This article was updated on August 26, 2019 to reflect current information and recommendations.
Around Northern California, the most dramatic autumn color can be found in the high Sierras, but if you’re hoping for a glimpse of deep maple reds and golden aspen yellows, you don’t have to make the five and six-hour drives to Plumas County or Inyo National Forest every weekend. There are hikes, parks, botanic gardens and even wineries within an hour of the city where you can experience the changing seasons!
Typically, fall foliage should peak between late October and early November. In the Bay Area’s botanic gardens, you can extend that through early December thanks to plants from around the world. Visit our top picks on this list to make the most of this colorful season before winter settles into the Bay.
Located in the Peninsula, Filoli is a historic house with six classical gardens, two terraces and an orchard all surrounded by more than 650 acres. Hosting over 100,000 guests every year, there’s something to see during every season. In early December, you can see gorgeous color from Japanese maples, cherries, Virginia creepers, hawthorns, fruit trees, viburnums, ginkgos and other rare plants spread out throughout the gardens.
The home itself was built between 1915 and 1917 but didn’t open to the public until 1975. Today, you can peruse the grounds, tour the home and take classes in fine art, flora and nature. If you’re not a member, tickets range from $11 to $22 and children four years and younger can get in for free. Stop by this fall to get a taste of local history and see the changing leaves!
Photo courtesy of University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley
The 34-acre UC Botanical Garden in Berkeley is one of the most diverse in the world with over 10,000 types of plants including rare and endangered species, drought-resistant plants and colorful fall foliage. Peaking in late November and early December, the most impressive autumn reds, oranges and golds come from the Asian Area, but the whole garden is worth exploring throughout the year.
Photo courtesy of San Francisco Botanical Garden and Saxon Holt
Due to San Francisco’s unique climate—including mild temperatures, wet winters, dry summers and the famous coastal fog—there are a range of climates suitable for rare and exotic plants from all over the world. At the San Francisco Botanical Garden, you can see the wildflowers bloom June through September and you can even see which plants are in bloom right now on the website here!
When the colder weather finally settles in around early December, fall foliage shows its true colors throughout the gardens. Our favorite place to get a glimpse of the autumn hues is in the Moon Viewing Garden, a mild-temperate garden filled with plants from Japan. Be sure to stop by when fall color is at its peak November through December and follow the gardens on Instagram for the most current snapshots.
Managed by Midpeninsula Regional Open Space, Skyline Ridge Preserve offers trails, education, land and more to learn and explore our local, natural history. Hikers, cyclists and equestrians can experience the mixed evergreen forest, grassland, chaparral and wetland environments spanning 2,143 acres.
Our favorite hike for fall color traverses Russian Ridge, Skyline Ridge and includes a section of the Bay Area Ridge Trail. Beginning at David C. Daniels Visitor Center, walk half a mile around Alpine Pond and follow signs for Ipiwa Trail. Your first breathtaking view will be an unimpeded vista of the Santa Cruz Mountains cascading into Portola Redwoods State Park. In late November, this will be lit up with oranges and deep reds from native trees and plants. Along the rest of the hike, you’ll descend Sunny Jim Trail to Horseshoe Lake and hop on the Bay Area Ridge Trail to loop around and maximize the scenery.
This East Bay park covers 6,859 acres and features camping, picnicking, hiking, backpacking, equestrian trails and grazing cattle. If you think the Bay Area doesn’t see much in terms of fall color, make a stop here between November and early December!
For the most impressive color, we suggest a fall hike to Cerro Este overlook. The 5.3-mile route starts with a quick crossing of Alameda Creek and a one-mile trek up to High Valley Camp. From there, you’ll get a sweeping view of the valley filled with the oranges, greens and browns of the season. Then, take the junction toward Cave Rocks and climb the switchbacks until you reach Cerro Este overlook. Standing at 1,700 feet in elevation, you can take in views of the park, Calaveras Reservoir and the rolling hills of the Diablo Range.
Nestled in the hills above Berkeley, The Regional Parks Botanic Garden in Tilden Regional Park is devoted to the collection, growth, display and preservation of the native plants of California. From October through November, the garden shows off fall color from snowberries, berries of the madrone, leaves of cottonwoods, deciduous oaks, dogwoods, hawthorn, willows, vine maple, chaparral currant blooms and more. The whole garden highlights plants from all 160,000 square miles of California, but can be explored in just one day!
Photo courtesy of Jim Sullivan via Castello di Amorosa
With its sweeping orchards and gorgeous mountain views, California’s wine country is one of the best places in the country to mix fall foliage with world-class food and drink. And what better setting than on the grounds of an authentically-built, 13th-century Tuscan castle? Open 364 days a year, Castello di Amorosa is a romantic and stunning destination year-round. As fall color sweeps throught Napa Valley, you can roam two levels of the castle, taste Italian-inspired wines, enjoy a pairing and take a tour with golden orchards on all sides.
National Geographic named Sonoma County the best place in the country to see changing fall foliage because color comes from both leaf and vine. They picked out the drive along Arnold Drive and the Russian River Valley as the top options for “sun-fire hues” from oak and maple, and we completely agree!
If you want to step out of the car, we suggest a hike through Sonoma Valley Regional Park. The park’s main trails take you through orange oak canopies, and the 1.2-mile paved trail is ADA-accessible. It runs through the center of the park and stretches from Highway 12 across to scenic Arnold Drive. The Corridor Ridge Trail is 1.15 miles and climbs to a small ridge on the park’s southern boundary. Following the wooded ridge across the park before descending near Arnold Drive, you’ll get views of the whole valley and plenty of the changing leaves both near and far.
This year-round state park straddles the boundary between Sonoma and Napa Counties, offering some of the best scenery north of San Francisco. From an elevation of 2,729 feet, views from the top of Bald Mountain include the Sierras to the east, San Francisco Bay and Mount Diablo to the south, Mount Tamalpais to the southwest, the Coastal Range and the Pacific to the west and Mount Saint Helena to the north.
To get to the peak, it’ll take you 5.6 miles and approximately three hours on an out and back trail. Begin on either Stern Trail or Lower Bald Mountain and turn right on Bald Mountain. The Bald Mountain Loop adds just one mile. For this option, turn right onto Gray Pine Trail after the summit; then turn right on Meadow Trail.
If you want to put the fall in waterfall, venture out on an autumn hike on the 2-mile Canyon-Pony Gate Loop! For more details on the trails and routes, check out the park website here.
Photo courtesy of Quarryhill Botanical Garden
Praised as Sonoma’s hidden gem, Quarryhill is a wild Asian woodland, intentionally not manicured and featuring one of the largest collections of wild-sourced Asian plants in the world. Beginning around 1987, the garden was grown from the remains of an abandoned quarry and has since become a twenty five-acre paradise. Magnolias, dogwoods, maples, birches, roses, lilies and rhododendrons transform during autumn with ponds, waterfalls and vistas of the Sonoma Valley nestled in surprising and restful places. You can pay the admission fee and explore the Glen Ellen grounds with a docent-led tour or a self-guided adventure.
If you have a favorite spot for fall foliage in the Bay Area, let us know in the comments below and it may be included next year!