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Ready to see the best destinations in California for winter? Everyone knows California is a great place to hit the beach in the summer, and it has several locations for spectacular foliage in the fall. But thanks to its geographic diversity, it also has tons of great places to venture in the winter, no matter what type of weather you’re seeking.

Skiers, snowboarders, and other winter sports enthusiasts will find plenty to do in the mountains, and sun lovers have their pick of destinations with mild year-round temperatures. Many of these places are on my personal list of California favorites that I visit time and again.

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Whether you only have time for a day trip or are looking for a weekend California winter getaway, the state has you covered. Read on for some incredible winter destinations in California.

Short on Time? Here Are My Top Picks for the Best Winter Destinations in California:

  1. Lake Tahoe (stay at The Coachman), for the best ski getaway
  2. Yosemite (stay at AutoCamp Yosemite), for the best national park getaway
  3. Santa Ynez (stay at Hotel Ynez), for the best wine country getaway

The Best Winter Destinations in California 


Seeking Snow? Consider Visiting:

1. Lake Tahoe

The Best Winter Destinations in California 

Lake Tahoe is one of the most breathtaking places in California (and Nevada), in part thanks to the surrounding mountains. It’s also an incredibly large area, with lots of things to do on both the north and south shores including, skiing, snowboarding, ice skating, and sledding.

I myself grew up skiing in Palisades and spending time in the town of Truckee in the afternoon, two areas I definitely recommend. I also think any of these Airbnbs or cozy cabins would be the perfect home base for a winter getaway.

Helpful Lake Tahoe Guides to Plan Your Trip

Lake Tahoe Hotel Recommendations

  1. The Coachman, for the best South Lake hotel
  2. Basecamp Tahoe South, for the best design-for-dollar hotel
  3. Desolation Hotel, for the best new South Lake hotel

2. Big Bear

The Best Winter Destinations in California 

With the San Bernardino Mountains providing the highest peaks in Southern California, Big Bear is the capital of skiing and snowboarding in the bottom half of the state. The area features two mountain ski resorts—Snow Summit and Bear Mountain—and between them, they boast more than 400 acres of terrain, with runs for skiers of all levels.

Altogether, 26 lifts provide access to 55 runs, and a free intermountain shuttle allows you to connect between resorts throughout the day, making it easy to enjoy all the winter activities Big Bear has to offer. Big Bear also has several beautiful cabin rentals that would be ideal for a winter escape.

Helpful Big Bear Guides to Plan Your Trip

Big Bear Hotel Recommendations

  1. The Marina Riviera, for the best lakefront hotel
  2. Noble + Proper, for the best boutique hotel

3. Yosemite National Park

The Best Winter Destinations in California 

There’s truly nothing like the natural beauty of Yosemite National Park, and everyone should visit this gem in California at least once. Winter there is magical, with snow sometimes blanketing iconic sights like Half Dome and some waterfalls nearly always flowing at least a little.

While the road to Glacier Point usually closes sometime in November, there are other activities to enjoy, such as skiing. The road to Badger Pass Ski Area, popular for both downhill and cross-country skiing, is plowed from mid-December through early April.

Helpful Yosemite Guides to Plan Your Trip

Yosemite Hotel Recommendations

  1. AutoCamp Yosemite, for the best design-for-dollar stay
  2. The Ahwahnee, for the best in-park hotel

4. Truckee

The Best Winter Destinations in California 

This bustling town transforms into a winter wonderland, with snowcapped mountains, alpine lakes, and twinkling lights surrounding a charming downtown. 42 feet of annual snowfall make this area a skier’s paradise, and there are over seven major resorts within a 15- to 45-minute drive from town.

Other popular activities on offer include snowshoeing, tubing, sledding, and even snow biking—large tires help bikes move easily over snowy terrain, and many Truckee-base shops offer rentals. The town also has many bars and restaurants where you can warm up with a hot beverage.

