Signs of Autumn and of Winter

I’m often asked whether Autumn will arrive early or late, whether it will be long or short lasting, or whether the color will be spectacular or dull.  The signs of autumn begin in autumn when individual specimens turn color sooner than other nearby trees, shrubs or grasses.  That’s happened this year.  Our color spotters say they’re seeing signs, but they disagree on what they mean.  Here are reports across California, from top to bottom.

Plumas County — Emily Webb, the owner of Emily’s Garden in Quincy and a resident of the Indian Valley says her end of summer tradition is to “go out and try to collect acorns, which is tough because the squirrels always get them first. Which is supposed to mean that it’s going to be a long winter. This year however, I beat them to it as there were nice acorns everywhere! Perhaps we are in store for a mild winter? I’ve also noticed some leaves turning already on my daily drive up Hwy 89. This seems a bit early to me…but I can’t say why.”

Jeanne Brovelli, owner of Las Casa Bella Furniture in Quincy, makes pine needle baskets and says, “typically there are new pine needles on the ground for gathering in late August & September after some good winds. So far, I haven’t seen many at all so even though it is still early, I think we are going to have a late fall and probably a late winter too.”

Virginia Creeper (9/7/12) Richard McCutcheon

Color spotter Richard McCutcheon who has provided great photos and reports to this blog over the years says, “I can judge when the colors are going to turn by my neighbor’s Virginia Creeper. I would say we are almost a month away from some real pretty colors,” in the northern Sierra.

Janice Robinson-Haman of the Gold Pan Lodge in Quincy reports that the “deer herds seem to be HUGE this year. My Grandpa always told me that meant a rough winter, as there would be extra babies so that enough would survive. Big herds have been going through my yard in Beckwourth, and just saw a big herd crossing A13 at Lake Almanor.  The bears are also very, very busy this year, surely that means something?”

Ceci Reynolds, owner of a rental cottage on Spanish Creek in Quincy, says, “Last year my Black oaks produced very small acorns and we had little precipitation – a ‘mild winter’ – this year they are humongous.  So, I’m predicting lots of snow. Besides I have a couple of cords of Doug fir that hasn’t been split yet, so surely I’ll need it!”

Botanist James Belsher-Howe of the Plumas National Forest says he really can’t predict when the leaves will start changing, because it depends on such a combination of things, but he did say that even though we had a dry winter, the leaves in areas tied to water will be the same as usual. We may, though, see a difference in the oaks and other trees in dryer areas. He predicts the timing for those areas may be a bit earlier than usual. He has noticed that choke cherries are already starting to turn in Quincy, and that’s probably because of the previous dry winter.

The Feather River Land Trust’s Karen Kleven reports spotting wild rhubarb turning red along Spanish Creek in Quincy.  Indian Rhubarb is one of California’s brilliantly colorful ground plants, best seen along creek beds in the northern Sierra.

Color spotter Karen Moritz reports “very little color” in Plumas County, as yet.  She said the nights are just cool, not cold as yet (warm days and cold nights intensify the color, though it is less daylight that triggers the change).  She expects color to start appearing on schedule during the last week of September, first of October, which makes it pretty easy to plan a fall color trip there.  The excellent guide, “Fall Colors of Plumas County” can be downloaded and printed from (click “Awesome Autumn” button).  Localized reports are also posted on the site at the end of September.  0 – 15% – look to the drainages for the first signs of color.

Mono County — Fall color often shows first along the ground… grasses and shrubs that inhabit drainages can provide some of the most delicious eye candy of the season.  Carolyn Webb, reporting from the Virginia Lakes Resort in Mono County (Eastern Sierra)  at 9,770′ says drainages are showing color and lime is beginning to appear in the aspen along Virginia Lakes Road, south of Bridgeport.  Consider this to be one of the first areas to peak, about two to three weeks away.  0 – 15% – beginning to show color among the aspen.  The free Fall Color Guide to the Eastern Sierra is available online at

Los Angeles County — The coastal community of Santa Monica seems an unlikely place to find fall color, though it can be beautiful, as the city has 20 public parks and more than 420 acres of public open space to explore.  Kelly Nagle reports that species found in abundance include exotic liquidambars (native to eastern North America and tropical areas of Mexico and Central America).  The firey color of these trees is dazzling.  Crape myrtles add ruby color, Jacarandas with their vibrant purple/blue flowers burst forth in color twice yearly: April/May and happily for leaf peepers in November and December.  Where else do autumn colors mix warm reds and yellows with blue on foliage , but in Southern California?  Other spectacular trees in Santa Monica are the impressively sized London Plane trees that shower falling leaves and cheerily yellow Ginkgos, lining boulevards.  In the Santa Monica Mountains, sycamore, Fremont cottonwood, willows, California black walnut and poison oak glow yellow-green, gold, auburn and crimson.  0 – 15% – LA County shows last along the coast from late November to early December.

Making a statement at Orchard Hill Country Inn in San Diego County (File Photo)

San Diego County — Julian is one of the few places in Southern California where broad areas of natural color change occurs.  It’s due to Julian’s 4,200′ elevation and the fact that there are many oak trees studding the area’s mountainous landscape.  Color spotter Bobbi Zane advises that good places to the colore are along Hwy. 79 through the Cuyamaca Mountains, driving along the winding roads of Pine Hills, and along Farmer Road from town to the Menghini Winery.  However, the show is still a few weeks away.  Bobbi recommends “early October, peaking at the end of the month.”  In addition to the oaks, which provide orange-yellow color, there are pistach that turn bright red, and birch that become a firey deep red and gold.  Besides, a trip to Julian is never complete without picking up one of their famous, freshly baked pies.  0 – 15% three to four weeks away from showing.

2 replies
  1. leanne k says:

    I drove thru Mesa Grande and Santa Ysabel(near Julian) yesterday Sept 9 and the Black Oaks are starting to change color. the poison oak is beginning to turn red also. I think the color here in San Diego will be early.

    • John Poimiroo says:

      Thanks, Leanne. Good job. Keep reporting what you see… much appreciated. Also, include a % of change to help readers understand at what stage change is occurring in the area: 0 – 15%, 15 – 30%, 30 – 50%, 50 – 75%, 75 – 100% or Past Peak. You’re now officially a California color spotter!

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