California is known for many things, but fall fun isn’t exactly one of them. Though I grew up in the Bay Area, I spent much of my adult life outside of California. While living on the East Coast and Mid-Atlantic, I fell head over heels for fall. I love the changing seasons and the bursts of color. The crispness in the air, and unpacking a favorite sweater. And yes, even the smell of pumpkin spice.
When we left Virginia, I knew this time of year would be among the top things I missed the most. But California had a few surprises in store. Though we sweated through our flannels on our first California pumpkin patch trip, we’ve since fallen for new traditions like corn mazes with ocean views. An October sea breeze makes the air pretty darn crisp.
As it turns out, this incredible state is awesome any time of year. This post shares some favorite ways to enjoy California in the fall.
Things are always changing! Make sure to double-check schedule changes and closures before your trip.
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What kinds of things are there to do in a California fall?
Believe it or not, leaves change colors in California too! Though it may not happen everywhere, you can head to the mountains and experience dramatic fall foliage.
In an agricultural powerhouse like California, you’ll also find an endless listing of harvest festivals up and down the state. And while I love traditional pumpkin celebrations, I’m also happy to add avocado and wine festivals to the list!
Another cool thing to witness in California in the fall? Spectacular animal migrations! From humpback whales to monarch butterflies, fall brings fascinating natural wonders to the Golden State.
And speaking of natural wonders, fall is a shoulder season at many of California’s spectacular places to visit. Explore Yosemite when it’s full of climbers instead of tourists and Lake Tahoe with less traffic.
From the traditional to the purely Californian, get ready for a wonderful West Coast fall.
What is California weather like in the fall?
As with any time of year, what you can expect in the Sierras is going to differ from what you can expect on the Central Coast or in Southern California. Always check out the weather forecast before you go, and heed travel warnings.
Though fall is still my favorite time to travel, in much of California it also means high fire risk. And as drought conditions persist, excitement about rain can quickly turn into fears of flash flooding. Get familiar with the type of environment you’re heading to, and be prepared to cancel your trip if conditions change. In the past few years, we’ve been stranded in Tahoe due to snow storms and had to cancel trips due to fires in Yosemite and flash flood warnings around the Eastern Sierras. We’ve learned the hard way that travel insurance that covers weather conditions is well worth it when traveling in California in the fall!
Once you’re prepared, though, fall is a great time to explore California. The air is less foggy in coastal towns, making September one of the best times to visit the beach. And if all is clear in the mountains, you have a chance to take in some spectular fall colors with fewer crowds and a little less heat.
Best California Fall Destination for Leaf Peeping: June Lake
For crisp mountain air, scenic drives, stunning lakes, and some of the best fall foliage in the state look no further than June Lake.
June Lake is the central village of the June Lake Loop, a 16-mile drive (or bike ride, e-bikes count!) that leads through rugged mountains, four alpine lakes, and yes, plenty of stunning fall colors. This town is made for outdoor fall fun. When you’re not hiking, biking, or squeezing in one last fishing trip before the season ends, soak in the small-town vibes.
Not sure when to visit? Check out the amazing Mono County foliage tracker which will give you a daily update on how many leaves in the area have turned. It also provides the inside scoop on the area’s best fall hikes, drives, and viewing points.
June Lake has become such a popular fall destination that they’ve created a festival around it. Leaves in the Loop offers photography workshops, downtown tours, restaurant tastings, and more.
The drive to June Lake is a journey in and of itself. From the south, you’ll wind up 395 through the adventure-filled towns of Bishop and Mammoth Lakes. From the north, you’ll cross Tioga Pass, the highest pass in the Sierra Nevada. If you’re arriving from the north, make sure to go before late October to make it back over the pass before it closes for the winter! If you time it right, you can add the golden aspen leaves near Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows to your list of fall sights. More on Yosemite next.
