Insider’s Guide to Finding Fall Foliage around San Diego

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Leaf peep your heart out with these close-to-San Diego destinations that showcases peak fall foliage

San Diego may be famous for its iconic palm trees and evergreens, but if you are craving some botanical-based harvest colors, there is no need to travel to the east coast. Believe it or not, you are just a short drive from some of the most spectacular wilderness and fall foliage wherever you are in San Diego. Not only that, our city is also home to loads of deciduous trees, and they’re quite show-stopping in autumn—you just have to know where to look. Here are our favorite spots to go leaf-peeping for your very own epic fall adventure. Couple this with our apple picking guide, best spots to go pumpkin picking, and our fall festival guide to San Diego—you’ve suddenly got a fall to remember. East coast who?

Fall in Love with Balboa Park

Ahhh.. autumn in Balboa Park. The park is San Diego’s 1200-acre backyard filled with art, science, botanical gardens, and museums but this time of year, it’s where to go to get your fall fix. First, get dazzled by the fiery red of the sweetgum trees on the corner of 6th and Quince St. at the park’s edge. (That alone is worth the trip)! Then stroll the park with the littles in tow and see vibrant shades of gold, yellow and green. Finally, make a day of it at The San Diego Air & Space Museum or the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, and you’ve found your fall fun in San Diego.

1549 El Prado 
San Diego
Online: balboapark.org

Related: Dive Into Our Complete Guide to Family Fun in Balboa Park

Stroll the Japanese Friendship Garden

Littles will sprint to see the giant koi fish swimming in the ponds. You can take a breather and enjoy the beautiful fall colors of the garden. The Japanese maple trees run in shades of red, plus you’ll see bursts of yellow, orange, and green. Stroll the garden and then explore the latest exhibit.

Insider Tip: Did you know that some of the bushes in the Japanese Friendship Garden are pruned to be an egg shape? During the fall season, when there aren’t as many leaves on the trees, this gives more texture to the view. Learn about the different types of pruning at the garden during a docent-led tour.

Hours: Daily, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Cost: $14/adult; $12/students; free for kids 6 and younger

2215 Pan American Rd. E
San Diego
Online: niwa.org

Visit Palomar Mountain State Park

Pack a picnic and drive up to Palomar Mountain to see all the fall colors. This state park features over 11 miles of trails through oak forests, chaparral, expansive meadows, and staggering fir and cedar woodlands. From the brightly lit golden yellow of the black oaks to the surrounding red shrubs, you’ll feel like you’ve landed in New England. And, if you’re up for a hike, try the French Valley Trail, it’s a relatively flat 3.8-mile trail that offers a prime destination and will incite plenty of oohs and ahhs from your little hikers. 

19952 State Park Dr.
Palomar Mountain
Online: friendsofpalomarsp.org

Go Apple-Picking in Julian

Say hello to fall with a day trip to the historic gold mine town of Julian—famous for its fall colors, U-pick apples, apple pie, and apple cider. Head to a U-pick farm to pluck apples from the trees, then make your way to downtown Julian and look through the adorable gift stores. Miner’s Diner is a good place to grab lunch with the tots in tow. Before leaving, stop by a local pie shop for a freshly baked apple or pumpkin pie. If you’re on a mission to see the best fall foliage experience you can in Julian, we recommend hiking the 1.65-mile Canyon Oak Trail within William Heise County Park for views of the great oaks towering above.­­

2129 Main St.
Julian
Online: visitjulian.com

Related: Everything You Need to Know about Apple Picking in Julian 

Camp at Cuyamaca State Park

Sleep under the stars with the crew at Paso Picacho campground and experience fall up close and personal. The state park is home to 24,700 acres of oak and conifer forests, and at an elevation of 5,000 feet, the seasons come and go like Northern California. This is a great family campground where you can secure a spot through Reserve America. Your happy campers will love the fresh air, the climbing trees, and lots of easy hikes from the camp spot. Weekends are busy, so book early. 

12551 Hwy. 79
Descanso
Online: parks.ca.gov

Related: Our Favorite Spots to Go Glamping near San Diego

Discover Fall Colors at Sweetwater River Bridge

This historic East County bridge is a sweet spot for fall color—plus it makes a beautiful backdrop for family photos. Now a pedestrian bridge, it’s easy to spot off Hwy. 94 and worth a look-see if you’re in the area. Weekends get busy with fams taking pics and strolls. Built in 1929, the bridge is made of iron and has triangular trestles that were popular at that time. Come experience a little history.

2951 Jamacha Rd.
El Cajon
Online: fws.gov

Related: Explore All the Bridges of San Diego County

Fall Photo-Ops at Bates Nut Farm

This pumpkin patch is worth visiting as a yearly tradition. You’ll find all kinds of pumpkins from Big Mac to Ghost and Jack o’ Lanterns (and they’re all grown on-site). There’s plenty to do, from tractor hayrides to a hay bale maze. Bring a picnic lunch to sit under the autumn trees, or grab a wheelbarrow and stock up on your fall decor. Shop the central store (be sure to grab some homemade fudge!), then head home and chalk up a fantastic fall day.

When: Sept. 17 – Oct. 31; 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Cost: Free admission. Parking is $8. Bring money for food and vendors.

15954 Woods Valley Rd.
Valley Center
Online: batesnutfarm.biz/pumpkin-festival

Related: Don’t Miss These Epic Fall Festivals Happening around San Diego This Month & Next

Explore Mt. Laguna’s Kwaaymii Trail

Hike the easy half-mile loop trail with a small hill. About a 50-minute drive on 8-East, you’ll appreciate being surrounded by the black oaks’ golden leaves mixed in with the green pine trees. Bring a lunch to munch. The trailhead starts at and loops back around to the Visitor’s Center. You’ll need to purchase a $5 adventure day pass to access the forest.

Sunrise Hwy. & Los Huecos Rd.
Mt. Laguna
Online: lagunamountainvisitorcenter.gov

Hike around the Black Oaks at Volcan Mountain

This fall, enjoy a family-friendly hike at Volcan Mountain. This mountain provides a home to some rare plant and wildlife species. View the changing yellow and red leaves of the black oaks that are abundant in the area. They offer guided hikes and educational children’s events for visitors. It’s the makings of a perfect fall family day.

Volcan Mountain Foundation
Julian
Online: volcanmt.org

—Aimee Della Bitta & Kimberly Stahl

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