12 Best Places to Visit in California in Winter

Written by Lisa Alexander
Updated Jan 2, 2024
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In television shows and movies, California appears to be a place of endless summer, where denizens enjoy outdoor activities and year-round sunshine. In reality, most of the state (except for Southern California and the desert areas) experiences some kind of winter weather, although this season is usually much gentler in California than elsewhere in the country.

Thanks to its Mediterranean climate, the winter season brings rain to California's lower elevations and snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Southern California gets less wintertime rain than Northern California. In Palm Springs and other desert areas, the winter rain is negligible.

You can take advantage of the perfect winter weather in Palm Springs or the balmy climate of San Diego and Los Angeles. Other top winter destinations include the ski resorts of Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Lakes. San Francisco, the Napa Valley, and the Mendocino region offer enough cultural attractions to keep you busy in Northern California during the winter.

Plan a fabulous vacation with our list of the best places to visit in California in winter.

1. Palm Springs

Palm Springs with the snowcapped San Jacinto Mountains in the background
Palm Springs with the snowcapped San Jacinto Mountains in the background

Palm Springs has been a popular wintertime destination since the 1920s when the area's resorts began catering to Hollywood celebrities.

This stylish resort town, sheltered by the San Jacinto Mountains, is still one of the best vacation spots in California. For a sunny getaway with beautiful scenery and a relaxing ambiance, it's hard to beat Palm Springs.

During the months of December, January, and February, you will enjoy Palm Springs's perfect weather: blue skies and daytime winter temperatures in the low 70s Fahrenheit. The sun shines nearly every day of the year (the average is 350 days of sunshine).

Taking advantage of the climate, the resorts here feature outdoor swimming pools, sundecks, golf courses, and tennis courts. Other things to do in Palm Springs include hiking, gourmet dining, and shopping.

Wintertime events give you more reasons to visit. In January, the Palm Springs International Film Festival screens films and documentaries from over 60 different countries. A highlight of the festival is when Hollywood A-listers strut down the red carpet to attend the Film Awards event.

In mid-February, Modernism Week celebrates the city's mid-century modern architecture. This 11-day festival includes home tours, walking tours, film screenings, lectures, nightly parties, and live music.

It takes around two hours to drive (about 100 miles away) from Los Angeles to Palm Springs.

2. Mammoth Lakes

Horseshoe Lake, Mammoth Lakes
Horseshoe Lake, Mammoth Lakes

If you love mountains and downhill skiing, definitely add Mammoth Lakes to your list of places to visit in the winter. The Mammoth Lakes area dazzles you with its dramatic High Sierra landscapes and its off-the-beaten-path appeal.

Because of the high elevation, snow arrives early at Mammoth Lakes. The ski season usually begins at the end of November. With its peak at an altitude of 11,000 feet, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area gets around 400 inches of snowfall a year.

Mammoth Mountain Ski Area is one of the best ski resorts in California, thanks to its expansive terrain of over 3,500 acres with 175 trails for alpine skiing. You will also appreciate the wide choice of lodging options and restaurants in the Mammoth Lakes area.

The famous Mammoth Lakes hot springs are another draw during the wintertime. The Travertine Hot Springs (natural geothermal pools) site in Bridgeport is open to the public for free. The town of Bishop also has hot springs.

In the historic mining town of Benton, The Inn at Benton Hot Springs provides bed-and-breakfast accommodations on a 1,255-acre family-owned ranch. The property includes natural mineral water hot springs. You can choose from various overnight lodging options: guest rooms in the inn, cottages, a charming bungalow, and camping sites with private hot tubs supplied with natural mineral water.

3. San Diego

Balboa Park
Balboa Park

As California's southernmost city, San Diego enjoys balmy weather year-round. The mild winters bring plenty of sunshine and temperate days, with average highs around 66 degrees Fahrenheit. Winter is not warm enough for sunbathing but is ideal for walks along the beach.

Thanks to the sprinkling of wintertime rain, the gardens of San Diego look ravishing during the months of December through February. The 1,200-acre Balboa Park wows you with its lovely gardens, hiking trails, and cultural attractions including 18 museums.

If you're looking for things to do in San Diego during winter, be sure to put the Christmas Tree Lighting in November and the December Nights holiday festivities on your list. Both events take place at Balboa Park.

