Autumn Explorations: Where to See the Best Fall Foliage
After Sacramento’s long hot summers, autumn is always a welcome respite. Days cool while evenings become crisp, kids head back to school, boots and sweater season starts, pumpkin spice makes its comeback, and the city of trees struts its changing leaves like a grand peacock–displaying magnificent golds, reds, and burnt oranges. It’s a feast for the eyes from midtown’s urban sprawl, to the surrounding rolling foothills, to the higher elevation lakes and alpine valleys. Whether seeking an inspirational break or hunting for an adventurous day trip, here are the area’s top Fall Foliage spots–plus where to eat and play–to fully ignite the upcoming season.
Getaway [Within Two Hours]
At the fork of the North Yuba and Downie rivers along Highway 49, Downieville is the seat of Sierra County with roots deep in Gold Rush history. The scenic drive an hour outside of Nevada City, will reward you with the fabulous fall foliage of big leaf maples, oaks, locusts, and dogwoods (don’t miss the particularly glorious display in front of the downtown courthouse). Also known for its mountain biking, the Downieville Downhill provides 17 miles of challenging trails perfect for tackling in the sublime autumn weather.
Eat: With a stunning view of the Yuba River from the back patio, Two Rivers Cafe is known for delicious burgers. Try one with homemade guacamole and perfectly crisped fries and wash it down with one of their large selection of craft beers. 116 Main Street, Downieville
Play: Originally a movie house, the historic Yuba Theatre is now a venue managed by the Sierra County Arts Council. Plan your visit so after an active day, you can relax and enjoy an evening at the Sierra Nevada Geotourism-recognized theatre. 212 Main Street, Downieville, sierracountyartscouncil.org
Following Highway 88 to the eastern side of Carson Pass, Hope Valley is a popular destination year-round for outdoor enthusiasts and artists with its high elevation views, abundant wildlife, and Carson River fly-fishing. Yet fall truly steals the spotlight when quintessential Quaking Aspens blanket the valley and surrounding hillsides in their gorgeous golden hues. Be timely, as leaves will typically reach their full glory in September and begin falling by mid-October.
Eat: Sorensen’s Country Café is quaint, but the flavors are large, with favorites including beef burgundy stew and house-made quiche. For an unplugged, romantic break complete with wood-burning sauna, stay in one of the resort’s cozy log cabins. 14255 Highway 88, Hope Valley, sorensensresort.com
Play: With both hot and cold pools, nearby Grover Hot Springs is a great spot for the entire family and a tantalizing treat after a long day of hiking–certainly worth the extra 30-minute drive. 3415 Hot Springs Road, Markleeville, visitgroverhotsprings.org
Quick Jaunt [Within One Hour]
Undoubtedly when locals and tourists alike mention autumn, they think of Apple Hill. With wineries, orchards, farms, bakeries, and pumpkin patches all nestled into the picturesque foothills, why wouldn’t you? The growers’ association outside of Placerville up to Camino known as Apple Hill is indeed the ideal spot to witness the changing leaves of local tree varietals such as black oak, maple, alder, ash, and chestnut so colorfully surreal, it’s as if you’re walking inside a painting.
Eat: With rotating taps and brick-oven pizzas, Hwy 50 Brewery beckons with a huge patio and the occasional live band. Beer being the big draw here, order some Fried Cheeze Curds at least so you’re not just drinking lunch. 3544 Carson Road, Suite 20, Camino, hwy50brewery.com
Play: When mom and dad need a break from bustling Apple Hill in full swing, sneak away to Camino’s Wofford Acres Vineyards. Off the beaten path, enjoy a glass of today’s favorite while soaking in the autumn view of North Canyon. 1900 Hidden Valley Lane, Camino, wavwines.com
You might exclaim “Eureka!” when you dip into Marshall Gold Discovery Historic State Park, as indeed the Fall foliage will be alit with deep golden hues. A short trek along Highway 49 from Placerville or Auburn, the spots alongside the American River might be the best place to stake a claim and enjoy nature’s sights. Better yet, take a trip down it with one of the area’s whitewater rafting companies that typically stay open throughout early October.
Eat: For mouthwatering pizza (order half-and-half for the undecided) and meaty ribs on the weekends, check out Lotus’ Squally’s on the River. They close with rafting season at the end of October, so go now! 7310 State Highway 49, Lotus
Play: With tent and RV campsites, cabin rentals, and a swimming pool all near the river and state park, Coloma Resort is the perfect destination for a family campout. Need more bonding? Check out their High Ropes Challenge Course. 6921 Mt. Murphy Road, Coloma, colomaresort.com
Nevada City/Grass Valley
These neighboring Gold Rush towns offer one of fall’s best shows as red maples and dogwoods seem to catch fire throughout their historic districts mid-October through mid-November. Some of the best viewing can be had by foot, walking amongst the Victorian neighborhoods throughout downtown Nevada City. While Grass Valley is best from its higher elevation streets; providing sweeping vistas of autumn’s glory.
Eat: Lefty’s Grill has been a staple in Nevada City for years, but Grass Valley joins the fun with the newly opened Lefty’s Fry House. You gotta have the fish and chips, or for lighter palates try the Greek citrus Salad. 840 E. Main Street, Suite E, Grass Valley, leftysfryhouse.com
Play: The Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum preserves local transportation history and artifacts from the bygone era. Hop aboard the free Railbus for a relaxed view of the fabulous fall foliage. 5 Kidder Court, Nevada City, ncngrrmuseum.org
The Backyard [Within Thirty Minutes]
Right in East Sacramento, McKinley Park features fun for the whole family (including fur babies) with sport courts, running trails, play structures, a library, swimming pool, free yoga classes (April-September), and plenty of room to roam. In fall, the rose garden still blooms, the squirrels are nutty, and the pond is alive with ducks and geese. A local favorite for photoshoots amidst the gorgeous autumn hues, you might even witness an intimate wedding ceremony going on…sigh.
Eat: Start your day at Orphan Breakfast House, which serves breakfast and lunch with Latin and Asian influences. Favorites include the breakfast tamales with eggs and black beans and the savory cakes stuffed with bacon and jalapeños. 3340 C Street, Sacramento, orphanbreakfast.com
Play: Archival Gallery’s curator D. Oldham Neath is the co-founder of Second Saturday and has been a part of the Sacramento arts community for over 35 years. The family-owned-and-operated space hosts numerous contemporary works throughout the year. Upcoming exhibits include Sacramento Superheroes (September 5-28). 3223 Folsom Boulevard, Sacramento, archivalgallery.com