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When it comes to winter getaways in California, the options are many. As such a large and diverse state, you can enjoy everything from a ski retreat in the mountains to a vacation at the beach. Depending on your pick, this season can also mean fewer crowds and lower costs. No matter what your idea of the perfect escape you’re sure to find something on this list that will inspire you to book.
While Bear Valley has a population of just 150, it offers a snow lover’s paradise, ideal for those who want to enjoy winter activities with everything from epic skiing and snowboarding to cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, and tubing, without the big crowds and high prices. There are stunning views of the snow-blanketed Sierras, multiple venues for dining, whether you’re looking for casual bites or gourmet fare, and a variety of accommodation options for cabin rentals and residences in the Village to lodge rooms and cozy B&Bs.
South Lake Tahoe sits on the California side of Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, offering something for everyone in any season. Winter brings skiers and boarders from across the globe to enjoy its many world-class resorts, but there are many other activities to enjoy, including peaceful beaches like the long stretch along the lake’s southwestern shoreline that’s ideal for a tranquil stroll. After a day in the great outdoors, enjoy pampering at the spa, head to the Nevada side of the lake to gamble, or take in big-name live concerts and other shows. You’ll find nearly an endless list of accommodation options too, from luxury hotels and resorts to cabins and other types of vacation rentals.
If you’re looking for outdoor fun in the sun, the village of Joshua Tree is a great spot. A quirky, artsy village in the Mojave Desert, it sits just outside of Joshua Tree National Park, popular for hiking and rock climbing. There are miles and miles of scenic trails, and in late winter colorful wildflowers dotted across the landscapes alongside the park’s namesake Joshua trees and other unique desert plants. After dark, this is one of the world’s best places to be for stargazing. You’ll even find some fun options for entertainment nearby, with Pappy + Harriet’s in Pioneer a big draw, often hosting live music.
Big Sur sits along one of the world’s most beautiful stretches of coastline, offering everything from glorious beaches with purple stretches of sand crashed by azure waves to waterfalls, redwood groves and mountains. In the winter, it can be even more enjoyable to explore as it never gets too cold and the crowds are non-existent. Watch for a myriad of wildlife, including sea otters, seals, and migrating gray whales, explore tide pools, and search for treasures like jade. There are restaurants and cafes for casual eats as well as fine dining with an ocean view, while accommodation runs the gamut from glamping to luxurious resorts at the edge of the Pacific.
Monterey offers stunning scenic views and a wealth of attractions all year round. In the winter, it can be cool and foggy, but the sun is just as likely to come out, with many enjoying the beaches, a round of world-class golf, or one of many epic hikes. This is a great time for whale watching, with grey whales easily observed, hugging the coastline during migration throughout the winter. Minke, fin, humpback, orca whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea otters, and more are frequently seen here too. A visit to the highly acclaimed Monterey Bay Aquarium offers the chance to watch the penguins swim around their habitat along with all sorts of other creatures, while Cannery Row offers endless shopping, dining, and other attractions.
San Diego is one of the most popular winter getaways in the Golden State. It’s ideal for families who can enjoy attractions like the San Diego Zoo, theme parks, and countless beautiful beaches. Mission Beach is a favorite, it stretches for two miles. Surfing is embedded in the culture, making this city a great place to learn with many surf shops that rent boards and instructors for lessons too. If you like craft brews, the scene is thriving with a nearly endless list of microbreweries to choose from. Foodies will find plenty to love too, including fresh oysters and some of the best tacos in the country.
Winter in San Francisco often means fewer crowds and reduced accommodation rates. Temperatures are typically in the mid-50s so you’ll just need to bundle up a bit to enjoy all that the city has to offer. Even the sightseeing cruises and excursions to Alcatraz run throughout the year and you’ll find some fabulous walking tours too. If you get chilly, warm up with a hot bowl of chowder served in a famous sourdough bowl. Or, head into one of the many museums with everything from the Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39 to the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park and the quirky Musée Mécanique with antique coin-operated mechanical instruments and vintage arcade games.
Santa Cruz is a hotspot for a winter getaway, home to gorgeous beaches, some of the best waves for surfing in the world, and the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with rides for all ages, including a more than century-old wooden coaster, along with arcade games and other amusements. Nearby at the pier, there are always dozens of sea lions lying on the rafters below to watch along with other marine life like sea otters and the occasional whale. Wine enthusiasts will find many wineries throughout the area for touring and tasting while hikers can enjoy miles of coastal bluffs and scenic paths that wind through redwood trees.
