While the East Coast gets much of the attention for fall destinations in the U.S, California really packs a punch this time of year. The weather is cooler, but not cold, and most destinations experience fewer crowds. In fact I think California in the fall might be my favorite time of year.
I’m offering seven options for a fall getaway--all of which I’ve personally experienced.
If you really want to see fall foliage, then head to Mammoth Lakes in the Easter Sierra Nevadas. I recently returned from a long weekend here in the month of October and was constantly awed by the red and yellow leaves of the trees set against the snow capped mountains. Every drive was scenic.
Hiking is my favorite activity in Mammoth and in the fall it’s perfect weather--not too warm, not too cold, and unlikely to rain. Some of our favorite trails include Convict Lake Loop, Rainbow Falls Trail, and Minaret Falls Trail. Keep in mind that you are at 7,880+ feet of elevation, so your hiking may feel a bit slower--that’s ok, give yourself time to adjust.
Be sure to drive the June Lake Scenic Loop for great fall foliage views. Located about forty minutes north of Mammoth, this drive passes four small lakes, each with different views. Allow at least an hour for this drive since you’ll likely want to stop a few times for photos.
My only warning is that winter comes early in the mountains. When we arrived the weather was 60 degrees and sunny and we left in a snowstorm. So I recommend enjoying fall in Mammoth Lakes in late September or early October.
The only place we stay in Mammoth is The Village Lodge. All the rooms have kitchens and fireplaces and are conveniently located near several restaurants and shops.
Summer in Napa Valley can be extremely hot, so if you can wait until the fall to visit, you’ll be rewarded with cooler temperatures. But the real benefit is the harvest season which takes place from August through October. This is a busy and exciting time at wineries as they prepare to pick the grapes and begin the winemaking process. A variety of special events are offered to visitors, so check with the wineries you plan to visit.
A few of my favorite Napa wineries include Ehlers Estate, Larkmead Vineyards, Nickel & Nickel, and Charles Krug. Each of these places make excellent Cabernet Sauvignons, Napa’s best known wine. But each has other offerings including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Merlot.
When you’re done wine tasting, other activities in Napa include shopping, dining, and relaxing. Each of its four main towns-- Napa, St. Helena, Yountville, Calistoga--offers charming boutique shops, world class restaurants, and high-end hotels.
The downside to visiting Napa Valley in the fall can be high prices. Harvest season is a fun time to be here, but accommodations may be pricey. Consider coming in November for more affordable options.
My current favorite for accommodations in Napa is the Harvest Inn in St. Helena. The grounds are shaded by tall redwoods and the large rooms are comfortable and stylish. I had a room with a vineyard view which I highly recommend.
I went to college in San Diego, and I’ve been back to visit hundreds of times. In reality, there’s no bad time to visit this city on the bay. The weather is always nice--seriously! But the advantage of fall is reduced crowds. It’s a very popular summer destination, both for people in California and all over the world. My advice is avoid visiting during summer.
So when you visit San Diego in the fall you’ll have many choices for things to do. Consider spending a few hours exploring Balboa Parks gardens and museums. Most of the gardens are free as are a couple of the museums. Or head to Liberty Station to browse the shops and grab a meal. I really enjoy eating my way through the Liberty Public Market. If you want to hike, head a bit north to Torrey Pines State Park in La Jolla. In the evening consider attending a concert at The Rady Shell located on the water along the Embarcadero. We also love the atmosphere at Old Town. This is where the state of California began, so it’s loaded with history along with several good Mexican restaurants.
I have several favorite places to stay in the San Diego area.
Hilton Bayfront--Great views of the harbor and Coronado Bridge
Hilton At Torrey Pines--Beautiful views of the famous Torrey Pines Golf Course
Hyatt Mission Bay--Beautiful views of the bay
Solamar Hotel--Great location in the Gaslamp Quarter
I love both the town of Joshua Tree and the nearby national park. This quirky desert destination is unlike any other place I’ve ever been. In the summer it's blazing hot and in the winter it may snow, but fall promises comfortable weather for hiking and exploring.
First, be sure to set aside at least half a day to explore Joshua Tree National Park. For two short hikes try Barker Dam and Hidden Valley Nature Trails, each about a mile long. These provide a nice introduction to both the history and the natural beauty of the park. For a more challenging hike try 49 Palms Oasis Trail. Along this trail you’ll see sweeping views of Yucca Valley in one direction and a rocky oasis in the other. Wear good hiking boots for this trail since you’ll be climbing over plenty of rocks.
