While most people think of California as a summer destination, some of the best things to do in California can be discovered during the colder winter months.
From skiing and snowboarding in the mountains to road trips and relaxing coastal getaways, there is always something exciting to be found in California – no matter the time of the year!
In this post, we share 15 of our favorite places to visit in California in winter. So don’t spend your entire winter catching up on Netflix shows or counting down the days until the spring arrives. Get inspired as plenty of outdoor adventures await you!
To help you make your trip planning easier, I have divided our California winter guide into two sections:
- Places To Visit In The Mountains
- Places To Visit On The Coast
The mountains are where you’ll want to head if you are looking for winter adventures like skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and other fun snow activities.
The California coast, on the other hand, offers plenty of winter destinations that are great for relaxing on the beach, soaking in the sunshine, hiking, and camping.
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Places To Visit In The Mountains:
1. Sequoia National Park
There is something magical about visiting Sequoia National Park in the winter. The crowds start to thin out, the park starts to quiet down and you might find yourself hiking through magical winter wonderland landscapes without another person in sight.
Sequoia National Park is only a few hours from Los Angeles making it a great outdoor escape especially in the winter.
I’ve been to Sequoia National Park during the winter season a couple of times now and it’s always such an incredible experience seeing this park covered in snow. However, ice and snow can present challenges traveling to the mountains so be sure to check ahead of time for road closures and chain requirements before heading out there!
While some facilities and roads at Sequoia National Park close in the winter, there is still plenty to see and do at this park in the slower seasons including:
- Visiting the General Sherman Tree
- Hiking the 1.2 miles long Big Trees Trail
- Going up to the top of Moro Rock
- Exploring giant Sequoia Trees along the Alta Trail
Read More: Visiting Sequoia National Park In The Winter
Where To Stay
Wuksachi Lodge is a hotel that’s located within Sequoia National Park and usually stays open all year long.
As an alternative, you can also book a hotel in Three Rivers that is the closest town to Sequoia National Park. The Buckeye Tree Lodge is a highly rated lodge that has an excellent location near the Sequoia National Park entrance.
2. Alabama Hills
Situated at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, Alabama Hills is one of the best hidden gems in California. It’s close to the mountains, it offers tons of hiking and mountain biking trails to choose from, and easy access to geological wonders like Mobius Arch and Boot Arch.
Alabama Hills is located just over 3 hours from Los Angeles making it one of the top outdoor places to visit in California during winter.
It is not advisable to travel to Alabama Hills during the summer months when temperatures here spike past 100 degrees.
Winter is a great time to visit and camp in Alabama Hills when temperatures are much more tolerable. Just make sure to bring cold-weather clothes, lots of layers, warm sleeping bags, and tons of blankets to stay cozy while camping here.
Some of the most popular places to visit in Alabama Hills include the:
- Alabama Hills Movie Road
- Nightmare Rock
- Mobius Arch Loop
- Lone Ranger Canyon
Where To Stay
Alabama Hills is managed and operated by of Bureau Of Land Management that allows free camping on their lands. We were able to camp in Alabama Hills in December in our TentBox Hardshell Rooftop Tent and stay warm throughout the night.
3. Mammoth Lakes
If you’re ready for a true winter vacation in California, then plan a getaway to Mammoth Lakes. With easy access to Sierra Nevada Mountains and Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, there are endless adventures to be found in Mammoth Lakes in winter.
The ski resort’s chair lifts can take you up to the highest serviced peak in California for miles of skiing and snowboarding terrain. Some easy hiking and snowshoeing trails are also accessible in the winter offering incredible views of lakes and surrounding winter scenery.
The Hot Creek Geological Site is a must-do snow hike that has a unique setting with steaming geysers similar to that of Yellowstone National Park.
Where To Stay
The Juniper Springs Resort is a lovely four-star hotel nestled into the side of Mammoth Mountain. Visitors itching to indulge in the area’s skiing will appreciate the hotel’s ski-in and ski-out access and the onsite chair lift. Wintertime guests can also use the spacious storage lockers in the lobby that can accommodate skiing and snowboarding gear.
For a relaxing and upscale experience, consider The Westin Monache Resort, Mammoth. This ski resort is just across the street from the Village Gondola Station, providing convenient access to the ski hill.
Read More: 10 Best Hotels In Mammoth Lakes
4. Death Valley National Park
Dramatic golden canyons. Towering sand dunes. Pastel-colored hills. Surreal salt fields. Death Valley National Park consists of 3 million acres of wilderness with some of the most unique and otherworldly landscapes that I have ever experienced.
