Take In Fall Foliage in the Golden State

It's not all about the palms.

California has a bounty of aspens, oaks, dogwoods, maples and other deciduous trees too. And when fall arrives with its crisp breezes and falling temperatures, leaves turn scarlet, gold, copper and rust. It's drive time in the Golden State's foothills and mountains.

Some of the best places to ooh and ahh over brilliantly colored leaves are found along or just off of state highway 49, a two-lane blacktop that snakes more than 300 miles through Gold Country, where gold was discovered in 1848, setting off the biggest gold rush in American history. The mines are long played-out, but the jerrybuilt towns, gushing streams, dramatic rock formations and tree-covered landscapes draw visitors in search of a relaxed version of the area's feverish past.

( Photo gallery: Spectacular Fall Vacations)

Highway 49, which runs north-south along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, can be rugged and lonely. On a recent drive along 49, my wife and I spied maybe six cars in nearly two hours in remote country. The isolation evaporates, however, when the road meanders into colorful mining towns like Angels Camp and Placerville, blossoms with genteel restored Victorian homes and hotels in Nevada City and Grass Valley, then climbs to more than 6,000-foot elevations at its northern end near Vinton.

Highway 49 and its surrounds are rich in history year-round, but October is the best month to catch colorful fall foliage. As in leaf-watching favorites like Vermont, Tennessee and Pennsylvania, timing is everything and local leaf conditions vary. You can survey much of the blazing scenery from a car window, but there are good places to hike and bike to take in the views too.