Best California Fall Shoulder Season Destinations: Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, and San Diego
One of the best things about California in the fall is that you get to experience some of the state’s favorite places without spending half your day in traffic or “hiking” on a trail that feels more like a city street. Will they be empty? Probably not. But it’s much easier to find workarounds and stolen moments of quiet in the fall shoulder season.
In fall, the waterfalls will have slowed to a trickle and the vast majority of trees stay green. But that’s not why you’re here. Yosemite in the fall means the feeling of crisp air during a bike ride around the Valley while fewer crowds make it much easier to visit popular spots around the park. October is the sweet spot when visitor numbers are lower but most of the summer services are still open.
Fall in Yosemite is the best time to tackle that hike you’ve been meaning to try. The weather is more stable overall. Less of a chance of summer storms and stifling heat means less to carry with you on your adventure. Is hiking to the top of Half Dome on your bucket list? Lottery entries in fall are about half those in the peak-summer months.
If you want to drive to viewpoints with the family, you’ll also be much more likely to snag a parking spot and skip traffic jams. Just make sure to time your trip before Glacier Point Road and Tioga Pass close for the winter.
One of the cool things about visiting Yosemite in the fall is that it’s peak climbing season. Check out the face of El Capitan around sunset, and you’re likely to see it twinkling with tiny lights of climbers bivouacking on their way up. If you’re feeling inspired, book a beginning lesson with the Yosemite Mountaineering School.
Just be sure to get travel insurance or refundable bookings for your trip. October fires are not unusual, and we were once surprised by an early November snowstorm.
I love Lake Tahoe. I’ve never driven by without being struck by how truly magnificent this place is, and we have so many great memories here. But as the crowds visiting from the Bay Area continue to grow, so do the snarls of traffic and sky-high prices. From many popular points around the lake, I feel like I’m a part of an ant trail seeking an alpine paradise but bringing the city along with me.
But fall on the lake offers different possibilities. The towns and the winds are calmer and the lake is warmer in September than it is in mid-summer. You might finally get a dreamy spot on the beach at Sand Harbor one day and the next you can search for fall color in Hope Valley and other surrounding areas.
Fall in Lake Tahoe also offers unique seasonal activities like watching kokanee salmon going upstream to spawn. The Taylor Creek Visitor Center is the starting point for an easy walk along the Rainbow Trail to view the salmon moving from the lake to the creek. The center’s Stream Profile Chamber even has floor-to-ceiling glass windows that allow visitors to see under the surface of Taylor Creek. The annual Fall Fish Fest celebrates this phenomenon and usually takes place the first weekend of October.
San Diego may not be top of mind in the fall, which is why it’s a great time to go. Not only does the weather stay typically sunny and warm through October, but the city also offers the month-long Kids Free San Diego promotion.
Every October, San Diego’s many fantastic family attractions offer more than 100 discounts on kids’ admission, meals, and more. Some of the top deals include free kids’ admission to LEGOLAND California and the San Diego Zoo, which are extra festive in October thanks to the parks’ Halloween celebrations. If you can, time your visit for the end of the month and stay to experience San Diego’s famous Dia de Muertos procession in Old Town.
And when you’re not taking advantage of promotional discounts, head to everyone’s favorite free San Diego attraction: the beach. Check out our 15 favorite family beaches in San Diego here.
Best California Fall Harvest Destinations: Apple Hill, Sonoma, and Carpinteria
For many of us, fall is synonymous with harvest festivals. And I love ‘em. While folks are celebrating corn and pumpkin harvests all around the country, fall in the largest agricultural state in the US offers that and more.
Just outside of Placerville, Apple Hill has over 50 family farms with bakeshops, wineries, flower gardens, an Inn, and more. People from all over northern California flock here in the fall to get into the harvest action. There’s so much to do here in fall, that it can be a bit overwhelming to pick just one or two places to stop!
Our favorite so far has been Rainbow Orchards, which boasts the region’s best hot apple cider donuts. The promise of apple cider donuts immediately transported me back to fall in Virginia. I even met a Virginia native in line!
