California never ceases to amaze visitors with its vast array of destinations that become even more incredible as the temperatures drop across the state. Whether you’re after the picture-perfect snowy adventure, want to visit the desert when the heat is comfortable, or see the state’s best cities decked out for the holidays, you have ample choices of places to visit in California during winter.
What to Expect for Winter in California
The temperatures and weather vary wildly depending on which part of the state you will be in. Southern California enjoys mild temperatures where a light layer is typically needed at most and you can still expect many sunny days and great weather for sightseeing and getting outdoors. In Northern California, you can expect snow, enough to hit the slopes, go skating, snowshoeing, and more. Temperatures drop below freezing so bundle up and be aware of icy road conditions, roads, and trails closing in parks.
Along the coast, it is even more of a mix, with some areas seeing plenty of sunny days and others fog. This doesn’t mean that getting outdoors isn’t still viable though, so don’t discredit visiting the coast during any of the winter months either.
Winter destinations hit their peak in December when prices are the highest. Plan in advance to avoid disappointment when it comes to booking accommodation, and budget accordingly to ensure that you have enough to thoroughly enjoy your trip. For lower prices and more availability try visiting in January or February which are still fabulous times to enjoy the snow and sunny destinations alike.
Snowy Destinations for Winter Getaways in California
Snow in California is just as magical as you might hope it would be. Don’t miss considering these snowy places in California!
There’s a reason why you’ll see Lake Tahoe at the top of most lists for winter destinations in California. This stunning area in Northern California is one of the best snow places in California as it transforms into a winter wonderland when the snow falls each year. While Lake Tahoe is most known for its mountains, it’s not just a place for skiers and snowboarders. It definitely is a top destination for adrenaline lovers in the snow, I mean, the 1960 Winter Olympics were hosted here!
But if you prefer something more relaxed, you have ample choices for cozy cabins and other accommodation where you can curl up with a good book, a drink and be mesmerized by the snow-covered trees outside. Winter hiking in Lake Tahoe is popular, as well as snowshoeing, sledding, and ice skating are also options. Or head to Heavenly Village, a ski resort that is decked out for the holiday season is bound to put everyone in the holiday spirit. Summer or winter, there are an abundance of Lake Tahoe activities to be enjoyed.
While we’re on the topic of winter wonderland…Mammoth Lakes is another top area to visit in California in winter. Mammoth Mountain draws in snow bunnies because it gets more snow than anywhere in California. But plenty of activities makes this spot in the Golden State a top choice for all who wish to get outside in winter.
From sledding to skating, tubing to snowshoeing, there’s plenty to do in Mammoth Lakes. There’s a ton of cross-country ski trails, making this winter terrain one of the best places to visit in California in December.
For those in Southern California, or visitors to Los Angeles or around, Big Bear is where to go for snow in Southern California. The snowy mountains make this an ideal spot for skiers and boarders, but as the lake freezes over (typically from November until January), ice fishing becomes popular too. Of course, like the northern winter destinations, Big Bear in winter also has cross-country ski trails, areas for snowshoeing, sledding, and skating.
How does a sleigh ride around the lake sound? Or horseback riding amongst the snowy mountain? Dreamy? Then I think it’s time you book yourself a cabin for a visit to this top winter destination. Did I mention that Big Bear has mostly sunny days? Sun on the snow is just magical!
Hot Creek is close to Mammoth Lakes and is well worth a visit if you’re in the area. This snowy destination is heated up by the hot spring that runs through the snow-covered mountain scenery. It’s a popular spot for fishing trout in the winter (though it is catch and release only) as the warm water glides its way through the mountains. Whether you like fishing or not, the scenery here in Hot Creek is simply stunning.
Yosemite National Park
One of the best places to visit in California, Yosemite is flocked to by tourists and locals alike in the summer, but come winter and the crowds die down significantly, leaving this winter paradise to the few who wish to hike through the snow. This national park is truly dreamy in the winter as the snow covers Half Dome and Yosemite Valley seems to peacefully sleep under the heavy dusting of white powder.
Winter hiking in Yosemite can be done, and while not all roads and trails are open, you can still witness the sheer beauty and power of Yosemite Falls which is a sight to be seen with the surrounding snow. Even if hiking isn’t your thing, there are plenty of things to do in Yosemite year-round to see the beauty.
Sequoia National Park & Kings Canyon National Parks
These two parks in California are great neighbors to visit. Located in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the high altitude of these parks means that they get plenty of snow which turns the beauty of this park into a white winter paradise. The sequoia trees are worthy of a visit in any season, but in winter they look like giant Christmas trees.
