Each year, Californians head for the mountains — that annual fall ritual that reminds residents of the Golden State that, in some parts of the world, trees do change their appearance with the seasons. The result is a kaleidoscope of fall colors for those willing to drive to the higher elevations.
Besides, fall means fewer crowds in the most popular parks, cooler days and crisp nights. So, whether you're just going up there to cool off or you're planning a trip to see the fall colors -- best done from mid-October through November — here are some of our favorite destinations:
Sequoia National Park
Who wouldn't be impressed by the giant Sequoia trees you see throughout this famous park? The trees weigh as much as 2.7 million pounds, and some are more than 2,000 years old. Even their branches are as much as seven feet in diameter. Go in the fall and you'll also see the Cottonwoods and Aspen changing color as temperatures begin to plummet.
On our most recent trip to the park we stayed at the Wuksachi Village Lodge, right in the heart of the "action." Nearby are groves of the giant Sequoias as well as many trails, major attractions like the General Sherman Tree and park services and amenities. Lodgepole Village and the Market Center are close by for quick trips to the store.
With its well-appointed rooms, the lodge is quite an outpost. Here in the thick of the mountains you have a lodge that provides guest amenities such as televisions, refrigerators, phones and even computer ports. This is for people who love the feel of camping in the Great Outdoors, but who may have grown weary of roughing it in tents or no-frills cabins. The resort has a full dining room and lounge, so it really is like staying at a major hotel in the mountains.
The thing about Sequoia National Park is you want to allow plenty of time to drive the curvy roads through the park and to stop and take advantage of the trails. Staying in the park allows you to spend more time soaking up the incredible scenery, and less time hassling with traffic — which, by the way, is considerably less once you get deep into the fall season.
In addition to the obvious Main Attraction — the trees — Sequoia offers other points of interest. On this recent trip we stopped by the Giant Forest Museum, which we think does an excellent job of communicating the history of Sequoia National Park and explaining the conservation efforts afoot to make sure that these trees stay a national treasure. On an earlier trip, we discovered Crystal Cave, an amazing diversion where we saw gorgeous stalactites and "curtains," as well as ornate marble and all kinds of crystal formations that made it all look like some sort of Hollywood movie set.
For more information on Sequoia National Park, phone (559) 565-3341. More information on Wuksachi Lodge is available at 866-786-3197 or online at www.visitsequoia.com.
The San Jacinto mountain range of Southern California offers a stark contrast to the warm, arid climate just a few miles away and, for that reason, places like Idyllwild have become popular getaways for people who want a taste of the four seasons.
The "Yosemite of the South," a common nickname for Idyllwild, is a mountain village with a few earthy folks willing to brave the elements, and then a whole bunch more weekend vacation warriors who turn around and head for sunny L.A. in time for work Monday morning.
As early as September, the red maples and yellow cottonwoods begin to color the Idyllwild landscape. It's hard to imagine all of this so close to the Southern California desert, but here it is and a welcome respite it is for people who love four seasons.
Beginning the last weekend in September, the community also puts on an Oktoberfest celebration which is headquartered at Oma's Restaurant. Music, beer and brats are offered in abundance for three consecutive weekends. There are no big resorts in Idyllwild, but there is a variety of smaller accommodations.
We enjoyed spending some time in downtown Idyllwild where there seemed to be an endless variety of shops and a steady stream of visitors. Art galleries are also a big part of Idyllwild and there are no fewer than 17 of them for visitors to tour.
For more information on Idyllwild, visit www.idyllwildchamber.com or phone 888-659-3259. Lodging specials are available at www.innsofidyllwild.com.
Yosemite National Park
Let's face it: Yosemite is now to the point that it's practically over-run with summer visitors. But our trip to Yosemite in mid-October was different. The roadways weren't as crowded, accommodations were easier to get and there were long stretches along some hiking trails where we actually felt quite alone.
Yosemite is one of the most popular national parks in the country, so there is no escaping the tour buses or the flat-bed trailer tramways that take visitors on guided tours throughout Yosemite Valley. Still, the fall is a quieter time to visit Yosemite. Roadways are still bare yet it's not hard to imagine that, in a few weeks, the snow will turn this spectacular landscape into a winter wonderland. Temperatures change quickly as the sun goes down, reminding you that these natural attractions are several thousand feet above sea level. Attire changes from shorts and tee-shirts to winter clothes in a matter of minutes.
It's not far from the Highway 120 entrance to the Yosemite Valley where we enjoyed grand views of the rock walls that have made Yosemite so famous. It's not hard to see why Yosemite is considered to be the "Crown Jewel" of the National Park System — the towering granite cliffs are the result of earthquakes, glaciers and other forces that have been at work here for millions of years. In all, the park encompasses about 1,170 square miles of pristine forests, waterfalls, and alpine lakes, but visitors are most awe-struck by these walls of granite that dwarf their surroundings.
A visit to Yosemite is a different spectacular sight every few minutes as you drive through stands of Sequoia or Pine trees, stopping at trailheads to walk even further into the wilderness where you cross babbling brooks and enjoy numerous sightings of wildlife such as the Western Gray Squirrels, Golden Eagles or Peregrine Falcons. And, everywhere you look in the fall are magnificent colors that make Yosemite seem even more spectacular than during its prime summer season.
For more information on Yosemite National Park, phone 209-372-0200 or visit www.nps.gov/yose/.
A little over an hour's drive from San Diego's beaches and big-city attractions is a place that will transport you back through time and offer a glimpse of post-Civil War life in San Diego County. And, a trip to tiny Julian will be richly rewarded with fall colors in every direction you look.
We'd like to say the road to Julian is a road less traveled, but the truth is that Julian is a popular day or weekend trip for not only San Diego residents, but Southern California motorcycle and sports car clubs who find these curvy, scenic roads especially well-suited for their frequent excursions. If you like crowds and a certain kind of electricity, visit on a weekend; otherwise a weekday visit can offer a quiet respite from bustling city life.
Julian's tiny business district is only about three blocks long and four blocks wide, although you'll find sporadic businesses outside of the downtown area. Most of the buildings downtown are historical in some sense — many dating back to the post-Civil War period when the town was founded. Today, the town is known for its apples and a tourist custom is to enjoy a fresh-baked apple pie and ice cream at one of several local eateries. For a town with just a few hundred souls, Julian has an unusual number of bakeries and pie shops such as Mom's Pie House, where visitors stop for their obligatory treat.
The other shops in Julian run the gamut from tacky tourist shops to crafts of all types to the normal small-town fixtures like hardware and general stores. For those interested in galleries, antiques and collectibles, Julian has that covered as well. There are a total of nine galleries as well as several antique and collectible shops.
If you prefer to stay close to Julian, there are several options for overnight accommodations including bed-and-breakfast inns, small hotels and vacation rentals.
For more information on Julian, contact the Julian Chamber of Commerce at www.julianca.com or 760-765-1857.
Photos, from top: Wuksachi Lodge is like staying in a major hotel in the wilderness; Idyllwild has surprising combination of shops and nearby recreational opportunities; fall colors at Tenaya Lodge in Yosemite National Park; downtown Julian features many historic buildings.
Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway, except for Tenaya Lodge photo which is courtesy of Tenaya Lodge.
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