California Road Trips for Fall

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California’s diverse terrain makes it a great state for road trips all year round. While summer might be a more popular travel time, fall in California is not to be missed. Take a scenic drive to these California hot spots—including Napa Valley and Joshua Tree—in the fall for some breathtaking scenery and unique regional highlights.
The miles of beautiful beaches in California may be its claim to fame, but its real appeal is in its diverse terrain. From sprawling vineyards to expansive deserts to soaring redwood forests, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.
But before you pack your bags, it’s prudent for any would-be visitors from out of state to check out California’s wildfire conditions. Fire season peaks in the fall, and unfortunately has only gotten worse in recent years with drought conditions and drier foliage. Make sure your destination isn’t currently affected by fire, and if it’s at risk, take extra caution.
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Napa Valley

Napa is usually one of the first places people think of visiting when they think of California, and for good reason. This “wine capital of the world” helped put Californian and American wine on the map after winemakers in the area beat the classical wines of France in the 1976 Judgement of Paris. Since then, Napa has exploded into an epicenter of fine wine, fine cuisine, and fine countryside.
While summer sees the most tourists, fall is a great time to visit for fewer crowds and cooler temperatures—and the leaves on the vines and surrounding trees are beginning to turn the lovely golden colors of autumn.

What to do in Napa Valley

Grape vines with fall-colored leaves grow at a vineyard bordered by mountains in Napa Valley.
Napa Valley
  • Napa Valley Wine Train ($$)—This scenic train ride will take you through the beautiful countryside while eating and drinking to your heart’s delight.
Pro Tip If you time it right, you may get to see vines still heavy with purple grapes. Harvest is typically at the end of summer, but wineries that produce sweeter dessert wines have a later harvest window, which means the vines are still full of purple, picturesque fruit.

Santa Ynez Valley

If Napa is a bit too much of a “tourist trap” for your tastes, consider some of the underappreciated, but still excellent AVAs, that California has to offer. Among these is the Santa Ynez Valley AVA in Santa Barbara County, a beautiful and bustling wine region.

What to do in Santa Ynez Valley

Fog rolls over a vineyard at the end of the day in Santa Ynez Valley.
Santa Ynez Valley
  • Foxen Canyon Wine Trail —While not as big as its neighbor to the north, the Santa Ynez Valley is home to over 300 different wineries and tasting rooms in Santa Barbara County. Follow this 30-mile trail to visit over 14 of the top wineries in the valley.
  • Solvang—The small Dutch town of Solvang is famed for its authentic Dutch architecture, food, and culture thanks to its massive Dutch diaspora. The city features windmills, bakeries, and a replica of the famous Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen.
  • Ostrich Land—On route to Solvang, don’t be surprised if you look out your window and spot an ostrich—there is a massive ostrich and emu farm known as Ostrich Land on the 246, just south of Solvang. Stop off and feed the big birds, and peruse the gift shop for ostrich/emu-related kitsch.

Joshua Tree National Park

Visiting Joshua Tree National Park in the summertime is not ideal because of its location near some of the biggest, driest, and hottest deserts in the country (and in the case of Death Valley to the north, the world). Temperatures in the area don’t get quite as high as the nearby deserts, but summers can still be scorching. Falls are usually quite mild, with clear skies and almost no light pollution.
So if you’ve been itching for some desert scenery—and the chance to see the rare and unusual Yucca palm tree—Fall is a great time to check out Joshua Tree National Park.

What to do in Joshua Tree National Park

The sun sets over cacti and desert plants in Joshua tree with lines of clouds overhead.
Joshua Tree
  • Drive through the park—Yucca palms, or Joshua trees, are indigenous to the American Southwest, with large pockets of the trees located in California, as well as Nevada and Arizona. Take the road through the park to see the unique landscape.
  • Go stargazing—Take advantage of the clear skies and limited light pollution to see some of the most vivid stars in Southern California.
Pro Tip Joshua Tree National Park is a short drive from Palm Springs. Consider taking a day trip to Joshua Tree and staying in Palm Springs for a resort experience in the desert.

Mammoth Lakes

If you’re looking for the traditional, color-changing foliage that you’d normally see in the Midwest or New England, there aren’t quite as many options on the west coast—California’s trees are primarily evergreen. But one of the few places that offers some glorious fall colorings is Mammoth Lakes—a small town southwest of Yosemite National Park.

What to do in Mammoth Lakes

A wooden bridge in the Mammoth Lakes leads into a fall forest.
Mammoth Lakes region
  • Enjoy the outdoor activities—Mammoth Lakes is not only located near a number of beautiful lakes (hence the name), but it’s a lovely small town in a major skiing area. While the ski season doesn’t start till a bit later, many of the ski runs turn into great Fall hikes. There’s plenty of comfortable lodging available, so even if you’re not there for skiing, you can still enjoy the area’s idyllic beauty in peace—and for less money than the peak snow season.
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Yosemite National Park

Northeast of Mammoth Lakes is California’s iconic Yosemite National Park. While the park is an idyllic natural paradise year-round, there are fewer tourists in the fall, especially in the later months. Many of the attractions are still open, the weather is much cooler than it is in the summer, and the diversity of trees means that there is a lot of color-changing foliage to see.
The only downside to going in the fall (or really, the summer) is that most of the park’s waterfalls are dried up since they’re fed almost entirely by snowpack runoff from the winter that melts in the spring.

What to do in Yosemite National Park

Fall trees stand below snow-speckled mountains against a blue sky in Yosemite.
Mirror lake, Yosemite
  • Explore the park—There are enough natural wonders—from soaring trees to sprawling meadows and majestic mountains—to keep you occupied for days. Marvel at the great sequoias or go bird-watching to see some of the over 200 species of birds that fly through the park.

Humboldt Redwoods National Park

The magnificent, towering coastal redwood might just be the symbol of California. And even though they don’t change color in the fall, they’re always a spectacular sight—and in the fall, there are fewer tourists to pop into your pictures.

What to do in Humboldt Redwoods National Park

Morning light cuts through redwood trees in Humboldt National park.
Humboldt Redwoods National Park
  • Drive Shrine Drive-Through Tree—Drive through this tunnel carved through the trunk of a particularly enormous redwood—big enough to fit a car through! Just bear in mind that the tree is on private land, and the owner charges $8 for visitors to drive through it.

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California’s terrain is among the most diverse in the country—and it can change in an instant from sloping mountains to flat valley farmland—and isolated roads may stump drivers who are unfamiliar with the region.
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