Looking for winter vacation ideas in California?
California is a tourist’s paradise.
It is a state of diverse landscapes and climates that changes with every few hundred miles that you drive.
Winter in California has its own beauty: The crisp air, the crunchy snow under your feet, the deep blue skies above – it all beckons you!
Also Read: 10 Days in California Road Trip Itinerary
With so many different landscapes and attractions, there are countless opportunities for adventure during the winter.
From the beach towns of San Diego, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara to the snow capped mountains of Tahoe, there’s something for everyone.
Winter is also a great time to visit the Golden State because there’s less crowds and lower prices, but it can also be more challenging without the sun.
Some of the best places to visit in California in winter are the national parks.
California has many beautiful National Parks and Preserves, with some being located near famous cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Palm Springs.
Many of these locations are perfect in winter, including Muir Woods National Monument (near San Fran), Joshua Tree National Park (near Palm Springs) or Sequoia National Forest (near LA).
Also Read: Best Things to do in California
Californian cities are not too far behind when it comes to California winter vacation ideas.
Holiday season brings up all the festive cheer and is an amazing time to enjoy the trendy neighborhoods of San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Winter in California: Weather & Essential Travel Information
California in December can be warm and sunny or freezing, depending on where you are going.
Much of southern California except for high elevations and the coast of central California have a very mild winter and sunny skies throughout the season.
The water will be cold for a swim but you can enjoy relaxing on the beach and excursions like whale watching.
The weather is perfect for hiking in the California deserts and along the coast.
For higher elevation areas like Lake Tahoe or Sierra Nevadas, several inches of snow is the norm.
You can enjoy snow activities like skiing, snowshoeing, and building a snowman.
These are the perfect places to visit for a picture perfect White Christmas in California.
If you are planning to drive, expect the roads to be icy and prep the car for low temperatures.
The northern coast will be a mix of all: you can have a smattering of snow or even clear sunny skies on the beach or foggy mornings in the redwoods.
Plan a trip here if you want to have something of everything!
Tips to book your winter getaways in California
California winter vacations can be expensive if you wait till the last minute to book your trip.
Also they will be more expensive if you travel during the peak holiday season from Christmas to New Year.
Most of the destinations on this list also make excellent places to visit in January in California or even February, so try scheduling an off peak getaway to enjoy better rates and deals.
Book your vacation 3 to 4 months in advance for the best discounts. For California travel in December, try to have everything booked by the end of fall.
If planning a last minute vacation, look for shorter duration and less touristy places for better rates.
Best Winter Vacations in California
There is no doubt that California is the best place to live in during winter, but it’s also a great place to visit!
The best places to visit in California in winter vary depending on where you are going and what you want to do.
The state has some great destinations for winter travel in California—whether it’s skiing at Mammoth Mountain or camping near Big Sur.
If you’re looking for some new winter destinations in California to go this year, then look no further than these must-see spots.
Here are our best places to visit in December in California:
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is home to some of the most iconic landscapes in America.
The park also has amazing wildlife.
Visitors can often spot bears, deer, and bighorn sheep in the park.
The park is open all-year round and has plenty of hiking trails that make it worth visiting in the cold.
The scenery of this national park is just breathtaking in all seasons, but in December and January you’ll be able to witness the snow capped mountains that surround the picturesque Yosemite Valley.
If you go on a day with clear skies, you can see Half Dome from many different angles – including up close at Mirror Lake.
Plus, you’ll be able to enjoy the park’s fantastic views in the winter months with fewer crowds.
Also Read: Los Angeles to Yosemite Road Trip Itinerary
If you are visiting the Central Coast and want to explore its wilderness, then this is the place for you.
The name “Big Sur” comes from a Spanish phrase meaning “Big South.”
Big Sur offers stunning views of the Pacific Ocean along with breathtaking hikes through redwood groves.
You will find waterfalls, sea caves, sea stacks, and marine life sightings including gray whale, seal, and sea otter in Big Sur.
