Northern California in the Fall

Rows of grapes in a vineyard with the leaves turning golden.

Autumn is beautiful in California’s Napa Valley. Photo © Sherri Camp/123rf.

It may sound like sacrilege, but summer is my least favorite season. Sure, a June day at San Francisco’s China Beach is heaven and nothing beats a farmers market in July, but in general it is either too hot or too foggy, and certainly way too crowded. Call me a true blue Northern Californian, but I wait until after Labor Day to pack up the car and head out exploring. Starting in September, the sun comes back to the beach, inland mountains and valleys cool down just a notch, and the colors (yes, we do have fall colors in California!) are exquisite against brilliant blue autumn skies.

The beauty of Northern California is that there is something for everyone.The beauty of Northern California is that there is something for everyone. So, as you plan your itinerary, whether it’s for the visit of your fussy foodie aunt from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, or a 21-day dream vacation for those looking to experience the best of Northern California, here are a few suggestions to make the most out of your autumn trip.

High-Maintenance Aunt

When your aunt steps off the place at SFO, she’ll probably already have a list of spas, restaurants, and wineries that you two must see, but you can still show her something of San Francisco and Wine Country not usually found in her glossy travel magazines.

For this sophisticate, no trip would be complete without a shopping excursion along Maiden Lane, but if it happens to be Tuesday, surprise her by making a stop at the Noontime Concert at Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, where a half hour of classical chamber music is performed every week at 12:30pm. Follow up with lunch at Café Claude, a quick stop for a Blue Bottle latte, and a visit to the de Young Museum. If you are looking for a culinary adventure, skip the Ferry Building and instead head to the Presidio’s Main Post on Sunday afternoon. The Mission’s best food trucks gather there for Off the Grid, a festive picnic/farmers market in one of San Francisco’s premier historic settings—complete with live music and a mimosa cart weaving between picnic blankets to deliver drinks,

Unless she likes sitting in traffic, steer her away from Napa until after the crush. November in Napa is beautiful with its vines dressed in reds and oranges, and the rain gives the historic stone wineries an air of European grandeur. Best of all, spa and lodging prices drop by nearly half, and many of the best tasting rooms can be virtually empty. In October, take her to Healdsburg and book a table at Barndiva. Enjoy tastings together at Alexander Valley Vineyards, Michel-Schlumberger, and Fritz Underground Winery. Finish the trip by reserving a riverfront suite at the Jenner Inn, and after a decadent sunset dinner overlooking the Pacific Ocean at the River’s End, she will insist she has found heaven.

Savvy International Traveller

If you’re already armed with Moon Northern California and your itinerary is set for a 21-day blitz through the best of the region, here are a couple of tips for things not to miss, particularly if you want to see the state the way the locals do.

October kicks off with the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, a free event that sprawls across the western half of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and has major headliners ranging from Bonnie Raitt to Boz Scaggs. October is the last month that the rustic West Point Inn on the top of Mount Tamalpais hosts its beloved monthly pancake breakfast. The coffee and flapjacks are the perfect fuel to either climb to the top of the mountain or take the famous Dipsea Trail all the way to Stinson Beach.

October is also harvest time in Northern California, and one of the best ways to experience it is with a tour of the farms and wineries. Signing up for the Sierra Oro Farm Trail Passport Weekend, held this year on October 12 and 13, in the northern Sierra Foothills will give you a glimpse of one of the state’s best undiscovered culinary landscapes, and you’ll avoid the crowds and fuss of the Bay Area or Wine Country. This is also the place to find fall colors in Northern California. Just take Highway 70 up the spectacular Feather River Canyon, or Highway 49 to Gold Country’s Downieville. Either way, if you travel north enough you should end up in Sierraville, a tiny mountain town that looks much like it did a hundred years ago. Besides herds of black cattle, it is home to an authentic cowboy diner that specializes in outsized portions of biscuits and gravy; one of the state’s best Mexican restaurants; and the small Sierra Hot Springs retreat that, despite its New Age bent, fits right in.

For a more pedigreed New Age experience, the autumn is when the fog parts at Big Sur’s Esalen. Reserve a spot in a weekend workshop or simply slip into its enlightenment-inspiring hot tubs perched over the Pacific Ocean—they’re open to locals and other outside visitors every night between 1 and 3am. Fall is also the best time to backpack in Big Sur, and you’ll see plenty of Northern Californians hitting the ten-mile trail to Sykes Hot Springs, where soaking is free and always available.


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