FINDING FALL COLORS IN
By Sara Hall | Contributor
SPRING 2023 ISSUE
Photos courtesy of Sara Hall
As autumn arrives, West Coast residents often look longingly to the east at the sweeping scenes of hills covered in vibrant yellows, oranges and reds. But don’t book your flight to New England just yet. There are plenty of places to find fall foliage in Southern California — you just have to know where to look.
Fall in California has a lot to offer across the Golden State. While many head to the Sierra Nevada or Shasta Cascade mountains to see the most vibrant autumn colors, Orange County residents who aren’t up for a longer road trip can still find a number of local spots a short drive away.
As the days become shorter, certain trees will slow and then stop producing chlorophyll. This causes the green color to fade from their leaves, and the carotenoids and anthocyanin that create autumn-hued pigments are unmasked. Most of the trees in Southern California that go through this process — such as maple and oak — have large, broad leaves. However, the region is also home to some smaller-leaved trees that change color, like cottonwoods and aspens. Poison oak also changes color as the vine turns from green to red leaves. While it can look beautiful, it can still cause a rash if touched. Remember: Leaves of three, let it be.
The best leaf-peeping is usually late October through November, though it depends on the type of tree, area elevation and weather. It’s always a good idea to call the park, ranger station, garden or visitors center beforehand to ask about conditions. There are also some resources to help you track the changing leaves, the best fall foliage report is the California Fall Color website, which includes a map.
When you’re ready to hit the road, look past the palm trees and you’ll find forests of deciduous trees growing in the mountains surrounding SoCal. Or head inland to see the various shades of autumn in our own ranges, specifically to the San Gabriel, San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains.
From the riparian canyons in Angeles National Forest to magnificent maples lining small town streets and even an aspen grove near Big Bear Lake, here are the best places to find fall colors in Southern California.
CUYAMACA RANCHO STATE PARK
One of the best places to view the fall foliage in Southern California is Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, just east of San Diego. With 24,700 acres and more than 100 miles of trails, there’s plenty to explore and autumn is a great time to visit. The lovely meadows and creeks offer a respite from the surrounding dry landscape. In fall, the changing trees transform the park into a colorful scene.
State park interpreter Michele Hernandez recommends visiting the northern section of Cuyamaca for the best places to see fall color. The Marty Minshall and Stonewall Mine trails are good for those who would enjoy a short hike to see the black oaks and choke cherries as they change color and get ready for fall, she says.
Just below the top of Cuyamaca Peak, which is the second highest point in San Diego County at 6,512 feet, is another great place to enjoy fall color for those who wouldn’t mind a more challenging hike, Hernandez adds. The sweeping views from this hike also give park visitors the opportunity to see where there is color around the park, along with glimpses of the Pacific Ocean toward the west and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to the east.
Finally, some of the best color is right along Highway 79, again in the northern part of the park. Those who don’t hike can easily enjoy the color without getting out of their cars, Hernandez notes.
BIG BEAR LAKE
Big Bear Lake is a great local getaway in any season. Fall is often overlooked in this popular summer and winter destination, but it’s the perfect time to visit.
“Big Bear Lake is a magical place in fall. There’s no better place to see the fall colors in Southern California,” says Visit Big Bear Chief Marketing Officer Monique Rangel. “It’s a time when the valley’s natural beauty really shines but there’s also a ton to do in and around town highlighted by our Oktoberfest, which is one of the largest and longest running in California.”
Evergreen trees help highlight the warm colors of the cottonwoods, dogwoods, maples and oaks found on the nearby trails and in town. A few good options to explore: Castle Rock Trail, which has steep uphill climb in the first half-mile but rewards hikers with incredible views of the lake; Woodland Trail, a family-friendly loop that starts at the Big Bear Discovery Center; and Pineknot Trail, which is a moderately challenging hike with a shady canopy and access to Grand View Point.
Big Bear is also home to the southernmost grove of quaking aspens in California, which is one of only two groves in the state that grows outside of the Sierra Nevada mountains (the other is in the Modoc Plateau area in northern California). The trees’ silver dollar-sized leaves turn gold in fall, which makes the Aspen Grove Trail a popular path in late September and early October; a free day use permit is required and officials recommend reservations in autumn.
ANGELES NATIONAL FOREST
Simultaneously celebrate the first day of autumn and National Public Lands Day on Sept. 23 by searching for fall colors in Angeles National Forest. With more than 700,000 acres of scenic wilderness, the area is home to some woodlands where oak, maples and walnut trees grow — proving there is fall foliage in Los Angeles. You’ll also find the more common evergreen pines and firs.
