Nothing beats watching fall colors transform the countryside every year, especially in the dramatically beautiful Lake Tahoe area of California and Nevada. Read on for Culture Trip’s pick of the best places to admire autumn foliage in this unspoiled region of the United States, from spectacular mountain highways to the lake’s shores.
Lovers of fall foliage are likely to be overwhelmed by Hope Valley, an unspoiled region located about a half-hour drive south of South Lake Tahoe. Its sprawling aspen forests are famous for their autumnal colors; their countless leaves turn rich shades of orange, red and brown in mid-September. Soak it all up by hiking the popular Crater Lake trail (2.5mi/4km) and the Scotts Lake path (3mi/5km), fly fishing in the West Fork Carson River or booking yourself into a yurt or cabin in the wilderness at the classy Wylder Hope Valley (formerly Sorensen’s Resort).
Along Highway 4, on the south side of Hope Valley, is the 61mi-long (98km) Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway. This spectacular route is flanked by dense forests of aspen trees, creating a colorful passageway for vehicles every fall. Near the East Fork Carson River and Kinney Creek, you’ll find some perfect spots to stop and admire the deep river canyons found in this area. Also awaiting you along the route are waterfalls, volcanic rock formations, scary granite outcrops and unforgettable views of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Luther Pass runs along Highway 89 at an altitude of 7,740ft (2,359m) above sea level, linking the Sierra Crest (the main ridge of the Sierra Nevada) to the south with the Carson Range to the north. Thick groves of aspen trees are clustered along the winding road, and there are plenty of places to stop and gaze at picturesque valleys wearing their seductive fall colors. If you want to explore further, park at the Big Meadow Trailhead and take a hike on the 165mi-long (266km) Tahoe Rim Trail, which circumnavigates Lake Tahoe.
To appreciate the fall colors of the area on foot rather than from a car, head to the Spooner Lake Management Area on the eastern side of Lake Tahoe. From there, you can walk an undemanding 5mi (8km) trail that runs uphill along North Canyon Creek to the southern edge of Marlette Lake, cutting through aspen forests that are at their best in September and October. Keen cyclists can also access the Flume Trail biking route from the Marlette track, providing another opportunity to explore the region’s untamed landscapes.
Fallen Leaf Lake
Fallen Leaf Lake lies a mile southwest of Lake Tahoe, to the east of Mount Tallac. The best way to appreciate its glorious fall colors is to go hiking, and there are several routes of varying levels of difficulty. To access the easiest trails, take Fallen Leaf Road from Highway 89 until you reach the camping area, from where you can walk to the lake’s shore in 20 minutes. For a longer and more demanding trek, carry on driving to the Fallen Leaf Chapel and complete the circular route from there to Angora Ridge.
One of the best spots to witness the transformation of Lake Tahoe’s shores every fall is Zephyr Cove, located along Highway 50 on the eastern side. At the Zephyr Cove Resort, you can stay in lakeside cabins just feet from the beach or camp or park your RV at a specifically designated area nearby. Either way, you’ll have access to restaurants and bars and activities ranging from horseback riding to snowmobiling. Perhaps the best way to soak up the area’s fall beauty, though, is to take a cruise out into the clear waters of Lake Tahoe.
To welcome the fall in a traditional style, head to Apple Hill, a two-hour drive southwest of Tahoe City between Placerville and Camino; it’s home to more than 55 farms. Every autumn, this acclaimed cluster of growers, ranches and wineries marks the transformation of the foliage with harvest festivals, apple pickings and wine tastings. This thriving industry has become California’s largest collective of apple growers, so you can also enjoy warming autumnal products – such as cider and pies – made from the region’s star fruit.
If you’re staying in Tahoe City and don’t want to travel too far to admire the fall colors, Paige Meadows is a great option. Within a 10-minute drive out of the city, you’ll find a looped trail of about 5mi (8km) that will take you through tranquil prairies, brimming with wildflowers in the spring and summer but dominated by brightly colored aspen during the fall. Above the trees, some of the area’s most popular mountains – such as Twin Peaks and Scott Peak – are visible in the distance, reaching up into the clear blue sky.
The quaint town of Markleeville lies about a 15-minute drive southeast of Hope Valley, on the banks of Millberry Creek. The naturally irrigated land means that its many aspen trees – especially those surrounding the Alpine County Superior Court – take on vivid hues during the fall, contrasting brilliantly with the crisp blue of the California sky. Admire these vibrant specimens while hiking or biking, or from an open-air bath at Grover Hot Springs State Park, a 10-minute drive to the west. The rustic Creekside Lodge is a good accommodation option.
Mount Rose Scenic Drive
For an unbeatable fall road trip, take the Mount Rose Scenic Drive – a 25mi (40km) road that weaves south from Reno to the northern tip of Lake Tahoe, taking in some of the area’s most humbling scenery along the way. The route’s highlights are the 8,900ft (2,700m) Mount Rose Summit, a stunning pass that snakes between Mount Rose and Slide Mountain (which will be to your right and left, respectively), and the section immediately after this, which dips down into the aspen forests of the Tahoe basin.
Additional reporting by Mark Nayler
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