A must-see attraction in San Diego is the Mission San Diego de Alcalá, a National Historic Landmark that dates back to 1769 and was the first Spanish mission to be established in California. The mission grounds incorporate a tranquil garden that is lovely during the wintertime.

4. Lake Tahoe

View over Lake Tahoe from the ski slopes
View over Lake Tahoe from the ski slopes

Lake Tahoe invites you to step into a winter wonderland as soon as snow begins to fall in November or December. Blankets of powder crown the mountain peaks surrounding Lake Tahoe, with its expanse of deep blue waters glistening under the cool winter sunshine.

Although the Lake Tahoe area gets plenty of snowfall, the climate is relatively mild for an alpine environment. Daily high temperatures from December through February are in the low 40 degrees Fahrenheit. With around 300 days of sunshine a year, Lake Tahoe's winter season offers the chance for many gorgeous bright days.

The top attractions in Lake Tahoe during wintertime include downhill skiing. The Lake Tahoe area has many top ski resorts. Among the most famous world-class resorts are Heavenly, Palisades Tahoe, and Northstar California.

Other things to do in Lake Tahoe during winter include cross-country skiing, sledding, snowshoeing, and sleigh rides.

5. Los Angeles

View of palm trees and downtown Los Angeles
View of palm trees and downtown Los Angeles

Soak up the stylish SoCal culture, while you bask in the winter sunshine of Los Angeles. Like most of Southern California, the rainy season occurs in the fall and winter (typical of a Mediterranean climate). However, it rains much less here during the winter than in Northern California, usually only rains for six or seven days out of the entire month.

Besides the mild wintertime weather, Los Angeles boasts world-class cultural attractions. You can expect to find superb restaurants, fabulous shopping, and excellent art museums in addition to the famous sights of Hollywood.

Beautiful beaches are another draw of visiting Los Angeles. Even during winter, you can enjoy the beaches of Los Angeles. In winter, you can take quiet walks along the shoreline and dine at beachfront restaurants.

Winter is a wonderful time to visit the 130-acre Botanical Gardens at The Huntington near Pasadena (10 miles away from Los Angeles). You can explore 16 themed gardens, such as the Desert Garden, Japanese Garden, and Shakespeare Garden. The Desert Garden features aloes that bloom with dazzling red flowers in wintertime, while the Camellia Garden is in peak bloom in January and February.

6. San Francisco

Cable cars in San Francisco
Cable cars in San Francisco

If you don't mind a little rain (or a lot, depending on the year), the winter is a great time to visit San Francisco. This sophisticated city amazes you with its wide array of cultural attractions and things to do such as museums, theaters, gourmet restaurants, and upscale shopping centers.

Winter weather in San Francisco ranges from mild sunny days to heavy rain. In December and January, the average high temperatures are in the high 50s Fahrenheit, and it rains an average of eight days out of the month. In February, it starts to get slightly warmer with the first signs of spring (cherry blossoms) on the way.

On those chilly Northern California winter days, you can wander through the art galleries of the SFMOMA (Museum of Modern Art) in downtown San Francisco or the de Young Fine Arts Museum in Golden Gate Park, where magnolias and camellias bloom during wintertime. In a glorious setting overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay, the Legion of Honor presents a fine arts collection along with temporary exhibits.

If you are visiting San Francisco with kids, the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park and the innovative exhibits of the Exploratorium are not to be missed. The Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39 keeps kids busy discovering colorful underwater scenes. Sea lions hang out at the nearby Pier 39 docks. Youngsters may get the giggles when watching the marine mammals' floppy movements or listening to their loud barking sounds.

During the holiday season, it's fun to go shopping at Union Square in downtown San Francisco. A giant Christmas tree and festive lights decorate Union Square, which also sports an ice-skating rink. All the department stores and boutiques around Union Square, as well as on the nearby Maiden Lane and Grant Avenue, present enchanting window displays during Christmastime.

7. Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park

With a dusting of powder snow, the glacier-carved Yosemite Valley is transformed into a magical wintertime scene. This UNESCO World Heritage Site features iconic rock formations like Half Dome and El Capitan, which are snowcapped throughout the winter months.

