The Best Places Near Reno to See Fall Colors
Fall is a magical time- complete with football, corn mazes, pumpkin spice lattes, and of course, fall colors. Situated at the foot of the mighty Sierra Nevada at the western edge of the Great Basin, Reno boasts its fair share of fall foliage, from Quaking Aspens high up in the Sierras to Fremont Cottonwoods on the banks of the Truckee. As the days turn shorter and winter lies ahead, taking the time to see and experience the fall colors around town is an experience worth having. Whether you’re seeking a remote spot in the boonies or an accessible spot in town to see the trees lose their leaves, this guide will have a spot for you. I’ve included locations north, south, east, and west of Reno, as well as in the heart of the city.
Why do Deciduous Trees lose their leaves?
Before we dive into the spots to see fall foliage in Reno, let’s first discuss why exactly deciduous trees lose their leaves. Firstly, almost every tree near Reno is classified in one of two phyla- angiosperms and gymnosperms. Angiosperms are flowering plants, producing seeds in the form of fruits or nuts. Conversely, gymnosperms do not produce flowers and their seeds are produced by cones. Deciduous trees found near Reno, including aspen, maple, oak, elm, ash, and cottonwood are all angiosperms, also known as broad-leaf trees.
Change of color and eventual loss of leaves of deciduous trees in the fall is directly dependent on the concentration of leaf pigments, or nutrients, in a trees’ leaves. Leaf pigment concentration is dependent on both the amount of sunlight present and the air temperature.
For starters, there are three main types of “pigments”, or nutrients, present in the leaves of a deciduous tree. These include chlorophyll, carotenoids, and anthocyanin. Chlorophyll is the nutrient that produces the basic green color in a leaf. Moreover, chlorophyll is critical in that it is the nutrient that is necessary for photosynthesis- the chemical reaction that enables plants to use sunlight to manufacture sugar to use as food. Carotenoids produce yellow, orange, and brown colors in a leaf, and anthocyanin are water-soluble nutrients present in the liquid of leaf cells, producing red and purple hues. Both chlorophyll and carotenoids are present in the chloroplasts (organelles in a plant cell where photosynthesis takes place) of leaf cells during the spring and summer (growing season). Anthocyanins are produced during the autumn in response to light and extra sugar in leaf cells. The excess sugar is derived from chlorophyll- deciduous leaves produce extra sugar for winter so that the tree survives, as photosynthesis is not undertaken during the winter in deciduous trees.
During the growing season, chlorophyll is produced and broken down continuously. As such, the leaves are green. As night length increases and the general amount of sunlight decreases, chlorophyll production slows down and eventually stops. All chlorophyll is then destroyed. Remember, photosynthesis is dependent on a sufficient amount of light to undergo the process. Carotenoids are still present, and anthocyanin has been produced. These two pigments are unmasked and show their colors- vibrant reds, yellows, and oranges. Autumn is basically the mass death of deciduous tree leaves.
The root cause (pun intended) of deciduous trees losing their leaves is to protect themselves from the winter. This is where temperature comes in. Broad-leaf trees do not have the protective wax coating and freeze-resistant fluids in their leaves that evergreens have. The leaves of broad-leaf trees are vulnerable to damage from the cold. The fluid in the cells of these leaves is a thin, watery sap that easily freezes. Vulnerable tissues in the leaves must be sealed off and shed to ensure the trees’ survival- hence broad-leaf trees lose their leaves in the fall. In a way, you could say that losing leaves is like hibernation!
Now that we’ve gotten the why out of the way, let’s dive into the where!
Center of Reno: Oxbow Nature Study Area
Located in the heart of Reno, the Oxbow Nature Study Area is a marquee location not only for a nice walk in town, but also to see fall colors. At Oxbow, Cottonwood, Maple, Willow, and Ash trees dominate, showcasing splendid colors from late October through November. In addition to its central location, the Oxbow Nature Study Area is highly accessible- making it a perfect morning or evening walk on a nice fall day! The conservation area is 22 acres in size, complete with hiking trails meandering through riparian habitat along the Truckee. Deer frequent the area, as do shorebirds and waterfowl.
The conservation area is located at 3100 Dickerson Road, just west of downtown. From I-80, get off at Exit 12 (Keystone Ave). Head south on Keystone, and turn right on 2nd St. 2nd St will turn into Dickerson Road. Simply continue on Dickerson Road until it ends (it ends in the parking lot of Oxbow Nature Study Area).
North of Reno: Peavine Mountain- South Mountain
If you’re an intrepid adventurer seeking a beautiful spot to experience fall colors, while also craving solace, Peavine Mountain is the place for you. Specifically, the northeastern flank of South Mountain, where Quaking Aspen intermingles with Sierra White Fir in stunning fashion. South Mountain is located on Peavine Mountain, southwest of Peavine Peak (the high-point of the range). As aforementioned, the northeastern slopes of South Mountain are home to a beautiful array of Quaking Aspens, showcasing stunning yellow, orange, and golden foliage from early to late October.
This place is off the beaten path- and a 4x4 vehicle is recommended to access the area (though I’ve personally seen someone in a Kia sedan driving up there). From Reno, take US-395 north to Exit 76 (Stead Blvd), turn left on Stead, right on Virginia St, and left on Peavine Road (it will be a dirt road immediately past a U-Haul storage facility). Drive the dirt road up Peavine Mountain, until you reach the Hawk Meadow Trail, in a saddle just west of Peavine Peak (the mountain with radio towers). You can park here and walk the dirt road to the left (heading west), where sweeping views of the aspens, the Bald Mountain Range, and the Verdi Range will open up before you. You can hike to and through the aspen groves by exiting the road onto walking trails on the right hand side (heading north). Additionally, you can hike to the summit of South Mountain by staying on the dirt road. Sweeping views of the entire Truckee Meadows and vicinity will open up in front of you, from the Wassuk Range near Hawthorne to the crest of the Sierra Nevada at Donner Pass and everything in between. The elevation here is roughly 8,000’, so prepare accordingly.
