Best road trips for Fall color in Northern California and the Central Sierra

Don't ignore Fall sunrises and sunsets, this sunrise over Meadow Lake, Stockton, last November.

Sierra mountainside is alive with yellows and oranges, off Hwy. 88.
Ironstone Vineyards, just above Murphys, offer yellows, ochres and reds during the fall.
Aspens turn bright yellow, dusted by light snow, near Ebbett’s Pass on Hwy. 4.
Oranges and reds dot this Sierra mountainside near Tuolumne Pass.

Plan a road trip for best Fall color in Northern California and the Central Sierra!

Need a perfect reason for a road trip? The late fall season of changing colors of yellows, oranges and intense red in Northern California and our Central Sierra provides an excellent adventure, capped by those stunning fall colors.

Depending on your destination, you’ll find elderberries changing colors, California ash, tiny cones of incense cedar with red berries and leaves turning gold, willow and aspen, soon to change from green to gold, even poison oak turning scarlet (don’t go there!). Students of color will often overlook high mountain meadows changing from green to ochre and yellow; don’t, for that’s where early color is frequently first spotted.

Depending on your destination you’ll find Idyllic vistas of deer or antelope, horses or cattle grazing in meadows below lofty mountains and snow beginning to make an appearance on the highest of the Sierra peaks. Native American and gold rush historic sites are found on almost any route you choose. If you are a camper, you’ll find memorable camping opportunities reaching into late October or early November, and bed-and-breakfasts and classy old hotels dot these highways, sprinkled with memorable restaurant stops.

Hence, check local visitor’s bureaus and go to California Fall Color, Californiafallcolor.com, a marvelous website with pictures, current conditions, predictions of coming color palettes and links to several dozen websites offering insight. Then, get out your maps or consult your GPS and plot that road trip. All of these suggestions are within several hours, more or less, of San Joaquin County. Here are our favorite road trips, ranging from south to north running up the Sierra.

Highway 140 takes travelers to and through Yosemite national Park, winding through the Tuolumne Meadows area and down the Eastern slope to Lee Vining on Highway 395. The route is a scenic and always spectacular option despite the fires near Yosemite; most of the park itself was untouched, and black oak, maple and dogwood in the valley and above were not touched.

If you venture over to the Eastern Sierra, check the area both north and south of Lee Vining on Highway 395. Just north, explore the colors on the road up to Bodie State Historic Park, one of the coolest of the old west ghost towns, preserved in a state of “arrested decay“. Just south, stop at Mono Lake and marvel at it’s strange tufa columns rising like ghost ships along the lake shore. Heading south down Highway 395, the June Lake Loop and roads in the Sierra just above Mammoth Lakes offers color aplenty as well as high mountain views and alpine Lakes galore.

Highway 108, heading east above Sonora and past Pinecrest Lake, is a favorite. At Pinecrest, the Steam Donkey restaurant is always a great place for lunch or dinner (as is the Dodge Ridge ski resort, just 3 miles above Pinecrest, open on weekends – get your early season pass!). Then head up 108 into the high Sierra past changing stands of ash and aspen, and also see the sobering result of the Donnell Fire, which burned thousands of acres, several score vacation cabins and torched the old Dardanelle Resort. Just above Kennedy Meadows, the highway steeply ascends towards Sonora Pass – marvelous views and guaranteed striking colors on both sides of the pass.

Choose Highway 4, with a stop at Murphys, and drive the several miles up to Ironstone Vineyards for a pleasant stop, snack and wine tasting and see changing colors on the winery property. Heading higher, you’ll pass Calaveras big trees State Park, home to some of the largest sequoias on the western Sierra slope, into the forests and through the meadows of Bear Valley and the ski resort just above. Highway 4 continues east, where Lake Alpine Resort offers a good lunch stop as the road ascends towards Ebbott’s Pass; always offering jaw-dropping vistas and changing colors.

Hwy. 88 offers the option to stop in gold rush historic gems like Jackson, where Stanley’s Restaurant in the lower level of the National Hotel provides respite and a quick history lesson. Continue east, past Pine Grove, pretty Mount Zion State Forest and Pioneer (both towns offer dining options), and reach Kirkwood Resort and its meadows and changing color scene (the Kirkwood Inn is a great place for lunch). Head further east, into the Hope River Valley, and find one of the ultimate destinations for both Sierra scenery and changing aspen, ash and other foliage palates.

Don’t overlook your local fall color scene, including city street trees, changing colors in vineyards from Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Cabernet grapevines (almost anywhere just north of Stockton and around Lodi and Woodbridge), as well as fall sunrises and sunsets, often right outside your door.

For more info: Check Tuolumne and Calaveras Visitor Bureaus web sites for tips (visittuolumne.com, gocalavaras.com), and the California Fall Color map site, (californiafallcolor.com), for current conditions, predictions of best times for viewing and links to several dozen other color sites.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com, follow at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in your world!

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  • Blog Author

    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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