With an ongoing pandemic and the ever-present threat of wildfires, it can be easy to forget about the changing of the seasons. But if you can find time to get into nature right now, there's a wealth of gorgeous fall colors out there in the Bay Area to see and explore, without having to drive all the way to the Eastern Sierra.
We asked local experts who work to make the outdoors accessible and inclusive for all for their favorite spots around the Bay Area and beyond — places to enjoy fall foliage, bask in some autumnal vibes and generally find some much-needed solace in nature right now. Read on for their tips.
And remember: As needed as outdoor air and exercise is for us all, there's still a pandemic raging. Bring your mask and wear it whenever you're indoors around other nature lovers even if you're fully vaccinated, carry sanitizer if using public bathrooms and share the trails safely by making space for passers-by — to maintain social distancing. And if it's a popular place, consider planning your visit to ensure you won't run any risk of encountering a crowd.
Rue Mapp is the founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, an Oakland-born organization that celebrates and inspires Black connections and leadership in nature nationally. She says Elm Tunnel is "one of my favorite places" to see fall foliage in the Bay Area.
Driving through this North Bay spot "always helped me know what season we were in while headed to the family ranch," Mapp says.
How to get there: Travel north just out of St. Helena on Highway 29.
Hayward Regional Shoreline, Alameda County
Francis Mendoza is a naturalist and park ranger with the East Bay Regional Parks District, and says this local stretch of marshes and seasonal wetlands is one of his favorite places to see the changing seasons in action.
Why? Look for its "swaths of pickleweed that turn red, rivaling eastern forests in its changing foliage," Mendoza advises — and migrating shorebirds, too.
José González is the founder of Latino Outdoors, which aims to inspire, connect and engage Latino communities in the outdoors. For foliage hunting in the South Bay, he particularly recommends this colorful spot in the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space.
Mt. Tam is an all-year-round treasure, but it shines in the mild, cool season of fall, says Cori Coccia, program director at GirlVentures, a Bay Area nonprofit that combines outdoor adventure with social-emotional learning for female-identified youth.
Coccia particularly recommends the Matt Davis Trail along the west side for its "gorgeous ocean views and the beautiful oak, madrone and Bay laurel forests along Rock Springs trail." Just be careful, she says, of another plant that pops with "vibrant red color amidst all the green": poison oak.
Sometimes, you don't even have to get out of the car to appreciate some fall foliage — and if wildfire smoke is making it unhealthy to be outside, a driving tour is a good way to at least escape the house.
Latino Outdoors founder José González recommends a "fun" drive south down Santa Teresa Blvd. in San San José, leading onto Monterey Rd., to see some autumnal hues.
When it comes to fall sights, GirlVentures's Cori Coccia hails Golden Gate Park as an often-overlooked gem right under San Francisco's nose.
Coccia says the park "offers everything from misty redwood groves, to lakes with turtles in them, to the biodiversity of every continent thriving in the botanical garden." Just make sure to still maintain social distancing on popular days, especially weekends.
Relying on expert recommendations is one thing. But what if the spots you want to visit are just too crowded right now — or you want to strike out and discover your own havens for fall foliage?
If that's you, Latino Outdoors founder José González has two big recommendations: think about the types of trees that are likely to deliver you a riot of beautiful autumnal color, then consider locations in which you could see them.
To start with the trees themselves, ginkgos are a great bet for colorful branches, González says, and they can be found in many neighborhoods. "Their yellow pop, much like aspens in the Sierra, are noticeable," he says.
As for locations, for a variety of non-native trees your best options might be in arboretums and on college campuses, González advises. But you might also consider trying to find them in particular neighborhoods within your city, "if you're up for a fun urban hike."
"Otherwise, you need to look for locations that provide variability like riparian zones [like creeks], and that experience temperature variation, like an actual winter," González says — so think: gains in elevation. This, he says, is why he likes to take a look at what the Bay Area Ridge Trail offers in terms of foliage.
And if it's safe to visit wine country, i.e. wildfire isn't a current threat? González reminds you that several vineyards can really "pop with color" at this time of year.