USA Road Trip: where to see fall foliage along the West Coast

Get out your fall foliage map and cruise the West Coast of the US in search of the changing fall leaves. From vineyards to forests to sprawling parks, you’ll see the best the west has to offer.

Crank the ignition, load up your road tunes and pack those pumpkin-flavored seasonal snacks, because it’s time to go West Coast leaf peeping. When fall hits, change is in the air – and the leaves. The window for some of these autumnal delights can be blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, so get ready to hit the highways before the show’s over. The drive’s about 2000 miles all up, so factor in some powernaps and overnight getaways.

Where to begin? Fly in to San Diego International Airport to get the fun started.

Balboa Park, San Diego

Kicking the leaves at Balboa Park, perfect for your fall foliage map itinerary

The journey begins at San Diego’s massive Balboa Park, the botanical jewel of this fair-weather SoCal city. Some claim that SD doesn’t have seasons, but here’s where you can prove them wrong. Glimpse looming American Sweetgums and Chinese flame trees transitioning to vivid red and orange, and snap a pic or two of some late-blooming floral transplants like the African Tulip Tree.

While you’re there, nosh on some cupcakes from Babycakes, swing by the San Diego Museum of Art for a culture and cocktails event – and keep an eye out for fall-friendly events like the annual Harvest Festival.

Recommended nearby hotel: The Declan Suites San Diego (rates start at $111 per night)

Temecula Wine Region, San Diego

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When October and November hit, the endless vines in this sprawling viticultural valley turn the colour of vino tinto. Stunning fall foliage views aside, the vino itself is the main draw of this region. Get off the highway and head to the back roads for cellar door stops at the Briar Rose and Wilson Creek wineries.

Spare a bit of time to tour the Old Town, which is like stepping into a Western. With this much Cabernet and zinfandel around it’s tempting to imbibe, so put away the car keys and book a night at the swish Embassy Suites.

Recommend nearby hotel: Temecula Creek Inn (rates start at $221 per night)

Julian, California

Residential bliss in Julian, California

About an hour’s drive from San Diego along the scenic 78, Julian is where locals head to get their fill of fall. An historic mining town bursting with pear and apple orchards, it’s all gold and crimson in the cooler months.

Soak up the sights of the quaint downtown as you sip on the latest fermentation from the Julian Cider Mill and chow down on a tart, apple-filled pastry from Mom’s Pies. Put on some comfy shoes and hike the local trails for some autumn leaf peeping, or cruise 10 minutes south to Lake Cuyamaca for more fall foliage. If you’ve overindulged on the cider, book a night at San Diego Country Estates.

Recommended nearby hotel: Tucker Peak Lodge (rates start at $106 per night)

Mount Laguna, California

Above the thick forests of Mount Laguna, you'll find a craggy mountaintop bliss

It’s a fall spectacular out at Mount Laguna, whose high elevations we have to thank for the thick forests of oak and cottonwood. These massive, sprawling beauties turn a vivid orange and gold – so much so that it’s like seeing the world through a sepia filter. Stretch your legs with a hike along the Sunset Trail, which will give you stunning backcountry fall foliage views, then recharge at the Pine House Cafe, an old-school building nestled among the treetops. Time your visit right, and you might also be able to join a public viewing stargazing session at the Mount Laguna Observatory.

Recommended nearby hotel: Viejas Casino Resort (rates start at $112 per night)

Lake Tahoe, California

Jump in at Lake Tahoe, the perfect dipping spot while on your West Coast road trip

It’s back on the road until we hit Lake Tahoe, where the serious leaf lovers come out to play. A 42 mile scenic drive offers lime-coloured quaking aspens, yellow-hued cottonwoods, and zingy magenta fireweed. The trees are stunning, but the sun-yellow ground coverage impresses, too. Swing by mid-October for the Alpine Aspen Festival, and head to the Taylor Creek Visitor Center to spot the local salmon spawning. Tahoe is bursting with hikes, trails and sports, so make the most of it with a few nights at a splashy establishment like Harvey’s.

