20 Best Places to Visit in California During Winter

20 Best Places to Visit in California During Winter

When you think of California you may think of palm trees, sunny beaches, and Hollywood stars, but guess what? Winter in California isn’t all about sunbathing and surfing! The Golden State has some hidden snowy treasures that might just surprise you.

California offers a unique blend of sun and snow that’s perfect for a memorable winter getaway. In this post, we cover the 20 best places to visit in California during winter.

From mountain retreats to charming small towns (and yes- the beaches, too!), California has something for everyone this winter.

Best Places to Visit in California in Winter

Palm Springs

Why I Love It: During the winter, the weather in Palm Springs is just right, not too hot or cold. That means it’s perfect for hiking the canyons or exploring the town on foot or on the scenic tramway.

windmills in palm springs

Top Things to Do in Winter

  • Hiking in Indian Canyons: Explore the desert landscapes and cool oases on the hiking trails in Indian Canyons.
  • Palm Springs Aerial Tramway: Take a ride on the iconic aerial tramway for panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and valley.
  • Mid-Century Modern Architecture Tour: Discover the city’s unique retro charm on an architectural tour.
  • Outdoor Dining and Shopping: Enjoy the pleasant winter weather with outdoor dining at trendy restaurants and explore the chic boutiques for some shopping.

Napa Valley

Why I Love It: The vineyards may not be in full bloom, but there’s nothing like tasting wines by a cozy fireplace. The smaller crowds make it feel like you have wine country all to yourself.

hot air balloon over napa valley california in winter

Top Things to Do in Winter

  • Wine Tasting: Enjoy the intimate charm of Napa Valley wineries and take a wine tour during the winter months.
  • Scenic Hot Air Balloon Rides: The crisp winter air and the breathtaking views make this a memorable experience.
  • Calistoga’s Hot Springs: Take a dip in Calistoga’s hot springs. It’s the perfect way to relax and unwind, surrounded by the beauty of Napa Valley.
  • Dining Experiences: Check out the region’s renowned culinary scene. Many restaurants offer seasonal menus that pair perfectly with Napa Valley wines.

Read more: Napa On A Budget: Where To Stay, Eat & Play

San Francisco

Why I Love It: San Francisco in winter is a total delight. The city’s vibrant neighborhoods, like Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf, come alive with holiday decorations and the mild weather is just chilly enough to feel like winter while still being warm enough to explore the city.

Top Things to Do in Winter

  • Explore Golden Gate Park: Enjoy a winter day exploring Golden Gate Park. Visit the museums, stroll through the Botanical Garden, or bundle up for a paddleboat ride on Stow Lake.
  • Wander through Chinatown: Embrace the festive atmosphere in San Francisco’s Chinatown, especially during the Chinese New Year celebrations.
  • Visit Fisherman’s Wharf: Explore the historic Fisherman’s Wharf and indulge in some clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl – a San Francisco classic.
  • Museum Day: Escape any rainy days by exploring the city’s museums, like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art or the Exploratorium.
  • Holiday Lights in Union Square: Experience the festive spirit in Union Square and enjoy some ice skating in the heart of the city or do some holiday shopping.
  • Illuminate SF Festival of Light: This festival, held throughout the winter season, showcases light art installations throughout the city.

Read more: The Complete Travel Guide To San Francisco In A Weekend and Where To Stay In San Francisco

Yosemite National Park

Why I Love It: You typically have to deal with crowds when visiting any of the national parks in California, but Yosemite in the winter feels like you have the place to yourself! And after a day of exploring in the snow, there is nothing like curling up in front of a fire in your cabin.

Yosemite National Park in Winter

Top Things to Do in Winter

  • Snowshoeing or Cross-Country Skiing: Explore Yosemite by strapping on some snowshoes or cross-country skis.
  • Check out the Frozen Waterfalls: Marvel at the frozen waterfalls, like the famous Yosemite Falls. The icy formations create a stunning spectacle against the granite cliffs.
  • Catch the Firefall: If you’re lucky and the conditions are just right, you might witness the rare “Firefall” phenomenon at Horsetail Fall, where the setting sun makes the waterfall look like it’s on fire.
  • Stargazing: The crisp winter air makes for excellent stargazing opportunities. Bundle up and enjoy the display of stars far away from city lights.

Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Yosemite National Park

South Lake Tahoe

Why I Love It: South Lake Tahoe is the perfect place to enjoy all the outdoor winter activities you can think of. At the end of a chilly day on the slopes you can also relax in the hot springs or build a fire in your cabin. This is a quintessential winter wonderland!

Top Things to Do in Winter

  • Skiing and Snowboarding: Hit the slopes! South Lake Tahoe has fantastic ski resorts like Heavenly and Sierra-at-Tahoe.
  • Snowshoeing or Winter Hiking: Explore the snowy landscapes on snowshoes or take a winter hike. There are trails for all levels, offering beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and forests.
  • Sledding and Tubing: Enjoy some sledding or tubing fun. You’ll find lots of designated areas for sliding down the snow-covered hills.
  • Hot Springs: Go for a soak in the nearby hot springs.
  • Ice Skating: Lace up your skates and hit the ice. South Lake Tahoe offers several outdoor ice rinks during the winter months.
  • Winter Festivals and Events: There are tons of winter festivals like the SnowGlobe Music Festival (December), Heavenly Holidays (mid-December to early January), Polar Bear Plunge (New Year’s Day), Snowshoe Cocktail Races (at the Kirkwood Mountain Resort) and Valhalla Holiday Faire (December).

Read more: The Best Places to Camp in California

Santa Barbara

Why I Love It: I love Santa Barbara in winter because it’s like a sunny escape when other places are cold. The weather is just right, not too hot or too chilly. The beaches are peaceful, and I can enjoy the beautiful scenery without the summer crowds.

Top Things to Do in Winter

  • Beach Strolls: Enjoy peaceful walks along the beaches without the summer crowds.
  • Wine Tasting: Explore the nearby wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley.
  • Hike in the Mountains: Explore the scenic trails in the nearby mountains. The cool winter weather makes the perfect conditions for hiking, and you can enjoy breathtaking views of the city and the ocean.
  • Shop on State Street: Wander down State Street and pop into the boutiques and shops for unique finds.
  • Santa Barbara International Film Festival: If you’re around in late January or early February, check out the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
  • Art Exploration: Visit local art galleries and museums. Santa Barbara has a vibrant arts scene, and the quieter winter months allow for a more quiet experience.

Read more: 25 Easy Weekend Getaways From San Diego

Death Valley National Park

Why I Love It: I love Death Valley in the winter because it’s not crazy hot like it is in the summer. The weather is just right – usually in the mid 60’s during the day. The landscapes are unique, with colorful rocks and mountains, and I can explore without feeling like I’m melting.

Top Things to Do in Winter

  • Badwater Basin: Explore the lowest point in North America at Badwater Basin.
  • Artist’s Palette: Drive through Artist’s Palette to see the vibrant and colorful rock formations.
  • Zabriskie Point: Visit Zabriskie Point for panoramic views of the unique landscape.
  • Dante’s View: Hike or drive up to Dante’s View for breathtaking vistas of Death Valley and the Panamint Range.
  • Golden Canyon: Take a hike through Golden Canyon.
  • Star Gazing: Experience the incredible night skies. Death Valley is designated as a Dark Sky Park, and the clear winter nights provide excellent conditions for stargazing.
  • Scotty’s Castle: Tour Scotty’s Castle, a historic mansion in the northern part of the park.

Read more: Death Valley National Park Travel Guide

Mammoth Lakes

Why I Love It: Visiting Mammoth Lakes in winter is awesome because of all the snow fun! You can ski and snowboard on the mountains, make snow angels, and have snowball fights. The whole town looks like a winter fairy tale.

Top Things to Do in Winter

  • Skiing and Snowboarding: Hit the slopes at Mammoth Mountain.
  • Snowshoeing and Cross-Country Skiing: Explore by snowshoeing or cross-country skiing on the trails around Mammoth Lakes.
  • Hot Springs Relaxation: Take a dip in the natural hot springs. It’s a perfect way to relax and enjoy the surroundings.
  • Snowmobiling Adventures: Experience the thrill of snowmobiling through the snowy backcountry. Guided tours are available for all skill levels.
  • Ice Skating at The Village: Enjoy ice skating at The Village at Mammoth.
  • Woolly’s Tube Park: Have a blast tubing at Woolly’s Tube Park. It’s a fun activity for all ages, sliding down the snow-covered hills.
  • Snowcat Tours: Take a snowcat tour to explore more remote and pristine areas.

