In popular culture, California is often depicted as a perpetual summer where people spend all their time outside. Although winter in California is milder than in the rest of the country, most of the state (outside of Southern California and the desert areas) does experience some form of winter weather.
The Mediterranean climate that California enjoys is truly a blessing. The Sierra Nevada Mountains receive snow while the rest of California receives rain during the winter. There is a precipitation gap between Northern and Southern California during the winter. Palm Springs, like other desert cities, receives very little precipitation during the winter.
Travelers can enjoy the mild winters in San Diego and Los Angeles or the perfect weather in Palm Springs. Ski resorts at Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Lakes are also popular during the winter. Northern California is home to several winter getaway hotspots, including San Francisco, Napa Valley, and Mendocino.
Best Places to Visit in Winter California
Use our guide to the top winter travel destinations in California to organize a trip you won’t soon forget.
1. Palm Springs
During the colder months, many people flock to Palm Springs. In the 1920s, when the first posh resorts began catering to Hollywood stars, a vacation haven emerged in the middle of the Sonoran Desert.
Palm Springs is still one of the best places to visit in California, and it’s only a two-hour drive (about 100 miles) from Los Angeles. The picturesque views and tranquil atmosphere make for the perfect vacation spot.
2. Mammoth Lakes
Mammoth Lakes should be on your winter travel itinerary if you enjoy beautiful mountain views and downhill skiing. The Mammoth Lakes region, located in the High Sierras of California, is a popular alternative travel destination.
Because of the high elevation, snow arrives early at Mammoth Lakes. Traditionally, ski season kicks off at the end of November. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, with a peak elevation of over 11,000 feet, receives an average annual snowfall of over 400 inches.
3. San Diego
As the most southern city in the United States, San Diego has pleasant temperatures all year. The average high temperature in the winter is around 66 degrees Fahrenheit, and the days are sunny and mild. Winter is not ideal for sunbathing, but it is perfect for strolling along the beach and enjoying the weather.
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Gardens in San Diego are especially beautiful from December through February because of the rain that falls during the winter. Balboa Park’s 1,200 acres are home to beautiful gardens, miles of hiking trails, and cultural attractions like 17 museums.
4. Los Angeles: The Big Apple
Visitors to Los Angeles can enjoy warm weather in the middle of winter. The Mediterranean climate of Southern California means that the rainy season coincides with the cooler months of fall and winter. However, the rainfall is significantly lower than in Northern California.
The winter months of December through February see daily highs in the high 60s to low 70s Fahrenheit, on average. Even though the winter months see the most rainfall, it typically only falls on six or seven days each month.
5. California, San Francisco
During the winter, San Francisco is beautiful if you don’t mind the rain (which can be moderate or heavy depending on the year). This sophisticated city boasts fabulous cultural attractions and things to do such as museums, theaters, gourmet restaurants, and upscale shopping centers.
San Francisco experiences both mild, sunny days and heavy, wet downpours during the winter. Highs in the 50s Fahrenheit are typical in December and January, with rain falling on eight days out of every month. Temperatures begin to rise in February, heralding the arrival of spring’s first harbingers, the cherry blossoms.
6. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite Valley, sculpted by glaciers, becomes a winter wonderland when blanketed in a fresh blanket of powder snow. Half Dome and El Capitan, two of the most recognizable rock formations in the world, are located in Yosemite National Park, which is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Yosemite National Park has fewer visitors in the winter, making it a great time to go. At this time of year, visitors can enjoy the scenery in relative peace and quiet. However, if snow storms cause road closures, visiting Yosemite in the winter can be difficult.
7. Wine Country of Napa Valley
Napa Valley is home to some of Northern California’s finest resorts, perfect for unwinding and pampering. Luxury travelers from all over the world flock to this popular weekend escape from San Francisco.
It’s best to visit the area’s luxurious restaurants and spas in the colder months. Napa’s finest hotels and resorts, which are known for their exorbitant peak season rates, may offer significant discounts during this time.
Mendocino’s Mediterranean climate means that the city is often just as comfortable in the winter as it is in the summer. Less coastal fog is actually a benefit during the winter. As long as it doesn’t rain, you can look forward to stunningly clear blue skies, panoramic views of the sea, and cool ocean breezes.
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Highs average in the low 50s Fahrenheit from December through February, with occasional forays into the high 40s. Put on your warmest clothing and sturdy hiking boots for a stroll through the woods or along the coast.
9. Joshua Tree National Park
The majestic desert landscape of Joshua Tree National Park is worth a detour from Los Angeles, just a three-hour drive away. Hiking and rock-climbing enthusiasts flock there during the winter months.
Winter camping is possible here. It’s a good idea to reserve a campsite in advance, because the campgrounds fill up during the high season (October through May).
10. Sonoma County
Bodega Bay, a small fishing village in rural Sonoma County in Northern California, is a tranquil destination with a variety of year-round activities, especially during the colder months. In January, Bodega Bay celebrates Chowder Day. Fresh seafood can be purchased right on the waterfront, and attendees can also sample chowder from local restaurants and go whale watching.
The Lake Sonoma Steelhead Festival takes place every February to honor the arrival of the steelhead trout.
California has a reputation for its “endless summer” for good reason, but the state’s winters are just as appealing.
As a California resident of ten years who was born and raised in Maine, I can attest to the convenience of having access to the mountains within a mere two hours of leaving Los Angeles.
However, a trip to California in the winter is not only ideal for avoiding the snow. It’s also among the best times to visit the desert, which can be too hot to enjoy in the summer. Cloverdale hosts a citrus festival in February, featuring gourmet food vendors and a kid-friendly carnival.