South of Reno: Upper Thomas Creek
If you’re seeking a beautiful hike with tons of magical fall foliage, Upper Thomas Creek is the hike for you. Thomas Creek flows from Sunflower Mountain to the Truckee, carving a beautiful canyon on the eastern slope of the Carson Range, which this hike meanders through. Sierra Nevada riparian species, including Quaking Aspen, Black Cottonwood, Mountain Alder, Arroyo Willow, and more dominate along the stream. These aforementioned deciduous trees are stunning in the fall- showcasing vibrant yellow, golden, red, orange, and red-orange foliage. Coniferous forests of Ponderosa and Jeffrey Pine, as well as Sierra White Fir and Mountain Mahogany surround the riparian creekside habitat, providing great habitat for birds and mammals alike. The best time to see fall foliage at Upper Thomas Creek is mid to late October.
The trail itself ascends 14.8 miles and 3,100’ to the crest of the Carson Range, but it can be as long as you make it, and amazing fall foliage is seen within the first 2-3 miles, though towards the top of the trail, Quaking Aspens dominate in golden fashion. Within the first 2-3 miles, elevation gain is not intense, and the trail isn’t very steep. Dogs are allowed here, so if you want your furry friend(s) to accompany you to soak in some fall vibes, they can come! Getting to Upper Thomas Creek from Reno is quite simple. Simply take US-395/I-580 south to Exit 24, for Mount Rose Highway (NV-431). Drive up Mt Rose Hwy for roughly 5 miles, until you reach Timberline Drive (right before NV-431 turns south into the woods). Turn right on Timberline Drive and continue on it for 1.3 miles until you reach Thomas Creek Trailhead.
East of Reno: McCarran Ranch
East of Reno, I-80 traverses a roughly 20-mile long canyon from Sparks to Fernley. Although the Truckee River carves and flows through this canyon, it’s often an afterthought- most people think of Tesla, warehouses, and USA Parkway when they think of I-80 just east of Reno. Much to many people’s surprise, a hidden gem exists here- McCarran Ranch. Located just off of Exit 28 (Patrick), McCarran Ranch is a phenomenal locality to experience fall foliage. In 2003, the Nature Conservancy purchased the area and began restoring the wetland that once existed here. As such, Fremont Cottonwoods have grown and dominate the area, showcasing beautiful golden foliage from mid October through November. Several ponds filled with cattails, beavers, muskrats, shorebirds, and waterfowl are present. Deer and wild horses abound in the vicinity of McCarran Ranch. The area is a gorgeous example of successful habitat restoration, and enjoying the fall foliage here is a must.
As aforementioned, McCarran Ranch is accessed via Exit 28 (Patrick) on I-80 east of town. Take the exit, and head south on Waltham Way. Immediately after crossing the Truckee, turn right to stay on Waltham Way. Turn right on Wild Horse Canyon Drive, and take another right on a dirt road immediately after the Northern Nevada Laborers Training Center. This road goes to the parking lot, and is a short, easy road that any car can drive on.
West of Reno: Verdi- Crystal Peak Park
Founded in the 1860’s, Verdi was famous as a logging town. Multiple fires destroyed its mill, which was rebuilt after every fire until it was finally abandoned after a large fire in 1926. In its wake, Crystal Peak Park was established where the famous mill once was. Climatically, Verdi is located in the transition zone between the Sierra Nevada and Great Basin, and as such, biodiversity is immense, especially in Crystal Peak Park, which is situated right on the Truckee. Sierra conifers such as California Incense-Cedar, Jeffrey Pine, and Ponderosa Pine abound here, as do a myriad of beautiful deciduous trees. Black Cottonwood, Fremont Cottonwood, Bigleaf Maple, and several other species occur naturally here. Moreover, several non-native deciduous trees have been planted ornamentally at Crystal Peak Park, only adding to the fall frenzy. Red, orange, yellow, and golden foliage dominate the park. Additionally, groves of deciduous trees on the Verdi Range just west of the park dominate the mountainsides, and loom over the park beautifully. Fall foliage is best seen from early October through November here, and seeing the foliage in the morning is optimal, as the sun hits the trees in the Verdi Range beautifully in the morning.
To get to Crystal Peak Park, head west on I-80. Get off the highway at Exit 3 (Verdi). Turn left on Verdi Road. It will turn into Crystal Park Road and curve west, then north. Continue on this road until you reach the Crystal Peak Park parking lot. Park here and enjoy the fall foliage!
Fall is an absolutely gorgeous time of year that can be enjoyed at several locations around Reno. Enjoy these places and protect them for future generations to enjoy!
About the Author
Solomon is an Interpretive Trail Guide here at Truckee Meadows Parks Foundation. Hailing from Las Vegas, Solomon has a B.S. in Geology from UNLV’s Honors College. Though he's lived most of his life in Las Vegas, he's also lived in New Mexico, Ohio, Hawaii, Elko, and Seattle. After receiving his degree in 2021, he spent time working in both the mining and civil engineering fields, but his undying passion for nature, education, and preserving the environment has brought him here to TMPF. In his free time, Solomon enjoys photography, researching and exploring the natural world, playing basketball, watching football, listening to and playing music, traveling, hanging out with friends and family, and making videos for his youtube channel.