Sequoia National Park

Why I Love It: I love Sequoia National Park in winter because when the giant sequoia trees are dusted with snow, it feels so peaceful. This is the perfect place to enjoy nature without the summer crowds.

Top Things to Do in Winter

  • Giant Sequoia Sightseeing: Seeing the sequoias covered in snow is such a unique experience!
  • Snowshoeing and Cross-Country Skiing: Explore the trails on snowshoes or cross-country skis.
  • Winter Hiking: Take a winter hike on lower-elevation trails.
  • Sledding and Playing in the Snow: Enjoy some old-fashioned sledding or play in the snow in designated areas.
  • Winter Wildlife Watching: Keep an eye out for winter wildlife. The colder months can bring out animals like mule deer.
  • Winter Camping: If you’re feeling brave, experience winter camping in the park’s campgrounds.
  • Stargazing: Sequoia National Park is known for its dark skies. Winter nights offer super clear conditions for stargazing.

Joshua Tree National Park

Why I Love It: I love going to Joshua Tree National Park in the winter because the weather is just right. It’s not too hot during the day, and the nights are cool. Perfect for hiking, climbing rocks, and looking at the stars in the clear winter sky.

winter drive in joshua tree national park

Top Things to Do in Winter

  • Hiking and Nature Walks: Explore the park’s unique landscapes through its numerous hiking trails.
  • Rock Climbing: Try rock climbing on the park’s famous granite formations. The cooler winter weather makes it an ideal time for climbers of all levels.
  • Stargazing: Enjoy the incredible night sky. Joshua Tree is renowned for its dark skies.
  • Ranger Programs: Participate in ranger-led programs and guided walks. Learn about the park’s ecology, geology, and cultural history.
  • Bird Watching: Spot the diverse bird species that live in the park. Winter is a great time for birdwatching, as many species become more active in the winter months.
  • Camping: The cooler temperatures in winter make camping more comfortable, and it’s a fantastic way to immerse yourself in the desert.

Read more: Weekend In Joshua Tree: The Perfect 2-3 Day Itinerary

Kings Canyon National Park

Why I Love It: Visiting Kings Canyon National Park in winter is special because it transforms into a peaceful snow-filled paradise. The trees are dusted with snow and the scenery is absolutely beautiful – and it’s so nice to be able to enjoy it all without the summer crowds!

Top Things to Do in Winter

  • Snowshoeing and Cross-Country Skiing: Strap on snowshoes or cross-country skis to explore the trails.
  • General Grant Tree Trail: Visit the General Grant Tree, one of the world’s largest trees.
  • Sledding and Snow Play: Enjoy an old-fashioned snow ball fight and go sledding!
  • Winter Hiking: There’s nothing like taking a hike here when the snow is blanketing the park.
  • Scenic Drives: Take a scenic drive through the park. Many roads remain open during the winter, offering gorgeous views of snow-covered landscapes.
  • Stargazing: Go stargazing in Kings Canyon National Park, known for its dark skies.
  • Camping: Immerse yourself in the landscape overnight at one of the park’s many campgrounds.

Santa Cruz

Why I Love It: Visiting Santa Cruz in the winter is great because it’s quieter and more relaxed. The weather is still mild, perfect for strolls along the coastline, and hitting the Boardwalk is even better without the peak-season crowds.

Where to visit in California During Winter

Top Things to Do in Winter

  • Coastal Strolls: Enjoy peaceful walks along the beaches and coastal paths.
  • Surfing: Brave the cool waters and try surfing. Santa Cruz is known for its surf culture, and winter brings consistent waves for those looking to catch some.
  • Boardwalk Fun: While some attractions may have reduced hours, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is less crowded in the winter.
  • Whale Watching: Take a whale-watching tour. Winter is a prime time to spot migrating whales along the California coast.
  • Visit the Santa Cruz Mountains: Explore the redwood forests and wineries in the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains.
  • Santa Cruz Wharf: Take a stroll along the Santa Cruz Wharf. Enjoy the views and grab a meal at one of the seafood restaurants.

