Tourists traditionally flock to California in summer, but fall in the Golden State is one of the best times of year to visit. My home state may not quite have the breathtaking fall foliage of New England, but California has fall fun all its own to offer. All the inland locations that are too hot to visit during the summer months finally cool down, while the coastal areas remain moderately warm. In addition, autumn is a great time to beat the crowds, especially at some increasingly popular destinations like many national parks in California.
Our family regularly takes shorter fall trips around our home state of California. It’s harder with the kids and their school schedules, but we will take our kids out of school for travel on occasion. Otherwise, we look for three day weekends like Labor Day, Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples Day, and Veteran’s Day that are usual holidays. Some school districts in many Western States may also have a fall break.
So if you are ready to visit California in September, October, or November (or just take a little weekend trip if you are a local), where should you go? Here are 10 top fall destinations in California for family travelers to get your travel planning started.
(Trips With Tykes uses affiliate links which means I may earn a small commission if you purchase through links in this post. See our full disclosure policy linked in the menu at the bottom of this site.)
Top Places to Visit in California in the Fall
1. Death Valley
Editor’s Note for 2023: Unfortunately, all of the national park is closed in 2023 as of the date of publication of this post due to Hurricane Hilary damage and flooding. The park is targeting October 15, 2023 to reopen the west side of the park through Lone Pine. Check the Death Valley National Park website for the most up-to-date alerts and conditions.
Well-known for its blazing summer heat, Death Valley finally gets cool enough in October and November to be more enjoyable for visitors in its lower elevations. Those months usually mark the opening of the ranger talks and walks and many more facilities through the park.
Make sure to plan well if your visit will coincide with the annual 49ers encampment in November (no, not the football team). During this celebration of pioneer history, history buffs flood the parks with special activities and events. It can make for an even more interesting trip, but you just need to plan for the crowds.
2. Grass Valley & Nevada City
There aren’t a lot of places to find fall colors in California, but one place to see them is in gold rush country in Nevada County. West Coasters longing for some of the beauty of East Coast autumn can find it in the county’s two main towns, Grass Valley and Nevada City. Located not far off Interstate 80 between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, it’s an easy weekend getaway for most Northern Californians.
Kids will especially love all the gold rush era attractions in the area. Empire Mine State Park and the Northstar Mine Museum are highlights. In addition, railroad-loving kiddos should not miss the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum or a chance to take a Railbus trip there. My son has ridden most of the trains of Northern California by now and this museum was a surprise hit for us on a recent visit!
3. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Editor’s Note for 2023: Lassen still has some closures as a result of damage caused by the 2021 Dixie Fire. Additionally, construction – with road closures – will begin September 25, 2023 due to a recent collapse at the Sulphur Works area. Check the Lassen Volcanic National Park website for the most up-to-date alerts and conditions.
Lassen Volcanic National Park near Redding may be one of the nation’s least visited national parks, but don’t let that dissuade you from a trip. It is not often visited in large part because its season is so short due to weather. In some years when there is record snowfall, the main road through the park may not fully open until late July (in all fairness, it is usually is open by June most years). And it will probably be snowed in again by mid to late October. It probably goes without saying that your window to see Lassen is short.
But its short season and more remote location means it is largely unspoiled. Minimal crowds and hikes through thermal features make it a great choice for families. It’s the most southern of the peaks in the Cascades Range which can be the starting point for an amazing volcano focused road trip.
4. Avenue of the Giants
Northern California is full of glorious redwood trees, but few can match the majesty of the trees found along the Avenue of the Giants. This stretch of road runs parallel to Highway 101 about an hour south of Eureka in Northern California in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Stop along the road for photos or plan a hike. There is an easy half-mile nature trail at Founder’s Grove that anyone in the family can do.
Definitely don’t miss the trees so big you can drive right through them – literally! The Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree is south of the Avenue of the Giants in Leggett. And the Shrine Drive-Thru Tree is in Myers Flat within the boundaries of the Avenue of the Giants. My kids had a blast experiencing both.
Quirky roadside attractions litter the landscape and make for additional fun family road trip stops in the area. Plan stops at both Confusion Hill in Leggett and One Log House in Garberville.
5. Yosemite National Park
Everyone and their brother visits Yosemite in summer. That is why you should be smart and wait for fall to arrive! Visitors in autumn can expect a bit of a respite from the extreme overcrowding the park has been experiencing in summer in recent years. Room opens up at some of the iconic places to stay like the Ahwahnee Hotel and Tenaya Lodge. Yosemite rewards during this time of year with a few fall colors too.
Make hiking a part of your fall vacation. Families with younger kids will enjoy easier hikes like Mirror Lake, Glacier Point, Tuolumne Meadows. The first part of the Mist Trail to the Vernal Falls footbridge is also very manageable for many younger kids who don’t mind a few hills. Just watch the weather later in the fall season as snow can cause road closures. And always carry chains!