After a few hours of hiking, head into Joshua Tree for a meal. At the Joshua Tree Saloon you’ll get delicious food and good local beer. Nearby are several boutique shops selling jewelry, furniture, and vintage items. If you enjoy contemporary art don’t miss the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum. Admission is free and the art is all made from reclaimed items.
The hotels in the area are all three stars and nothing special, but I’ve found two that are clean, comfortable, and reasonably priced.
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Average temperatures are the same in San Francisco during the summer and the fall, typically a high of 72 degrees during the day and low of 56 degrees at night. So it’s not the weather that will make a fall trip optimal, but the reduced crowds. San Francisco is among the most visited cities in the U.S. with the majority of visitors arriving during summer. Come in the fall and you’ll enjoy this city’s iconic sites with fewer people and likely better pricing for accommodations.
The number of things to do in San Francisco is tremendous, so I’ll share just a few of our favorites. First, despite being touristy, we love Fisherman’s Wharf and typically stay in this area. From here we can walk to the Ferry Building, North Beach, and Chinatown. The Ferry Building is a food hall filled with shops selling artisan bread, cheeses, coffee, and more. North Beach is the Italian section of town loaded with great restaurants. And of course Chinatown is home to great shopping and Chinese restaurants.
If you enjoy contemporary art, I highly recommend San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. And if you’re up for an adventure, try the self-guided bike ride across the Golden Gate Bridge into Sausalito.
Here are a few of our favorite hotels in San Francisco;
The Argonaut--I love this red brick boutique hotel located near the wharf and Ghirardelli Square
Hyatt Centric Fisherman’s Wharf--This is a more affordable option than Argonaut, but also walking distance to many of our favorite places
Hyatt Regency San Francisco--I love this hotel’s location across the street from the Ferry Building and close to a trolley stop.
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Like San Francisco you’re not visiting Santa Barbara in the fall for better weather, but reduced crowds. This seaside town is well known for its miles of sandy beaches, red-tiled roofs, upscale shops and excellent restaurants.
We highly recommend exploring the coastline on bicycle. Rent your bikes by the hour or day and head to one of the twelve trails in the city. We opted to ride north along the beach, stopped for lunch, and then returned. If you’re interested in shopping, State Street is a charming tree-lined boulevard loaded with shops, cafes, and restaurants. We also love the Funk Zone, a former industrial area transformed into a shopping and entertainment district. Here you’ll find craft breweries and wine tasting rooms as well, so this could be where you spend the entire day.
Consider adding a quick day trip to Solvang, a small town founded by Danish immigrants that still maintains its Scandinavian charm. Dine on traditional Danish fare or just snack on some delish pastries. Wine lovers will appreciate the twenty wine tasting rooms in Solvang.
Here are a few of our recommendations for Santa Barbara hotels;
Castillo Inn At The Beach--This small motel does not offer any ocean view rooms, but it is just a one block walk to the beach. Rooms are nice and prices are very reasonable.
Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort--You’ll have all the amenities of a large resort combined with a great location across the street from the ocean. Ocean view rooms are available.
I personally love Palm Springs in the summer when the temperatures rise into triple digits, but if that’s not for you, fall is a great time to visit this stylish desert town. While friends on the East Coast will be bundling up in warm clothing, you can pack your swimsuit and shorts for your getaway to the desert.
Downtown Palm Springs offers plenty of art, boutique and vintage shopping, and fun dining. I recommend starting at the Palm Springs Art Museum. This mid-sized art museum curates excellent exhibits, often from local or regional artists. Be sure to browse their collection of sculptures outside the museum too. As you stroll along Palm Canyon Drive you’ll find high-end vintage stores, gift shops with all kinds of quirky items, and some lovely home decor boutiques as well.
Venture a bit out of Palm Springs to Rancho Mirage to visit Sunnylands, the former estate of the Annenberg family. Stroll the shaded, green gardens that incorporate a large water feature. Best part if this is a free activity.
Here are some recommended accommodations in Palm Springs and surrounding communities
Kimpton Rowan Palm Springs Hotel--Located in the heart of downtown, this stylish hotel features a rooftop pool and bar and is across the street from the art museum.
Hyatt Regency Indian Wells--If you’re married to a golf fanatic like I am, then a stay at the Hyatt Regency is perfect. I like to hang out at the pool during the day while Jason golfs next door.
Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa--This is a great family resort if you’re traveling with kids or grandkids that features several pools and a lazy river.