Helpful Truckee Guides to Plan Your Trip

Truckee Hotel Recommendations

  1. Ritz-Carlton Lake Tahoe, for the best luxury hotel
  2. Basecamp Tahoe City, for the best North Lake hotel
  3. Gravity Haus, for the best Truckee hotel

5. Mammoth Lakes

The Best Winter Destinations in California 

This mountain town gets 300 days of sunshine per year, and its signature peak, Mammoth Mountain, gets more than 30 feet of snow on average. The combination makes for a great location for winter sports and jaw-dropping views. Aside from skiing and snowboarding, Mammoth offers opportunities for everything from motorized Snowcat tours to guided full-moon snowshoe treks.

The Mammoth Lakes area is also a literal hotbed for geothermal activity, which means there are plenty of natural hot springs to visit. My favorites were Wild Willy’s Hot Spring and Travertine Hot Springs farther north in Bridgeport. Whitemore Hot Springs and the Rock Tub Hot Springs also both came recommended.

Helpful Mammoth Lakes Guides to Plan Your Trip

Mammoth Lakes Hotel Recommendations

  1. The Westin Monache Resort, for the best overall hotel
  2. The Village Lodge Mammoth, for the best-located hotel
  3. Juniper Springs Resort, for the best budget-friendly hotel

6. Sequoia National Park

The Best Winter Destinations in California 

With a visit to Sequoia National Park, you’ll get two parks in one, as it’s adjacent to Kings Canyon. Each of these parks is special in its own way, and both boast high elevations and towering sequoia trees. Across the two parks, there are three designated snow play areas perfect for sledding and tubing.

While winter road conditions may impact your trip, with the right precautions, there are several beautiful drives you can take to see the park’s most epic viewpoints. Popular routes for this time of year include Sequoia’s Ash Mountain Entrance to Lodgepole, Lodgepole to Grant Grove, and Grant Grove to Hume Lake.

Helpful Sequoia National Park Guides to Plan Your Trip

Sequoia National Park Hotel Recommendations

  1. The Darling, for the best close-to-park hotel

7. Hope Valley

South of Lake Tahoe, sitting at 7,000 feet of elevation, Hope Valley is a gorgeous destination in all seasons. The lack of development nearby gives uninterrupted vistas of natural beauty. In winter, it’s a particularly beautiful sight to see, with expansive open areas available for nearly unlimited recreation.

The valley’s pristine snowfields attract cross-country skiers, snowshoers, dog sledders, and snowmobilers. It’s also a great place for winter wildlife observation: Birders may spot red-breasted nuthatches, mountain chickadees, or dark-eyed juncos.

Hope Valley Hotel Recommendations

  1. Desolation Hotel Hope Valley, for the best hotel

8. Joshua Tree National Park

Best National Parks in California

Joshua Tree sits at the intersection of the Mojave and Colorado deserts, making it a special place for flora and fauna. It’s also a great place to hit some hiking trails—especially in the winter when temps have cooled down. Nighttime brings a sky full of stars to this area, which is home to very little light pollution.

Joshua Tree is also synonymous with unique and beautiful Airbnbs. You should have no problem finding something design-forward that brings in the desert setting (or one that has a hot tub for chiller nights).

Helpful Joshua Tree Guides to Plan Your Trip

Joshua Tree Hotel Recommendations

  1. Autocamp Joshua Tree, for the best overall stay
  2. The Bungalows Retreat, for the best private home
  3. The Joshua Tree House, for the best vacation rental

9. Death Valley National Park

Death Valley is another national park that’s best visited in the cooler months, as well as one of the best places to visit in California during winter. Given that the park is home to the lowest point in the U.S., the summer unsurprisingly brings scorching and inhospitable heat. Winter, however, is the perfect time to see Death Valley’s incredible natural landscapes, which can feel almost otherworldly. Don’t skip Zabriskie Point or the rainbow colors of Artist’s Drive.

Death Valley is a very large national park, but you can hit most of the main sights in one day. Accommodations around the park are limited, so I recommend snagging an Airbnb in Beatty.