Death Valley is one of the most underrated parks in California that can only be experienced during the cooler months. As the hottest place on Earth, Death Valley National Park has a short season for visitors which lasts from late fall to early spring.
Winter months bring colder temperatures in the desert which means you will need to pack warmer clothing, especially for camping overnight.
Some of the top attractions of Death Valley National Park include:
- Badwater Basin Salt Flats
- Zabriskie Point
- Artists Palette
- Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
Where To Stay
Despite being such a large National Park, lodging choices at Death Valley are pretty limited. Camping is one of the cheapest and most convenient options, especially if you plan to hike early in the morning or stay for sunset. See the complete list of Death Valley campgrounds here!
Two hotels are also situated within Death Valley National Park:
These hotels are located next to the main road that travels through the park providing convenient access for visitors.
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5. Joshua Tree National Park
With nearly 3 million visitors a year, Joshua Tree is one of the most popular National Parks in California. Joshua Tree has many epic hiking trails that you can experience just a short drive from Los Angeles making it a great destination for locals and visitors alike.
As the desert temperatures start to fall towards the winter months, people flock to Joshua Tree National Park for camping, hiking, and other outdoor recreational activities.
The coldest months in Joshua Tree are December and January when the temperatures stay between 50-60°F during the day. The temperatures do tend to drop to 35° F overnight so try not to stay out on trails past sunset.
We’ve written a detailed guide that covers 7 of the best hikes to do in Joshua Tree. These are quick family-friendly day hikes that are easily accessible all year long.
Where To Stay
Camping in Joshua Tree National Park in the winter can be a bit challenging if you don’t have the right camping gear to keep you warm. If you’d rather stay warm and cozy in a vacation rental, check out this guide that covers 10 Stunning VRBO Rentals In Joshua Tree, California!
6. Big Bear Lake
Big Bear Lake is a four-season getaway in Southern California with endless outdoor adventures. When winter arrives in Big Bear Lake it brings blankets of snow that cover the San Bernardino Mountains. With the onset of winter, the city’s two ski slopes – Snow Summit and Big Bear Mountain Resort – open to skiers and snowboarders.
Whether you choose to spend your vacation cozying up to a fireplace with a hot cocoa in hand or enjoy some thrilling skiing or snowboarding, Big Bear is one of the best winter getaways in Southern California.
The charming Big Bear Village, Bowling Barn, Alpine Zoo, and plenty of snow play options ensure there is something for everyone to enjoy!
Where To Stay
Renting a cabin or a vacation home in Big Bear is a wonderful option in the winter months. Many of the Big Bear Lake rentals offer the space, comfort, and privacy that’ll make your trip all the more special.
This Snow Summit home has top-notch amenities that make it a perfect choice for visitors looking to enjoy proximity to the mountains. This pet-friendly home for six puts guests right at the base of Snow Summit for easy access to the ski slopes.
The Eagle Cove Retreat is a spacious four-bedroom vacation rental for ten. It not only offers an excellent location along the shores of Big Bear Lake, but it also has a well-appointed interior. Tall chalet-style windows in the living room let in the surrounding views and tons of natural light.
7. Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is one of my all-time favorite places to visit in California, no matter what time of the year I choose to go. Visiting Yosemite in winter has it’s own perks – magical scenery, empty trails, and no entrance reservation requirements.
If you plan on traveling to Yosemite in the winter months, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- The weather can be extremely cold. Come prepared with proper winter clothing and gear to ensure you have an enjoyable and safe visit.
- The days are very short, especially in the mountains.
- Many of the trails and facilities in Yosemite close during the winter months due to limited staff.
Don’t worry – there is still plenty to explore in Yosemite Valley that is accessible in the off-season!
Some amazing things that you can do in Yosemite in winter include:
- Visiting Lower Yosemite Falls
- Stopping by the scenic Tunnel View
- Hiking Yosemite Valley Loop Trail
- Skiing or snowboarding at the Badger Pass Ski Area
- Snowshoeing winter trails at Mariposa Grove
As a great alternative, you may want to consider visiting Yosemite in October or November when the weather is still warm and you can enjoy beautiful fall colors.
Where To Stay
I was surprised to find out how many people camp in Yosemite in the colder winter months, especially in campervans and pop-up tents!
On our latest Yosemite winter trip, we stayed at a campsite in the Upper Pines Campground. While the temperatures dropped below freezing at night, with an RV air heater and plenty of blankets, we were able to stay comfortable through the night.