The winter season is one of the best times to visit Yosemite National Park because it is the least crowded time. This quieter season allows tourists to appreciate the peacefulness and beauty of the natural scenery. However, it can be a challenge to get to Yosemite in wintertime if there are road closures due to snow storms.

Yosemite's historic ski area is accessible from Glacier Point Road. Opened in 1935, Badger Pass Ski Area was the first ski area established in California and is still one of the state's top ski resorts. Badger Pass Ski Area offers opportunities for downhill (alpine), snowboarding, and cross-country skiing, as well as snow tubing and snowshoeing.

During the winter, The Ahwahnee Hotel dazzles you with its magical snowy setting and traditional holiday decorations. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and classified as a National Historic Landmark, this prestigious 4-star hotel is renowned for its magnificent Art and Crafts architecture featuring wood-beamed ceilings and stone fireplaces.

The Ahwahnee Hotel's elegant chandelier-illuminated dining hall is transformed into a marvelous venue for the annual Bracebridge Dinner to celebrate Christmas. Inspired by 17th-century English feasts, this costumed Christmas pageant features a seven-course menu, candlelit ambiance, musical theater entertainment, and classic Christmas carols.

Read More: Top Attractions & Things to Do in Yosemite

8. Big Sur

Bixby Bridge in Big Sur
Bixby Bridge in Big Sur

The majestic beauty of Big Sur takes your breath away. This picturesque stretch of coastline is tucked away between the dramatic Santa Lucia Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. It feels remote, although it's too well-known to be called a hidden gem.

Arriving here requires a harrowing cliffside drive, but that doesn't deter the masses of tourists during the high season. During summer, the crowds feel more suited to an amusement park than a place to appreciate nature. Sometimes, you can't even find parking in the lots near popular hiking trails or at state park entrances.

The secret to enjoying Big Sur is visiting during the off-season. In the winter, you can soak up the beauty and peacefulness of Big Sur. The air feels fresh and cool, and the redwood forests flourish with leafy ferns and wild mushrooms. Waterfalls gush at this time of year, the rainy season.

During the winter, you can take your time exploring the highlights of Big Sur such as the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park which is famous for the iconic McWay Falls, the legendary Hearst Castle perched high above the coastline, and the historic Henry Miller Library where cultural events and music performances take place.

The Deetjen's Inn is a charming rustic-chic lodge that dates to the 1930s and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Even if you don't stay here, it's worth sampling the gourmet cuisine at the inn's romantic candlelit restaurant.

The ultimate place to stay is at the luxurious Post Ranch Inn. For a pretty penny, this five-star hotel delivers contemporary lodge-style accommodations and panoramic ocean views.

9. Napa Valley

Lush hills in Napa Valley
Lush hills in Napa Valley

Unwind and pamper yourself in the Napa Valley. This upscale destination ranks high on the list of weekend getaways from San Francisco and also draws visitors from all over the world.

The winter is an ideal time to sample the area's fine dining and spa treatments. You can also take advantage of lower rates at some of the best hotels in Napa as well as the top resorts that charge notoriously high prices in the busy season.

Dining in Napa

The Napa Valley is home to some of the country's best restaurants. Are you a foodie? Then you will love the wide range of dining options, from classic French to trendy modern restaurants.

If you can get a reservation and are willing to pay the price, treat yourself to an unforgettable meal at The French Laundry in Yountville, which boasts three Michelin stars.

Other renowned restaurants in Yountville include Michelin-starred Bouchon, a traditional French bistro, and Bistro Jeanty, a charming restaurant that specializes in home-style French cooking. In the town of Napa, La Toque offers Michelin-starred gastronomic fare, and Brix serves farm-to-table cuisine in a casual dining room or on an outdoor patio (al fresco dining is possible in the winter).

Set on a wooded hillside above the Napa Valley, the Auberge du Soleil offers 5-star resort accommodations. The Restaurant at Auberge du Soleil delights you with its Michelin-starred seasonal cuisine, served on a covered outdoor terrace overlooking the green rolling hills.

Spas in Napa

Except for the Auberge du Soleil, most hotel spas in the Napa Valley are open to the public. In the cute little town of Yountville, the b Spa at Bardessono Hotel offers massages, facials, and wellness treatments. Other noteworthy spa facilities include the luxurious Bella Capelli Spa in Napa; the Blue Water Day Spa in Napa; and the Spa Solage at the 4-star Solage resort in Calistoga.