Helpful Death Valley Guides to Plan Your Trip

Death Valley Hotel Recommendations

  1. The Inn at Death Valley, for the most upscale hotel
  2. The Ranch at Death Valley, for the best budget-friendly hotel

Seeking Sun? Consider Visiting:

10. Palm Springs

Incredible Things to Do in Palm Springs

Palm Springs is always a great bet for those who need some sunshine. It’s a desert enclave that’s beautiful—with the San Jacinto Mountains as its backdrop—as well as easy to get around. The combination makes for the perfect relaxed getaway.

But that’s not to say there isn’t also plenty to do there. The city is home to stunning nature, incredible restaurants, and great attractions, like phenomenal golf and architecture. Palm Springs also has a host of beautifully designed hotels and Airbnbs to choose from.

Helpful Palm Springs Guides to Plan Your Trip

Palm Springs Hotel Recommendations

  1. Korakia Pensione, for the best adults-only hotel
  2. Azure Sky, for the best new adults-only hotel
  3. Parker Palm Springs, for the best luxury hotel

11. Solvang (Santa Ynez Valley)

For a taste of Europe in California, check out the town of Solvang, “The Danish Capital of America.” It’s chock-full of charming shops, delicious bakeries and authentic architecture that will make you feel as though you’ve stepped right into Denmark.

In the winter, Solvang goes all out with a month-long celebration from late November to early January. Called Solvang Julefest, the village holiday features lights, music, shopping, and festive foods. There are also plenty of family-friendly activities to enjoy, including a tree lighting ceremony, a parade, Santa visits, a scavenger hunt, candlelight tours, and more.

Helpful Santa Ynez Valley Guides to Plan Your Trip

Santa Ynez Valley Hotel Recommendations

  1. Hotel Ynez, for the best overall hotel
  2. The Inn at Mattei’s, for the best luxury hotel
  3. Fess Parker Wine Country Inn, for the best-located hotel

12. San Francisco

The Best Winter Destinations in California 

With its mild year-round temperatures, there’s never a bad time to visit San Francisco, and the climate means you’re rarely prevented from activities like hiking, sampling world-class cuisine and coffee, shopping, and enjoying the city’s beautiful outdoor spaces. Each neighborhood is unique and deserving of exploration.

This city is my favorite in the U.S., in part because it has so many amazing things to do—you could spend weeks and not see it all. My recommendation is to focus on doing a few parts really well and save other areas of the city for a future trip. In case of inclement weather, I recommend checking out museum-hopping. My favorites include the MOMA, the de Young Museum, and the California Academy of Sciences.

Helpful San Francisco Guides to Plan Your Trip

San Francisco Hotel Recommendations

  1. San Francisco Proper Hotel, for the best overall hotel
  2. 1 Hotel San Francisco, for the best waterfront hotel
  3. Fairmont San Francisco, for the best luxury hotel

13. Carmel-by-the-Sea

The Best Winter Destinations in California 

Carmel, which looks like it’s been plucked straight from a fairytale, has always been a favorite destination of mine, with its charming architecture, twisting trees, and quaint streets to explore. It’s the perfect place to get lost wandering aimlessly through its streets, sample a standout food scene, and explore its many boutiques and art galleries.

Away from downtown Carmel, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a beautiful respite and a fantastic spot for wildlife viewing. Carmel Valley also boasts some great wineries, including Folktale Winery, which is a can’t-miss for me.

Helpful Carmel-by-the-Sea Guides to Plan Your Trip

Carmel-by-the-Sea Hotel Recommendations

  1. Hotel Carmel, for the best village hotel
  2. Le Petit Pali at 8th Ave, for the best new hotel
  3. Carmel Mission Inn, for the best design-for-dollar hotel

14. Napa or Sonoma

There’s no bad season for wine tasting, and Napa and Sonoma are two of the premier destinations in the world for it. The winter months are chillier in this part of California, with the season bringing lows in the 40s. However, with many wineries having indoor spaces for tastings, those temperatures shouldn’t stop you.