The best way to explore this area is by taking a drive on Highway 1 or the Pacific Coast Highway, as it winds along the coast and offers spectacular views of both land and sea.
In winter, you will get a different perspective of this beautiful place away from the crowds.
Looking for am amazing place to visit in California in winter? Try San Diego!
San Diego, California is a major tourist destination for people who want to explore the Southern California coastline.
The city boasts of year round sunshine and is one of the most popular winter destinations in the US.
It also happens to be one of the warmest place in California in December.
The city has deep roots in history and culture that are still visible today in attractions such as the Gaslamp Quarter, Balboa Park architecture, and Cabrillo National Monument.
Because of its pretty beaches and nearby coastal communities like La Jolla and Coronado Island, San Diego makes a fun winter weekend getaway in California.
The oceanside town of Huntington Beach is located in Orange County, California and enjoys a mild climate year round.
It’s home to an amusement pier with a historic carousel and the site of the annual Surf City USA Surfing Championships.
Huntington Beach offers visitors an endless array of activities including biking along scenic beaches, fishing at Bolsa Chica State Park, or taking a stroll through Downtown’s historic Main Street district.
Huntington Beach also has plenty of local shops and restaurants as well as activities for outdoor enthusiasts including surfing lessons, kayaking trips, and fishing charters.
Paso Robles, a small city in Central California, is a beautiful hidden gem.
It is known for its wine country and has become an increasingly popular destination for tourists in recent years.
Apart from the wineries, Paso Robles is also home to mild winter, beautiful scenery, museums, and variety of recreational activities.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is located near the California-Nevada border and is renowned for its desolate landscapes and superlative scenery.
Personally, Death Valley is amongst our favorite winter vacation spots in California.
It is the largest national park in mainland USA and comprises landscape covered by salt flats, sand dunes, mountains, valleys and dry lake beds.
It is one of the most extreme and hostile environments on Earth.
The temperature inside Death Valley can reach up to 134 degrees Fahrenheit (57 Celsius) in the summer and there are no trees whatsoever to provide shade.
This makes winter an ideal time for visitors to explore Death Valley without the intense heat.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park are located in the southern Sierra Nevada mountain range and are home to some of the largest living things on earth.
The two parks are located adjacent to each other and considered a single unit.
This Land of Giants has a variety of landscapes including old growth forests, meadows, streams, lakes, waterfalls, and breathtaking granite cliffs.
The parks are amongst top places to go in California in winter for nature lovers.
The towering sequoia trees are a sight to behold and it’s hard not to feel tiny and insignificant when you’re surrounded by them.
Visitors can explore Sequoia National Park on hiking trails or take the scenic drive through Kings Canyon National Park for an unforgettable experience.
The famous General Sherman Tree hiking trail is open in winter for those who want to see this 275 feet tall giant.
There is no better time to visit Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks than in winter. The sequoias trees look grand when blanketed by the fresh snow.
However be prepared for slippery roads and icy conditions.
Lake Arrowhead is a beautiful mountain lake that draws visitors and locals alike.
Located at an elevation of 5174 feet in Southern California, Lake Arrowhead offers a host of winter recreation activities.
It can be very cold, but it has a lot to offer. You can enjoy snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, or ice fishing on your trip.
Miles of pristine white sand beaches and clear blue surf are waiting at Newport Beach – one of the most popular winter destinations on the Southern California coast.
Located in Orange County, California, Newport Beach is perfect for swimming, surfing or fishing.
Visitors can also enjoy the many shops and restaurants along Newport’s piers or spend an afternoon strolling through pretty Balboa Island.
If you want to get into the holiday spirit, there’s no better way than to visit Lake Tahoe in northern California.
With snow-covered trees, icy mountain peaks, and sparkling lakes, it’s a winter wonderland that leaves visitors enchanted.
Families and couples love to enjoy the brisk air of this idyllic landscape.
Visitors can enjoy activities such as skiing, ice skating, snowshoeing, sledding on frozen lakes, or simply take in all of the beauty of the area.