Other popular stops are the park at Larsen Apple Barn, hay rides at Sloan Winters Mountain Orchard & Garden, and the fishing pond and pony rides at High Hill Ranch. But there are many more great stops for the whole family throughout the area.
The key to fall fun at Apple Hill? Go during the week if you can. We arrived early on a Saturday, and by the time we left lines were over an hour long at the bakery!
Some of California’s biggest harvest celebrations can be found in the state’s wine regions. Sonoma is more relaxed and family-friendly than its glitzy neighbor to the east, but its harvest season is no less memorable.
Every year since 1897, the Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival takes over Sonoma Plaza to bring people together in celebration of the annual grape harvest. All ages are welcome to join a team for the festival grape stomp, a time-honored tradition that goes back to the early days of winemaking. Stick around to enjoy an afternoon of BBQ, music, and the Kids Zone with face painting, storytime, and games.
It’s not hard to find other family-friendly places to celebrate the Sonoma Wine Harvest. Bartholomew Park has vineyards, gardens, and forest trails that are perfect for an easy family hike. The Francis Ford Coppola Winery is known for its huge family-friendly pool which is open through October. One of our personal favorites is Larson Family Winery which welcomes kids and dogs alike. Our boys love visiting the resident labs, saying hello to the farm animals, and running around in the fields while we kick back with a tasting.
Of course, there is more to a Sonoma visit than just wine. Be sure to take a spin on Train Town’s quarter-scale railroad before heading home!
If California is known for one fruit, it’s the avocado. And ever since I saw a friend at our community garden sporting an Avofest t-shirt, it’s been on my list.
Most of California’s avocados are grown in San Diego and Ventura counties with additional important farms throughout the central coast. This makes Carpinteria, a little beach town south of Santa Barbara, a perfect host for the annual California Avocado Festival. Who can pass up a guacamole competition? I’m already drooling.
Besides the food, it’s also California’s largest free music festival. But there’s no hiding the real stars here.
Carpinteria is a small town with limited lodging that sells out fast. If you can’t book a stay downtown, beautiful Santa Barbara is only a 15-minute drive north.
Best California Fall Destination for Pumpkin Picking: Half Moon Bay
There is no shortage of fun places to pick out a pumpkin throughout California. Admittedly, we melted during our first pumpkin-picking outing at a farm in Morgan Hill because we refused to wear summer attire. Since then, we’ve sought out destinations where we can be comfortable in flannel, even under the California sun.
Our favorite pumpkin-picking destination is Half Moon Bay, the self-proclaimed “World Pumpkin Capital.” In this seaside town, the ocean breeze provides the chill in the air that we’d been missing. And offers some gorgeous views from the pumpkin patch.
Half Moon Bay is surrounded by pumpkin patches. They range from tidy rows of leafy pumpkins to family fun zones with pony and train rides. This roundup of six popular patches is a good place to start. Though the biggest cluster of patches is near downtown Half Moon Bay, you can find patches lining Highway 1 all the way to Santa Cruz.
After picking your pumpkin, visit the area’s fantastic farm stands. Davenport’s Swanton Berry Farms and Pescadero’s Pie Ranch are two of our favorite places to kick off holiday feasting.
If you don’t mind crowds, time your visit to coincide with Half Moon Bay’s famous Art & Pumpkin Festival. This annual event kicks off each year with a pumpkin weigh-off. The first prize winner gets $9 per pound of their prized pumpkin. The last winning pumpkin was over 2,000 pounds, so it’s quite the purse!
The festival takes place the weekend after the weigh-off with the Great Pumpkin Parade, pie-eating contests, and fun treats like pumpkin ice cream, cinnamon and pumpkin churros, seasonal craft beer, and much more!
Best California Fall Destinations for Spotting Natural Wonders: Pacific Grove, Dana Point, and Death Valley
California has some jaw-dropping natural wonders any time of year, but fall is a chance to see some truly amazing sights around the golden state.
