California is best known for sunny weather and beautiful beaches, but if you don’t visit the mountains and the deserts in the winter months, you’re doing it wrong!
The Golden State is so much more than just a summer destination. As a California native and enthusiast, these are some of the best things to see and places to visit during the winter in California:
1. Death Valley
The hottest desert in the world is not the place to be in the middle of July, but it’s absolutely perfect for the winter months when so much of the rest of the US is under a layer of snow. It’s the perfect time to go hiking in the Golden Canyon, take in a stunning sunset at Zabriskie Point, marvel at the colors of the Artists Palette, and if you’re lucky, even see a wild flower bloom in the desert, which can happen from late February onwards.
The stargazing is also incredible, but remember to bundle up because the temperature swing in the desert from day to night can be extreme, particularly in the winter. Be sure to check out the Badwater Basin as well, a unique geological feature at the lowest point in the USA.
2. Ski in the Sierras
If you’re into skiing you probably have heard of Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Mountain. Both are world class ski resorts with incredible powder depending on the year. This year in particular has been incredibly good for snow!
Even if you’re not an alpine skier, the mountain areas also have snowshoeing and sometimes a skating availability as well. They are both set in stunning locations with lots to do nearby as well. Mammoth is close to the next item on this list, along with the Alabama Hills, and Tahoe is a huge area, with plentiful snowmobiling and snowshoeing trails, that spans all the way into Nevada.
3. Hot Creek
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Since we are talking about Mammoth, you’ve got to check out Hot Creek! It’s a hot spring river that runs through a mountain valley and it’s perfect when the weather outside is cold and it’s rimmed with snow. I can’t imagine a better way to wind down after a long day of skiing.
Yosemite turns into a winter wonderland when it snows! Many of the usual trails like the Bridalveil and Lower Yosemite Falls are still as easily accessible, mainly because they’re flat, and other trails like the road to Glacier Point turn into a fantastic Nordic skiing or snowshoeing opportunity.
There’s also snowshoeing to Dewey Point from the Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area. There’s a free shuttle from the valley and a snowshoe and ski rental place at the top. You can read more about this and the other winter activities in Yosemite here.
5. Horsetail Fall
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There’s also the phenomenon of horsetail Fall, or the ‘firefall’ in Yosemite each February. An otherwise under the radar waterfall, Horsetail lights up from the angle of the sunset for a period of about two weeks at the end of the month.
It’s become incredibly popular, with hundreds of people showing up now to photograph the fall during the peak days. It can also vary depending on the amount of water the fall produces and how cloudy it is, but if you hit it just right, it’s a photographer’s dream.
6. Alabama Hills
This area is famous for being a setting for old western movies, among many others in Hollywood throughout the years. Since I’m not a big movie buff, I went because I wanted to see Mount Whitney covered in snow, perfectly framed by the Mobius Arch.
The winter is the perfect time to head to the Alabama Hills to see snow on the mountains and also to enjoy the otherwise hot Alabama Hills. The stargazing out there is incredible, and there’s BLM (Bureau of Land Management, meaning public land) camping everywhere! There are several arches to hike to, including one that’s shaped like a heart. You can read more about the best things to see in the Alabama Hills here.
7. Slab City
This stop probably isn’t for everyone, but Slab City is a place of real life anarchists and outlaws who have made a community of upcycled trash-turned-art. Even if you haven’t heard of Slab City, you’ve probably heard of Salvation Mountain, pictured above. I stopped by in May a few years ago and it was blazing hot, but in the winter months it would be much more bearable to stay and explore all day.
Just make sure you keep your wits about you because it’s an eerily fascinating place where I never really felt entirely safe but not in danger either. I was lucky enough to be invited in to see the home of a local while I was there. You can watch the video and read more about my experience here.
8. Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua trees only grow in the high desert of California. These trees, which are actually agaves, are so-named because they looked to Mormon settlers like the hands of Joshua reaching up to the heavens. Like the rest of the California desert, Joshua Tree can get incredibly hot in the summer, but it’s perfect in the winter months for camping out and hiking during the day. It’s a popular bouldering and rock climbing spot as well. Avoid the crowds by steering clear of holiday weekends.
Deserts actually comprise 25% of the state of California and all of them are beautiful and unique. You can read more about the desert road trip loop here.
9. Sequoia National Park
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If you think seeing the biggest trees on Earth would be amazing at any time of year, just imagine them with snow! Though Sequoia National Park is not the only place in California that has these incredible trees, it’s the area where you are more likely to see them with snow.
Combine your trip with Yosemite and Kings Canyon and you’ll get the trifecta of some of the best national parks in the US!
10. Pacific Coast Highway
I would normally not recommend the Pacific Coast Highway in the winter months because you’re much more likely to get marine fog and the beach is usually better in the summer. That said, growing up on the southern and central coast I’m of the opinion that there is no bad time to be on the California coast.
The bonus of going in the winter months is that you will have it mostly to yourself, and reservations will be much easier to come by for campgrounds and hotels. It’s probably a lot cheaper too!
Just keep in mind that rain is almost unheard-of in the summer months, and if California is going to have a rainy year, it’ll be mostly concentrated to the winter months. Camping in a tent could be less than ideal, but again, you’re likely to have much more solitude on an otherwise mega popular route. You can get the full PCH itinerary from San Diego to San Francisco here.
11. The Lost Coast
Though I hate to play favorites, this spot on the coast about 2 hours south of the Oregon border is one of the parts of California that I love the most, and it gets hardly any tourism! The beaches are rugged and lovely, full of big boulders and waves, and there are Coastal Redwoods to walk through for days. Fog is common in this part of the state, regardless of time of year. I’ve gone in the winter and in the warmer months and love it in every season.
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Though it’s hard to narrow down a state that is bigger than most countries in terms of size, population, and economy, those are some of the best places to visit in California in the winter.
So if you can’t make it during the warmer months, just know that there truly is no bad time to visit and as long as you have a sense of adventure and love the outdoors, you can’t possibly be bored!