Growing up in San Francisco, I was lucky to get a taste of a traditional snowy winter with our annual Lake Tahoe trips and then go back home to milder temperatures. This is the beauty of California in the winter, where you can “experience” winter in the mountains, but also be able to escape it at the same time with warmer weather down at sea level. Here’s a list of the best California winter getaways to take, whether you are craving a weekend at a small beach town or want to experience a white winter wonderland in the Sierras.
Winter Getaways In California
There is something magical about Tahoe in the winter, especially with freshly fallen snow dusting the pine and fir trees. Tahoe is divided up into two different areas: South Tahoe and North Tahoe. The southern part is where you’ll find all the nightlife, plenty of dining options, and hotels. The northern part is the quieter, more residential area (a personal favorite).
One of the best reasons to come to Lake Tahoe is the range of winter sports from snowboarding to cross-country skiing. There are many great resorts to choose from, including local favorites like Heavenly, Northstar, and Kirkwood. After a long day of being outside, head to a place like Basecamp Hotel, to warm up by the fire pits and make s’mores.
This Danish town is one of California’s most festive towns when it come to holiday cheer. Built by Danish immigrants, the entire town feels like something out of a European fairytale year-round, but especially at Christmas time. The town is completely walkable, where you can admire the Danish architecture, and stop by one of the handful of bakeries for a Danish pastry (or two).
Every December the Julefest festival takes place with activities that include Santa’s Village, candlelit tours, a two-day wine and stein stroll complete with a hot wine competition, and a mysterious holiday elf scavenger hunt. There’s also plenty of holiday-themed entertainment that includes tree lighting, St. Lucia Day parade, holiday parade, and a Christmas light shows.
California’s most popular National Park really shows off during the winter, when the landscape is blanketed in white. While the park slows down and roads like Tioga and Glacier Point Roads are closed, there is still plenty to do and see in the valley. Another benefit for visiting Yosemite during the colder season is that there are far less crowds and the park takes on a quieter more subdued tone.
Fill your days with activities like taking a winter hike on flat terrain trails like Lower Yosemite Falls or Bridalveil where you can spot frozen waterfalls, skate under the shadow of Half Dome or warm up in the historic Ahwahnee Hotel, where you can grab a drink at the bar as well as a casual meal.
The biggest draw to Anaheim is Disneyland, which is worth checking out during the holidays to see the park decked out in its Christmas finest. December is notoriously known for the worst crowds, especially during the weeks leading up to Christmas and New Year (I was turned back a few years back because the park was at capacity). After the holidays is an ideal time to visit the parks if you are crowd adverse.
Besides Disneyland, Anaheim has lots of other things going for it. Stop by the Anaheim Packing District, which features four historical buildings including the Anaheim Packing House, a huge food hall located in an old citrus packing warehouse.
Warm up in this Napa Valley town that is known for its natural hot springs resorts. The small town charm also adds to the relaxation, where you easily walk to the Main Street from most of the resorts. There is also the added benefit of numerous world-class wineries that you can pop into, since you are in Napa Valley after all.
Calistoga Hot Springs is a personal favorite, since I have been going since I was a little girl with my family. It has four different geothermal pools: an 80-degree lap pool, an adult-only covered whirlpool, a soaking pool that’s always under 100 degrees, and a kiddie wading pool. Indian Springs down the street has fancier digs, but is worth it if you want to splurge on stunning grounds and two mineral pools.
This artsy beach town is a great place to head to during the winter months when it’s significantly less crowded. The weather is mild and if you’re lucky it may be warm enough for a beach day. Even if it isn’t warm enough to sunbathe, you can still take advantage of the beautiful views, especially the winter sunsets with their low clouds.
If you’re in Laguna Beach for the holiday season, make sure to check out all the various festivities around town. The Sawdust Art Festival’s Winter Fantasy, is a festival where you can purchase handmade gifts from local artists, as well as live entertainment, art demonstrations and a visit from Santa. The festival runs this year from November 23-December 22. Hospitality Night on December 6th, features a tree lighting ceremony in downtown Laguna with Santa.
Wintertime is an ideal time to visit this national park that is known for its Dr. Seuss-like trees dotting the desert landscape. Daytime temperatures are in the 60s, while nights can get down to freezing temps (though snow is rare). There are campgrounds, but if you don’t want to brave the cold, there are also hotels in the nearby town of Joshua Tree. The winter months have increased in popularity, thanks to the crowds of rock climbers who embrace the cooler climbing weather.
Daytime hikes are ideal during the winter in Joshua Tree, with numerous hikes ranging from a stroll-in-the-park to difficult. There are four visitors centers in Joshua Tree: Oasis, Joshua Tree, Cottonwood, and Black Rock, where you can learn more about specific hiking paths from the park rangers, and use the flush toilets and picnic tables. A seven-day vehicle pass is $30.
If you are seeking a city destination that is manageable in size, Santa Barbara has all the features of big city life, but with a strong community feel. If you’re into wine, the Urban Wine Trail that goes through The Funk Zone will be right up your alley, with wine tasting rooms aplenty.
For a true California Christmas, this seaside city is the place to be with events like the Parade of Lights (December 8) along the waterfront, and the Annual Downtown Santa Barbara Holiday Parade on State Street (complete with giant floating balloons). There are also holiday performances, including two versions of The Nutcracker, put on by the Santa Barbara Festival Ballet and State Street Ballet.
Visit one of the state’s most stunning coastal landscapes during a more subdued time of year. Gone are the summer crowds, and instead it seems like it’s just you and the Pacific Ocean. Wildlife returns to Big Sur, including majestic humpback whales and playful elephant seals. The weather can be a toss-up, with some days sunny and others with wild winter storms. Though there’s nothing better than waiting out a storm in a cozy lodge, warming up next to a roaring fire.
For a rainy day refuge, head to the Henry Miller Memorial Library, which hosts special events like readings, concerts, seminars, and performances. For sunny days, head to Pfeiffer Beach, which is one of the largest access beaches in the area or Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where a short hike will take you to McWay Falls. Parking for both is $5.
Winter is the ideal time to visit this desert, which is the hottest spot in California (not to mention the world), and can easily reach 120+ degrees F in the summertime. In the cooler months, this National Park cools down considerably, and can get downright chilly at night.
Take advantage of colder temps (around 60s-70s) and take a daytime hike at popular spots like the Golden Canyon, explore the colorful Artists Palette, or Zabriskie Point for stunning sunsets. The treeless landscape provides ample opportunity for prime stargazing, and the winter climate allows for some of the best viewing.
Winter Temperatures in California
It depends where you are in the state, since there are so many different varying climates. The coldest temperatures are in the mountains where you will most likely encounter snow. The deserts can also dip down into freezing temps at night, even through there is rarely any snow and daytime is mild. Northern California sees a significant amount of rain compared to the drier climate of Southern California. Here are some wintertime averages for major cities in California so you can be prepared weather-wise for your California winter getaway.
Los Angeles Highs 60s-70s / Lows 40s-50s
San Francisco Highs 50s-low 60s / Lows high 40s-low 50s
San Diego Highs 60s-low 70s / Lows 50s
Santa Barbara Highs mid-60s-low 70s / Lows mid-40s-low 50s
California Winter Driving Precautions
On Highway 1, especially to destinations like Big Sur, there can be landslides after heavy rains. Make sure to check the roads hours before you head out, especially on rainy days. Be extra careful on roadways during rain storms, since they can be extra slippery with oil after a dry hot summer.