As an alternative, opting to stay in a vacation rental near Yosemite National Park is one of the best and most convenient ways to experience this stunning park in the winter. Read more here for the 10 Best VRBO Rentals Near Yosemite National Park.
8. Lake Tahoe
South Lake Tahoe is the picture-perfect winter destination where freshly fallen snow contrasts against the brilliant blue waters of Lake Tahoe. For ski and snowboard enthusiasts it doesn’t get better than this!
With an average snowfall of 18 feet and 300 sunny days, Lake Tahoe creates the perfect setting for enjoying winter activities while also soaking up the sun. You can experience endless ski routes and dramatic scenery at world-class resorts such as the Heavenly Mountain Resort, Sierra-at-Tahoe, and Kirkwood Mountain Resort.
There are also plenty of shopping, dining, and hotel options to suit all interests and budgets, in addition to fantastic snow activities.
Where To Stay
South Lake Tahoe is a popular resort city on the California side of the lake. Fortunately, the city is not too big, and it’s possible to find convenient places to stay in South Lake Tahoe that are all within driving distance to main attractions and ski resorts.
The Lucerne Lake House is a bright and airy getaway for ten that features a spacious kitchen with an adjoining dining and seating area next to a cozy fireplace. The home also has a private boat dock, balcony, and hot tub where guests can enjoy looking out over the water. The Heavenly Ski Resort is only about eight minutes away.
9. Lake Isabella
Lake Isabella is a beautiful lake just an hour East of Bakersfield. Tucked away in between mountains and small western-style towns, Lake Isabella is a popular vacation spot for those who love outdoor activities like hiking, fishing, camping, and river rafting.
Incredible scenery, adorable mom and pop shops, charming vacation rentals, and fun local breweries make Lake Isabella an attractive weekend getaway no matter the time of the year.
Some of the top things to explore around Lake Isabella include:
- Visiting Silver City Ghost Town
- Grabbing a beer at Kern River Brewing Company
- Hiking Isabella Peak – Coso Mine Loop Trail
- Relaxing at Remington Hot Springs
Where To Stay
There are quite a few beautiful rentals and cabins to choose from at Lake Isabella for any type of vacation – from romantic getaways to large family gatherings.
Read more here for 8 incredible rentals to stay at in Lake Isabella!
Places To Visit On The Coast:
10. Big Sur
With a backdrop made up of the Pacific Ocean and the Saint Lucia Mountains, Big Sur is one of the country’s longest stretches of untouched coastline. It’s famous for towering redwood trees, idyllic beaches, exciting hiking, and epic views!
Driving along California’s serpentine Hwy 1 to witness the impressive landscape is by far one of the best ways to experience Big Sur. Other can’t-miss attractions include Keyhole Rock, the gravity-defying Bixby Creek Bridge, and the McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
Big Sur’s moderate climate and stunning coastal location make it a great winter destination for getaways and camping trips in the US!
Where To Stay
Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground is a stunning campground in a rugged section of the Big Sur coastline where visitors can stay in spacious campsites dispersed amongst ancient redwood trees. You can read more about our experience staying at Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground here!
Big Sur also offers a few incredible hotels and vacation rentals along its 90 mile stretch of coastline. This list pinpoints some of the best places to stay in Big Sur to help you narrow down your options.
11. Catalina Island
While you can certainly visit Catalina Island for the day, did you know that there is a 38-mile-long trail that stretches across the entire island?
With rolling hills, blue water, hidden beach coves & jagged ocean cliffs, the Trans-Catalina Trail is one of the most scenic backpacking hikes that you can do in California. Overall, the weather in Southern California stays temperate throughout the year making this an excellent option for winter backpacking trips.
Planning a trip to Catalina Island & hiking the Trans-Catalina trail can be a bit tricky, especially if you are new to backpacking. You’ll need to consider how much time you can spend on this hike, what campsites are available, what ferry to take, and what to bring along on this adventure.
To help you plan and make the most of this hike, you can read our detailed Trans-Catalina Trail Backpacking Guide Here!
Where To Stay
If you’re interested in backpacking the Trans-Catalina Trail, one of the first things that you’ll want to reserve are campsites. There are limited spots available and the Catalina campsites often get booked up well in advance, especially on the weekends. Check out Catalina Island campsite availability here!
12. Laguna Beach
White sand beaches, colorful sunsets, and picture-perfect palm trees make Southern California the ideal year-round playground for those who love the beach, sun, and surf.
