If it weren’t for the appearance of those tell-tale yellow school buses, it may be hard to spot the difference between summer and fall in the Bay Area. Transplants from states that know real seasons often pine for home this time of year (unlike in February), with visions of joyful leaps into freshly raked leaf piles. While not around every corner, there are pockets of Instagram-worthy fall color to be found thanks to plantings of maples, sycamores, gingkoes, grapevines and other deciduous delights. Check out a few of our favorite autumn day trips below.
Photo by Brendan Lange
Denizens of the cool, gray city don’t have to look further than Golden Gate Park to find the warm tones of autumn. A stroll around the SF Botanical Garden in October and November reveals an arresting array of color to observant eyes, from the golden-fanned gingko trees to deep purple vine maples. Ask a docent to point you to the Persian ironwood tree, whose leaves take on a spectacular rainbow of shades this time of year. Different trees peak at different times, so check the garden’s Facebook page for updates.
Time your visit to catch childrens’ story time and docent walk at the garden library, free with garden admission. For lunch, walk out to one of the many kid-friendly restaurants around 9th Ave in the Sunset District. Or bring your own fall picnic bounty and spread out on the lawn next to the Moon Viewing garden, where the Japanese maples are putting on their own quiet show.
Showy maples can also be found across the street in another park gem, the Japanese Tea Garden. While you take in the autumn scene, kids will have fun challenging themselves by walking up and down the famous drum bridge, and finding their fortune in a cookie at the tea house.
San Francisco Botanical Garden
Golden Gate Park
1199 9th Ave.
San Francisco, CA
Adults: $8; Youth (12-17): $6; Child (5-11)$2; free for children 4 and under and all SF residents
Children’s story time: October 4 & 18 and November 8 & 22 from 10:30–11:30 am
Japanese Tea Garden
Golden Gate Park
75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
San Francisco, CA
Adults: $6 (Residents), $8 (Non-Residents); Seniors (65+) & Youth (12-17): $3 (Residents), $6 (Non-Residents); Child (5-11): $2; f ree for children 4 and under
Photo courtesy of Creative Commons
Up in the hills above Berkeley, Tilden Park is the go-to place for fall color, especially around Lake Anza (an easy hike for little ones) and on the route of evergreen favorite Redwood Valley Railway. Keep your eye out (not your hands, please!) for the flaming red leaves of poison oak, which add some of the most striking color to the park. In November and December, head downhill to the UC Berkeley campus, when it’s ablaze with lemon-yellow gingko leaves; maples and myrtles also add some flair.
Slip through the Caldecott tunnel to find canopies of yellow leaves in and around the trees of Orinda‘s Community Center Park (perfect for making piles and kicking) and along Camino Pablo. After the kids have exhausted the two playgrounds, the library, and the fountains, head to Piccolo Napoli and tuck into some awesome pizza.
2501 Grizzly Peak Blvd.
Orinda Community Center Park
26 Orinda Way
Photo by Sarah Ordódy
Following Skyline Boulevard as it dips, rises and weaves through the Peninsula can be visually rewarding on its own, as you pass by stands of sycamores and big-leaf maples. But 5-point harnesses can only contain kid energy for so long. Happily, there are 26 open space preserves in the mid-peninsula region, offering easy hikes, picnic spots and stunning views. One of our favorites this time of year is the Rancho San Antonio Preserve, with its maples, oaks and flowering persimmon trees. Accessible from the Foothill Blvd. exit off 280, the preserve’s main attraction for the kiddos is the working Deer Hollow Farm. This historical ranch is home to frolicking piglets (farrowed in August!), sheep, goats, chickens and cows. Note: There is a mile-long walk from the parking lot to the farm, but it’s flat and paved. Strollers welcomed! Self-guided tours are available year-round. Check their calendar for organized tours and festive Halloween events.
While you’re in the neighborhood, a side trip to Los Altos is worthwhile to see the Chinese Pistache trees (donated to the city by Los Altos Nursery in the 1950s) dropping their vivid orange and red leaves on Main and 2nd streets. Stop into the scrumptious Voyageur du Temps (in the renovated train depot on 1st Street) to extend the fall mood with some pumpkin pound cake, pumpkin macaroons or pumpkin pie.
Photo by Seth Lemmons via Flickr
A great spot to find that heady mix of fall colors and evergreens is Samuel P. Taylor State Park, with its oaks, firs, madrones and old-growth redwoods. Throw the bikes on the rack, and take a Sunday drive along bucolic Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to the park entrance, 15 miles west of San Rafael. Samuel P. Taylor boasts a few great trails for biking and hiking safely with kids, especially the dog-friendly (and relatively flat) Cross Marin Trail that winds alongside Lagunitas Creek. Bring food and enjoy a relaxing lunch at the Azalea Picnic Area to complete the day. Or better yet, pitch a tent and stay a while.
Samuel P. Taylor State Park
8889 Sir Francis Drake Blvd
Photo by Malcolm Carlaw via Flickr
Crush season in the Napa Valley is a not-to-be-missed sight, as the rolling green hills of grape vines turn to blankets of burgundy and orange. It’s also a great time to visit Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, where the cooler fall temps make the parks wooded trails ripe for exploration. In addition to its namesake trees, the peaceful scene on the Redwood Trail includes autumn-gold maple leaves fluttering down alongside Ritchey Creek.
To quench your thirst after a hike, check out Castello di Amorosa, a medieval castle winery complete with dungeons and a small farm. Kids under 5 are not allowed on tours, but are welcome sample the harvest bounty in juice form. For rumbling tummies, a good bet is the casual Calistoga Inn Restaurant & Brewery, where the popular outdoor dining patio doubles as a roaming ground for young ones.
Bothe-Napa Valley State Park
Castello di Amorosa
4045 North St. Helena Hwy.
What other spots in the Bay Area do you know that offer great views of the changing fall colors? Leave us a comment below and share.
—Sarah Ordódy, Laure Latham and Sarah Bossenbroek