It’s hard to think about where to see fall color in California because active fires around the state and uncertainty about access to viewing spots make it difficult to plan.
“California seems snakebit,” John Poimiroo wrote on the blog CaliforniaFallColor.com. “With the state reeling from forest closures to accommodate wildfire management … and COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, we’re exhausted, fed up and looking for escape.”
I wanted to find someplace where fall arrives later, which meant giving up on the Eastern Sierra and the aspens that may already be at their peak. That left cities, particularly those with trees — some thousands of miles from their native habitat — that burst with color mid-October into early December. Turns out, I didn’t have to go far.
Sacramento claims the nickname “City of Trees.” Its tree-planting culture started in the mid-19th century when Gold Rush-era settlers realized the city was hot — sometimes scorching hot. The only native trees were oaks, which were cut down to build houses. So trees were planted for shade, not for beauty.
Many chose trees they knew, such as maples, elms and plane trees, from their homes in the Midwest and East, . Over the years exotics were added — Japanese maples, liquidambar, Chinese pistache and zelkova — as well as sycamores, black oaks, cottonwood and, yes, native oaks. The result: Sacramento’s urban forest is one of the leafiest in the nation, with trees covering 20% of its 100 square miles.
What colors does fall bring? “I don’t know about any one color; I think it’s a rainbow,” said spokeswoman Stephanie Robinson of the Sacramento Tree Foundation. “And that really points to the diversity of our urban forest.” Chinese pistache (related to pistachios) brings scarlet, crimson and orange; Japanese maples add pinkish reds; silver maples turn yellow; and ginkgoes from China add gold swirls.
The city still embraces shade, which has become a key way to reduce energy costs. The foundation, in partnership with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, gives residents free trees to shade houses in summer and keep them cooler, then warmer in winter when the leaves fall, allowing in sunlight. About 10,000 trees a year are planted in Sacramento. (Los Angeles also has a tree giveaway program)
and is figuring out how to shade more neighborhoods.
And the leaves from all those shade makers? Sacramento has a fleet of leaf-scooping machines called the Claw that sweeps up and composts about 54 tons of leaves each year.
I visited Sacramento in search of shade (leaves were green or barely starting to turn in late September) and areas that were sure to display fall colors. These walkable spots were easy to find by car or Uber but are by no means the only places to go in the City of Trees.
The Fabulous Forties, East Sacramento: It’s hard to say which is more eye-catching: the leafy canopies of some of the city’s oldest trees or the stately homes that define one of its toniest neighborhoods. Sidewalks here are smooth and wide for walking. Plane trees, which turn yellow and brown in fall, line many streets. Liquidambar’s star-shaped leaves and maples add red to the mix.
Where: Park anywhere near streets numbered in the 40s between J Street and Folsom Boulevard. Set off on foot to nearby McKinley Park, which also has fall colors, to picnic or take a break. It’s at 601 Alhambra Blvd.
Capitol Park, downtown Sacramento: The state Capitol is always a popular tourist stop; the 40-acre green space that surrounds it is equally impressive. The expansive grounds host an arboretum studded with monuments and memorials.
The Civil War Memorial Grove, for example, dates to 1897 and features trees from battlefields. Several types of trees bring on the colors: pinkish to scarlet hues from Japanese, sugar and red maples as well as yellows and golds from liquidambar and Chinese pistache. It’s also worth seeing the mature redwoods and huge deodar cedars that drape over the northern lawn. It’s easy walking as you wind your way through trees and history.
Where: Between L and N streets, from 10th to 15th streets.
William Land Regional Park, southwest Sacramento: There’s a lot going on in this century-old green space that houses the city’s zoo, a golf course, a kiddie place called Fairyvale, ponds and lots of older trees.
The park offers a pretty mix of colors and is one of the most tree-dense areas of the city. It’s an easy walk around the curving pond near 14th Street where plane trees turn yellow and gold and large zelkova trees add rust and red. Other trees planted in this 150-plus-acre park include fan palms, Italian cypress, sycamores and native oaks.
Where: 3800 S. Land Park Drive. Take the mile or so walk or drive to nearby Freeport Bakery at 2966 Freeport Blvd. for a seasonal treat: cookies ($1.95 each) in the shape and color of fall leaves.
Woodlake, North Sacramento: Many types of maples, including Japanese, scarlet oak and Chinese pistache add fall’s red and crimson hues to this 1930s-era neighborhood. The Sacramento Tree Foundation posts an online brochure (go to sactree.com, click on “programs” and look for “training and tours”) that takes you on a house-by-house tree tour.
It’s easy to follow; stay on the sidewalk and look from afar. It points you to gems such as a giant ginkgo on Forrest Street and Eastern dogwood, which turns from pink to bright red, on Blackwood Street.
Where: Start at Woodlake Park at Arden Way and Oxford Street and stroll along the streets that lead south.
If you have time for a side trip, head to Lodi, proclaimed the “Zinfandel Capital of the World.” The small town, a half-hour south of Sacramento, is known for its grape growing and pretty perch on the Mokelumne River.
The old downtown area is the place to strike autumn gold. “It’s like Connecticut … in fall,” said a man standing in front of City Hall. The surrounding neighborhood is filled with neat streets lined with full canopies of maples as well as Chinese pistache and gums that turn red, yellow and gold. From here, it’s a mile and a half to Lodi Lake Park on the city’s north side. Walking around the lake or paddling in a kayak takes you to quiet coves and inlets where plane trees and maples provide color.
Where: From City Hall at 221 W. Pine St., walk or drive to Pine and Church streets bordered by Ham Lane. The park is at 1101 W. Turner Road.
To learn more
- The Sacramento Tree Foundation has posted self-guided tours online that will take you to neighborhoods and even specific trees. Go to sactree.com and click on “programs” and then “training and tours” to download a route. Other places on the website tell you which trees might work well in your landscape.
- Not every place will have fall color at the same time. Certain streets may boom with color; others may be dull because the trees have already lost their leaves. Keep looking and exploring because you never know what you’ll find. For fall color updates throughout the state, go to californiafallcolor.com.
- What’s that tree? When you find a remarkable tree, it’s fun to figure out what it is. Mobile apps can help. Treefinder and vTree (developed by Virginia Tech) are both free and downloadable.