And there’s a bonus for going in the winter, too—fewer crowds. With fewer tourists to contend with, it will be easier to get into wineries, hotels and the amazing restaurants that both Napa and Sonoma have to offer.

Helpful Napa Valley Guides to Plan Your Trip

Napa Valley Hotel Recommendations

  1. Archer Hotelfor the best downtown hotel
  2. Carneros Resort & Spafor the best resort hotel
  3. Four Seasons Resort Napa Valleyfor the best family-friendly hotel

Helpful Sonoma Valley Guides to Plan Your Trip

Sonoma Valley Hotel Recommendations

  1. The MacArthur Place Hotel & Spa, for the best modern stay
  2. The Gaige House, for the best romantic getaway
  3. The Lodge at Sonoma Resort, for the best family-friendly
  4. Kenwood Inn and Spa, for the best valley getaway

15. San Diego

16 California Family Getaway Weekend Ideas

While you might not get swimming weather in San Diego in the dead of winter, you’re much more likely to get warm, dry, and sunny weather there than in other parts of the country. Plus, you can enjoy the city’s beach views and stunning coastal sunsets year-round.

Winter is also a perfect time for whale watching in San Diego, with more than 20,000 gray whales migrating along the coast between December and April. There are plenty of options for tours and cruises that will take you out to spot these majestic animals.

San Diego Hotel Recommendations

  1. Pendry San Diego, for the best city hotel
  2. The Pearl Hotel, for the best boutique hotel
  3. Alila Marea Beach Resort, for the best resort

16. Santa Barbara

17 Best Things to Do in Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara, also known as the American Riviera, has a huge range of things to do. Its coastal and mountain vistas provide tons of natural beauty, and the city overflows with art, history, and culture. There are also several great spots for shopping, dining, and sampling local wine and beer.

I love exploring the lush and beautiful Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens; taking downtown’s Red Tile Walking tour to see the city’s most historic sites; and exploring the Funk Zone, a hip neighborhood home to several winery tasting rooms. For a longer stay in the area, consider side trips to Ventura and Ojai.

Helpful Santa Babara Guides to Plan Your Trip

Santa Barbara Hotel Recommendations

  1. Hotel Californian, for the best overall hotel
  2. Palihouse Santa Barbara, for the best downtown hotel
  3. El Encanto, A Belmond Hotel, for the best luxury hotel

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The Best Winter Destinations in California

PS — Are You Booking a Trip Soon? Use My Booking Checklist!

These are the sites I use most to book my own trips. Using the links below is a great way to support Bon Traveler’s travel journalism at no extra cost to you. If you need help organizing your itinerary, get my free travel itinerary template here.

1. Book Your Flights

Use Skyscanner to find the best flights. It searches 100s of airlines and websites across the globe to ensure you’re not missing out on any route options or deals.

2. Book Your Accommodations

Use Booking.com for hotels and guest houses. They have the biggest inventory and consistently offer the best rates.

3. Book Your Tours & Experiences

Use Viator or Get Your Guide to find the best tours and experiences. They are my favorite tour search engines. I always check both as their inventory varies depending on the destination.

4. Book Your Car

Use Discover Cars or Rentalcars.com to find the best car rental deals. I recommend comparing rental agency reviews on Google to ensure you are booking with the best company in that destination, as the reviews are often more accurate than the car rental search engines.

5. Don’t Forget Airport Lounge Access

Get a Priority Pass membership to gain access to 1,400+ VIP lounges and airport experiences worldwide. The Priority Pass app is the first thing I check when I have a layover. I’ve been a member for over a decade, and having a comfortable place to relax before and between flights makes air travel so much more enjoyable.

6. Don’t Forget Travel Insurance

I never leave the country without travel insurance. It provides comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong (ie. illness, injury, theft, and cancelations, etc.). I use it frequently for my travels to stay protected.

My favorite companies that offer the best coverage and rates are:


Xx,
Jessica

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