Roadtrip During Fall in the Sierras: 6 Places to Visit
By Kim Merryman
Early fall is the perfect time to visit the Sierra Nevada mountain range, especially in a campervan. You get more of the fall colors in the mountains than on California’s coast, the crowds of summer have softened, and so have the temperatures. Late fall can be iffy when snow starts to fall in higher elevations. But mid-September to mid-October is usually a good bet for a roadtrip during fall in the Sierras.
You can pick up your Escape Campervan from the San Francisco campervan rental office and head for the hills. Here are six places you can visit on your roadtrip in the Sierras.
We picked up our campervan, Lazer Beam, in San Francisco and headed up to Apple Hill, a ranch community in the Sierra Nevada foothills with apple orchards, farms, and wineries.
We arrived after dark and loved our quiet campsite at Madrone Tree Hill, a charming campground on a working Christmas tree farm. The next morning, in search of coffee and breakfast, we crossed the road from camp to Rainbow Orchards, an apple, pear, and blueberry farm famous for their fried-to-order apple cider donuts. Many of Apple Hill’s farms have donuts, but Rainbow’s are the best and the freshest. A warm paper bag of these cinnamon-and-sugar-coated pillows of goodness shared in the picnic area among the apple trees felt about as pumpkin spice as it gets.
Apple Hill has something for everyone in the fall. You can follow the Hard Cider Trail or spend a day wine tasting at the vineyards. Locals recommend Wofford Acres Vineyards for the wine and the views. You might spend the day comparing each farm’s iteration of the apple turnover, making sure not to skip the Walkin’ Pie from adorable Joan’s Apple Bakery at Delfino Farms. At Apple Ridge Farms, kids can mine for gems, get their faces painted, and expend some energy running around in the hay maze while parents sample the BBQ and check out the country store.
Before heading east, we picked up some Arkansas Black apples for our oatmeal, blueberry jam for the week’s PB&Js, and a few carving pumpkins for our campsite.
After getting our fill of fall farms, we continued our roadtrip in the Sierras and drove a little over an hour to South Lake Tahoe, a combination casino-ski town. We loaded up on groceries in town, and drove Lazer Beam to Fallen Leaf Campground sandwiched between Lake Tahoe and Fallen Leaf Lake. Campsites here were large and relatively private. We were just across the road from the bicycle trail, so we went for a run followed by a coin-operated shower (score!) at the campground. As dark fell on camp dinner and pumpkin carving, the autumn night air was pretty crisp, and we were grateful to have our cozy campervan for bedtime.
After making Arkansas Black apple oats (sautée diced apples in butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon until soft and add to your oatmeal) on the campervan stove for breakfast, we went for a hike. Lake Tahoe does not want for hiking trail variety. For an easy, but scenic day, you might start with 1.9-mile Eagle Lake Loop, a moderately difficult hike that leads to a gorgeous lake. Return to the trailhead and just down the road, walk down to Vikingsholm, an historic mansion on the shore of Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay. Bring a picnic to enjoy on the beach before making the steep but short hike back up.
We were looking for a good workout, so we chose to summit Mount Tallac, a 9.5-mile roundtrip hike up to the best views of Lake Tahoe and surrounding Sierras. This is a long, rocky hike that heads above timberline, so be sure to bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and lunch for the summit.
We rewarded ourselves for our hard work with beers and free popcorn at The Hangar, a tap room and bottle shop with a big, heated outdoor space. South Lake Brewing Company‘s fresh, locally brewed beer is also a great option.
The next morning, we packed up the campervan and prepared for our drive with coffee, pastries, and delicious quiche at Alpina Café. If you get a later start, stop at Walker Burger, a walk-up burgers-fries-milkshakes window with the sweetest outdoor garden seating. It’s about a 90-minute drive south of Lake Tahoe. They make an excellent grilled cheese sandwich too, if you aren’t a meat eater.
Virginia Lakes Trail
The next stop on our roadtrip in the Sierras was about 2.5 hours south and six miles west of scenic Highway 395 is the trailhead for Virginia Lakes Trail. This trail has it all: lakes, views of snow-capped peaks, fall colors, and even an old mining cabin. You can make a long day of it hiking the moderately difficult Virginia Lakes Trail over eight miles. Or you can do as we did and spend a couple hours hiking the lower chain of lakes (which includes the cabin). I hear it’s heavily trafficked in the summer, but we only saw three other pairs of hikers in early October.
Back on Highway 395, we took the June Lakes Loop to find sustenance and sleep for the night. June Lake is a fun, little resort community with a handful of campgrounds along the lake, plus a well-stocked general store, and a few restaurants. Check out June Lake Brewing Company if you get a chance.
We lucked out finding the last spot in Gull Lake Campground. It’s an 11-site campground tucked into a grove of bright yellow aspens right on the lake. We wouldn’t have been upset if we’d camped at Reversed Creek Campground up the hill, but our little spot at Gull Lake was the coziest and most autumnal campsite of our trip.
Before heading south toward Mammoth Lakes the next morning, we stopped by The Lift, a bright yet rustic-feeling coffee shop with a great breakfast menu, a fine selection beer and cider, and a variety of baked goods. The Lift served the best coffee I had the whole trip (even better than my own pour overs!); plus they had the friendliest employees and a corner full of cute, hip merch and gifts.
Mammoth Lakes is another ski town with a lot to offer. We camped just outside of town at Twin Lakes Campground which had waterfall views, canoe rentals, and a little general store on site. We also took advantage of the trailhead in the campground, hiking early in the morning up Dragon’s Back to Seven Lakes Point where we had a panoramic view of (you guessed it!) seven lakes. The hike also features a cool view of a lava tube and the option to make it a slightly longer hike to the summit of Mammoth Mountain.
After lunch in town, we enjoyed views of jagged peaks on our drive to Devil’s Postpile National Monument. We were chasing daylight, so we opted for the short walk to the Postpile itself, a stunning collection of basalt columns. You can also take a jaunt to the top of the columns, the symmetry of which resembles something like honeycomb. From there, you can head back or take a longer hike to waterfalls.
From Mammoth Lakes, we headed back north and stopped at Mono Lake. We took South Tufa Trail, a flat walk of just over a mile that leads to the water’s edge and features educational plaques along the way. Gnarled, white sandstone towers emerge from the extremely biodiverse saltwater lake and the land around it and make for good photos. Come prepared with a few dollars in cash to park at the trailhead.
From Lee Vining, the town at Mono Lake, you can take Highway 120 into and through Yosemite National Park. You could camp in Yosemite for just a night before you head back to San Francisco, but if you have time, take a few days with some tips from the Escape blog for Yosemite hiking or kid-friendly activities in the park.
Ready to Take a Road Trip During Fall in the Sierras?
The Sierra Nevada range can fulfill all your cozy, fall, outdoor getaway dreams. This itinerary can fill up a week or more, but don’t forget to leave room in your own itinerary for spontaneous discoveries in your own roadtrip in the Sierras. Book your campervan from Escape’s San Francisco location and get out to the Sierras for your next fall road trip.