Who says that you need to travel to New England to see stunning foliage? While the colder climates on the East Coast do tend to claim the lion’s share of attention for their vibrant fall leaves, those living on the West Coast have just as much opportunity to see the colors turn — if they know where to look, that is.
But before we can go on a tour of the Bay Area’s most striking fall displays, we need to understand why leaf colors change in the first place.
During the spring and summer months, leaves take on a green hue because the chlorophyll, the chemical that absorbs sunlight and helps transform carbon dioxide and water into sugars and starch for the plant, is active. When daylight weakens, and temperatures drop in fall, however, the leaves slow the food-making process. As a result, the green-hued chlorophyll breaks down and fades, leaving orange, yellow, and brown colors to emerge in its absence. The mix of tones that a tree displays depends on how much chlorophyll remains in the leaf and how other pigments mix; oak, for example, tends towards browns, while gingko trees display vibrant yellows.
As it stands, the temperate Bay Area doesn’t usually create the conditions necessary for the vibrant array seen in areas like Vermont or New Hampshire. However, San Francisco and its surrounding areas do have a few hidden gems.
The San Francisco Botanical Garden
This 55-acre garden is nestled in the heart of the Golden Gate Park. While many of its trees remain green year-round, the garden does nurture some fall-changing plants. If you want to see changing leaves, you need to visit the Temperate Asia section of the garden. There, you can see the Ginkgo Biloba leaning over the pathway alongside Bamboo Pond with striking yellow leaves. You may also find bright-yellow flowering plums there, as well; over time, their bright leaves fall to create a red-brown carpet over the garden’s boardwalk. Similarly, the SFBG’s Moon Viewing Garden hosts an array of striking Japanese Maple trees with their deep yellow and orange tones.
Japanese Tea Garden
This garden also grows within the bounds of the Golden Gate Park. A walk through this lovingly-arranged garden reveals many fall-turned-yellow Japanese Maples. However, you don’t need to visit during the fall to enjoy a trip to the Garden; its landscape features classic Japanese elements such as an arched drum bridge, stepping stone paths, native Japanese plants, and peaceful koi ponds.
Tilden Regional Park
Want more fall sights? Try traveling outside of San Francisco! The hills of Tilden Regional Park in Berkeley are striking for their colors. This 2,079-acre park encompasses countless plants, wildlife species, and — most importantly for us — a botanical garden. In the last, visitors can view the lovely colors of the fall-changing cottonwood and dogwood trees.
Bishop Creek Canyon
If you like your fall leaf-viewing with a little more adventure, Bishop Creek may be the attraction for you. This expansive recreation area is well-known for its fishing, hiking, and rock climbing offerings, as well as for the bright-turning cottonwoods that dot the surrounding mountains and rim the 10,000 foot-high canyon.
Napa and Sonoma Wine Country
This option is somewhat of a trek from San Francisco, but it’s worth the drive for avid leaf-seekers. Areas such as Anderson Valley and Dry Creek both sport truly incredible orange and red hues in the fall. Plus, if you schedule your visit in October, you may be able to fit in a bit of grape stomping or other crush-season activities.
Don’t let New England steal all of the fun — find fall-turning leaves in your hometown!