In the small and picturesque coastal town of Morro Bay in Central California, temperatures stay above 60 degrees in the winter so all you’ll need is a sweatshirt to enjoy the beach and watch the many sea otters that float around in the bay. By hiking the Black Hill Trail, it will bring you to a spectacular viewpoint for gazing out at the coast and Morro Rock, the iconic monolith that rises 576 feet from the shoreline. In Morro Bay State Park, you can check out the natural history museum and one of the last remaining blue heron rookeries in the state, and along the main street, there are lots of unique boutiques for shopping and eateries featuring fresh seafood. Quick and easy day trips can be enjoyed too, including wine country and Hearst Castle.
For those looking to escape the cold, Palm Springs offers plenty of fun in the desert sun. You can enjoy the usual activities like golfing, swimming in beautiful pools, spa treatments, and shopping or take the tramway up to Mount San Jacinto State Park for a scenic hike in the woods. With the summit at nearly 11,000 feet, it’s cooler up here, and there might even be some snow on the ground, but once you return to town, you’ll warm up quickly. There are many attractions here too, like the Living Desert, a botanical garden and zoo, the Palm Springs Art Museum, and the Palm Springs Air Museum, which includes World War II planes and exhibits on aviation history.
A visit to Yosemite in the winter is an entirely different experience than what you’ll find in the summer when crowds fill the valley. During this season, you can marvel at the icy waterfalls and snowy peaks on crowd-free hiking trails and enjoy ice skating beneath Half Dome before warming up around the fire pit. If the trails are too snowy for hiking, snowshoeing can be enjoyed instead. Or, head to Badger Pass Ski Area to enjoy snow tubing, skiing, or boarding. Over at Tenaya Lodge, horse-drawn sleigh rides are available along with a snow play area for sledding and tubing.
Siskiyou is a picturesque Northern California destination perfect for a winter getaway. Your days here can be filled with winter wonderland adventures, as its home to Mt. Shasta Ski Park, the fifth highest peak in the state, which offers over 400 acres of skiable terrain on 32 trails along with night skiing, snow tubing, and backcountry skiing. It’s just six miles from the iconic Mount Shasta summit, offering picture-perfect views of the massive volcano. Adrenaline junkies can head to the Mt. Shasta Nordic Center and explore its 7.5-mile network of snowy trails on a snowshoeing excursion or try snowmobiling at Deer Mountain Snowmobile Park, which boasts 250 miles of trails. Families love the ice rink at Shastic Park, which is open from November to March and is the largest outdoor rink on the West coast.
Murphys is one of California’s most charming towns, located in the Sierra Nevada foothills for fun in any season, surrounded by magnificent natural beauty. In the winter, there are all sorts of festivities for the holidays, including a lighted Christmas parade and tree lighting. Shop the unique boutiques and enjoy the award-winning wine-tasting rooms and outstanding eateries. There are historic sites from the Gold Rush days to explore, and just a short drive away, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing at Stanislaus National Forest or Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Or, you can be skiing on the slopes at Bear Valley in less than an hour.
Nestled in the Eastern Sierras between the Nevada border and Yosemite National Park, Mammoth Lakes is all about the great outdoors, with winter bringing opportunities for outstanding skiing and boarding, scenic gondola rides, tubing at a fantastic tube park, snowmobiling on over 100 miles of tree-lined trails, naturalist-led tours, and much more. Guided snowshoeing and cross-country skiing tours, rentals, and lessons are all available at the Tamarack Cross-Country Ski Center too. Plus, after a day out in the snow, there are a host of taverns, pubs, and bars offering happy hours, world-class brews, and tasty eats.
Winters in Mendocino often bring bright sunny skies with the air crisp and cool, while visitor crowds are thin and sunsets are at their most vivid. While there is the occasional rain, the sun usually comes out afterward and the landscapes will be lush and green, while the streams and rivers that flow through the redwood forests will be flowing at their peak. This is migration time for gray whales too, which pass by the coast between late November and April. Plus, you’ll find lots of opportunities for shopping in unique boutiques and gourmet dining in town, wonderful just to wander through, with the many Victorian saltbox homes and buildings.