Recommended nearby hotel: Harveys Lake Tahoe (rates start at $143 per night)

Napa Valley, California

Beautiful fall sunsets over Napa Valley

You can’t take a road trip through CA without a pit stop at Napa, and its stunning fall colours are just one more reason it’s a must-see. As the cooler months hit the vineyards transform from vivid green to deep red and gold. If you feel like letting someone else do the driving, book a place on the old-school Napa Valley Wine Train and cruise 32 miles worth of viticultural goodness.

Indulge in a fiery autumnal sunset at the stunning Beringer Vineyards, the oldest in Napa, then kip off the vino with a night at the swish Andaz. Grab a made-to-order sandwich at the historic Oakville Grocery before climbing back in the driver’s seat ready for the next leg.

Recommended nearby hotel: Wine Valley Lodge (rates start at $127 per night)

Big Sur, California

Dramatic landscapes and crashing waves at Big Sur, California

One of the many highlights of cruising down the twisty, scenic High Way 1, Big Sur is all rugged cliffs, crashing waves and forest wrapping around the coastline. Sweeping views of the ocean combine with red-tinged shrubbery, looming trees and gentle mists for a truly unearthly experience. It’s moody and dramatic, and it demands that you pull over for a photo opp. When you’ve got your happy snap, head to the Big Sur Taphouse for a taste of the local microbrews. If you need a bit more time with nature before hitting the road again, book in at the Post Ranch Inn for some of the best views going.

Recommended nearby hotel: Big Sur River Inn (rates start at $328 per night)

Redwood National & State Parks, Washington

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Okay, so redwoods are evergreens, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth stopping off to check out the tallest and oldest trees in the world. The air’s different here, and you’ll get to bathe in the refreshing wonder of these towering beauties. The redwoods do take on a tinge of orange as they shed their older foliage, and some glow with the fiery red of autumnal poison oak; the interspersing oak trees add a dramatic touch of yellow.  If you’re lucky you’ll spot a glimpse of a mountain lion or elk – or even a Pacific grey whale.

Recommended nearby hotel: The River Inns & Cabins (rates start at $109 per night)

Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

A picture-perfect moment at the Colombia River Gorge

Buckle up, because you have a long drive ahead – although one that’s completely worth it. Thickly packed with deciduous trees, it’s a blazing beauty of fall foliage in reds, yellows and orange. Take the Historic Columbia River Highway for slow backroads cruising, stopping off at Vista House for some serious leaf peeping sights. Head along to the Multnomah Falls and try one of the forested, waterfall-dense hikes. This is the Pacific Northwest, so it’ll almost certainly be raining, but it’ll be so beautiful you won’t care. The Multnomah Falls Lodge and its downstairs glass-walled restaurant is a good spot for a pit stop.

Recommended nearby hotelBEST WESTERN INN Columbia River Inn (rates start at $133 per night)

Olympic National Park, Washington

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With Mt St. Helens and endless pine forest looming in your mirrors, the drive up here is so striking you’ll have to remind yourself to keep your eyes on the road. Snow-dusted mountain peaks ring the park, which in fall gathers a red carpet of fallen maple leaves and a thick groundcover of mushrooms. Hurricane Ridge is a popular look-out spot – but be prepared for wildlife like Roosevelt Elk and Golden Eagles to photobomb your shots.

Head back via the sleepy city of Olympia for a free tour of the stunning State Capitol building, then make your way to Seattle. Drop off your rental car and grab a coffee at the world’s first Starbucks before catching your flight back home – or tack a few more miles on to your trip and cross the border into Canada.

Recommended nearby hotel: Quality Inn Uptown (rates start at $233 per night)

Looking for more travel inspiration? Explore our Americana Southwestern road trip and witness the world’s most sublime sunrises