Pacific Grove’s Butterfly Sanctuary
Every year, California plays host to Monarch butterflies that migrate to coastal towns from the Rocky Mountains. These amazing insects cluster into select coastal groves for a few months each year, usually November – February, and then they’re off again.
Why the Monarchs choose each location is something of a mystery, and we’ve seen recent years when they’ve seemed to abandon their chosen locations. However, last year they rebounded, with thousands of butterflies returning to some of California’s favorite butterfly sanctuaries.
One of our favorite spots to witness the butterfly migration is Pacific Grove. A small, beautiful coastal town that has adopted the name, Butterfly Town USA. When fall comes around, the town hosts the annual Butterfly Parade and Bazaar when the local school children welcome the Monarchs back to town.
Visit the Monarch sanctuary trail from November through February. Volunteers from the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History are usually onsite with telescopes and information on this fascinating phenomenon. Make a weekend of it, and enjoy the beautiful fall weather on the Monterey peninsula.
Some of our other favorite California butterfly groves are at Natural Bridges State Beach and Pismo Beach. Both Santa Cruz and Pismo make wonderful fall getaways. Plus, the Pismo website has some great Monarch resources for kids to check out before you go.
Dana Point’s Whale Migration
There are many spots along the California coast to view migrating whales. Coastal towns in central and southern California are considered some of the best spots for whale watching in the world.
Lovely Laguna Beach is the only marine reserve in Southern California, making it a prime feeding ground for marine mammals. Its neighbors to the north and south, Newport Beach and Dana Point, both have large harbors and are well known for their whale-watching tours. Dana Point was the first site in the Americas to be named a Whale Heritage Site.
You can book whale-watching tours in Dana Point in all kinds of boats, every day, all year long!
In September and October, Dana Point whale watchers look for blue whales. Reaching lengths over 100 feet, they are the largest known animal on earth!
Gray whales travel about 12,000 miles round trip in one of the longest migrations of any mammal. They depart from the Arctic for Baja around September and are seen near Dana Point each year beginning in mid to late November.
Humpback whales can be spotted near Dana Point year-round. They are among the most active whales off the California coast and are exciting to spot with acrobatic behaviors like breaching and pectoral slapping.
Death Valley’s Night Sky
Every 33 years, people look for the Leonid Meteor Storm to dazzle them with the appearance of meteors raining down from the constellation Leo. Though the next storm isn’t expected for another 10 years, every year stargazers can witness a Leonid meteor shower in mid-November.
The Leonids can be visible anywhere on Earth, but they are usually easiest to see in the Northern Hemisphere in a location with really dark skies. And one of the best places to meet those criteria is right here in California.
At night, Death Valley National Park is both dry and dark, making it a favorite place for stargazers. It is one of the National Parks designated as an international dark-sky park, making meteor-watching even more enjoyable.
If you’re up for an adventure, one of the best places to glimpse the Leonids is at the park’s highest point, Telescope Peak. From this spot, visitors can view 100 miles in either direction. Adventurers can camp at one of Mahogany Flat’s 10 camping spaces, and make the 14-mile round trip trek to the peak to enjoy the show.
If you prefer driving to your viewing location, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is one of the most popular spots in the park for stargazers who aren’t up for a late-night hike in the desert.
Best California Fall Places to Visit for Small Town Charm: Julian, Cambria, Nevada City
Though I enjoy visiting California’s cities, there is something extra alluring about visiting small towns in the fall. If you’re looking for a weekend escape full of small-town charm, check out the following:
About an hour east of San Diego, the little town of Julian is nestled into the Cuyamaca Mountains. Known as the place San Diegans escape to when they need some snow dusting and seasonal character, Julian in fall is all about apples.
This historic Southern California gold rush town is surrounded by apple orchards and filled with pie shops. It’s become so known for fall apples, that there’s even an Apple Days weekend in late September during which the Apple King and Queen are crowned.
Apple picking is a popular activity here in early fall, and you can’t leave town without at least one slice of pie. Julian Pie Company and Mom’s Pie House are two Main Street favorites, but you can try delicious slices all over town. Save some room, and do a taste test!
