Tourists flock to California in summer, but fall in the Golden State is one of the best times of year to visit. We 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 of California’s increasingly popular destinations like many national parks.
So if you are ready to visit California in the fall (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.
(Editor’s Note for 2020: While most of the destinations featured in this post are outdoors and appropriate to visit this year, always check local restrictions and openings before you go. Also be sure to read my guide to what destinations in California are open right now.)
Top Places to Visit in California in the Fall
1. Lassen Volcanic National Park
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 2017, the main road through the park didn’t fully open until late July due to the year’s record snowfall (in all fairness, the road usually it opens in June). 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.
2. Grass Valley & Nevada City
There aren’t a lot of places for find true 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 Tahoe, it’s an easy weekend trip 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.
3. Death Valley
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. October marks the opening of the most well-known lodge in the park, Furnace Creek Inn, as well as ranger talks and walks.
Make sure to plan well if your visit will coincide with the annual 49ers encampment (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.
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.
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
(Editor’s Note September 2020: Yosemite has partially reopened and is under special capacity restrictions where reservations are required. Our family visited last month and I have all the details in my guide to a partially reopened 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 and Tuolumne Meadows. The first part of the Mist Trail to the Vernal Falls footbridge is also very manageable for 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!
All of Northern California wine country is glorious in the fall months, but family travelers should head to the the Napa County town of 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. 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
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 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 on a fall weekend getaway.
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.
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 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.
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 around Columbus Day Weekend) when the Navy’s Blue Angels rocket under the Golden Gate Bridge in a stunning air show.
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.
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