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Three Fall Road Trips for San Franciscans with Season Amnesia

A trio of leaf-peeping excursions, by commitment level.


Hope Valley

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Mendocino County Vineyards

Photo: Flickr/Erin Johnson

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Anderson Valley

Photo: Flickr/Jack French

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Since San Franciscans experience seasons in theory only, it’s easy to forget that much of Northern California flannels up for fall. If not for the shorter days and Trader Joe’s full of pumpkin everything (even, um, dog treats), we might not even know that within a few hours’ drive lie harvest fairs, ripe apple orchards, and landscapes with—whoa—more than one hue. Yeah, the northeast claims most of the foliage-related bragging rights, but Northern California holds its own in sheer variety. From glowing gold aspens to ruddy maples to fiery grapevines, leaf peepers of nearly every persuasion can get their fix.

For the Fall Fanatic: Hope Valley
You’ll be hard pressed to find an entire California forest blanketed in the full spectrum of fall tones. But the bright gold and orange aspens of the Sierra Nevadas’ Hope Valley put on a pretty magical show, well worth the three-and-a-half-hour drive east. What’s more, the region’s steep elevation variations mean you’re rarely more than a short drive from peak foliage. Take the day to leaf peep along Route 88, pulling off to snap photos at Red Lake Overlook and stopping for sandwiches and pie at the cozy Hope Valley Cafe and Market. Make your way down the mountain for a stay in historic, Gold Rush–era digs, like the National Hotel in Jackson, built in 1862 (from $75 a night), or the recently renovated Hanford House Inn (from $145 a night) in Sutter Creek. Both are less than an hour’s ride from Apple Hill, where you can get your fall fix at apple, pumpkin, and berry farms; hay mazes; and pies, jams, and ciders galore. Go during the first weekend in October for neighboring Amador County’s Big Crush Harvest Festival, where 45 wineries celebrate with food pairings, live music, and plenty of wine (designated drivers can eat to their heart’s content for $10).  

For the Day Drinker: Anderson Valley
Here’s something Vermont doesn’t have: fall foliage that produces an actual buzz. Some of the snazziest displays take place up in Mendocino County, where rows of grape vines take on green, gold, and deep burgundy hues, set against the deep violet of low-lying mountains. Head north on Route 101 to the 128 for about two and a half hours until you hit Anderson Valley, a small, hilly 15-mile stretch packed with around 20 vineyards, including several known for their sparkling wines. Book a room at Philo Apple Farm (from $250), a working organic farm with a 1,700-tree orchard, fireplace-equipped guest cottages, cooking classes, and a self-service farm stand selling jams, chutneys, and fresh apples and pears. Want the wine tasting to begin right outside your doorstep? Overnight at the Madrones (from $175), a Mediterranean-style compound with walled gardens, a dove aviary, and four on-site tasting rooms. Take advantage of chilly (but not too chilly) fall temps and hike along the Navarro River and through the redwood groves of Hendy Woods State Park. Afterwards, stop into Anderson Valley Brewing Company for an obligatory Fall Hornin’ Pumpkin Ale. The brewpub doesn't serve food, but you can bring your own. Pick up empanadas at the nearby Mosswood Market and Cafe or sandwiches at Boonville General Store, packed, of course, with seasonal veggies.

For the Day Tripper: Tomales Bay
For a dose of fall color on less than a quarter tank of gas, head north over the Golden Gate Bridge toward Tomales Bay. There, you’ll pass through Samuel P. Taylor State Park, where the gold, orange, and deep red–tinted big leaf maples mix with evergreen Douglas firs and towering redwoods for scenic hiking, biking, and picnicking. Although you can easily make the round trip in a day, the area feels remote enough to make for a low-key weekend escape. Drive northwest through the park, hug the eastern shore of Tomales Bay for 10 miles, and wind into Nick’s Cove and Cottages, a rustic, waterfront collection of restored 1930s-era bungalows with wood-burning stoves, chickens, and a restaurant helmed by a brand new chef, Mission Beach Cafe vet Joshua Siebert. Enjoy the view from the bay via kayak, or get your color fix from the animal kingdom on a nighttime bioluminescence tour. And because it just wouldn’t be right to visit Tomales Bay without slurping the region’s famous oysters, don’t miss the outdoor communal table at Marshall Store and Oyster Bar, where you can pair oysters Rockefeller with locally made hard cider from Apple Garden Farm. If you find yourself on that side of the bridge between October 6 and 16, check out the Mill Valley Film Festival. You’ll be in good company—Nicole Kidman and Gael Garcia Bernal will be putting in an appearance.


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