Big Sur

Why I Love It: The iconic coastal views in Big Sur, like McWay Falls and Bixby Creek Bridge, feel more intimate without the summer hustle. Plus, cozying up in one of the small inns along the coast adds a unique charm to the trip.

Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, California at Sunset

Top Things to Do in Winter

  • Scenic Drives: Take a drive along the iconic Highway 1. The coastal views are dramatic, and winter often brings clearer skies.
  • Hiking in Andrew Molera State Park: Explore the trails in Andrew Molera State Park. The cooler temperatures make it a pleasant time for hiking the coastal bluffs and redwood groves.
  • Visit McWay Falls: The waterfall is especially beautiful in the winter.
  • Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park: Hike in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The park offers various trails through redwood groves and along the Big Sur River.
  • Point Lobos State Natural Reserve: Visit Point Lobos State Natural Reserve for the birdwatching and the gorgeous views.
  • Bixby Creek Bridge: The iconic bridge looks even more majestic against the backdrop of winter skies and rolling waves.

Read more: The Best Big Sur Campgrounds

Big Bear Lake

Why I Love It: Winter is the perfect time to visit Big Bear Lake! The lake is surrounded by snow-capped mountains where you can go skiing, snowboarding, and sledding. The cozy cabins and the festive atmosphere make it a perfect winter retreat.

Top Things to Do in Winter

  • Skiing and Snowboarding: Hit the slopes at Big Bear Mountain Resort. The area offers excellent skiing and snowboarding opportunities for all skill levels.
  • Snowshoeing and Cross-Country Skiing: Explore the area by snowshoeing or cross-country skiing on the scenic trails around Big Bear Lake.
  • Snow Summit Scenic Sky Chair: Take the Snow Summit Scenic Sky Chair for breathtaking views of the snowy landscapes.
  • Snow Tubing: Kids will love snow tubing in the designated areas!
  • Ice Skating: Lace up your skates and enjoy ice skating at the outdoor rinks in the area.
  • Village Shopping: Explore the charming Big Bear Lake Village. The village is covered with festive lights during the winter, and the shops offer unique winter finds.
  • Big Bear Alpine Zoo: Visit the Big Bear Alpine Zoo. It’s open year-round, and winter provides a unique opportunity to see the animals in a snowy setting.

Read more: 15 Cheap Weekend Getaways in California

Sierra Nevada Mountains

Why I Love It: I love going to the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the winter not only because of all the typical winter activities like skiing, snowboarding, and ice skating, but also because of the hot springs and the fun winter festivals!

Sierra Nevada Mountains in Winter

Top Things to Do in Winter

  • Visit the Hot Springs: Check out one of the many hot springs like Grover Hot Springs State Park (Markleeville), Travertine Hot Springs (Bridgeport), Mono Hot Springs (Mono Hot Springs), and Sierra Hot Springs (Sierraville).
  • Lake Tahoe Winterfest: Winterfest often features live music, snow sculptures, and a polar bear plunge.
  • SnowGlobe Music Festival: SnowGlobe is a renowned festival that attracts top artists in electronic dance music (EDM) and other genres.
  • Heavenly Holidays: This month-long festival in December includes ice sculpture competition and holiday music.
  • Kirkwood Mountain Resort Winter Festival: Kirkwood Mountain Resort hosts snowshoe tours, live music, and festivities for all ages.
  • WinterWonderGrass Tahoe: Combining bluegrass music with winter activities, this festival in Olympic Valley has a unique mix of live performances, craft beer tastings, and outdoor fun.

Read more: The Perfect CA Hwy 395 Road Trip Itinerary

Los Angeles

Why I Love It: Visiting Los Angeles in the winter is the perfect sunny escape from the cold. The weather is mild and pleasant, and the city is a bit less crowded, making it easier to explore the city’s hotspots.

Road with Palm Trees and Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles

Top Things to Do in Winter

  • Visit Griffith Observatory: Take in panoramic views of the city and the iconic Hollywood Sign from Griffith Observatory.
  • Explore Venice Beach: Stroll along the Venice Beach Boardwalk. While it might be too cold for swimming, the lively atmosphere, street performers, and unique shops make for a fun visit.
  • The Getty Center: Explore The Getty Center. This world-renowned art museum sits atop a hill and provides a peaceful setting for enjoying art and architecture.
  • LA Zoo Lights: Experience the magical LA Zoo Lights. During the holiday season, the Los Angeles Zoo transforms with a gorgeous display of lights and festive decorations.
  • Hollywood Walk of Fame: Take a stroll along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Winter is a great time to explore without the summer heat.