Tourists can drive around the lake for a winter road trip or spend time exploring more of what South Lake Tahoe has to offer like hiking trails, ski resorts, and even casinos on the Nevada side.
For budget travelers, Lake Tahoe is one of the best places to visit in California in January after the holiday crowds have gone away.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is a beautiful oasis in southern California.
The park is located over the Colorado and Mojave desert and features a variety of desert landscapes including palms, cacti, ocotillos, and the iconic Joshua Tree – a type of yucca.
Visitors enjoy exploring the many cultural and geological attractions within the park including Native American heritage, petroglyphs, a view of the San Andreas Faultline, and historic mining sites.
Napa Valley Wine Country
For couples looking to spend a romantic winter in California, consider wine tasting in the Napa Valley.
The Napa Valley Wine Country is a top destination for wine lovers from all over the world.
The valley, which stretches across California’s North Coast and encompasses California’s most prestigious vineyards, welcomes millions of visitors annually.
Visitors to Napa Valley are often overwhelmed by the sheer number of vineyards in the area.
Visitors can indulge in wine tasting, tour the wineries, and admire the striking architecture in Napa Valley.
The Napa Valley Wine Country offers something for everyone, including lavish resorts, spas, golf courses, historical sites, and even activities for kids.
For the ultimate northern California road trip in winter, consider driving up the coast to the charming city of Mendocino.
Mendocino, a small coastal city in Northern California, is known for its natural beauty and laid-back atmosphere.
Downtown Mendocino is a charming place with its Victorian architecture, historic buildings, brick paved sidewalks, and beautiful gardens.
The Mendocino coast, stretching from Fort Bragg to Point Arena, is lined with rugged cliffs, bluffs, and picturesque views of the Pacific Ocean.
The coast line here is spectacular: the waves crash and foam against the coastal cliffs at high tide.
Also Read: Northern California Road Trip Itinerary
If you’re looking for a winter destination, consider Mount Shasta City located in Northern California.
Mount Shasta City is one of the few places in California that has a true winter wonderland.
Snowfall in Mount Shasta and its surrounding areas is pretty heavy and perfect for a variety of winter activities such as skiing, snowshoeing, ice climbing, and more.
The city can be easily reached in a day trip from Redding or Sacramento, making it a popular winter vacation destination for those in the Bay area.
The best place to visit in California during winter season is Mammoth Mountain Ski Area.
This ski resort town has more than 300 inches of snow every year and it offers some of the most breathtaking views.
There’s lots of winter activities for tourists including snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, ice skating, sledding and snow fun for the entire family.
The area along with the community of Mammoth Lakes is California’s most popular ski getaway and among the best places to go in California in December.
San Francisco is one of the most popular and beautiful cities in California.
It is famous for its world-class attractions, rich cultural history, and an incredible culinary scene.
Visit attractions such as the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, Fisherman’s Wharf, Lombard Street, and Chinatown.
December is our favorite time to visit San Francisco for all the holiday activities.
See the Christmas tree in Union Square, drink hot chocolate at Ghirardelli Square, and see the beautiful lights all over downtown for an epic California winter vacation.
The Monterey coastline offers a lot of breathtaking views and scenic spots in the summer, but what about winter?
This is one of the best times to visit Monterey though the ocean will be cold and the coast foggy.
The drive down Highway 1 is beautiful in winter. Monterey itself is a delight. Whale watching is abundant.
You will find trees glowing with holiday lights at Christmas, lots of holiday activities for kids, and off season hotel rates.
A must stop is the Monterey Bay Aquarium – you can see the jellyfish and enjoy penguins swimming in their habitat.
Also consider a trip to Pacific Grove to enjoy its beautiful beaches and monarch butterfly garden.
No list of best places to visit in December in California can be complete without Los Angeles: the City of Angels.
Los Angeles is a city that is known for its glamour and Hollywood.
It offers many opportunities to tourists and visitors, from excellent shopping to the chance to meet celebrities on Sunset Boulevard.
