When people think of California, a lot of images pop into mind—beaches, palm trees, redwood forests, deserts—but not a lot of people think “fall foliage.” And that, says John Poimiroo, is a shame. Since 2009, he’s been operating the site California Fall Color in an effort to change that perception.
North Lake Road
Perhaps because California is home to so many transplants, residents often assume that without covered bridges, red barns and rolling hills covered with maple forests there must not be a foliage season either. California’s foliage can be spectacular—it’s just a different kind of beast. What California lacks in variety it makes up for in longevity. Poimiroo says, “Because of our wide range of elevations, our foliage season actually lasts several weeks. In places like New England, you’re lucky if you can time your trip with the one or two good weeks of peak color.”
I asked John for some of his favorite places to see fall color in the Golden State, and he answered without any hesitation.
Bishop Creek Canyon
Usually one of the first places to hit peak foliage, this region alone has five top foliage trails. Poimiroo suggests early fall hiking in Sabrina Basin or near South Lake, or just taking a drive down the dirt road at North Lake. Hikes range from easy walks to challenging treks. Backpack into the nearby John Muir Wilderness and enjoy a cool weekend next to your own private alpine lake.
Road to Bishop Pass
Sabrina Basin aspen trees.
South of Lee Vining and the otherworldly Mono Lake, the June Lake Loop is a 16-mile drive in Mono County that passes four aspen-ringed lakes with plenty of opportunities for hiking, mountain biking and fishing. A scramble to central Reversed Peak provides a challenging panoramic view. Soak up the scenery on the easy trail around June Lake itself or hike the four-mile route along nearby Parker Lake.
McGee Creek Canyon
San Bernardino Mountains
Northern California doesn’t get to have all the fall fun. Southern California’s San Bernardino range has groves of black oak mixed in with the aspen, so the color can be a bit more varied. Lake Gregory in the western range is a good place to leaf-peep, as are Big Bear Lake and a small but popular aspen grove a short hike along the Fish Creek Trail in the San Gorgonio Wilderness.
There are other great places to catch fall color just outside of Los Angeles and San Diego, too. Late in the fall (and even sometimes into early winter), the sycamores and oaks in the Angeles National Forest’s Santa Anita Canyon can put on a golden display. A stellar nine-mile loop trail crosses creeks and climbs past waterfalls and century-old cabins just about half an hour from downtown L.A., while the black oaks along the Big Laguna Trail in eastern San Diego County provide brilliant reds and oranges with views overlooking the Anza-Borrego desert. Poimiroo also recommends keeping your eye on trees in cities and towns, which are often non-native, as well as visiting arboreta across the state.
Foliage in Icehouse Canyon