California is better known for its palm trees (all but one of which arenÕt even native to the state) than its change of seasons. However, our golden state has the longest, most varied and some would say the most spectacular fall color season to be seen anywhere in the nation. You just have to know where to look.
Autumn debuts in the High Sierra even before the autumnal equinox (Sept. 23) when the sun crosses the celestial equator. Thereafter, the colorful show descends by elevation at from 500 to 1,000 feet per week through the end of November. Three months of fall color Ñ thatÕs the longest you can see seasonal change of any state in the nation. In New England, the color descends by latitude, from north to south and peaks often on the weekend closest to Columbus Day. So, if you arenÕt there exactly at peak, you missed it. Not so in California.
CaliforniaÕs three-month autumn is unlike New EnglandÕs vast display of brilliant red, orange and yellow trees mixed with green forests that comes and goes quickly. There, the color descends from Canada by latitude. Nor is it like the huge swaths of flickering yellow aspen seen for two weeks in the Rocky Mountains. Our color happens successively in colorful pockets set against grand landscapes such as: the Eastern Sierra, Lassen Peak, Mount Shasta, the California redwoods, Yosemite Valley and CaliforniaÕs vineyards.
Because of New EnglandÕs variable weather and uniform displays by latitude, fall color there can appear and be gone quickly, so destinations there encourage leaf peepers to visit not just for the fall color viewing, but also to explore New EnglandÕs villages, country stores, shops and restaurants. California has more predictable weather, but the advice is still sound, here. Should you plan a fall color trip, consider what else youÕll do should the color not be peaking.
Stands of aspen in the Inyo National Forest have begun blushing above 9,000 feet in elevation. Their fluttering leaves first turn lime-green, then evolve to a yellow, orange and red. At Lake Sabrina this vibrating pallet of color reflects in the lakeÕs opalescent, turquoise to cobalt, waters at the base of gray saw-tooth peaks. Sacramento Bee reporter Rick Kushman described that scene last year as ÒVivid, almost radiant, a thousand-foot, Day-Glo waterfall of orange, yellow, gold and bright green.Ó
Knowing both where and when to see such color requires knowledge and guidance. Light and temperature trigger when the color change begins, but how long the color lasts or how intense it is depends on the weather. Rain on leaves can freeze, spotting them and reducing their beauty. Cloud cover keeps the sun from intensifying the leavesÕ radiance. And wind knocks leaves from the trees, reducing overall impact. The ideal for good color are windless, cold clear nights and warm, sunny days.
Several blogs by photographers, artists and Òleaf peepersÓ keep track of where the color is peaking. Links to these sites can be found at californiafallcolor.com, a blog that I maintain. It consolidates reports from Òcolor spottersÓ and, looking back at last yearÕs blogs, estimates of when the color might be best be seen can be made, for travel planning purposes.
While the Eastern Sierra is CaliforniaÕs most famous location to view fall color, its high elevations (7,000 to 10,000 feet) mean that the show peaks by mid-October. An easy day trip from El Dorado County is Monitor Pass (Highway 89) atop which stands of wind-gnarled yellow aspen are best seen during the first weeks of October. Once the Eastern Sierra has peaked, Lake Tahoe and the northern Sierra begin to show.
Iridescent stands of aspen are seen in the Hope Valley (Highway 88) and along Highway 89 from South Lake Tahoe to Emerald Bay, then again north of Truckee to Sierraville. Plumas County in the Northern Sierra is known for its colorful forests. Look for brightly yellow bigleaf maple and orange-red Indian rhubarb along stream beds. Pockets of aspen gild Highway 89 as it passes through Lassen Volcanic National Park in mid- to late October. Even Southern California is not bereft of the change of season, though youÕll tread San Gabriel Mountain and Santa Monica Mountain National Recreation Area drainages to find groves of golden cottonwood, with stands of orange black oak near Idyllwild, Crestline and Palomar Mountain.
El Dorado CountyÕs backroads are also decorated with black oak, yellow sumac, golden bigleaf maple and rose-colored dogwood. Similar species are found in Yosemite Valley, though the national parkÕs most heralded tree is an exotic eastern sugar maple near the Yosemite Chapel that glows deeply red for a select few days in early October, providing a picture-perfect scene with Half Dome in the distance, rising above its ruby radiance.
From late October to early November, the show moves to CaliforniaÕs vineyards and orchards. Pear and walnut trees in Lake County and the Sacramento River Valley glow yellow to orange, while vines in the Napa Valley, Sonoma County and our own Gold Country take on fiery orange and red hues. ThatÕs when to drive U.S. 101 through Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt counties. YouÕll see spots of brilliant red poison oak, yellow alder and Oregon ash speckling the redwood forests of the North Coast.
This autumnal display continues through November, finally descending to sea level, where non-native Chinese pistache, liquidambar, redbud, red oak, Japanese maple, ornamental pear, persimmon, crepe myrtle, maidenhair and birch add surreal color to urban landscapes. Downtown Sacramento and San FranciscoÕs Golden Gate Park are favorite places to see these urban forests, though if youÕve read this far, you know fall color can be seen just about anywhere in California. You just have to know where to look.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.