Bear Canyon is a great trail for leaf-peeping in Southern California and showcases dramatic mountain views, a small waterfall and a hike-in campground. Start off at the Switzer Picnic Area (an Adventure Pass or America the Beautiful Pass is required for parking) and hike west along the Gabrielino National Recreation Trail, which features a lovely tree canopy and follows a creek. The path does start going up a ridge, so it’s not advised for those with a fear of heights.
At the junction you’ll want to veer off Gabrielino trail and head down Bear Canyon Trail to see Switzer Falls. Keep in mind the water flow may be a trickle by autumn, depending on rainfall and temperatures earlier in the year. For even better fall foliage and colorful leaves — and if you want to make it an overnight adventure — keep following Bear Canyon along the creek to a primitive trail camp.
Some other Angeles National Forest options that feature fall colors are: Icehouse Canyon, for hiking along a creek under a colorful tree canopy; Stoddard Peak, for a moderately challenging trail with stunning views near Mount Baldy; and the nearby Silverwood Lake, which offers a variety of recreational opportunities.
LOS ANGELES COUNTY ARBORETUM AND BOTANIC GARDEN
For a cultivated garden experience, there are several facilities that showcase fall colors in Southern California, including the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden.
The garden features 127 acres of plants and trees from around the globe. There are several colorful classics like red maple, black walnut and red oak, along with other spectacular color-changing trees like the crape myrtle, ginkgo, eastern redbud and Japanese maple. Viewing the colorful foliage is so popular, the arboretum has a map for visitors to enjoy a self-guided fall color walk.
Elsewhere in the region, there are several other garden options to choose from for fall colors. At Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge, a highlight are the ginkgo trees that turn bright yellow and gold. Visitors to Fullerton Arboretum can wander through 26 acres of plants and trees, including a deciduous woodland. In Pasadena, the Huntington Library has a spectacular weeping willow that gracefully turns yellow in autumn.
JULIAN AND OAK GLEN
For both apple-picking and fall foliage, the most popular mountain towns in Southern California are Julian and Oak Glen.
Julian, a historic gold mining town about an hour-and-a-half east of San Diego, provides visitors with the quintessential autumn experience: picking apples from an orchard, fresh-baked pie, a cozy and charming atmosphere, and vibrant oaks and vineyards. The 1.65-mile Canyon Oak Trail in William Heise County Park is an easy lollipop loop with a lot of autumnal charm.
Find more apple orchards in Oak Glen, along with the colorful leaves from black walnut and oak trees. Tucked away in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, this small town has everything needed for the perfect day trip. The Oak Glen Preserve has trails spread out over more than 900 acres and is home to the Southern California Montane Botanic Garden, the Children’s Outdoor Discovery Center, and Los Rios Rancho Apple Farm. Don’t miss the Oak Glen Apple Butter Festival in November!
Nestled in the San Jacinto Mountains, Idyllwild is a less crowded option if you’re seeking a small-town atmosphere for autumn leaf-peeping. Mount San Jacinto State Park is the best spot in Idyllwild to see all the spectacular fall colors that nature has to offer, along with some more challenging hikes. Meanwhile, Idyllwild Nature Center has family-friendly fall foliage options, as well educational programs that focus on mountain ecology, habitats, history, flora and fauna, and Cahuilla culture.
Get the best of both on Deer Springs Trail, which starts near the nature center and heads into the state park. Along the way, see colorful cottonwoods creating a golden yellow canopy. It’s a steady incline and after 10 miles and more than 5,000 feet in elevation gain, you’ll reach San Jacinto Peak.
PALOMAR MOUNTAIN STATE PARK
Also in San Diego County, just south of Temecula, Palomar Mountain State Park features 1,862 acres full of panoramic vistas, black oaks and bracken fern meadows, which turn a rich, golden brown in autumn and stand out against a forested background.
Officials say the park has a “Sierra Nevada-like atmosphere,” with about 11 miles of trails through oak forests, chaparral, grassy meadows and majestic woodlands. Doane Valley Nature Trail will take you along a seasonal creek underneath a dense forest, which provides vibrant pops of color in the fall.
WHITTIER NARROWS RECREATION AREA
To see fall foliage in a manicured park instead of the mountain wilderness, visit one of the largest parks in Los Angeles County: the 1,492-acre Whittier Narrows Recreation Area in South El Monte. The 2.2-mile Legg Lake Loop Trail is an easy path that nature lovers will enjoy.
Within the park, the natural area and Whittier Narrows Nature Center is a 400-acre sanctuary of riparian woodland featuring four lakes and many plants and animals. A 3-mile walking trail will take you by black walnut, toyon berry, cottonwood, California sycamores and Chinese elm trees showcasing a colorful autumn palette. The multi-use park space also has sports fields, bike tracks, boating areas and a community garden.