Visit the Hollywood sign or enjoy dinner at one of the best restaurants in America. Enjoy the thrill rides at the Santa Monica pier and enjoy the canals at Venice Beach.
Enjoy the view from Griffith Observatory or see the stunning museums on Miracle Mile. Whatever you choose to do, your Los Angeles winter getaway will be fabulous!
Also Read: 2 Days in Los Angeles Itinerary Ideas
Anaheim is the home of Disney! For several families, visiting Disney in the winter holidays is a rite of passage.
Attending Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party is one of the best things to do in California in December.
However, the two theme parks of Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, as well as the Downtown Disney District is just one of many attractions in Anaheim.
Anaheim has a variety of family-friendly activities for the whole family including other theme parks such as Knott’s Berry Farm and Legoland.
From sports arenas and concert halls to museums and theaters, there are plenty of fun things to do in Anaheim.
Anaheim is also a hub for dining and shopping and one of the best places to visit in California in December.
Santa Barbara is known as ‘The American Riviera’ and has been voted amongst America’s Top Beach Cities.
The city enjoys a Mediterranean climate and winters are very mild here – making it the best winter vacation in California for sun lovers.
Santa Barbara offers something for everyone from surfing to whale watching, shopping to hiking.
There are many things you can do in Santa Barbara such as exploring the historic architecture in downtown, walking on the beach boardwalk, tide pooling at Carpinteria State Park, or a sunset cruise around the harbor.
Do not forget to visit the beautiful Mission Santa Barbara or admire the view from the courthouse tower.
The resort city of Palm Springs has been the most popular winter getaway for Californians since decades.
There are many reasons to visit Palm Springs including amazing shopping and mid century modern architecture, but most people come for the sparkling waterfalls, mineral pools, and soothing massage jets.
If you’re looking for something more relaxing than an amusement park or theme park this should be your list.
There are also plenty of hiking trails nearby as well as other recreational opportunities such as fishing, ATV riding, or horseback riding.
Santa Cruz is one of the top hotspots for those looking for California December vacations along the coast.
It is home to the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Here you can find rides for all ages including roller coasters, ferris wheels, and arcade games.
Santa Cruz Beach is also a major attraction. Explore the tide pools or swim or read a book while enjoying the sunshine.
You’ll be in close proximity to scenic walking trails, redwood trees, golf courses, and miles of coastal bluffs, making the city perfect for outdoor lovers and California winter getaways..
Big Bear Lake
When it comes to snow places in California, Big Bear Lake is an underrated gem!
Big Bear Lake in Southern California is surrounded by snow-covered mountains and is favorite for snow lovers in the Los Angeles area.
Big Bear Lake has plenty of things to do in the winter, from skiing to ice fishing.
The lake freezes over late November through January so that means lots of opportunities for ice skating, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and more!
Unique activities include snowboarding or horseback riding through the snowy trails or taking a sleigh ride around the lake.
California Winter Road Trip
If you are like us and can’t spend all your holidays in one place, then consider an epic California Winter Road trip!
Sun lovers can plan a Pacific Coast Highway road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Or consider a Southern California road trip from San Diego to Joshua Tree via Borrego Springs, Salvation Mountain, Salton Sea, and Bombay Beach.
Snow lovers can road trip the northern coast on california, see majestic redwoods, and end the vacation skiing in Mount Shasta. Or visit Yosemite Valley in the winter on your way to Lake Tahoe.
The options for a California road trip in winter are really endless! Read our post on best road trips in California for more ideas.
California in December Packing List
Here’s a comprehensive packing list for California vacations in December.
For sunny destinations and beach winter getaways, pack swimsuits, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Take a pair of water shoes or flip flops.
For winter snow destinations, take warm travel jackets and accessories including snow boots, gloves, hats, and scarves. You can take your own ski / snowshoe gear or rent at destination.
Read our post on Ultimate California Packing List to pack your bags.
Holidays are over, but it’s never too late to enjoy the beautiful California winter destinations.
We hope you liked our post on Places to go in California in December. What are your favorite California winter destinations?
Where are you planning to spend winter in California this year?