Nationwide, September marks the beginning of football season, the pumpkin spice latte invasion and the start of fall. And in many parts of the country, fall is also synonymous with two other things: bundling up — and most notably on the East Coast — leaves changing color. For those of us living in milder climates, the allure of autumnal foliage is intense. Montages of zipping down the road, stopping for cheese tastings (we’re in Vermont, we have to!) and witnessing all sylvan hues play in our minds.
Meanwhile, here, September is generally the harbinger of warmer temperatures that last through most of the season. Doesn’t exactly spur us to throw on festive Fair Isle sweaters and live out Volkswagenesque commercial fantasies. But while this isn’t New England, there are still places to spot summer dwindling away — in the best way. To see the real stunners, Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s Daphne Hatch recommends heading to higher altitudes, “Aspens in the mountains are the best bet in California.” Hatch points out another more local stand out, though this one ought to be taken as a warning, “Poison oak has fall color and it's already turning pretty red.” So now you know!
Not looking to head to the Sierras or beyond? Here are some places to get fall vibes nearby.
This vast Woodside estate was originally erected as a substitute. Magnate William Bowers Bourn II and his wife Agnes already owned a country house in Ireland, but wanted one closer to their San Francisco home, and thus, Filoli was built to resolve that issue. In spite of the fact that Filoli is currently celebrating its centennial — which will go on through 2017 — the estate wasn’t open to the public until 1975, when it was acquired by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Of the lands’ 654 acres, however, it’s the 16 acres of separate gardens that are most worthy of attention. Serving as a transcontinental tour, the gardens feature flora from China, Japan, England, Spain as well as other countries. For specific blooms and times refer to Filoli’s calendar. In November and December guests can expect fall colors from trees like parrotias, red oaks and hawthorns.
Japanese Tea Garden
Nestled next to the deYoung museum in Golden Gate Park, the Tea Garden is the oldest public Japanese garden in the country. Though it is best known for the cherry blossom bloom in March and April, the garden also provides great viewing opportunities in fall. It was created for the 1894 World’s Fair and built out in following years by Japanese landscape architect Makoto Hagiwara who expanded the garden from one acre to the approximate 5 acres it is now. (Curiously enough, Hagiwara is also thought to be an inventor of a Chinese restaurant staple by some as he gave visitors fortune cookies made by a San Francisco baker when he was the lands’ caretaker.) Fall colors can be seen on azaleas, Japanese maples and magnolia among others.
Tilden Regional Park
Named for Charles Lee Tilden, first president of the Park District Board of Directors, this 2,059-acre park is truly all-encompassing. In addition to the miles of hiking trails, camp sites, lakes and a popular steam train, Tilden also contains a botanical garden. Located in Wildcat Canyon, the garden was opened on New Year’s Day, 1940 and is dedicated solely to the collection, growth, display and preservation of the native plants of California. Here you’ll find nearly the whole collection of California manzanitas as well as almost every type of oak and conifer located in the state. Fall colors are represented on deciduous oaks, dogwoods, willows and others. For specific blooms, take a look at the garden’s calendar or visit Friends of the Regional Parks Botanic Garden site.
UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley
Nature enthusiast and serious amateur photographer Sandy Steinman operates the site Natural History Wanderings where — among other things — he posts fall color reports for California. Steinman’s top pick in the state for viewing is the Eastern Sierras, which are typically most impressive at the end of September or beginning of October. For local color ,he recommends UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley, “specifically the Asian section,” Steinman emphasizes. “It usually peaks end of November or early December.” His other general suggestions include always try to get up to date reports as rain, wind and temperature as shifts can create both seasonal changes and daily ones, as well.
“My personal favorite is to see the vines change color in the Anderson Valley and Dry Creek vineyards,” says Nathan Hale Sargent of the National Park Service and he’s likely not alone. The biggest and most widespread fall transformation in the Bay Area takes place up north where rows of grape vines morph from green to stunning shades of yellow, red and orange. While there is no set place to visit, a drive through Napa and Sonoma counties in upcoming months will make viewing pit stops evident. Fortunately, wine country offers plenty of activities to bookend your journey.