Fall is a great time to road-trip through the Golden State. As daylight wanes and temperatures fall, the state is a mix of fall foliage, late-season produce, and incredible sunsets worth witnessing. Here’s a rundown on three of my favorite road trips to experience the very best of fall in Northern California.
Wine colors in Napa and Sonoma
Back east, where I grew up, fall was a time to witness the leaves on deciduous trees change color. Here in California, where I live now, the late-year experience is a bit different since we don’t really have seasons. One place you can witness fall foliage, of sorts, is wine country, where all of the changing colors are on the leaves of grapevines in the vineyards.
Every year around mid-October, just after workers have harvested grapes to make wine, the vine leaves start to change from green to yellow, red, and orange. Entire hillsides change color; it looks like someone went through the vineyards with a paintbrush.
In Napa, the best strategy is to get off the main drag of Highway 29 and head east, to the Silverado Trail. This road hugs a natural bench on the east side of the valley, providing a wonderful perspective of the changing colors down below.
In Sonoma, I recommend one of two drives—the windy trip on Highway 12 in Sonoma Valley, where you can see vineyards on both sides of the road; and Dry Creek Road through Dry Creek Valley, where, again, you drive along a bench so you’re actually looking down on the vines. I also recommend visiting Jordan Winery, which I’ve awarded an Expedia Viewfinder Pick distinction because of its one-of-a-kind, high-end experiences and its second-to-none customer service. The three-hour Estate Tour & Tasting takes you to the top of the highest point on the 1,200-acre property, from which the colors are astounding.
Finally, in Mendocino County, drive Highway 128 through Anderson Valley; the leaves don’t change color until early November, but the colors always seem bolder and brighter than they are elsewhere.
Pumpkins in Half Moon Bay
About 30 miles south of San Francisco, in a tiny seaside town named Half Moon Bay, the name of the game is pumpkins. Big pumpkins. Small pumpkins. Thousands of pumpkins. As far as the eye can see.
The best road trips for Half Moon Bay pumpkin-picking take you along Highway 92, which runs from the main freeways of the Bay Area all the way to the Pacific and along Highway 1, which hugs the coast.
Every year, there’s an art and pumpkin festival. This year’s festival, the 45th annual, is October 17–18.
My wife and I lived on the “Coastside” (that’s what locals call the area) before we moved to wine country, and loved celebrating fall with fresh pumpkins every year. Our go-to spot for picking: Farmer John’s Pumpkin Farm, which had a train, a bouncy house, and a host of other attractions for visitors to enjoy as well. Other popular pumpkin places in the area are Lemos Farm and Arata Pumpkin Farm, to name a few.
When you road-trip to the area, be sure to park the car at Half Moon Bay State Beach and head down the bluffs to walk in the sand along the ocean. Fall is a great time to see an abundance of local wildlife, including seals, sea lions, and snowy plovers.
Viewfinder Tip: Great hiking abounds on the San Mateo County coast. Pull off Highway 1 near Montara State Beach and look for the 6-mile (up-and-back) trail to the summit of Montara Mountain.
Artichokes on the central coast
Farther south, between Santa Cruz and Monterey, California is famous for something entirely different: artichokes.
Every fall, artichoke fans from all over the world get their fix in a tiny part of the world off Highway 156 named the Pajaro Valley. Here, artichokes are everywhere—flanking the roadways, at farm stands, and even at gas stations and roadside diners.
Road-tripping this region is easy because it’s not very large. The main destination: Castroville, which dubs itself the “Artichoke Center of the World.” A secondary destination: Moss Landing, which comprises mostly fields.
In Castroville, options abound. One of the best farm stands to buy the green globes of goodness is Pezzini Farms, which usually has them by the bushel (and usually sells them at two or three for US$1.00). I also love the fried artichokes at the Giant Artichoke restaurant—a greasy-spoon diner named for the immense artichoke statue out front.
The town even hosts an annual artichoke festival, usually held over two days every May (don’t let the time of the festival fool you; artichokes are fresh in both spring and fall).
Of course, my favorite strategy for visiting Castroville is to hit it on the way back from a road trip farther south, pick up a whole bagful of artichokes, and bring them home to prepare there. I cook them the way my paternal grandmother used to, stuffing each leaf with a breadcrumb-and-parmesan mixture, then baking them in the oven until the tops are golden brown. When they’re ready, each of the “arties” is a meal in and of itself. I could survive on those suckers for days.
What are your favorite road trips and why?
Images courtesy of Jordan Winery.