California in Winter
Winter in California brings rain, which becomes snow in the mountains. The rainy season runs roughly from November through March and on the worst days, driving rain can make California look more like the rain forest more than the Baywatch set.
While winter weather closes access to some places in the state, it also provides opportunities for unique activities.
What to Expect
- Don't believe the old song that says it never rains in Southern California. The next line is "it pours, man, it pours." If you happen to visit during a winter rainstorm, there are plenty of things to do on a rainy day in San Francisco, Los Angeles or San Diego.
- Winter temperatures are cool to mild in most of the state. Check the average temperatures and rainfall.
Places at Their Best in Winter
- Check the California Winter Getaway Guide to get some great ideas for winter weekend getaways.
- Lake Tahoe is beautiful, with snow-capped mountains surrounding the blue lake.
- Death Valley finally cools off enough that you can enjoy it without feeling like you're being roasted.
- Palm Springs also cools off, but stays warm enough to make it a favorite winter destination.
- San Francisco gets its most colorful sunsets in the winter. Take a look.
- The Edwardian Ball: It doesn't matter so much what season it is outside, this event held in San Francisco and Los Angeles is more fun than dressing up for Halloween.
Winter Snow in California
Most Californians prefer to visit snow rather than live in it, but several of the state's ski slopes are located within an easy drive of its major cities. The annual Ski Magazine top ski resorts list always includes several in California and you'll find no shortage of the white stuff in the mountain locations in our California Skiing Guide.
California's up-and-coming ski area is Mammoth Mountain, one that insiders have known about for years. A group of investors bought controlling interest in the resort in 2005, pledging to turn it into a world-class ski destination. So far, there's a new hotel, the Westin Monache Resort and regular flights from San Jose, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The rest of the resort area is struggling through the transition, but the snow and terrain haven't changed: they're often rated the best in the western United States.
Snow doesn't last long in the Yosemite Valley, but if you can get there right after a snowstorm, it's never prettier and you can use the guide to Yosemite in Winter to plan an off-season visit.
For fun in the snow without sliding down a hill, try a dog sledding tour.
Mother Nature in Winter
Monarch butterflies winter along California's central coast, an integral stop in their life cycle. From November through March, coastal eucalyptus groves turn into "monarch butterfly hotels" and the morning air fills with flashes of orange and brown wings.
Whale Watching - Butterflies aren't the only animals migrating around California. Winter is the time for the gray whale migration, when they leave their feeding grounds in Alaska and swim south to Mexico for birthing and mating. Most coastal cities have whale watching tour boats that take you out to watch them swim by.
Did you think sex on the beach was either illegal or a cute name for a mixed drink? It is both, but in this case, it's also elephant seal mating and birthing time at Ano Nuevo State Reserve north of Santa Cruz and at Piedras Blancas, just off CA Hwy 1 north of Hearst Castle.
Driving in Winter
With the start of ski season, it seems like every single resident of the San Francisco Bay Area wants to go the mountains, generating big traffic jams going east on Friday night and west on Sunday. If you don't want to ski, avoid I-80 between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe and also highways going toward the southern California ski slopes on those days.
Rain: If Californians ever knew how to drive in the rain, they forget it during the six to nine dry months of the year. Take extra care if you're on the road with them, especially during the season's first rain, when accumulated surface oil makes things even slipperier. Rain tends to come in downpours rather than drizzles, which can also trigger floods and mudslides.
Snow: Any time it's raining at lower elevations it's usually snowing at upper ones. If you plan to drive to the mountains or to Lake Tahoe from San Francisco, check to see if chains are required. If you don't have snow chains, you need to know the rules about them. They're all in the California Snow Chain Guide.
Fog: November through February, I-5 and US Hwy 99 in the San Joaquin Valley are subject to heavy "tule" fog. It forms on cold, clear, windless nights and can cut visibility to as little as a few feet, making driving difficult and dangerous.
Roads that close (or may close) every winter include:
Yosemite's Tioga Pass closes with the first snowfall after November 1. Sonora Pass and most other high-elevation routes across the Sierras close, too. To drive to eastern California locations such as Mammoth, Bodie or Mono Lake in winter, you'll have to go through Lake Tahoe or south through Bakersfield.
- The road to lower Kings Canyon in Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park closes mid-November to mid-April, no matter what the weather is like.
California Highway One is especially susceptible to mudslides and big ones can close parts of it for weeks or months during rainy winters. Check its status if you plan to travel on it.
- I-5 at the Tejon Pass north of Los Angeles can also be closed by snow and wind. It's best to know about this before you set out, otherwise the detours can be lengthy. Check its status before you go.
Holidays in Winter
Christmas in California may be short on snow, but not on imagination. California has some unique Christmas traditions, including parades with boats instead of floats, musical concerts in wine caves, gala Christmas pageants and surfing Santas.
You'll find a place to celebrate New Year's Eve almost anywhere you go.
Chinese New Year is a lunar holiday whose exact dates change every year, but it usually occurs in late January or early February. Check the guide to San Francisco's celebration, which is one of the biggest in the country.
Celebrate Valentine's Day (February 14) with a romantic weekend getaway.