California’s Diverse Regions

Beaches, valleys, deserts and mountains make up Southern California’s diverse terrain. And each offers fun things to do in the fall months. Especially in the deserts, when temperatures cool down to about 85 degrees in the day.

1. Climb Rocks in Joshua Tree National Park

Person climbing a rock in Joshua Tree National Park, a fun thing to do in the fall in California
Fall and spring, when temperatures aren’t sizzling, are the best times of year to visit Joshua Tree National Park. Photo credit: Yoshi Kubo

Located 114 miles east of Los Angeles, the 792,519-acre park’s unique rock formations and plants create a fascinating landscape for hiking, biking, and rock climbing. Joshua Tree’s magnificent night skies make it possible to clearly see the Milky Way, constellations and millions of stars.

To make the most of your stay, stop by one of the four Joshua Tree visitor centers for maps and information. Among the popular activities are Skull Rock and a 1.7-mile nature trail. An 18-mile motor tour with 16 scenic stops provides a leisurely way to see the park. Ranger programs offer guided tours, hikes and a children’s story time.

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2. Take a Jeep Tour in Palm Springs

Aquifer near Palm Springs, something to see on a jeep tour in California in the fall
Jeep tours visit a natural palm oasis with clear water seeping from an underground aquifer. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

The ancestral home to the Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Palm Springs has been popular with Hollywood stars since the 1920s. Over the years the Greater Palm Springs Area has grown to include Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Desert Hot Springs, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta and Indio.

Things to do in the fall season include jeep tours that travel to the San Andreas Fault Line, box canyons and a natural palm oasis. Other family-friendly attractions include The Living Desert, a 1,080-acre preserve home to animals of Africa and North America, and the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.

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3. See Stars in Anza Borrego

Borrego Springs is a quiet little town surrounded by the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.  It’s a designated Dark Sky Community, making it one of the best places for stargazing. You won’t see street lights, fast food chains and big resorts. Instead, families will find scenic hiking trails, indoor/outdoor art displays and art galleries.

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4. Play in San Diego

San Diego is a top family-friendly destination for many reasons. Simply, it has something for everyone, and in all price ranges. In fact, there are over 50 free things to do in San Diego. Beaches, theme parks, cultural events, concerts and the arts make San Diego a well-rounded getaway any time of year.

Of course, the beaches are the main attraction. San Diego has over 70 miles of beaches for swimming, surfing, boogie boarding, snorkeling and more.

Other top attractions in San Diego include Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo, Sea World, Coronado Island and Seaport Village.

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5. Go Apple Picking in Julian

Bushels of apples for sale in Julian CA, a California destination with fall foliage
Choosing just one apple will be next to impossible! Photo credit: Julian

Located about an hour east of San Diego in the Cuyamaca Mountains, Julian is a historic gold mining town also known for apple orchards. It’s especially fun to visit this small town in autumn, when leaves are changing colors. In fact, it features some of SoCal’s best fall foliage. A handful of orchards are open to the public for pumpkin and apple picking.

Be sure to stop by Mom’s Pie House (watch bakers through the front window) for the best apple pies around. In addition to pies, the menu includes sandwiches, soups and desserts. Try an apple dumpling, made with peeled apple, nutmeg, brown sugar and cinnamon baked in a cream cheese and butter crust.

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6. Ride a Hot Air Balloon in Temecula

Hot air balloon over Temecula vineyards, a fun fall activity in California
Wine tasting and hot air balloon rides are top things to do in Temecula Valley. Photo credit: Visit Temecula Valley

Napa Valley isn’t the only place that grows grapevines. Located about 60 miles north of San Diego, Temecula Valley is a hidden gem in the Inland Empire in Riverside County. In fact, in recent years the historic town has gained recognition for its numerous wineries, rolling hills, hot air balloon flights and Mediterranean-style weather. With kids, visit historic Old Town, children’s museum and local farmers markets.

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7. Bike on Balboa Island, Newport Beach

Ditch the car for a bike on this small, charming enclave of Newport Beach. Accessible via bridge and ferry, the island is conducive for bike riding, fishing from the pier, perusing mom and pop specialty shops and swimming at the beach.

The Balboa Bar, a chocolate-dipped ice cream rolled in sweet or salty toppings, and frozen chocolate-covered banana on a stick alone are worth the drive.

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8. Boating in Big Bear Lake, San Bernardino

pontoon boat on Big Bear Lake, a fun fall California destination
Spend a fall afternoon on a pontoon in Big Bear Lake. Photo credit: Big Bear Lake

Located 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles, Big Bear Lake is a quick escape from city life. The fall months bring cooler temperatures ideal for hiking and mountain biking before the first snowfall. It’s an ideal time for a walk through the forest, which transforms into a sea of gold, crimson and amber in fall. Thousands of evergreen trees bring out the brilliance of fall colors in other trees like aspens, cottonwoods and oaks.

Some of the best spots to see colorful leaves include Mill Creek Road, The Pine Knot Trail and Castle Rock Trail. The kid-friendly, 1.5-mile (loop) Woodland Trail starts at the Big Bear Discovery Center and offers scenic fall foliage and lake views.

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9. Fall in California: Los Angeles

Woman, toddler and man dressed as scarecrow pose in front of pumpkins at the Original Farmers Market in LA
The Original Farmers Market, which features over 100 merchants, restaurants and grocers, hosts seasonal events. Photo credit: Original Farmers Market.