The heated mineral water pools of Calistoga feel especially invigorating on cool winter days. Try the spa at Dr. Wilkinson's Backyard Resort & Mineral Springs in Calistoga where you can choose from massages, hydrotherapy, and mud baths.

Winter Events in Napa

Wintertime also brings interesting cultural events, such as the Napa Truffle Festival in mid-January, the Napa Lighted Art Festival from mid-January until mid-February, the Yountville International Short Film Festival in early February, and the Yountville Live gourmet food festival in mid-March.

10. Mendocino

Mendocino coastline
Mendocino coastline

Thanks to the temperate Mediterranean climate, the weather in Mendocino can be as pleasant in winter as it is in summertime. In fact, the winter has the advantage of less coastal fog. As long as it's not raining, you can expect breathtaking blue skies, sweeping sea views, and refreshing ocean breezes.

From December through February, the average daily high temperatures are in the low 50s Fahrenheit, and the temperatures can dip down into the high 40s. Wear good hiking boots, and bundle up for walks through the woods or along the quiet coastal coves.

One of the top things to do in Mendocino is hiking in Van Damme State Park, which features miles of trails through a forested canyon with lush ferns that thrive during wintertime.

If you'd like to visit a Mendocino beach during wintertime, the one at Jug Handle State Natural Reserve is a good choice. A stunning sandy beach is hidden below cliff sides. This sheltered spot protects from the wind, making the beach an ideal place to sit back and admire the waves on a clear winter day.

Winter is the ideal time to sample the cuisine of Mendocino prepared from local ingredients, including an abundance of wild mushrooms. The winter rains allow the wild mushrooms to flourish in the Mendocino forests. Many local chefs take advantage of this gourmet bounty to prepare delicious dishes.

If you're looking for a nice meal, Café Beaujolais is known for its farm-to-table cuisine made from high-quality local ingredients, the MacCallum House Restaurant offers seasonal tasting menus and serves fabulous gourmet breakfast/brunch meals, and the upscale Trillium Cafe specializes in contemporary California cuisine.

Besides hiking and fine dining, you can also enjoy whale watching during the wintertime. Gray whales migrate along the Mendocino Coast from November through April; their spouts and tails can be spotted from the shore. The best places for whale watching are Mendocino Headlands State Park and the historic Point Arena Lighthouse.

Save time to wander around the quaint village of Mendocino. Its small downtown features lovely Victorians and little saltbox cottages dating back to the 1800s. Nowadays the historic buildings house inviting bed-and-breakfast accommodations (be sure to book ahead!), locally owned boutiques, and gourmet restaurants.

Other highlights of Mendocino include the Mendocino Hotel, dating to 1878, and the GoodLife Cafe & Bakery where locals and tourists gather for coffee and hearty breakfast meals.

The Mendocino Whale Festival takes place in March. Events are held in Mendocino, in the town of Little River, and Fort Bragg, the area's largest city.

11. Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park in the winter
Joshua Tree National Park in the winter

A captivating desert landscape, Joshua Tree National Park is worth a detour from Los Angeles (just a three-hour drive away.) Winter is a popular time to visit because the weather is ideal for hiking and rock climbing.

You can even go camping here in wintertime. It's a good idea to reserve a campsite in advance. The campgrounds tend to fill up during the high season (October through May).

Joshua Tree National Park is famous for its wildflowers, which begin to bloom as early as February in the lower elevations. The best place to check out the colorful blossoms is in Cottonwood Spring.

12. Sonoma County

Coastline near Bodega Bay, California
Coastline near Bodega Bay, California

Bodega Bay is a peaceful place to visit in Northern California's rural Sonoma County.

During the wintertime, Bodega Bay hosts some interesting events including a Chowder Day in January. The event includes chowder tastings from local restaurants, whale watching, and a chance to pick up fresh seafood at the waterfront.

In February, the Lake Sonoma Steelhead Festival celebrates the steelhead trout season, with entertaining activities and live music concerts.

Two film festivals take place in Sonoma County in March: the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival, which presents documentary films made by independent filmmakers, and the Sonoma International Film Festival, which screens over 90 international films at venues in the town of Sonoma, all within easy walking distance of the historic central plaza.

Map of Places to Visit in California in Winter