Fall Colors in the North State
● By Laura Christman
By Laura Christman • Photo by Jay Thesken
Autumn in California pales in comparison with New England, right?
That’s the notion, but John Poimiroo isn’t buying it.
“California has the longest lasting, most dependable, most diverse and most spectacular autumn in North America,” says Poimiroo, who launched CaliforniaFallColor.com in
2009 to bring attention to the state’s flashy foliage.
Using reports and images from photographers and other volunteer color spotters throughout the state, the website provides updates on the best places to see California’s autumn color at its peak. The seasonal site has earned honors from the Outdoor Writers Association of California.
California is color-strong due to its diverse terrain — mountains, valleys and foothills. On the East Coast, fall color descends broadly by latitude. In California, color drops by elevation, beginning at high elevation in the Sierras in late summer and then slowly rolling into lower locales. That translates to a long season.
“First peak is often before autumn begins and it lasts until December, dropping by 500 feet in elevation a
week, on average,” says Poimiroo, a travel/outdoor communications consultant.
So if you miss the blast of color in one location, you still have time to catch it in another.
The state’s mix of varied climates results in another plus
— a rich diversity of plants, many of which look fabulous in fall.
California lacks a widespread reputation as an autumn power player, however. Poimiroo thinks that’s because so much of the population lives along the coast, where there’s little leaf action. Visitors go to the mountains mostly in summer (camping, hiking, fishing) or in winter (skiing), so there’s not a connection to California’s colorful fall, Poimiroo says.
“They’re missing out,” he says. “The beauty of fall color inspires, warms the heart and fills the soul.”
The Shasta Cascade region is a prime place to experience colorful autumns, Poimiroo says. Leaves dazzle in Shasta-Trinity National Forest, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Trinity Alps and Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.
“My very favorite time of the year at Whiskeytown is fall,” says Matt Switzer, interpretive ranger. “The moderate temperatures are a reward for surviving another long, hot North State summer, and the plants are putting on one last glorious display before settling down for winter.”
As fall settles in, the dark-green foliage of black oaks on the hillsides around Whiskeytown Lake transitions to sunset-orange. Near creeks, alders become yellow-orange. Along trails, dogwoods go red and bigleaf maples turn golden.
“These (bigleaf maple) trees, which commonly grow over 60 feet high, light up the canopy with beautiful yellow leaves that can grow up to a foot across,” Switzer says.
Switzer recommends Papoose Pass Tail from Sheep Camp and James K. Carr Trail to Whiskeytown Falls for bigleaf-maple viewing.
Terri Thesken of the Shasta Chapter of the California Native Plant Society likes Whiskeytown (Davis Gulch Trail) for fall color, as well as Lassen Park (Sifford Lake Trail) and Lake Shasta (Bailey Cove and Waters Gulch trails). Those locations, plus Sacramento Ditch Trail (below Shasta Dam) and Middle McCloud Falls Trail, are nice destinations for fall-color trips, she says.
“Fall is absolutely my favorite time of the year,” Thesken says.
Many California native plants have a colorful side, she notes. Bigleaf maple, mountain dogwood, black oak, Brewer’s oak, aspen, Oregon grape, skunkbush, redbud, spicebush, spirea, golden ferns, California wild grape and Indian rhubarb put on a nice show before taking
a winter rest, Thesken says.
Poimiroo says quaking aspen is the go-to tree for serious color spotters. In California, aspens are found “in a wide range of colors — yellow, of course, but also gold, orange, pink and red to crimson,” he says.
He expects 2017 to be a good year for autumn color. “The big winter we had this past year indicates — from past observations — that color will last longer at each location.”
Thesken notes that in drought years, trees such as black oak can go directly from green to brown.
To dial in on what to see and where to see it, Poimiroo suggests visiting CaliforniaFallColor.com. The website reports on locations as they begin to change color and when they reach peak color. For travel plans, use the website to look back in time by reviewing archived reports that show when places typically are at their best.
California Fall Color
Shasta chapter California Native Plant Society
Whiskeytown National Recreation Area
Lassen Volcanic National Park, www.nps.gov/lavo