6. Napa Valley
All of Northern California wine country is glorious in the fall months, but family travelers should head to the Napa Valley region – particularly in and around the towns of St. Helena and Calistoga. There is plenty of wine for parents to samples with lots of kid-friendly activities mixed in. The fall weather is usually exceedingly pleasant and crisp and the fall brings lower crowds than the busy summer months.
Family travelers should pay a stop to Sterling Vineyards, which features a gondola from the valley up to the hillside winery (that is finally almost repaired and reopening October 2023 after fire damage!). Castello di Amorosa, a modern-day replica of a Tuscan castle that is also a winery, is another family-friendly choice.
Want to skip the wine? Old Faithful Geyser, the Petrified Forest, and the Sharpsteen Museum are also popular choices for family travelers. And don’t forget about the jeep tours through Safari West, a wildlife reserve with zebras, giraffes, and more. It’s only 15-20 minutes down the road.
7. Santa Ynez Valley & Solvang
Speaking of wine, one of Southern California’s most famous wine regions is also ideal for families in the fall. The Danish town of Solvang is always a hit with families any time of year and is also home to one of California’s missions, Mission Santa Ines, for an educational stop. And in the fall, festivals usually abound, including Danish Days and a Scarecrow Fest to name a few.
The outdoor adventures in the Valley are ideal for active families and the weather is nice enough to really enjoy them in fall. Rent bikes and go on a long ride. Book some time at one of the area’s several dude ranches (Alisal Guest Ranch is the most well-known). Plan a few hikes. The area also isn’t far from Santa Barbara, so you can also squeeze in a little time on the coast or hit the beach on warmer days.
8. Pinnacles National Park
Haven’t heard of this national park? You are not alone. As one of the country’s newest national parks (designated in 2013), it is not on many travel radars. Since it can be subject to very hot summer weather, the fall shoulder seasons can be one of the best times to visit.
What to do when you get to Pinnacles? It’s all about the outdoors. Look out for the California condor and marvel at the park’s volcanic spires formed by movement from the San Andreas fault. Families will enjoy the moderate hikes and the chance to explore caves within the park’s boundaries.
Since the park is fairly new, don’t expect many services like you would find at larger national parks. Bring enough food and water as well as emergency supplies and expect to rough it a bit. Finally, be aware that the west and east entrances of the park do not interconnect. You will need to drive your car around the park to experience both sides (but the eastern side is where most of the action is, so do that side if you only have time for one).
9. San Francisco
Let me let you in on a local’s secret: the very best time to visit my hometown of San Francisco is in the fall. The legions of summer tourists are long gone, and the San Francisco weather is at its absolute best. September and early October are often the warmest months, with much less fog than the rest of the year to catch the sights of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and more.
Plus, there are so many things to do in San Francisco in the fall. A highlight is the city’s annual hosting of Fleet Week (usually on Indigenous Peoples Day/Columbus Day Weekend) when the Navy’s Blue Angels rocket under the Golden Gate Bridge in a stunning air show. Check out my 1 day itinerary for visiting San Francisco if you are coming for a shorter visit and be sure not to miss these recommendations for the best things to do in San Francisco with kids.
Last but certainly not least is a little town that many Californians probably don’t know about. Julian, an inland destination about an hour from San Diego, is excellent in the fall because of its many apple orchards, affording lots of family fun picking them. The apple picking season runs from mid-August through September so just don’t go too late.
The town also had its very own Gold Rush about two decades after the northern part of the state went mad for gold. Naturally, there are other activities to do on a fall getaway that celebrate that history. Take a gold mining and panning tour with the Eagle Mining Company, ride in a horse-drawn carriage, or simply plan a few hikes to enjoy the great outdoors.
Additional Tips for Travel in California in the Fall
1. Watch Wildfire News Closely
Sadly, wildfires in California have increasingly been an issue in recent years. They can last well into fall affecting travel to some destinations in this post. Always keep on top of the latest fire news if you travel in California in the fall. Thankfully in 2023, the record-breaking winter made for wetter summer conditions than ever, but some fires are still happening this year.
2. Watch the Snow Report
With September and October being some of the hottest months in a lot of California destinations, you might not think about snow when making travel plans. But it can hit some California mountain destinations unexpectedly as early as the beginning of October. It usually melts quickly and doesn’t start accumulating much until well into November for the season. If your travels coincide with a day that it is coming down, however, you need to prepare accordingly. See my tips for traveling to Lake Tahoe in winter for all the winter weather California driving rules and tips.
Share your favorite fall travel spots in California in the comments! What did I miss?
For more fall travel inspiration around the country, check out these guides from my fellow family travel bloggers:
California’s Best Destinations in Every Season
Don’t miss my travel guides for every season in California:
- Best Spring Break Destinations in California for Families
- Best Summer Destinations in California for Families
- Best Fall Destinations in California for Families – YOU ARE HERE
- Best Winter Destinations in California for Families