Take an Autumn Color Tour in the Santa Cruz Mountains…now!

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By Valerie Lemke

We may not be New England, or a state known for its autumn beauty, but we still have a very lovely autumn season in Northern California if you look around and know where to find it.

I’m sure we’ve all heard people say how it’s nothing in comparison to northern and eastern states.  Though, it might not be Vermont, we do have so much of our own unique autumn beauty in Northern California, we don’t need to compare it to another place.

I’ve heard people say there are no seasons here in Northern California.

However, that’s simply not true. It might not be the same, but it’s still a lovely sight. How about taking a drive today, or at some point during this holiday weekend?  The leaves are at their peak and the time is right now.

The Santa Cruz Mountains along the Central Coast of California are always full of beauty that changes with each season. Though we are surrounded by evergreen trees like coastal redwoods and Douglas fir trees, there are many other trees that boast fall color.

Here in the Santa Cruz Mountains you will find an abundance big leaf maple trees with their bright yellow and very large leaves, some are truly as big as my face. As you make your way through the mountains and see trees with big yellow leaves, chances are that you are looking at a bigleaf maple. They are just about everywhere along the drive.

One of the notable things about California autumn is this is actually when the green time begins…

While in other places grasses are turning brown and gearing up for winter, this is the time when our grasses begin to grow again. Fields, meadows, forests and mountains suddenly begin to sprout blankets of bright green grass. The velvety blankets of green are a stark and absolutely gorgeous contrast against the rich autumn foliage and blue sky. This is autumn in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

One of the most beautiful of fall foliage just happens to be one of the most feared plants by my fellow humans. It’s the itchy yet incredibly beautiful, Poison Oak with its fiery red brilliance, and is a sight to be dazzled…though.  It has such a stigma, that people don’t often think about the beauty of this plant.

Where to go and when?

So where to go? There are many routes through the mountains and you can’t go wrong. HOWEVER, you must do this very soon, like this week, because colors are peaking, and just one storm can change it all.

If you live near the Santa Cruz Mountains, there is a jaunt that is about 15 miles from Scotts Valley through the San Lorenzo Valley and goes from Felton to Boulder Creek. I advise the best time to see the fall foliage is in the afternoon between 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m.  This is when the sunlight is filtered through the trees and the leaves light up and sparkle.

Directions for an autumn tour from Felton to Boulder Creek:

From Santa Cruz or Bay Area: Take highway 17 to Scotts Valley. Exit at the Mount Hermon Drive exit and head into Scotts Valley. A lot of pretty fall trees in the local shopping centers as you head to the San Lorenzo Valley.

Follow Mt. Hermon road through Scotts Valley all the way to the end and a stoplight. Make a left turn on to Graham Hill.

Make a left turn at the stoplight onto East Zayante Rd. (Before you get to Roaring Camp Railroad)

This will begin your tour and so keep an eye out for the pretty fall colors and enjoy the rid.

Follow East Zayante to Quail Hollow Rd.  Keep an eye out, this turn is easy to miss.

Make a left onto Quail Hollow to Glen Arbor. Make a right onto Glen Arbor.

Stay on Glen Arbor, continue to Highway 9 in Ben Lomond

Here is where you can decide what to do next. If you are done at this point, you can make a left turn and it will take you back to Felton, where you will make a left onto Graham Hill and left onto Mount Hermon Rd towards Scotts Valley, to highway 17.


You can make a right turn onto Highway 9 to go about 4 miles to Boulder Creek. As you go on this ride down Highway 9 through Ben Lomond, it will take the town of Brookdale and then into Boulder Creek.  There is a one-way stop light due to storm damage last year outside of Brookdale.

Boulder Creek is a small historic town and has quite an interesting logging and lumberjack history.  It is a fun place to visit with some great restaurants, historic museum and small shops for unique items. The day after Thanksgiving, the town hosts a tree lighting celebration and they light an enormous redwood tree downtown. If you go after Thanksgiving, I suggest staying for dinner and shopping after your drive and then viewing downtown while the shops and the tree are lit up at dusk.

Another idea while in the area earlier in the day is a trip to Big Basin Redwoods State Park. It is located about 8 miles out of town on Big Basin Highway/236.  It’s one of California State Redwood Parks and is a great destination to bring your family, visitors or even a walk alone among the giants.  Big Basin is also California’s FIRST State Park!

The time is now! So get out there and take a ride and enjoy our own unique autumn beauty along the Central Coast.

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