When Do the Leaves Change?
Fall color comes to Reno / Tahoe foliage starting toward the end of September and peaks through October, though exactly when the leaves change color varies somewhat from year to year. If the weather remains mild and slowly cools down as autumn transitions into winter, the fall color show will last for several weeks. If we get a sudden cold snap or an early snow, fall leaves can leave the trees literally over night. That has happened to the big mulberry in my front yard - leaves today, on the ground tomorrow.
Fall Color in Reno and Vicinity
You don't have to go anywhere to experience the spectacle of the changing season. People have planted a wonderful variety of deciduous trees and shrubs throughout the Truckee Meadows. From just about any vantage point that lets you look out over the city, you will see great swaths of autumn color where green dominated during the summer. If you want to get up close, the best places are older neighborhoods and districts where the trees are big. I particularly like old southwest Reno with its combination of vintage homes and stately old trees arching over the narrow streets to create orange and yellow tunnels.
Another neighborhood with big, mature trees is Donner Springs. This area is in the southeast, near Rattlesnake Mountain and along both sides of McCarran Boulevard.
Fall hiking can get you to the color. In the Galena area of southwest Reno, there are trails that take you into the forest and along creeks coming down out of the mountains. You can learn about these and more from "Truckee Meadows Trails," a guide from Washoe County Parks. Another spot in this area with hiking trails and more information is "Galena Creek Visitor Center and Recreation Area."
Fall Color in Reno & Sparks Parks
For a special treat, pay a fall visit to the Wilbur D. May Arboretum and Botanical Garden in Rancho San Rafael Regional Park. There are trees and shrubs from all over the world and some of them manifest other worldly displays of color during autumn.
The path that follows the Truckee River through Reno and Sparks provides some excellent fall color viewing. My favorite stretch is upstream from Wingfield Park in downtown Reno to Idlewild Park. This walk (or ride if you have a bike) takes you through an older part of town with big, well watered trees, and into the park with its own groves of colorful deciduous trees. If you go downstream past the National Automobile Museum, the path passes by some big old cottonwood trees with golden yellow fall foliage.
Rock Park in Sparks is right on the Truckee River and has big trees that put on a good fall color display. There is lots of free parking and a walking/biking path along the river lets you explore both upstream and downstream should you wish to do so.
Fall Color East and West of Reno / Sparks
The Truckee River corridor supports huge cottonwood trees that create a golden swath where the river winds through the desert. Drive east on I80 toward Fernley and you will see these trees defining the course of the Truckee as it meanders its way to Pyramid Lake. Drive west toward Truckee and you will see a combination of aspens and cottonwoods creating a magnificent canyon display along the river's course from Lake Tahoe to Reno. Both of these drives are on the freeway with limited places to safely stop for leaf peeping and photography. Please be careful.
East of Reno / Sparks is a beautiful spot that was not open to the public for many years - McCarran Ranch Preserve. Hiking and biking trails (part of the Tahoe - Pyramid Bikeway) take you along the Truckee River and through a riparian area of big cottonwood trees and willows. This is a beautiful path when the color is at its peak in the fall.
Just a bit south and east of Reno is a colorful spot I particularly enjoy. It's along the Carson River at Ft. Churchill State Historic Park, a landscape of serious desert. The cottonwood trees here have grown large by hugging the watered banks of the river and they create a golden display that stands out sharply from the surrounding dry hills. The park has day use areas and local historic significance, making it a nice place to spend a few quiet hours on a fall day.
Fall Color at Lake Tahoe and Along the Eastern Sierra
Both Lake Tahoe and the Eastern Sierra south of Reno along highway U.S. 395 have some spots with spectacular fall color displays. My "Fall Color in the Lake Tahoe and Eastern Sierra Region" article will acquaint you with some areas to visit for autumn foliage.