While there are many incredible beaches that you can visit in California in winter, our personal favorite is the 1000 Steps Beach in Laguna Beach. This beach is named after the long stairs that provide public access to the beach (don’t worry – there are only a couple of hundred steps and not a thousand as the name indicates).
1000 Steps Beach is also home to unique sea caves and ocean-front infinity pools that can only be reached during low tide.
To find the Thousand Steps Sea Cave take the stairs down to the beach and go left as far as you can. Then you will need to walk across jagged rocks and time your entrance into the cave in between incoming waves.
Be sure to check the Laguna Beach tide chart before you go and plan your visit accordingly. This cave is only accessible during low tide and it can be dangerous to enter it during high tide.
Where To Stay
With a backdrop made of the Pacific Ocean and swaying palm trees, Laguna Beach is one of Southern California’s most beautiful coastlines.
Surf and Sand Resort is a luxury hotel at the center of Laguna that has its own private beach access. Rest and relaxation amongst luxurious décor is the highlight of the Surf and Sand Resort along with its outdoor pool and sun terrace.
13. Santa Barbara
Known as the American Riviera, Santa Barbara features long stretches of sandy beach and endless sunny days. It attracts visitors from far and wide, itching to learn how to surf or seek relaxation in one of California’s most popular coastal winter destinations.
When you’re not off soaking up the sunshine or hitting the waves, the city is home to many unique attractions such as Stearns Wharf and the historic Old Mission.
This part of California is also world-renowned for spectacular vineyards, with more than 200 to choose from in and around the city. That makes wine tasting along the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail one of the best things to do during your visit all year round!
Where To Stay
The Palihouse Santa Barbara is a lovely hotel with spacious guest rooms and an abundance of luxurious amenities. This stylish hotel boasts a Mediterranean-inspired aesthetic and is conveniently nestled in the heart of Santa Barbara.
The Hotel Californian is located in Santa Barbara’s vibrant Funk Zone, a district well known for boutique shops, gourmet restaurants, and art galleries. This five-star hotel sits oceanside and is brimming with upscale comforts that include an outdoor pool, an onsite spa, and easy access to delicious eats.
14. Morro Bay
Morro Bay is a small coastal town in Central California. The main attraction of Morro Bay is Morro Rock, a large volcanic plug that stands tall along the shoreline.
Most people that visit Morro Bay hang out in the town or by the beach, but if you have the time, we recommend hiking the Black Hill Trail that leads to an incredible viewpoint of Morro Rock, the coast, and the surrounding landscape.
The Morro Bay weather temperatures stay above 60°F between December and February making it a wonderful coastal destination to visit in California in winter.
Where To Stay
Morro Bay offers many wonderful hotel choices from small oceanfront inns on the Embarcadero to pleasant budget-friendly hotels steps from the beach. Some of the most popular waterfront choices include Gray’s Inn & Gallery and Estero Inn.
15. Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Big Basin Redwoods State Park is a beautiful park in Central California that is home to some of the tallest redwood trees in the world. Big Basin Redwoods State Park is the oldest State Park in California and it was created at the turn of the 20th century to protect the coastal redwood trees from being logged during the Gold Rush times.
At the Big Basin State Park visitors can enjoy over 80 miles of easily accessible hiking trails with impressive redwood groves, incredible camping spots, waterfalls, and wildlife preservation programs.
If you’re looking for a multi-day hike that’s a bit longer and passes through a variety of landscapes, the Skyline-To-The-Sea Trail is 30 miles long and travels through the entire Big Basin State Park.
If you’re looking for shorter hikes, this post covers 5 Amazing Day Hikes At Big Basin Redwoods State Park.
Where To Stay
Big Basin Redwoods State Park offers several wilderness campsites throughout the park. If the winter weather is too chilly for camping, you can also opt to stay in a hotel in Santa Cruz that is the closest big city to this park.
California is one of the most incredible places to visit in the US, all year long! With snow capped mountains and sunny coastal beaches, there is an exciting adventure to be found, even in the colder winter months.
Looking for more California travel inspiration? Be sure to check out some of our other popular California travel posts below:
- Amazing Things To Do In Yosemite For First Time Visitors
- The 10 Best VRBO Rentals Near Yosemite National Park
- Backpacking The Cathedral Lakes Trail In Yosemite
- Hiking Fortynine Palms Oasis Trail At Joshua Tree
- Hiking Skull Rock Trail At Joshua Tree National Park