From its founding in 1871, Los Angeles has evolved into a metropolis with 88 incorporated cities. Situated within L.A. County, the various cities reflect the area’s ethnic diversity. Places like the iconic Original Farmers Market are a fun place to shop, sample various cuisine and enjoy seasonal events.

While in L.A., visit museums, botanical gardens, and the birthplace of L.A. – El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. The downtown district is home to historic buildings, seven free museums and Olvera Street, a  Mexican marketplace.

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10. Beach Fun in Santa Barbara

Couple with three children in surrey in Santa Barbara CA
Peddle a surrey on a coastal path. Photo credit: Santa Barbara

Whether you visit for one day or stay overnight, Santa Barbara is worth a stop. If you’re driving through, stop for lunch and ocean views at Stearns Wharf. This winter, the Santa Barbara Zoo plans to open the Australian Walkabout, a 15,000 square-foot habitat designed to transport guests “Down Under.” Visitors can walk among the wallabies, kangaroos, emus and native birds.

For a cool place to stay, check outAutocamp’s vintage airstreams. The renovated trailers feature new appliances, modern fixtures and even upscale amenities (think quilted pillow-top mattress and luxury linens). One unit even has a spa tub and integrated speaker system.

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California’s Central Coast

11. Escape to Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo

Trail view in Morro Bay State Park in California
Enjoy a walk in Morro Bay State Park. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

The laid-back seaside town’s claim to fame may be Morro Rock, but runner ups include boatloads of fresh seafood (attracting locals from surrounding communities) and outdoor recreation. Activities include whale watching, kayaking, bay cruises and bicycling.

The pretty 2,770 2-acre Morro Bay State Park has forested walking trails, a lagoon and the Morro Rock Natural Preserve. There’s also the Heron Rookery Natural Preserve, the Morro Bay Star Park Golf Course and the Museum of Natural History (free admission for ages 16 and younger). Free park admission.

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Fall Highlights in Central California

12. Hike and Climb in Yosemite National Park

Family posing on ledge in front of Yosemite vista
Skip the summer crowds with a fall visit to Yosemite National Park. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Yosemite National Park is perhaps the best known of all. And no wonder. Majestic granite domes, numerous waterfalls, meadows and the Merced River attract families, hikers and rock climbers. One of my family’s favorite hikes is Vernal Falls. And my son recently climbed Half Dome, a rock formation that’s popular with experienced hikers.

Visitors should know the importance of staying on trails. Accidents happen when hikers stray off trails to catch that perfect Instagram shot. This national treasure is less than 5 hours from Los Angeles by car.

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13. Photograph Fall Foliage in June Lake Loop, Mono County

Situated in the Eastern Sierra Nevada, this little mountain town is fun to visit any time of year.  But in the fall months, it’s among the best places to see fall foliage. That’s when aspen trees with their golden leaves flutter in the breeze.

Things to do include hiking and taking a scenic drive along the June Lake Loop. Before the first snowfall in this high Sierra ski town, go boating or fishing in the area’s four shimmering lakes.

14. Ride Horses at Rankin Ranch

Ride horses and stay on an authentic 31,000-acre working ranch in Caliente. Guests stay in private cabins and share meals in the dining room. It doesn’t take long to feel at home and find your favorite horse to ride.

More fun activities include hay wagon rides, feeding farm animals and milking goats.

Bay Area Wine Country, Northern California

Fall is harvest time in wine country. To avoid crowds and enjoy fall foliage, consider visiting Sonoma and Napa Valleys in late October and November.

15. Wine Tasting and Hiking in Healdsburg

Redwood grove in Northern California
Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. Photo credit: Mimi Slawoff

Situated about 45 miles northeast of San Francisco, Sonoma County has lovely wineries. One of my favorite towns is Healdsburg, a sustainable wine region with a rural lifestyle. The charming downtown has tasting rooms, mom-and-pop shops, restaurants, art galleries and boutique hotels. If you visit, I recommend the elegant Jordan Vineyard & Winery, which produces one of the top Cabernet Sauvignon brands in California.

Traveling with kids? Head to the downtown park and bookstore. Also, be sure to visit Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, a nearby forest with hiking trails.

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16. Tour the State Capitol in Sacramento

California state capitol building facade in Sacramento
Explore the capitol building and the surrounding gardens with your family for free. Photo credit: Visit Sacramento

Sacramento, situated about 90 minutes northeast of San Francisco, is California’s state capital. Head to Old Sacramento for its preserved buildings, horse-drawn carriages and more. Another gold mine of kid fun, the William Land Regional Park, offers outside play galore. Visit the state capitol for a free tour, movie and kids’ programming. Pack a kite and picnic lunch to spend an afternoon in one of Sacramento’s numerous parks.

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17. Savor the Fall in Lake Tahoe

Summer and winter are peak seasons in Lake Tahoe. Fall is downtime and a splendid time to visit to enjoy Lake Tahoe’s vivid changing colors. Hike, bike or zip line to breathe the crisp air while taking in views.

My family enjoys the serenity of Truckee, an authentic Old West town that’s a short drive from Tahoe’s North Shore. History buffs may be interested to know about the Donner Party. A group of American pioneers on their way to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento were snowbound in Truckee in 1846–1847. Only half survived, including 8-year-old Patty Reed. The small doll she carried with her is displayed at Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento.

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