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Fall Color Hikes in San Diego

5 Hikes Amongst San Diego's Fall Colors and Foliage

Hike the higher altitudes of San Diego's Peninsular Ranges that wind through the county to wander amongst the reliable, and often spectacular, fall color shows.

By: Scott Turner, Co-author of the 5th Edition of Afoot and Afield in San Diego County

Of all of the natural features in San Diego, the last thing that visitors expect to encounter is fall color. San Diego's reputation for perpetual sunshine and two seasons (warm/dry and mild/wet) usually leads people to suspect that the more classic seasonal variations do not exist here. However, the higher altitudes (4000'-6500') of the Peninsular Ranges that run north to south through the center of the county produce reliable, and often spectacular, fall color shows.

The large, lobed leaves of the California black oak (Quercus kelloggii) create the seasonal foliage display. This handsome deciduous oak tree occurs throughout the western Sierra Nevada and northern coastal California. It survives in isolated pockets throughout San Diego County and neighboring Riverside and San Bernadino Counties as a relic of colder, wetter times. Every October and fall, the leaves of the black oak make a transition from green to vivid golds and oranges. Black oaks don't usually exist in pure stands; rather, they are commonly interspersed with conifers like white fir, Jeffrey pine, and incense cedar. The combination of tall conifers contrasted against the vivid colors of black oaks forms an impressive and welcome site to admirers of fall foliage.

Most displays in the county reach their peak in early and mid-November. Higher elevations (5500'-6500') tend to peak first, followed by the oaks on the lower range of elevation (4000'-5500').

5 Hikes to See San Diego's Fall Colors

1. Thunder Ridge and Chimney Flat Loop

Where: Palomar Mountain State Park

Heavily wooded Thunder Ridge features a heavy concentration of black oaks mingling amidst stately conifers. The site of golden leaves and dark green pine needles reflected in Doane Pond forms a classic image of Southern California fall color.

2. Sunset Trail

Where: Laguna Mountain Recreation Area

Although many of the oaks in the Laguna Mountains have suffered under the onslaught of invasive pests, the remaining oaks rimming Laguna Meadow still throw a warm contrast upon an already sublime scene.

3. Volcan Mountain

The rounded, wooded slopes of this Julian high point feature some of the oldest and most impressive black oaks in the county. The cool, clear fall atmosphere also enables sweeping views of the desert and coastal halves of the county.

4. Lake Cuyamaca

Where: Cuyamaca Rancho State Park

While most of the forest in Cuyamaca burned during the 2003 Cedar Fire, fire-adapted black oaks are making a strong comeback. The finest parcels of unburned forest surround the lake, and the numerous black oaks contrast nicely against the lake's placid waters.

5. Observatory Trail

Where: Cleveland National Forest

This wooded trail connects the Palomar Observatory and a popular campground. Black oaks thrive along the north-facing slopes, attaining brilliant oranges during November.

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