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8 Family-Friendly Day Trips to View Fall Colors in California

Fall is well-underway and California’s mild weather allows for outdoor destinations to be enjoyed now through the end of November. Getting outside is the best way to put you in touch with the beauty of the changing seasons. You don’t have to be an experienced outdoor enthusiast or have older children to enjoy the great outdoors in simple ways. Here are a few of my family’s favorite fall day trips!* 

*Please note that I have excluded some of my favorite destinations in Northern California due to current fire restrictions that are still in place.


1 ) Apple Picking in Oak Glen, San Bernardino

If you’ve never been apple picking at a farm in Oak Glen, you want to pack up the car, get closed toes shoes and jackets for the kiddos and head out asap! Once you make it through the urban streets and crowded freeways so typical of Southern California, you’ll find yourself transported to a different world. The winding roads of the Oak Glen/Yucaipa area are lined with beautiful oak trees and orchard vistas. And the beautiful fall colors will be in full bloom from now through November. There are several wonderful apple-picking farms in Oak Glen, but my favorite is Los Rios Rancho.

Despite damage to their farm’s structures in recent fires, Los Rios Rancho’s outdoor U-Pick apple, and pumpkin area are open 7 days per week. Weekends offer various activities such as cider making, kids crafts, and wagon tours. Visit their website for more information, including how you can volunteer to help them rebuild and get through the recent destruction of the fires. 

Check out Red Tricycle’s reviews of the best apple picking in Los Angeles for a run-down of other awesome apple picking farms in Oak Glen to choose from.


2 ) Apple & Pumpkin Picking in Julian

Now thru October 25, you can enjoy apple and pumpkin picking at the Julian Farm & Orchard in San Diego County. Surrounded by the beauty of the San Diego mountains in Autumn, the quaint small downtown of Main Street Julian is worth exploring. An absolute must-stop is the Julian Pie Company!


3 ) Back Roads in the San Gabriel Mountains

Take a day trip down back roads with fall color in or near the San Gabriel Mountains. The San Gabriel Mountains Chapter of the California Native Plants Society put together an easy to navigate list of backroads, destinations, and city streets in the San Gabriel area to find fall foliage.


4 ) Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead

Big Bear & Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino mountains are favorite summer and winter day trip destinations for many families throughout the surrounding regions. But these two areas are also great places to experience fall colors! Big Bear is at a higher elevation than Lake Arrowhead, so the fall foliage may bloom at different times at each location.


5 ) Grass Valley & Nevada City

The quaint historic California Gold Rush towns of Grass Valley & Nevada City come alive in autumn with a symphony of colors! The best places to visit are the Victorian neighborhoods surrounding the historic districts and nearby walking trails. Visit the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce’s website for a list of 3 fall color walking tours: 2 within the city, and 1 that focuses on trails in the area.


6 ) Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe’s drive from the Sacramento area is relatively the same distance as that of Los Angeles to Big Bear Mountain/Lake Arrowhead: approximately 2 hrs. This is within the outer limits of day trip status. I have made both drives for day trips. We start out early and return home late. It’s an inexpensive way to take a vacation. You fill an entire day with nearly two days worth of fun and you rest and recover the next day, comfortably at home. Lake Tahoe has a wonderful fall season, with several different locations that are recommended for leaf peepers.


7 ) Self-Guided Tree Tours in Sacramento

The Sacramento Tree Foundation has put together an amazing list of self-guided tree tours that will lead people through neighborhoods with good examples of trees. Each of these 11 self-guided tours are downloadable from their website. These guides have been made by some serious tree professionals and you will feel like you have taken a mini-class on different types of trees at the end of one of these tours. Most of these self-guided tours can be toured comfortably by kids and parents alike. Please preview the tour before you go, to make sure it’s not too long for young kiddos and if all of the stops along the walking tours are currently open, or closed right now due to Covid-19.


8 ) Visit Your Local California State Park

The California Department of Parks and Recreation maintains a Fall Colors page on its website with information about which parks throughout California display fall colors. (pictured above, Palomar Mountain State Park, San Diego)


Bonus: Monarch Butterflies in Santa Cruz

Yes, this is a newsletter piece about where to view fall leaf colors, and I want to assure you, dear readers, that I do not think monarch butterflies are fall leaves. However, they do cocoon in trees and are very colorful! Not to mention incredibly special! Truth is, I can’t resist recommending a fall day trip to view the monarch butterfly migration to their winter habitat of eucalyptus groves at Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz. This is the home of the only State Monarch Preserve in the State of California, helping to preserve the dwindling numbers of monarch butterflies due to loss of habitat and the overuse of pesticides and insecticides. The butterflies start arriving mid-October and their numbers usually peak between late November to early December. You can take a self-guided tour of the butterfly groves for free, parking is $10.


This guest post was written by veteran homeschooling parent, Paige McKinney.

Paige McKinney is a mom of 2 grown unschoolers, and 1 nearly grown unschooler who attends a self-directed democratic school. She has over 19 years of experience homeschooling and unschooling in Orange County, California, including working with homeschool groups, educational non-profit organizations, and independent study charter schools. More recently, Paige decided to follow her heart and move her family to Pennsylvania, where she is exploring alternative education, gardening, and painting on the East Coast.


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