Carmel-by-the-Sea

Why I Love It: In the winter, the weather in Carmel-By-The-Sea is perfect for exploring galleries, enjoying scenic drives or hikes, and going to wine tastings in Carmel Valley.

Top Things to Do in Winter

  • Scenic Drives along 17-Mile Drive: Enjoy the breathtaking coastal views along 17-Mile Drive.
  • Explore Carmel Beach: Take a peaceful stroll on Carmel Beach.
  • Point Lobos State Natural Reserve: Explore the natural beauty of Point Lobos. The reserve has picturesque hiking trails and incredible ocean views.
  • Wine Tasting: Experience wine tasting in Carmel Valley.
  • Carmel Mission Basilica: Visit the historic Carmel Mission Basilica. Explore the beautiful architecture and learn about the area’s rich history.
  • Galleries: The village is known for its thriving arts community.

Read more: The Most Beautiful Road Trips in California + Where to Stay

San Diego

Why I Love It: The winter months are perfect for visiting San Diego because this is prime whale-watching time and the weather is mild enough to explore all the hot spots in the city or hike nearby.

Scripps Pier La Jolla San Diego

Top Things to Do in Winter

  • Balboa Park: Visit the museums, stroll through the gardens, and enjoy the Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. During the December Nights event, the area is decorated, the streets are filling with international food vendors and live entertainment, and many of the museums offer free admission.
  • San Diego Zoo: Visit the world-famous San Diego Zoo, which is decorated with festive lights during the holidays.
  • Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve: Hike in Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. The coastal trails offer stunning views of the Pacific Ocean.
  • Old Town San Diego State Historic Park: Learn about the city’s history and visit historic buildings in Old Town San Diego.
  • Winter Whale Watching: Take a winter whale-watching tour. The Pacific gray whales migrate along the coast during the winter months, providing a unique wildlife experience.
  • San Diego Bay Parade of Lights: A holiday tradition, this boat parade lights up the bay with decorated boats, adding a magical touch to the waterfront.

Read more: Where to Stay in San Diego: The Best Neighborhoods & Hotels

Monterey

Why I Love It: I like to combine a trip to Carmel-By-The-Sea with a visit to nearby Monterey. The aquarium is fantastic and the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary is magical during the winter migration.

Top Things to Do in Winter

  • Monterey Bay Aquarium: Explore the exhibits at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
  • Cannery Row: Stroll along Cannery Row for the shops, art galleries, and cozy cafes with views of the coastline.
  • Pacific Grove Coastal Trail: Walk the Pacific Grove Coastal Trail – you might even spot some whales from here!
  • Wine Tasting in Carmel Valley: Take a short drive to Carmel Valley for wine tasting.
  • Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary: Visit the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Pacific Grove. Witness thousands of monarch butterflies that migrate to the area during the winter months.
  • Whale Watching: Take a winter whale-watching tour. The winter brings the opportunity to see migrating gray whales along the California coast.

Read more: The Best Beach Towns in California + Where to Stay

Catalina Island

Why I Love It: Catalina Island is not only beautiful, but also has a rich history. There are lots of opportunities to take tours to learn about the area’s history as well as the marine wildlife.

Top Things to Do in Winter

  • Catalina Island Conservancy Trails: Explore the Catalina Island Conservancy trails to check out the Native American middens and the remnants of the island’s ranching and mining history.
  • Winter Whale Watching: Take a winter whale-watching tour to spot migrating gray whales.
  • Catalina Island Museum: Check out the exhibits at the Catalina Island Museum.
  • Avalon Scenic Tour: Take an Avalon Scenic Tour to learn about the island’s landmarks and history while enjoying the scenic views.
  • Catalina Casino Tour: Join a tour of the Catalina Casino to learn about the iconic building’s architecture and history.
  • Golf at Catalina Island Golf Course: Play a round of golf with an ocean view at the Catalina Island Golf Course.
  • Glass-Bottom Boat Tour: Take a glass-bottom boat tour. Explore the marine life around the island without getting in the water.
 
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Best California Winter Destinations

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