Cambria is one of our favorite bases for exploring the Central Coast. And when it comes to seasons and holidays, it’s certainly a place you can go for small-town charm.
Visit in fall for the annual Scarecrow Festival, which features over 400 creative scarecrows positioned every which way downtown and along Moonstone Beach. See if you can time your visit with the town’s annual Harvest Festival with food, live music, vendors, root beer floats, pumpkins, and more.
Cambria is not without its pie favorites as well. A stop at Linn’s for a slice of olallieberry pie is a must-do any time of year.
On your way back to 101, make a stop at Jack Creek Farms. In the fall they host a u-pick pumpkin patch with just-right-sized pumpkins for the kiddos to load into a wagon. All u-pick pumpkins are priced at $4 or less, so you don’t have to worry about price-per-pound sticker shock at the register. There are also fun activities for the whole family to enjoy before settling in for the drive back home.
Cambria is one of our favorite Central Coast towns. Check out our list of favorites to see what’s nearby.
At the northern end of California Gold Country, Nevada City exudes historic small-town charm. It’s so idyllic that it’s the set of a holiday Hallmark Movie! To enjoy fall in Nevada City, all you need to do is walk out the door and stroll through town to take in the gorgeous fall vibes.
For guidance on the best places to spot fall color around town, embark on a self-guided tour of the town where Victorian homes full of character are complemented by vibrant color at every turn. After your walk, reward yourself with a stop at Treats for Pumpkin Fest which features pumpkin desserts throughout October.
For an extra dose of spooky fun, join local storyteller and actor, Mark Lyon, who has offered a Haunted Nevada City tour for the past 18 years. Join him to explore the local ghost stories on a private group walk along Broad Street.
To complete your Nevada City fall experience, book your stay at the Inn Town Campground which decorates for Halloween and offers campers a haunted pathway to explore during October.
Best California Fall Places to Visit for Spooky Haunts: Big Sur, Vallecito, and San Jose
For many, fall is synonymous with spooky locations. While theme parks and haunted houses can be found almost anywhere, the following are some of California’s uniquely spooky haunted spots in unexpected places.
Big Sur’s Point Sur Lighthouse
Big Sur’s Point Sur Lighthouse sits 361 feet above the ocean on a large volcanic rock that juts into Monterey Bay. It is gorgeous to visit any time of year. But during fall, staff and volunteers turn things up a notch by leaning into its haunted history.
First lit in 1889, the lighthouse had been continuously occupied by keepers and their families until 1974 when it was automated. Legend has it, that some of them never wanted to leave. Moonlight tours are offered throughout the year, and during October you can sign up for Ghost Hunts and Special Halloween Tours.
Vallecito’s Moaning Cavern
Named for the wailing sound made by air passing through the original cave opening, this Calaveras County cavern is also home to some of the country’s most ancient found remains. Bones of up to 12,000 years old have been discovered here and stories of paranormal activities are shared.
The Spiral tour is fun and family-friendly, but when the topic of ghosts and supernatural occurrences came up, our guide was too spooked to talk about it onsite. She offered to share what she knew with guests on the tour, but only once we were above ground again.
San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House
The Winchester Mystery House is probably San Jose’s most well-known attraction. The historic landmark was once the personal residence of Sarah Winchester, the widow who inherited the Winchester Arms fortune.
After her husband and daughter died tragically, she moved west to San Jose. She purchased an eight-bedroom farmhouse and began what became a lifetime of home renovations. When she passed in 1922, the house had swelled to 160 rooms with strange features like stairs leading to nowhere. She is said to have been propelled to “keep building” by the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles.
I grew up going here because my dad loved the property. It stood out much more in San Jose’s quieter days! It’s now pricey to visit and feels a bit out of place next to the luxury mall across the street. But the mystery at its core remains unchanged. Visitors can go on scary Halloween tours throughout October, but I still prefer the classic tour focused on Sarah’s story.