Autumn is a great season for hiking the mountain trails of Northern California, especially at the peak of fall color. Here are the pros and cons of autumn hiking, along with some advice. (Some of this advice also applies to spring backpacking in Northern California.)
Hiking Northern California Mountains in Autumn/Fall 2021: Pros
Lots of Solitude
There won’t be many people around, so you can definitely get some hiking solitude. If you’re lucky, you may have an entire lake to yourself, especially if you go midweek and do longer and more challenging hikes.
Fall Colors on Deciduous Trees and Shrubs
You’ll definitely get some beautiful foliage on deciduous trees and shrubs through the end of October. The higher elevations above 5000 feet peak in early to mid-October, whereas lower elevations down to 2000 feet peak in middle- to late-October.
Fewer Wildfires and Less or No Wildfire Smoke
We all know how devastating Northern California wildfires have been in recent years, and how much smoke those wildfires put into the atmosphere. By fall, most of the wildfires are contained or out, and most or all of the smoke has blown away or been knocked down by rain. So you can worry less about wildfires as a hiker, and you’ll have long-distance vistas to enjoy and cool, clean air to breathe.
By autumn, mosquitoes and many other annoying insects are either gone until next summer or present in only minimal numbers. The later into autumn and the higher the elevation, the fewer mosquitoes in your face.
Hiking Northern California Mountains in Autumn/Fall 2021: Cons
It’s Often Cold in the Mountains
You may get some Indian Summer warm afternoons, but most nights will be freezing or even colder. You need to bring lots of warm clothes and a warm sleeping bag, meaning extra weight if you’re backpacking.
If you’re day hiking, make sure you bring plenty of warm clothes and are prepared to spend an unexpected night.
It Gets Dark Earlier and Earlier
We’re past the autumnal equinox, which means long and dark nights. Great for looking at the stars, but…
You May Not Be Able to Have a Campfire
Depending on where you are, BLM lands, national forests, and national parks can have campfire restrictions or prohibitions, even well into October. For example, as of this update, all Northern California national forests still have bans on all open fires on nearly all of their lands. You’ll need to check specifically with the relevant agency about whether or not you can have a fire, and of course you need a free campfire permit. I personally advocate for advocating all campfires, even when they are allowed.
Mountain Weather Can Get Nasty
Make SURE you check the weather forecast at the National Weather Service, Weather.com, or another reputable source. And you MUST be prepared for potential snow and nasty conditions, even if the weather outlook says otherwise.
Deer Hunters Near Hiking Trails
Fall is hunting season for deer in Northern California and much of the West. Check the California Fish and Wildlife site for details. Note that hunting is not allowed in national parks.
If you’re hiking in hunting season, make sure to wear bright colors and think twice about hiking cross-country, especially through brushy or heavily forested areas with limited visibility.
Be Aware of Continuing Wildfire Threats in Autumn
Some of California’s worst wildfires occur in autumn, including into November. (The Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise started on November 8, 2018.) Make sure you follow all regulations, including campfire restrictions and any restrictions on access to specific national forests and other hiking areas (and this includes dispersed camping on national forests and BLM lands). And read this article for advice on what to do if you’re threatened by a wildfire when hiking.
List of Autumn/Fall Backpacking Trails
Of course, you can still hike in the high country if the weather’s good and there’s little or no snow.
But if you want a low- to mid-elevation route, check out the many options in my Northern California spring backpacking post.
Your Take on Autumn/Fall Hiking in Northern California
Anything to add to what I said? What do you like most about hitting the trails in autumn?