The trail to the 275 feet tall giant, General Sherman Tree trail, is open in winter, as well as paths to explore the Land of Giants. Be wary of icy conditions in these parks when you visit, and be prepared to be blown away by nature’s beauty with plenty of things to do in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks throughout all seasons.
Mount Shasta is one of the more difficult destinations to get to in the winter, but the trek is worth it as this Northern California destination has fewer visitors. Trails are open for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, but be warned, they are not meant for beginners! Skiing, ice climbing, and more are also available for this spot that can be a day trip from nearby places such as Sacramento.
Mount Shasta is also a very important place for Indigenous peoples of the area as it holds spiritual significance. It’s known as one of the Earth’s chakras so many people also visit here for spiritual reasons.
Warm Destinations for California Winter Vacations
The winter season in California doesn’t have to include snow, so these top picks are great places for winter in Southern California.
Death Valley National Park
Located on the California-Nevada border, Death Valley National Park is where you can find some of the most intense environments on the planet, and is one of the top warm places to visit in December in California. Known as one of the hottest places on Earth, and the dryest in North America, Death Valley can have temperatures reaching as hot as 120°F (49°C) in the summer or hotter. These wicked temperatures are what makes Death Valley an ideal winter vacation spot in California.
In the winter you can rest assured that hikes can be done without dying of heat, with temperatures dropping to the 60s and 70s (15-26°C). But even with these temperatures, you can still expect to find snow on nearby mountains for pretty scenery as you hike through the desolate nature.
Palm Springs has been a favourite destination for winter travel in California for a long time. Snowbirds make their way to the desert where temperatures are still warm and comfortable, cooling off from the high heat of the summer. As a relaxing hot spot, Palm Springs is an ideal winter getaway with ample choices for shopping, spas, and relaxation. The mid-century architecture and colours are quite pleasing to the eye and with outdoor activities available such as hiking and horseback riding close by, it’s hard to go wrong with a winter trip to Palm Springs.
Popular all year round because of the sunshine that never seems to stop, San Diego is another top choice as one of the best places to vacation in California in winter. Aside from it being a great city and the sunshine, December through to April is also whale watching season along California’s southern coast. As the whales migrate from Baja California to Alaska you’ll have high chances of spotting not only whales but also dolphins. Plus, being on the coast, near other fabulous coastal destinations such as La Jolla, and being one of the warmest California destinations in winter, San Diego winter doesn’t disappoint!
San Francisco experiences some of its best days during the winter. And while the temperatures may dip, the city can still be enjoyed thoroughly with only a light layer on. Hit up the must-see sights in San Francisco such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Chinatown, while being sure to include a stop at Union Square to see the festive decorations. It’s here that you’ll find a skating rink, a big Christmas tree, and other holiday activities.
Not to mention that there is plenty of hiking in and around San Francisco that is truly wonderful to do when the temperatures are mild.
Napa & Sonoma
Wine is delicious year-round and both of these wine destinations are beautiful as the seasons change too. Napa Valley in December is where you’ll find yellow flowers blooming as the vines become bare, creating a picturesque backdrop as you sip on fine wine. Both destinations really bring out their best for the holiday season as Christmas attractions pop up, wineries are adorned with twinkling lights, and holiday events are held. Sonoma is not quite as fancy or over the top as Napa, but holiday cheer is still to be found.
Joshua Tree National Park
Like other desert destinations in California, Joshua Tree is best explored when the temperatures drop in the cooler months. Get to explore this national park by enjoying the best hikes in Joshua Tree, rock climbing, bouldering, and sightseeing as there are many cultural and geological sights to see. At night you can camp, gazing at the stars between the famous Joshua trees, which is most definitely one of the best Joshua Tree activities.
A winter trip to California isn’t complete without visiting one of the world’s most famous city’s, the City of Angels. An ideal jumping-off point for destinations Southern California, LA is can be explored on its own or as a part of a trip. Whether you choose to hike the Hollywood Hills to the sign, explore downtown Los Angeles’ epic food scene, wander through the canals in Venice Beach or explore the pier in Santa Monica, a Los Angeles winter can be enjoyed no matter what you’re after for a winter getaway.
While these are only some of the best places to visit in California during winter, these are great places to start with many surrounding areas around each to have your adventure continue for longer. Enjoy your time in California in the winter!